It Begins 2012: WWE Systemic Failures and Why Jericho Won't Matter
Excuse me for a moment, while I brush the dust off of my keyboard...
It's been a few months since my last article, mostly due to a hectic holiday schedule and Skyrim. (Which will not be mentioned again, because two mentions of the game forces you to play it. It's a learned reflex.)
However, even though I've been gone a while from Bleacher, I have still watched the WWE regularly.
Since my last article, I have seen the WWE run a play book that was literally written by myself and many of the Bleacher and IWC faithful around the Internet.
CM Punk as WWE Champion?
The Reduction of John Cena's role in the title picture?
Daniel Bryan as World Heavyweight Champion?
Check. (I still can't believe it.)
Zach Ryder as The United States Champion?
The WWE has literally bent over backwards of late trying to please the voices on the World Wide Web. Barrett is getting the push he deserves, The mask is back on Kane and off of Cody Rhodes, Randy Orton is being shown as vulnerable, even Dolph Ziggler is getting more respect now.
Throw in the return of Booker T. to the ring, the appearance of popular icons like The Rock, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mick Foley, and it's a veritable smorgasbord (thank you, spell check) of the WWE throwing everything but the kitchen sink at their ratings problem.
However, the WWE might want to find a wrench and unscrew that sink, because none of it is working.
In spite of all of this, the ratings are still sinking below the 3.0 mark for Raw, and recently, C.M. Punk, PWI's Wrestler of The Year and Internet Darling, just pulled in the worst ratings for a Raw finale in 15 years.
How is it that the WWE can give the fans everything that they want, and still fail?
Because the WWE fails to understand, or fails to address, the deep systemic issues that plague the product. Until the WWE addresses these issues, nothing they do will work.
Jericho came back on Monday, and it won't matter a month from now.
Lesnar can show up and wrestle the Undertaker at WM this year, and it won't matter two weeks afterwards. The Rock did the same thing at Survivor Series, and does it matter now?
Until the WWE is willing to do the things they dread doing the most, the WWE will continue to decline.
But what are those things?
Let's take a look...
Turning John Cena Heel (Not)
You might think the first thing I would say is "Make John Cena a heel."
I won't say that because John Cena is a heel. I think the reappearance and masterful, silent trollism Y2J displayed upon his return to the WWE is going to open many fans' eyes to the fact that there can be different types of heels. Jericho reintroduced the world to long forgotten "troll heel".
The overly positive, yet vaguely condescending heel who says and does things like a good guy, but is purposely doing it to get underneath the fans' collective skin. (Think: "Three I's" Kurt Angle.)
That's the kind of heel that John Cena is being scripted to be, but more cleverly, because he rarely does anything openly heelish.
The WWE knows you hate John Cena. They know you hate it when he busts out those stupid one-liners, when he screams about Loyalty, Honesty and Righteousness...(Oh, Hustle and what? I don't care.), they know you hate how he sucks up to crowds that boo him.
He even sucks up to the Rock after the Rock showed him up and then beat him down at Survivor Series.
It's done on purpose to annoy you.
To the WWE, "Let's Go Cena!" and "Cena Sucks!" chants are similar to "We paid to come see John Cena!" and "We paid to come hate John Cena!" So long as you paid, they are going to keep giving you what you want.
And they know you want to hate John Cena and will pay to watch him lose, get beaten, get booed and humiliated by guys like The Rock, CM Punk and a returning Kane. (Guys you do like.)
He's their top marketed "face" and yet they made a "Cena Sucks" T-shirt, just for you. (And your money.) They don't make shirts like that if they don't want you to hate the wrestler it's aimed against.
So, no, I won't be calling for John Cena to turn into a true heel, instead of the trollish, semi-heel, he currently is.
Besides, even if he did turn heel, it wouldn't matter. Until the main problems are addressed, it would be a waste of a pretty sizable storyline bomb.
Killing the Script
Not too long ago, I was watching some clips on Youtube of the Macho Man Randy Savage and some of his best promos in the WWF.
