Some people firmly believe the popularity of professional wrestling is cyclical, a constant wave of highs and lows strengthened by surges of new stars and weakened by their eventual departures. Professional wrestling will always fix itself over time, they say.
Is this assessment correct?
Absolutely not—in fact, this vein of thought may irreparably damage professional wrestling, granted its creative minds buy into this notion just as a good portion of its fans do.
Professional wrestling—namely, WWE—has been on a decline in popularity since the turn of the millennium. The most prominent wrestling program on television, WWE Raw, has seen its Nielsens more than halved in the past decade.
Is a mere creative cycle to blame for this extended ratings drought? Hardly.
On Oct. 5, 1999, Vince Russo—lead creative writer for the World Wrestling Federation—left the promotion in order to work for its biggest rival, Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. Russo was largely responsible for the incredible highs in popularity the WWF achieved in his time.
Some of the most popular characters in the history of professional wrestling (notably Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X)—as well as the memorable television segments in which these characters were portrayed—were born of Russo's ideas.
After their departure, the WWF's creative direction changed drastically and has yet to match its prior peaks.
There exist several opinions of Vince Russo's body of work; he is heralded as a wrestling wizard by some, an indulgent hack by others. Whatever the case, his creative contributions generated huge television ratings for the WWF—more than twice the current average—and numbers do not lie.
Is Vince Russo really a diamond in the rough, some virtuoso storyteller without whom professional wrestling will never recapture the mainstream television audience? Not at all.
Surely, Russo has seen more creative success than anyone else WWE has ever employed, but his triumphs can be met and even surpassed with a focused and dedicated creative direction.
Some claim the WWE creative team has become complacent due to a lack of competition from rival promotions.
While the creative team may indeed be resting on its laurels, there is certainly no lack of competition from non-wrestling shows such as Jersey Shore and Pawn Stars, which average much higher cable ratings than Raw these days. Perhaps WWE should revert to a prior formula that has proven to draw more viewers.
In 1999, Raw is War was less a wrestling show and more a testosterone-laden soap opera. Characters were unique, entertaining, and—most importantly—displayed deep, distinct personalities. Each episode of Raw followed a complete storyline arc and typically ended with some sort of plot twist or foreshadowing.
The most highly rated storyline of the year—the "Greater Power" arc, in which Vince McMahon solidified his status as one of the most infamous villains on television—generated ratings that not only destroyed those of WCW Monday Nitro, but those of mainstream network television shows in the same time slot as well.
At the time, Raw is War was not simply a highly-rated professional wrestling show—it was a highly-rated television program in general.
Just one week prior to their departure from the WWF, Vince Russo and writing partner Ed Ferrara produced the highest segment rating in the history of any televised professional wrestling show—an 8.4 according to Nielsen Media Research—a record which has not even been approached since.
This segment, affectionately remembered as "This is Your Life", featured Mankind presenting to The Rock several people from his past. There was no wrestling and no real conflict.
This segment succeeded because it was 21 minutes of comedic banter between two established stars who—over the course of the previous year—had endeared their unique characters to the television audience. The segment was a perfect example of superb characterization trumping all else.
On Nov. 14, 2011, WWE's creative team attempted to recreate this segment, but the results were much different. Mick Foley, years removed from having a prevalent role on Monday nights, presented to John Cena several people from his past, just as he did for The Rock 12 years prior.
The rating for this segment was 3.7, which is higher than the current average but still less than half the rating of the original segment. The reason for this disparity is quite clear: Raw was simply more engaging twelve years ago.
Today, WWE Raw is loaded with segments that do not advance the viewer's understanding of any particular character or storyline. Conflicts seem to be put together arbitrarily, and even central characters are stuck in plodding narratives with very little forward action.
Even CM Punk, arguably the most interesting character on the show right now, is only granted a few minutes per week in which to speak, and his biggest contribution the show is usually a stellar wrestling match.
Wrestling matches are great for existing wrestling fans, but what of the channel surfers who have never actually seen a wrestling show? Vince Russo wrote with the notion that there are only two types of television viewers: those who enjoy pro wrestling and those who could potentially enjoy pro wrestling.
So how can WWE add new faces to the WWE Universe? Focus on characterization. Create roles in which wrestlers can be comfortable and have their true personalities shine. Let them be larger-than-life versions of themselves.
Make us believe that they are everything they appear to be and we will watch without blinking an eye or touching the remote.
The popularity drought is ongoing, and there appears to be no end in sight for this procession of mediocre 3.0 ratings, even as WrestleMania approaches.
WWE, this is your life.
Author's note: Funny, the biggest professional wrestling show on television is marketed towards prepubescent children who are already asleep when it airs.