Television can be a very useful tool for a professional wrestling promotion. Back in the day, it was one of the main vehicles that companies had to sell tickets to live events. As wrestling evolved, television shows became a tool to increase awareness and sell pay-per-views as well. With success comes ratings, and the inevitable addition of extra coverage, which leads us to the conundrum that we face today.
In the past thirty years, the way that wrestling companies have approached television has changed dramatically. The growth of wrestling’s popularity in the late 90s has led to a current climate where television has become the business’ Achilles heel.
In the late 80s, the WWE’s television output was largely restricted to a two-hour block on Monday Nights, plus a variety of syndicated shows. Prime Time Wrestling – the precursor to Raw – would be a reinvention of the classic “studio” wrestling show, except the show would feature matches taped from arenas, whilst in-studio hosts would build-up and analyse the action. USA Network, in addition to airing Prime Time every Monday night, also ran an hour-long Sunday morning show – All American Wrestling. Initially used by the WWE to showcase promotions all across the States, it wasn’t long after it’s 1983 launch before it became WWE-exclusive.
If you didn’t have cable television, then WWE also had two shows that your local stations would likely have: WWF Superstars and Wrestling Challenge. Syndicated across North America, these shows were mostly comprised of squash matches, with the aim being to have fans watch the show, then purchase a ticket to a live event or a pay-per-view.
In the mid 80s, WWE was churning out five hours of television a week – but with a key ideological difference. Not every show “had” to be a home run. Not every show had to be a critical success, or needed to build towards a monthly event. You could get away with shows that were in a holding pattern, as long as they weren’t so dull they turned fans away from buying tickets to the live shows.
On the other side of the fence, WCW had a similar arrangement of programming: the hour-long syndicated Worldwide show, another hour-long syndicated show called Pro, an hour-long TBS show called Best of World Championship Wrestling, and of course, the two-hour long flagship Saturday Night show on TBS. Likewise, the only pressure on the company was to sell tickets to live events, and not win bragging rights via the measure of television ratings.
Compared to 2016’s clear-cut scene, the model of the 80s is somewhat muddled. Today, USA Network owns all of WWE’s first-run programming, and very little of note happens without being acknowledged on either of those shows. In the 80s, USA Network’s Prime Time Wrestling and All-American Wrestling were the “main” shows by virtue of the fact that they were on cable, whilst the syndicated shows often were nothing more than a way to see stars on television. Spoilers and leaked match results weren’t a factor back then, and the fact that live televised events were the exception, rather than the norm, meant that there had to be a lot more advance planning.
These days, once they know them, WWE plaster Raw and SmackDown with the matches for their next special event. If there’s a change to be made, perhaps because of injury, or because Vince wants to add another layer to a storyline, they can easily do it, as they’re always six days or less away from their next major TV show. In the 80s, it was tougher, as everything was already taped, and particularly with syndicated shows, it wasn’t guaranteed that local TV stations would a) get or b) use any updated tapes.
Can you imagine WWE working with such restrictions now? Considering the recent form in WWE, where the phrase “plans change” appears to be a weekly mantra, it’s hard to imagine Vince McMahon being able to lock down plans so far in advance.
In 2016, WWE’s televisual output is seen by some as a millstone around the company’s neck. Three hours of Raw every Monday, another two hours for SmackDown, plus an hour of Superstars and Main Event (for those who watch it). Even if you don’t count NXT, that’s seven hours a week of product that WWE’s internal policies have meant cannot be filled with squash matches. Seven hours a week of matches featuring (in their minds) bona fide stars against each other, and recaps thereof. After fourteen years of this “no filler”, it’s led to a lot of burn out from an ever changing writing team who’ve continually played “can you top this?” You can only go long having matches between stars before you’ve exhausted every combination possible to an audience that has long since been educated that apart from a few stars, everyone is utterly interchangeable.
Of course, the only way to be successful is to ape WWE. Every promotion needs to be on pay-per-view and have a weekly television show (or two). No company without all of those has ever had any success.
Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but you can see the conundrum that this causes for any burgeoning promotion, as the belief seems to be that success is achieved by being able to say that you’re on pay-per-view. The costs associated with building a brand up to this level ended up being a catalyst for the demise of ECW, yet barely a year after the extreme group disappeared from the landscape, lessons still weren’t learned. Instead of taking baby steps and grow, companies were tempted to rush their way to the top, often at a loss.