No matter how many times I watch him, I can't help but to be blown away by his ability. You forget that he was really just a normal guy, and you come to believe that he's really insane. Yet, in the midst of that faux insanity, you see the pure genius of his improvisational ability.
I watched as he forced an announcer to "Bow before the Macho King!" and for a moment, it seemed so real, as if he had really snapped while forcing the head of this unsuspecting announcer down to the ground in a moment of fantasy turned crazed reality. That's just how good he was. (Rest in Peace, Macho.)
I then jumped over to the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes.
I watched as this man, who stands over six feet tall and weighs 300 pounds, spoke like a sassy southern woman. And yet, because of his ability to electrify on the microphone, that sassy attitude never detracted from his aura, but only added to it.
I then moved over to his contemporary counterpart, one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all-time, the legendary "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. I watched him as he flailed around and got so excited, his entire face turned red. I watched him tear his own (probably very expensive) clothes off. I watched him get so upset, he literally beat open his own wounds and made himself bleed for a promo.
Not a match. He juiced for a promo.
I then moved forward in time and watched some videos of my favorite wrestler of all-time: The Rock.
There was a clear distinction from his early days as Rocky Maivia and his later years as the Rock, which encapsulates the problem with this entire generation:
In his earlier promos as "The Blue Chipper", the Rock clearly wasn't in his element on the microphone. He was still better than most, because he was destined to become one of the most prolific mic workers of all time. However, that zest and cleverness wasn't there yet.
The reason was because he was being forced into the role of a babyface that he wasn't comfortable with. It wasn't until he was allowed to be more free, to be more like his true self and unchained, that he was able to truly capitalize on his mastery of the mic. Unfettered and unchained, with rhyming, catchphrases and unmatched, arrogant comedy, The Rock was one of the best. Ever.
But imagine if he had been held back by an even more restrictive leash? Imagine if he had to quote lines that someone else wrote verbatim? How much creativity in his promos would have been lost?
Do you think that anyone on the WWE's creative team today would even think to write something like:
"Ric Flair then beats a bloody gash in his forehead?" or,
"Macho Man then says: "You're everything that you think that you are, but you're a figment of your own imagination." or,
"The Rock then says to the Toronto crowd: "60,000 of you Mother-Canuckers booing the Rock out of the building!"."
The creative team can't even finish a storyline. How can they write legendary lines and promos for other wrestlers?
None of the legends of yesteryear worked with scripts. They were allowed to just go with what was in their heads. And yes, it caused some wrestlers to flop and ruined others' careers because they just didn't have the right stuff.
But for every 30-40 wrestlers who just didn't have what it took, there was one Ric Flair that did. For all the men that had a personality like a broken brick, eventually there would come along a Curt Hennig.
Steve Blackman today, Steve Austin tomorrow.
But, wrestlers just don't get that chance to shine with scripted material. The creativity they bring to the table is dulled, lost behind bland memorization. Personality is muffled and in its place is a performer trying to be a character and not just being a character.
To prove my point in the modern era, look no further than CM Punk and R-Truth.
Truth was nothing more than a middling mid-carder mired in the muck of the middle of the matinee. (I did that on purpose.) Until, reportedly, the WWE let him begin to do his own thing on the mic after his gimmick was changed to that of an insane heel.
Suddenly, he became one of the highlights of the promotion and found himself in the main event.
And of course, the biggest example of all is C.M. Punk. Punk had always been respected by the IWC and many casual fans for his ability on the mic. But, he had always been buried underneath mediocre angles as the WWE just insisted on trying to use "Straight Edge" as a gimmick. (Not smoking, not drinking, not a gimmick.)
It wasn't until he was told: "Go out and say what you want", that he started dropping the kinds of pipebombs that got the whole world talking about the WWE, again. Suddenly Jim Rome and ESPN wanted to talk to him. Suddenly, Jimmy Kimmel wanted him on his show.
It's called "relevancy". And it's what the WWE used to have in abundance, before it started shackling the creativity of its roster.
