World Wrestling Entertainment has been in business for quite some time. It’s seen the industry grow, contract and expand again, usually by a McMahon’s hand. Through those eras, especially more recently in the last 20-30 years, the company has been home to some of the greatest matches, stories and figures to have graced a wrestling ring. Even now. Respecting the past means integrating it as a natural part in both paying tribute to it and moving it forward (see: FTR vs. Young Bucks’ “love letter” to tag team wrestling), not replicating templates or stories like they’re by-the-numbers colouring books you can republish without anyone being any wiser.
One-third of WWE’s trio of mainline TV shows is in very serious trouble, last week’s abysmal rating notwithstanding. You can speculate any number of reasons why, and they’ll either be off-base, correct, or somewhere in between, but the facts are what they are at this point with Raw, Smackdown and NXT: Raw simply is in the worst shape of the three if we look at short-term booking, long-term booking, rating trends and subjectively the strength of its characters.
In the interim Roman Reigns has excelled since August with Paul Heyman by his side, and while there are some who believe Heyman isn’t a central piece of Reigns’ booking, I’d argue those same people haven’t seen Heyman’s blueprints on display through ECW and now WWE over the last 25 years. Heyman’s coup de grace, especially in ECW, was to hide the negatives, emphasize the positives and let people — wrestlers — be the characters they can be; essentially putting wrestlers in the best position to succeed (not forcing their characters or narratives).
Raven and Justin Credible are two great examples from that period in the late ’90s, as is Taz, Tommy Dreamer, the Dudleys and even Rob Van Dam. In recent times, especially since Brock Lesnar returned to WWE several years ago, that has meant adapting it into putting over “his clients” by building them up to be paragons of strength and dominance in our eyes, in theirs and to the characters opposite Lesnar, Punk or Reigns in the ring at any given time. This in effect, gets everyone over. Say what you will about Heyman personally, but he’s historically effective creatively.
Reigns has never been hotter than he is right now following his heel turn and alignment with Heyman, followed by Jey Uso joining him. Coincidentally, Uso has never looked better as a wrestler and as a character, and I’d expect the same once Jimmy and/or Naomi joins them. We saw it again this past weekend at TLC where Reigns and Kevin Owens, who Heyman emphatically put over ahead of the show, easily had their best matches in recent memory when considering both storytelling and wrestling.
The angle, for now, centering on those two, is buoyed by Heyman’s creativity which is leeching through to Reigns, Uso and Owens, who themselves are also great communicators. Wherever Reigns’ story is going, the short-term stories have setup and established Reigns as Smackdown’s central figure. Differentiating from Raw in contrast, Smackdown’s viewership has been increasing steadily — not skyrocketing up by any means — and is trending upwards. Certainly it’s farfetched to call it a success given what average viewership used to be, but Roman has been positively moving Smackdown’s needle in a good direction.
NXT by all accounts should be a separate conversation as its viewers and demo ratings are both adversely affected by AEW on Wednesdays, making it an inaccurate comparison. Nonetheless, the show would likely pull decent-enough ratings on its own, so it’s still worth noting that in terms of wrestling the actual product is on par with Smackdown. Although more indie-styled, altogether its performed well within the WWE context and features some of the better stories overall. They don’t draw as well as Smackdown for a multitude of reasons, but the core elements from Smackdown exist on the show: Strong wrestling, good stories, and when they excel, they excel beyond what you’d expect. That AEW trounces the show most weeks is more or less irrelevant — the show is the show, and when NXT trounces AEW in return it does so based off its own merits beyond being just a WWE branded show.
Both shows are in a positive space. It may not be where the company, advertisers, fans or even the wrestlers themselves would like, but it could be much worse. Frankly, it could be Raw.
This needs to be prefaced by saying I like Drew McIntyre and if you go back far enough on Twitter you’ll probably find me whining about how Drew should have been in the Universal title picture in 2018 alongside Seth Rollins. His rise as WWE champion this year was a welcome change, and throughout the year he has evolved his ringwork and character, and come into his own. That he has done all of this during the pandemic era and carried the show opposite Rollins, AJ Styles, Randy Orton, and Dolph Ziggler is noteworthy and commendable, and I wouldn’t think the company would hold Raw’s decline against him as easily as it would be to scapegoat him.
The company clearly about-faced on Orton as champion, so there also isn’t a wealth of options to carry the show beyond McIntyre. But with an exception or two, Raw’s average viewership has been consistently below 2 million since April. Unfortunately for McIntyre, singularly saying viewership is down due to the pandemic is a cop out — that a Reigns-focused Smackdown is incrementally rebuilding itself to at least be above 2 million consistently is a testament to SD’s creative, Heyman and Reigns.
