There was a time when fans of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment would anxiously anticipate every Monday night because they knew Raw would enter their living rooms via the USA Network or, later, TNN.
They also knew that, on that show, they could expect the unexpected. Whether it be Shawn Michaels and Mr. Perfect brawling on the hood of a rental car outside the Manhattan Center or Stone Cold Steve Austin flipping off the boss, delivering Stone Cold Stunners and drinking beer, they knew that, for an hour or two at the beginning of the work week, they would be entertained.
Who can forget the 123 Kid’s stunning upset of Razor Ramon in 1993 or the classic between Kid and then-WWE Champion Bret Hart in 1994? How about the “Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman pulling a handgun on Austin as he attempted to break into his house or Sable stripping out of a potato sack to reveal a barely-there string bikini? Or what about the time Shane McMahon appeared on Nitro and announced he was buying WCW out from underneath his father? Trish Stratus crawling around the ring and barking like a dog to satisfy Vince?
These moments created a legacy for Raw that has made it one of the most popular shows in the history of cable television. The spontaneity, the unpredictable nature of the show, the “anything can (and will) happen” attitude it presented helped it last past its 1000th episode.
Unfortunately, the Raw being presented to today’s wrestling fan is not the Raw that this writer and millions lucky enough to grow up with it during its earlier years witnessed.
The show being presented by Vince McMahon’s multi-million dollar empire has become a watered-down, boring, formulaic, somewhat lazy production. The lack of competition has created such complacency that someone like McMahon, who built his empire by taking outlandish risks and reaping the rewards from those risks, would now rather play it safe than try something new or unique.
There is a belief amongst today’s wrestling fans that the so-called “PG-era" is killing the show they are oh-so-passionate about. That belief is unfounded. After all, the WWE product of the mid-to-late 1980s—the era of larger-than-life Superstars such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior—was, in fact, a family-friendly product aimed at children and their parents.
No, the PG rating has nothing to do with the quality of today’s Raw and the lack of excitement it generates in fans across the globe. The lack of intriguing and interesting shows has more to do with the lack of compelling stories and developed characters than it does anything else.
How many times have fans been subjected to a month-long story featuring a potential challenger beating a champion in a non-title match just to set up a title match at the pay-per-view? How many times has the company built up a performer, only to lose interest and toss him by the wayside a month or two later?
The company has failed, far too often as of late, to give fans a reason to care about anything that happens on the show. For example, does anyone really know why Ryback is challenging CM Punk for the WWE title? How about why R-Truth and Antonio Cesaro are still feuding after the US Champion soundly beat Truth at Survivor Series? Whatever happened to Damien Sandow cleansing the “unwashed masses?”
More importantly, do you even care about the answer to the questions above? Probably not, and therein lies the problem with the state of today’s Raw program.
The fact that there is very little room for upward mobility amongst WWE Superstars does not help. The company’s hierarchy is very well defined and, unfortunately for the viewer searching for excitement, very limited. It took a very frustrated CM Punk airing his thoughts about the company to finally get him the push he deserved. Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus, while very talented, have been shoved down fans throats as of late to the point that it is hurting them. Ryback became an overnight sensation virtually by accident.
Everyone else in that tippy-top tier, your John Cenas, Randy Ortons, Rey Mysterios and Big Shows, have been featured in essentially those same spots for upwards of seven years. That is not to say those men do not deserve to be where they are. They worked extremely hard to get there ,and to simply toss them by the wayside would be wrong.
With that said, the reason fans fondly remember the mid-to-late 80s and the Attitude Era was because everyone on the show, from Hulk Hogan all the way to Koko B. Ware or Steve Austin to Steve Blackman, had very distinguishable characters or were involved in some sort of story fans could invest themselves in.
Does anyone know what Jack Swagger’s character is? How about Michael McGillicutty? Dolph Ziggler may be a “show off” but does anyone know why I should care? And other than Sin Cara’s exciting move set, what’s really going on with him?
Where does a fans pledge their allegiances? Why should they waste their time investing themselves in a character when the company they are supporting could not be bothered to invest the energy in crafting a story or character?
Those are the major issues with Raw that cannot simply be fixed in a week or a month. There is one problem surrounding the show that could bring immediate freshness to it, however.
Monday Night Raw is in desperate need of an image makeover. The set has been largely the same, minus small changes, since the brand extension in 2002. The format of the show, with its in-ring promos, backstage skits and the placement of matches or angles at a certain time to counteract Monday Night Football, has become so tired and stale that fans no longer have to guess what is going to happen.
They can be assured that, at 8:30, there will be some sort of major angle to go head-to-head with the beginning of the ball game. At 9:00, they know they can expect a headline match to capture any fans who may just be tuning in. They will rinse and repeat the same come 10:00.
Simply changing things up, maybe eliminating the tired backstage interviews and inserting pre-taped promos from earlier in the day—only wrestler and camera, like in the old days of ECW—would eliminate the feeling of watching a well-planned television product rather than a spontaneous, refreshing wrestling show.
In the short term, such changes would hold the most critical fan over long enough to make the necessary booking changes to present a better overall product.
The most disturbing trend in recent years is the company’s tendency to focus so heavily on one portion of the audience that it forgets the fact that there are teens and twenty-something young adults who also enjoy professional wrestling and want to be entertained. It is OK to present a family-friendly product, but trending too far in one direction risks alienating another portion of your fan base entirely.
It is important for the company to take a look back at the edgier angles it ran during the late-80s and on the early-90s Raw shows and try to replicate them with a roster that is as talented as any other roster in the sport. At this point, the Superstars themselves would probably chomp at the bit to break the monotony and perform in angles like those they grew up watching.
The problems facing today’s Monday Night Raw are serious and overwhelming, but that does not mean they cannot be fixed or contained. With fans still flocking to the arenas, buying millions of dollars worth of merchandise, ordering pay-per-view events and watching the show on television, World Wrestling Entertainment can be assured it has a very solid fan base. By injecting fun and excitement back into the show, by creating stories people want to live vicariously through and characters they want to support, they can expand that audience tenfold.
There is no cycle that dictates when wrestling will “get hot” again. There is only higher quality programming and lower quality programming. One can be attributed to determination and hard work, while the other is the result of boredom and complacency. It is time for the company to break out of its years-long funk and reward its fans with the product so many became accustomed to in other eras.