There was never a better time to be a pro wrestling fan than during the period from 1996-2002, when WWE was in the midst of its legendary Attitude Era.
TV ratings were at an all-time high, it was cool to be a fan and you could find a good wrestling product on TV just about any time you wanted to.
Contrast that with today's WWE product. Now, fans are inundated with hours of mindless, and often meaningless, WWE programming. Sit through one three-hour episode of Monday Night Raw, and you'll be longing for the old days, even if you weren't a wrestling fan in the old days.
Here are 10 reasons why the WWE was better in the Attitude Era than it is today.
The name said it all. Gone were the days of the family-friendly, cartoon characters that WWF had been presenting since the 1980s.
Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage were replaced by guys like Steve Austin, The Rock and Mankind. The stars at the top of the card could be babyfaces, heels or fall somewhere in between. The biggest star of the Attitude Era saluted the crowd with his middle fingers, and he was a wildly popular babyface.
The WWE suddenly had an attitude. Even the good guys weren't the kind of people that your parents wanted you to hang around with.
Now, WWE is back in PG-13 purgatory. The babyfaces may as well wear white hats and the heels black ones. (Though, oddly, most of the babyfaces dress in black ring gear.) The content is once again family friendly, and once again, the ratings are down.
Attitude made the WWE in the late '90s and early 2000s. A lack of it is putting the company in a precarious position today. How different is today's WWE from the Attitude Era product? It's as simple as the comparison between Stone Cold Steve Austin and John Cena.
In the Attitude Era, WWE fans needed a scorecard to tell which grapplers were babyfaces, and which were heels. You certainly couldn't tell by watching.
As mentioned, the top babyface in the company was a beer-drinking, trash-talking, bird-flipping redneck. The Rock, who proclaimed himself The People's Champion with one breath, told the crowd to shut up and start chanting with him in the next. He went from face to heel to face again with startling regularity. The No. 1 faction of the era, DX, broke every rule in the book, told the fans to "Suck It" and made lewd hand gestures with every ring appearance. The crowd couldn't have loved them more.
The No. 1 heel in the company was the boss, Vince McMahon. Crowds booed him for trying to stop his stars from drinking in the ring, running off with the divas and painting their logo on anything that didn't move.
The Attitude Era was compelling because the stars had nuance. No one was purely good or purely bad. Mankind was a babyface who supposedly spent most of his off hours locked in a basement somewhere, talking to himself or to a sock puppet. Austin would flip off the fans before his matches and drink "Steveweiser" toasts to them after.
You never knew who would attack who, or when, or sometimes even why, at least not at first. The depth of the Attitude Era characters made the audience think about what they were seeing.
Today's product doesn't make the fans think. They all know that John Cena is a good guy. You can tell because he wears bright colors and throws his wristbands to the fans. Rey Mysterio hugs and chats his way down the ramp.
Bad guys are bad guys because of who they hang around with. Would Dolph Ziggler be a heel without Vickie Guerrero? How about CM Punk without Paul Heyman? It seems that the WWE creative team isn't sure just how smart its audience is these days, so they make sure to point out the obvious.
During the Attitude Era, the biggest names were consistently atop the card and fighting for some title or principle.
Rock, whether babyface or heel, was constantly in contention for the Intercontinental Championship, the WWE title or in pursuit of some other guy who had done him wrong.
DX took turns holding the WWE, Intercontinental, Tag Team and European titles.
Austin chased the gold and stunned anybody who stood in his way.
The top tag teams—The Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian, DX, The Dudleys and the APA—were constantly battling one another, and the outcomes were never predictable.
The variations were many, but the names at the top of the card seldom changed. Fans knew when they tuned in that they'd see Rock, Austin, McMahon, DX and the rest of the top stars battling over issues or titles. There just weren't any transitional champions. The top stars held the gold and dared anyone to come and take it.
These days, you have guys like Big Show and Dolph Ziggler getting their hands on the World Heavyweight Championship for what seems like a total of about an hour. You have 45-second title reigns and guys holding the secondary belts that most of the fans couldn't pick out of a lineup.