Raw for its part has been home to go-nowhere booking and confusing decisions like the aforementioned Orton WWE title switch, Retribution in broad general terms at this point, or its tag division for the bulk of the year. It’s been saved in part by Drew (for the sake of him being a steady hand), the Hurt Business and the women’s division, while little else has been sticking or made sense. Never mind that Raw’s team just pulled an Impact and “killed” a guy (Bray), they went beyond a “straight-forward method” and rather than shooting him, they had him set on fire. I’d expect that to pop Raw’s rating a bit (because, WTF?) for the sake of following up on the story in the same way Sting/Omega popped AEW’s rating over the last few weeks. Yet where we’re seeing success on Smackdown is where stories are, if not excellent, great, or even good, they’re consistent and make some sense. You can follow them to conclusions.
Raw meanders too often and it’s arguable that no part of the show’s stories this year, aside from Drew and the Hurt Business, have had meaningful conclusions. Lana, for example, was dominated for weeks, put through tables, was a sole survivor, got her own documentary and was primed for a tag title shot where she’d finally overcome her naysayers…. and then she’s removed from the card. There’s no debating Charlotte is a much needed boost, and she needs to be featured into oblivion right now because little else matters on the show, but WWE legitimately just wasted fans’ time with the Lana story. She has improved. She has gotten better. The story looked like it was going somewhere, and then like Raw’s ratings or most other creative moves this year the angle died.
Hopefully Charlotte, complemented by McIntyre’s steady hand at the top of the men’s title picture will help, but what certainly won’t help Raw long term as we head into 2021 is parading a laundry list of inactive or fully retired senior wrestlers onto the show to celebrate the past. While that’s popped past ratings, unless newer stars benefit from the show by even so much as a small percentage, then the show is the equivalent of a company cash-grabbing consumers via timely, needless products.
At present, the following are advertised for Jan. 4, 2021:
- Alicia Fox
- Beth Phoenix
- Big Show
- Booker T
- Candice Michelle
- Hillbilly Jim
- Hulk Hogan
- IRS (Irwin R. Schyster)
- Jeff Jarrett
- Jimmy Hart
- Kurt Angle
- Mark Henry
- Michael “PS” Hayes
- Mickie James
- Ric Flair
- Sgt. Slaughter
- Torrie Wilson
Have we really already forgotten that Raw 25th anniversary show in 2018?
The Good Old Days
It’ll be great seeing some old faces, sure. But what are they going to add to the show that’s going to fix Raw’s glaring issues week-over-week? Concerning the Wednesday Night Ratings, it’s a question I’ve been asking for three weeks of both AEW and NXT: one week of successes is great, but what is being done to build off that success heading into the next week? Or in WWE’s case, what does this do to build toward the Royal Rumble that same month?
That isn’t to say those segments on the show won’t be barren of future-building, but unless Hulk Hogan is planning to bump over the top rope at the Rumble then I’d challenge anyone to highlight what he’s going to bring to the show other than a few “brothers” and otherwise antiquated, tropey catchphrases. What about Hillbilly Jim? Jimmy Hart? Is Kurt Angle going to crack open some milk cartons? Is there going to be a weird interaction between Morrison and Melina? Cool, what about next week, presuming she hasn’t re-signed already?
The answer to those questions is “nothing.”
Very little that happens in that episode is going push the show narratives forward, or serve to course-correct all the issues that have led to the show’s downward trend; we’ve already established there isn’t a direct, singular correlation to COVID-19 affecting fans’ viewing habits. Were that true, Smackdown and NXT would be in the same sinking boat. They, especially NXT, have their own issues, but neither are as unstable as Raw is at the current moment.
WWE is at war with itself, with its past, and its vision for the future of Raw. It makes bold moves one way, but diverts in the opposite direction when it comes to its flagship. Like Napoleon in 1800s France, WWE is in the midst of its own decisive battle to determine what course they will tread going forward. That internal question needs answering, because unlike Smackdown and NXT, Raw is struggling to find itself in a meaningful way that cultivates a positive upward trend in show quality and metrics.
That takes soul searching, analyzing what’s working and what isn’t on the show, and it takes making a commitment to be better and improve. That commitment breeds (or renews) fan loyalty. The answer is not, however, to let Hulkamania, the Nature Boy and Sgt. Slaughter run, strut and bark orders like it’s 1992.