Look at TNA – when they debuted in 2002 as an NWA affiliate, their clear aim was to be a televised product. Without a TV deal in sight, they took the bold step of being a pay-per-view only product, asking fans to pay $10 a week… problem is, that model was a tragic misunderstanding of the system that had served wrestling well in prior decades; that being, you use TV to build towards a special event: you don’t use your special events to build up to your next one! There were numerous cases where TNA ended their pay-per-views but delayed the pay-off until the next episode of Impact, thus devaluing said PPVs and making fans realise that they were being short-changed.
Fast forward sixteen years, and modern-day TNA has found themselves in the same situation, except they’re not getting fans to pay $10 a week, and they’re once again stuck trying to find ways to make random weekly shows seem special. Impact is Impact, regardless of whether it’s a “LockDown” special or whatever label is being given to it that week, and the fans know it.
Whilst other groups such as Ring of Honor have flirted with television on and off, it wasn’t until they were actually bought by a TV company, before they had a stable TV home and invested in it. Curiously, those ROH shows don’t kowtow to the modern day “needs” of having to put on a star-studded show every week, with the ROH TV show instead being used as a way to showcase their product and promote upcoming live events and pay-per-views. Contrast that to TNA, who neglected their live shows on TV (when they ran tours). Again, that lack of advertising (on a TNA-controlled platform!) led fans to shy away from house shows, and eventually led to the end of TNA doing any form of touring.
As a fan who started watching wrestling during the days of Superstars and Wrestling Challenge, you’d think that I’d be longing for those shows, particularly during those more interminable three-hour Raws. But you’d be wrong. The issue with the current television product is to do with a mixture of quality and quantity – and since WWE isn’t about to turn down the money that the extra hour of Raw brings, nor are they able to restructure how those five hours are structured, so we’re not going to be seeing the death of Raw and SmackDown, being replaced by (say) an hour every weeknight, or the return of syndicated shows.
Instead, all promotions who have a televisual output in addition to other shows should treat those shows as what they are: Not a creative masterpiece. Not a way to stroke an ego. But as an extended infomercial. Now, I don’t mean resurrecting Billy Mays and having him treat Payback as if it were OxiClean or something similar; but wrestling needs to go back to basics.
As much as it may hurt some people’s feelings, not everyone can be a star – and WWE branding everyone a “superstar” doesn’t help matters. Wrestling has always been based off of a structure: you have your top stars (your Hulk Hogans, your Ultimate Warriors), your upper midcarders who are always on the cusp of stardom, but never quite get there (but not in a bad way; wrestlers like Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the British Bulldog, Mr Perfect, and Rick Rude), and then guys who could bubble up through the rest of the card at the bookers’ whim – like Crush, Repo Man, X-Pac. Depending on whether they were being pushed, the upper midcarders could easily overcome a lower card guy or not.
These days, whilst there’s still a pecking order, there’s a large gulf between the top stars and the rest of the card: for instance, John Cena, Triple H and Roman Reigns are clearly positioned as superstars, but there’s then a large gap between them and the likes of Dolph Ziggler, whilst the Heath Slaters of this world aren’t really that far behind Dolph, as you’re more likely to see a back-and-forth Ziggler/Slater match than a Tripler H/Slater match.
Ultimately, the current television schedule of WWE isn’t going to change. The company makes far too much money from television rights to even consider telling USA Network “please sir, five hours a week is too much”. What they need to do is change the format – particularly for the three-hour Raws. Unfortunately, they can’t structure TV in the same was as old-style live events (starting with prelims, then lower card and then finish with the stars in the same time slot every week), but the return of genuine preliminary talent or squash matches would help in a) establishing new talent and b) keeping faces on TV without them having to put on competitive matches and risk exacerbating WWE’s seemingly endless injury crisis.
Bringing back squashes and interview spots – a la the Heartbreak Hotel, the Kings Court, hell… even Mean Gene on a stage! – may not be the answer, but with Raw’s ratings expecting to start their post-WrestleMania slide any week now, it can’t hurt to try something different, can it?