Tag teams that weren't together two weeks ago are getting shots at the WWE Tag titles (though that situation seems to be improving.)
Using the top stars in the top spots gave the Attitude Era credibility. That's something that today's product lacks.
In the old days, you tuned in for Monday Night Raw, the occasional pay-per-per view and, if you were bored, Sunday Night Heat. There were two to three hours of programming during a regular week. There were five hours in a week that featured a PPV.
Now, Raw is three hours while SmackDown is two. Throw in Main Event and Saturday Morning Slam, and you're up to seven hours of programming per week, not counting YouTube and Hulu offerings. If there's a PPV that week, you can count on 10 hours of WWE TV.
In this case, more is most definitely not better. Seven hours of weekly TV is simply too much time to fill. Instead of compelling matches and intriguing storylines, the WWE Universe is inundated with filler material like Khali and Hornswoggle. Would Santino Marella even have had a job in the Attitude Era?
Ratings swing back and forth. That's an established fact. However, even with twice as much programming on the air, today's WWE attracts less total viewers than Raw did during its peak in the Attitude Era. There's just too much TV on TV. The numbers don't lie.
Another reason that the Attitude Era was more successful is that the stars and the events got much better promotion.
By the time Raw went off the air, you had a good idea of what was coming up on next week's show. Now, you are hard-pressed to figure out what will be happening in the next 30 minutes.
The big stars were built up to be big deals. You virtually never saw Austin or The Rock in the first segment of the show, unless there was a major story brewing. The biggest names went on last, and the audience stayed tuned, because if they hadn't seen DX yet, they knew it was only a matter of time.
There weren't as many pay-per-view events back then, either. At one point, WWE was running eight PPV events a year. Now, they run one virtually every month. In the Attitude Era, fans knew that the PPV main event was going to feature the company's biggest stars, and that a title would most likely be at stake.
Now, the main event of just about any PPV may be a grudge match, with no title on the line. Often, it feels like WWE uses PPV events as a means to end feuds that weren't really about anything in the first place.
In the Attitude Era, the stars and the events were must-see TV. Now, a lot of the shows are more like "Must I?" TV.
One of the major reasons for the unprecedented and since unequaled success of the Attitude Era was that WWE had to evolve or die because the competition was fierce.
WCW's Monday Nitro first challenged—then almost destroyed—Monday Night Raw. Eric Bischoff and his band of outlaws changed the way wrestling was televised, and it forced WWE to step up its game.
Bischoff went live on Monday nights. McMahon had little choice but to follow suit. Bischoff's biggest stars were the heels of the NWO. McMahon was forced to promote more edgy acts like Austin, Rock and DX.
One of the biggest moments of the Attitude Era was when DX "invaded" Monday Nitro, and fans tuned in by the millions to see what HHH, The New Age Outlaws, X-Pac and Chyna would do in Atlanta.
Nitro was a new business model, and, in order to survive, McMahon had to become an innovator as well.
These days, WWE has no real competition. TNA's Impact show draws less viewers in an average week than either Raw or SmackDown. ROH isn't on network television any longer, and there is really no competition.
Without someone to challenge him, McMahon has become comfortable and complacent. Even with his numbers down to historic lows, he's still the only real ballgame in town, and he knows it. Unless something changes, and a competitor rises up to challenge WWE for television dominance, there's no real reason to improve the product.
During the Attitude Era, fans tuned in because the matches told stories.
Austin wanted to beat the hell out of Rock because he wanted the WWE title. DX was chasing Vince's daughter so that they would have a hold over the CEO of the company.
Mick Foley had three different characters going because he wanted to break through to the top of the card and wasn't sure if his best chance was as Cactus Jack, Mankind or Dude Love.
Kane fought with XPac over a girl (Tori). Outlandish things were happening, but there was always a reason behind them, and the stories were most often very interesting.