I understand why in the PG era, the WWE wants to make sure its wrestlers are scripted for the most part. They want to control the image. Keep it nice and clean. They don't want any wrestlers going off the reservation or crossing a line. (See: Daniel Bryan's first appearance on Raw.)
But they are doing it to the detriment of their own company, ratings and the fans.
Who knows what icons and legends are truly lurking in this generation of uninspiring characters?
Who knows what one well placed interview, what one character tweak that comes from the mind of a man who grew up watching wrestling and has his hand on the pulse of what wrestling fans love, as opposed to the mind of a Hollywood script writer who thinks he knows what we want to see, could do?
We may never know again, until the WWE gets so desperate that they are willing to take the script leashes off of more people than just their longer tenured and biggest draws.
Some will sink, yes. And honestly, if you can't cut a promo without the help of a script, and can't main-event even with a written one, you probably shouldn't have your spot, anyway.
But the sacrifices would be worth it, if just one more Hulk Hogan, one more Steve Austin pops up out of this batch of wrestlers. Not to mention that some of these guys had to spend years learning how to speak improvisational promos to get that good.
It is stars like those that this business is built on. And you haven't built a single one since the 90's. It's no coincidence that your biggest star, John Cena, is lauded by fellow wrestlers for his ability to talk on the mic.
Without a script.
Firing the Creative Team
This seems impossible, does it not? The team ran by the Boss' daughter getting canned in its entirety?
It seems unlikely that Vince McMahon's "idiot daughter" would be run out of the position as EVP of Creative.
However, it's not impossible. Especially with a company that is beholden to shareholders. But, It's just a question of how many half-filled arenas, hushed crowds, disappointing buyrates and sagging ratings the company is willing to take before it decides to do the truly heavy lifting that is needed.
Ask any fan of the Indianapolis Colts what losing can do to a seemingly secure executive. Bill Polian spent 13 years as an integral part of that team, until Payton Manning went down, the Colts went 2-14 and he got Future Endeavored.
Much like the Colts, the WWE keeps taking losses.
You never see reports about booming buyrates (outside of the Rock appearing) or better than expected ticket sales. Instead, you see declining second hours on Raw and tarped off arenas.
There were some who complained about the fact that the pops for Jericho's return weren't loud enough. But if you looked at the arena during Raw, you would've seen that the top tier was empty, and the middle deck was nowhere near capacity.
The crowd couldn't get loud enough. There just wasn't enough people and many of them were kids. Certainly the WWE notices this. This is why you see all of the things I mentioned in the introduction happening. They want to do everything to change that trend. Everything but the things that count.
But this, this is the very core of why that arena wasn't filled to capacity. This is the core of why the WWE is giving away free seats to shows and why house events are getting embarrassing attendance.
It's not CM Punk, he's a fantastic talent. CM Punk's reign is being hindered by the fact that the creative team has reined him in from the bombastic pipe-bomber he was before. He went from saying that it would be better for everyone if Vince McMahon died, to making silly promos about John Laurinaitis being a "radical dude" (Oh, "Dynamic Dudes"? I don't care. Nobody does.)
It's not John Cena that's causing people to flee Raw during the second hour, annoying as he may be.
It isn't Kane's fault. It isn't Mark Henry's fault. It isn't Daniel Bryan's fault.
It's that no matter who you plug in to what segment, the show is just unbelievably stale and uneventful from week to week.
Don't you find it odd that you had 5 million viewers during the Raw walkout, when only 4 guys were in the arena, and then immediately lost half-a-million viewers when you brought everyone back and went to business as usual?
Do you think that the world is saying: "We'd rather watch 4 guys, because your entire roster sucks?" or do you think the world was saying: "Whoa, this is different. What's going on? What's going to happen?"
What it says is that the presence of an interesting story is more powerful for viewership than the presence of your entire roster.