Last week, there was a Fatal 4-Way match on Raw featuring the US Champion (Antonio Cesaro), the Intercontinental Champion (Kofi Kingston) and the presumed No. 1 contenders for each title (R-Truth and Wade Barrett, respectively). What was the reason for the match? Teddy Long thought it might be interesting. Once the match was over, the story was over. The entire storyline lasted less than 12 minutes.
In the Attitude Era, it took Austin months to finally get his hands on Vince McMahon. The Rock took most of a year to take over the Nation of Domination. These days, you have John Cena wrestling Damien Sandow for no apparent reason. Zack Ryder shows up once a week on television to take on whatever foe happens to be there.
Good television tells a story. These days, much of the action on WWE television seems to be designed to fill time.
In the Attitude Era, WWE climbed back to the top of the wrestling world by taking chances.
Letting Austin swill beer and flip off the fans was risky. Putting the WWE Championship on Mankind was a huge leap of faith.
The Hardy Boyz, Dudley Boys and Edge and Christian made the tag team division relevant by destroying each other and just about everyone else with tables, ladders and chairs. Jeff Hardy appeared willing to leap off of just about anything, including the top rope, a 20-foot ladder and the TitanTron in order to spark the crowd.
WWE put belts on almost all of the McMahons at one time or another. At one point, Shane, Vince and Stephanie all held some form of a WWE title within a 12-month span.
Speaking of McMahon, the boss of the company was painted as the company's top heel. He was bulked up beyond belief and used whatever means he could think of to get his way.
People got hit with chairs, set on fire, thrown off the top of gigantic structures and run over by cars on a weekly basis.
Now, if The Shield puts Ryback through a table in a three-on-one attack, it's major news. There used to be three broken tables before Raw's first commercial break during the Attitude Era.
WWE had relatively poor television ratings in the '80s when it was family-friendly entertainment. It rose to dominance in the Attitude Era and has fallen to historic lows in its latest PG-13 campaign.
Facts are facts. Wrestling fans aren't the mainstream television audience. What appeals to mom and dad generally doesn't appeal to their teenage kids. No matter what WWE puts on television, most adults over the age of 30 aren't going to watch it, yet the company seems determined to cater to an audience of people under 13 and over 40. These are the two least desirable television demographics.
Vince and his writers need to figure out what appeals to wrestling fans, primarily males between the ages of 15-30, and put it on TV.
By trying to please everyone, WWE is guaranteeing that it won't please anyone.
In the Attitude Era, WWE knew who its viewers were and what they wanted. The average wrestling fan is relatively knowledgeable about the product and will turn the channel if they don't see what they want on the screen.
Some of WWE's biggest stars were the ones who parents hated and young people loved. Moms shuddered at Jeff Hardy, with his multi-colored hair, odd face paint and propensity for leaping off of high places.
Parents shook their heads in dismay at DX's crotch chops, Rock's use of the phrase "candy ass" and Stone Cold's beer-driven one-finger salutes.
No one was quite sure what to make of The Undertaker, Mankind or Kane. Much less The Brood or the Dudley Boys.
Wisely, WWE realized that it wasn't the parents that it needed to attract. It was the kids. Today, many of those kids have children of their own. Sadly, the product on WWE TV isn't what these new parents grew up on. Thus, they don't share the experience with their kids.
Today, there is little on WWE television that would alarm a parent. While I don't advocate random violence and blatant crudity, I can see why audiences are turning away in droves. There's nothing cool about watching something your parents wouldn't disapprove of. There was cachet in viewing a show that caused your folks to frown and reach for the remote.
By trying to appease the "mainstream fan," WWE has lost touch with its real base—the hardcore fan. Edgy programming creates loyal fans. Pablum leads to alarmingly low ratings.
If Vince McMahon wants to see another "golden era" of professional wrestling, he needs to go back to what works. It's a fact that family-friendly, PG-13 television doesn't draw crowds. Historically, the WWE was never more popular than during the Attitude Era. Maybe revisiting some of those ideas would result in a new era of prosperity.