Yet, in spite of this clear and obvious fact, you operate with the same creative team that aborted the walkout in 30 minutes. You operate with the same creative team that creates an Anonymous Raw GM and then can't even finish the angle. You operate with the same team that had CM Punk turn into this generation's break out icon, and couldn't even close the deal for him.
Punk gave them his "Austin 3:16" speech. He gave them Shawn Michaels' superkick on Marty Janetty. He even gave them the ultimate title win over John Cena in Chicago.
And in return? They have him come out with mannequins pretending to be John Laurinaitis. And whether or not Punk had anything to do with that idea is irrelevant. Your creative team should be able to properly push and feud at least one man into a position to benefit the industry long-term when he catches fire.
And if they can't when he gives them so much to work with? What are they there for?
Seriously, if every week, it's wrestler after wrestler coming out and performing with little to no backstory, no reason to fight and nothing surprising happening, why are they there? Isn't that their job? To create compelling stories?
If they can't create compelling TV beyond basic matches and basic feuds we have seen redone for the last decade, why are they there?
If they blow angles, or utterly make them disappear without a trace?
Zach Ryder, he would be future endeavored right now, if he relied on your creative team to get him over. Yet, all by himself, he was inspired by the Jersey Shore, and turned himself into one of the most popular performers with the crowd.
If one curtain-jerker can out do what your entire creative team can't, it's time to get a new creative team.
But of course, the WWE insists that it knows what we, the fans, want to see. It knows what we should see. And with that kind of hubris, I'm certain that they will never admit they made a mistake in turning to non-wrestler, soap-opera writers to try and understand and produce something only a wrestling mind can.
And until it gets desperate enough to stop being so arrogant, and understands that only wrestling minds and hardcore wrestling people can give wrestling fans what they want to see, we'll keep seeing mundane feuds, uninspired characters and weak booking.
And the WWE will keep seeing fans leak slowly out of the fold like air out of the Hindenburg.
And lastly, the final thing the WWE doesn't want to do: End the PG Era.
I want to temper this slide with this disclaimer:
Ending the PG Era, in and of itself, is meaningless if the direction of the company, creatively, doesn't improve. Violence, sexuality and shock value is all pointless if there is no good story or magnetic characters behind it.
Truly, the WWE probably wouldn't even need to end the PG Era if it did the first two things on this slide.
The Golden Era of the 80's with Hulkamania and Macho Madness didn't need cursing and nudity to be big with fans, and today's WWE doesn't need it as a long-term philosophy, either.
Then why suggest ending it?
First, the WWE proudly boasts on its corporate website that 74% of its audience is over the age of 21. Meaning that PG ratings are aimed at only 26% of the fan base. That number shrinks when you realize that teenagers and 20 year olds don't seek out PG programming unless it is insanely entertaining.
By having a PG mindset, the more adult-themed possibilities in a storyline go right out of the window. The simplicity that comes with a PG-rated show is automatically counter-intuitive to the regular programming choices of 16-21 year olds, who spend most of their time watching shows like The Jersey Shore and performances from Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
If teenagers are growing up with MTV and Jay-Z as the primary origins of their entertainment, how do you expect them to switch regularly to something as tepid as Santino Marella? (The single most charismatic man on your roster, and thanks to your creative team, easily the most wasted.) How can they get behind WWE programming when nothing titillates them? (Can I use that word in the same sentence as teenagers?)
PG programming has never been for ages 18-21. They are rated R.
PG programming is no longer for ages 13-18. They, too, are rated R to PG-13.
PG programming is for little children. And that's fine, until you state on your corporate website that 74% of your audience is over 21.
Secondly, the reason why PG must go, for the time being, is that the WWE is literally less newsworthy than Snooki losing weight. The WWE has become so uncontroversial that it is barely a blip on the mainstream radar. They need to do things to garner the attention of the masses.
Younger fans may not remember, but there was a time where the WWE was absolutely monstrous. It dominated headlines beyond any and every other sport without the initials "NFL" in it. There was a time where, literally, 1 in 20 Americans were tuning in to watch professional wrestling. (WWE, WCW and ECW combined.)
Students were holding watch parties at college campuses across the country, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing some kind of wrestling shirt and every week a wrestler was showing up on a popular show. (I emphasize the word "popular", because shows like "Haven" and "Ghost Hunters" are not.)
There's a reason why older fans like myself keep harping for the glory days while younger fans say we should just enjoy the product we have. We lived in that era in a way Youtube could never truly let you experience. In the same way the generation before us got to experience the greatness of men like Superstar Billy Graham and Bobo Brazil in their times.
If you felt the energy, felt the anticipation week after week, knowing that something shocking was coming, that you couldn't miss a moment, because at least 4-5 times during the show, you would scream in shock, or be blown away by something, you could never be satisfied with the bland efforts you see today. The main-event used to be an event, in and of itself, where you knew some swerve was coming, some big debut or return, some shock.
But for all of that excitement, it was the controversy that drew the media attention.
It was the parents groups, the FCC, and news media outlets condemning the product that caused it to gain such popularity in the first place.
Many people who never would've heard about Raw, heard it from the very people complaining about it, tuned in and became fans.
It's the same thing with other controversial forms of entertainment, the more astonished and offended the general public is with the content, the more people come to see what's going on.
"Naked women bathing in chocolate? A guy crucifying people? Degenerates flashing the crowd? People setting each other on fire and throwing them 40 feet through tables? That's abhorrent!......What channel does it come on?"
Wrestling was "crude", "shocking" and "low brow" to the mainstream media (I'm sure Bill O'Reilly bashed it at some point), and yet, it was never more popular.
The amazing thing is that while the entertainment world has become as crass today as the pro wrestling they bashed in the 90's, the WWE has become more tame and childlike and still expects to succeed.
Eric Bischoff may have been a two-trick pony (NWO and Goldberg), but he was right about one thing: "Controversy creates cash". (He should have added "when paired with superior creative content" somewhere in there.)
The WWE has to get people noticing it again to raise ratings. They have to get people talking about it. The only thing that got people talking about it briefly in recent history is a wrestler "legitimately" wishing death on someone while talking about how much the company sucks. And while the WWE loves to talk about trending topics on twitter (As if somehow that matters) the mainstream does not care about wrestling anymore.
The only way you are going to get people to come to watch your show is to shock and amaze them. Absolutely no one is coming because someone told them Wade Barrett has phenomenal charisma and perfect hair. No one is reporting on Kofi Kingston hitting the "Bourne In Paradise" (Oh, Trouble? I don't care and plus "Air Boom" is a terrible name.)
The problem is, the kind of shock value necessary to get people to tune in cannot be achieved on a PG rated show. Let alone the repeated shocks and swerves that you will have to produce to keep them hooked.
If the WWE wants to get the ratings back to where they were, they have to start breaking the status quo and truly start doing things that attract news, gets people talking and keeps viewers.
Stunning events that will get people talking, combined with great story telling and unique characters not bound by moribund scripts, written by people who couldn't put a great story together if William Shakespeare was ghostwriting for them, is the only way for the WWE to rebound.
The WWE has shied away from edgy product ever since Benoit committed his heinous act. They stay away because they want Linda McMahon to become a senator.
Which will NEVER happen. Ever.
But if the WWE doesn't start budging on these three critical steps before its too late, it won't matter if Linda McMahon becomes a senator or not. There is a point in time where even multi-million dollar companies nose-dive too hard to pull out. (Ask Blockbuster or Kodak). The WWE is in a terminal tail-spin. The programming and all of the things they are attempting to do now reflects it. Even the WWE themselves know they have a serious problem on their hands.
And until they address the main problems with the product, throwing Chris Jericho at it won't matter. Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Batista and RVD can all come back and join him.
And it will just be a bunch of men in their 40's (sans Brock) acting out crappy and/or non-existent storylines, while wrestling matches with no point, no shock, no awe, no amazement...and eventually?
(Okay, some fans, but that doesn't really fit the closing of the article, you know?)