How many times has WWE referred to Monday Night Raw as the WWE's "flagship" show?
This past Monday, we had the Slammy Awards and special returns of the New Age Outlaws, Ric Flair, Jim Ross, Ricky Steamboat, Tommy Dreamer, and Mean Gene to our screens. Earlier in 2012, we had Raw 1000. WWE is reportedly planning a special 20th anniversary episode of Raw for January 2013.
What's the only show you should tune into if you hope to see Brock Lesnar, The Undertaker, The Rock, Triple H, or Shawn Michaels? Raw, that's where.
Most major matches happen on Pay-Per-View (PPV) though. Most storylines have their most significant chapters as well as their conclusions on PPVs. These storylines are closely linked to Raw and SmackDown.
In recent years, WWE has branched out its target audience, attempting to appeal to children with wrestlers like John Cena, to fans of more mature content with guys like CM Punk, and to the older fanbase with old legends' regular returns. For every underground hero, like Daniel Bryan, there is a mainstream figure, like Flo Rida, making appearances.
Despite the broad audience WWE seeks to satisfy, it continues to encourage fans to focus their attention on Raw and PPVs first, SmackDown second, and all other content (Saturday Morning Slam, Main Event, Superstars, NXT and archival/documentary releases) last.
We have two problems here then: The focus on Raw and the focus on PPVs, specifically, WrestleMania.
The PPV Problem
WWE's system is clearly not working as well as it did in the company's past. PPV buys are down as are viewership figures. Vince McMahon himself has stated that TV ratings and live event ticket sales are their "chief concerns." If that is the case, and that is where most of WWE's money comes from, why does fully enjoying the televised product require fans to purchase PPVs?
Piracy of PPVs is rife, and I have to wonder if more money could be made from airing these matches on TV on a Saturday Night's Main Event-style show. On top of WWE's regular PPV audience, all the pirates would tune in too, as would a lot of the general public. Knowing they could watch the conclusion of feuds without purchasing PPVs, many people would tune in to Raw and SmackDown who would not otherwise do so. Rather like the decline of selling CDs for streaming products like Spotify, which has been forcing a change in the music industry, WWE must evolve to survive.
The across-the-board increase in popularity, which this shift away from PPVs could cause, could well drive up WWE's live-event sales, merchandise sales, etc. They could still hold a handful of PPV events, and charge more to attend "feud pay-off" shows, be they PPV or not.
I know many fans advocate reducing WWE's PPV schedule to the "Big Four" of Survivor Series, SummerSlam, Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. Given the experimental nature of this change in WWE's business structure, I would favour initially scaling down from the current number of PPVs by removing, say, the least popular two, seeing how that impacts business, and then considering removing more.
Too Much Focus on WrestleMania
As long as WWE's PPV calendar includes multiple PPVs though, it needs to avoid having so much focus on WrestleMania. Obviously, as the company's biggest, most popular PPV, it will get the most attention. But I think if a few of the featured matches on the WrestleMania card got held off for, say, SummerSlam, it could make a world of difference.
Having Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam and the forthcoming CM Punk vs. The Rock match at the Royal Rumble is a great starting point but WWE needs to go further. I recently wrote an article explaining why SummerSlam would be the best place to stage Rey Mysterio vs. Sin Cara. WWE recently located SummerSlam in Los Angeles to make it a celebrity-filled PPV, with many celebrities in attendance, a featured music performance and this year also had Charlie Sheen as the "social media ambassador" for the show. Floyd Mayweather Jr is meant to be appearing at WrestleMania, potentially in a match, surely SummerSlam would suit this better? I am sure Triple H, Brock Lesnar, The Undertaker, and The Rock will guarantee WrestleMania has a huge buyrate.
The WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony is linked to WrestleMania, perhaps the Slammy's could be linked with another PPV? If WWE filled the event with guest appearances like they did this year, that could work nicely. The combination of a focus on the current WWE product but with veterans giving the awards was excellently designed to draw in fans of the past without ignoring WWE's current product.
Having a handful of super-PPVs almost on a par with WrestleMania could ensure WWE's profits aren't diminished, as there is bound to be a concern that the increased TV audience won't equal the lost PPV audience.
The Monday Night Raw Problem
By having so much of WWE's company focus on Raw, it sends out a message to fans that the other shows WWE produces are inferior.
As mentioned above, WWE tries to satisfy a very broad audience with Raw. An impossibly broad audience. I think they need to abandon this quest.
WWE does seem to be making some progress in this area. Since the addition of the child-orientated Saturday Morning Slam, WWE seems to be more willing to make Raw an edgier, more adult-friendly show, with Saturday Morning Slam ensuring WWE will continue to shift tons of merchandise to children.
SmackDown on the other hand is still really struggling. It used to have a unique identity as the more technical show, filled with pure wrestling. Absent of celebrities and special appearances by wrestling veterans, this is still somewhat true, but not in the way it was during the "Smackdown Six" era. Now SmackDown is just "Raw Extra".
I understand things are different with the end of the brand split, but perhaps WWE could make title holders show-exclusive? Anyone feuding with the title holders would also then tend to appear on one show and not the other, and it would only take a handful of stars like this to make the two main WWE shows significantly different from one another.
When NXT was refurbished into a brilliant new show, many fans said it was the best thing WWE was producing. Comparisons were made between the show's intimate setting and simpler, stripped-back style to the territorial wrestling of the NWA era. There is a vast audience out there crying out for this kind of product. TNA and Ring of Honor have a similar style to this, and are essentially in competition with NXT. However, WWE is happy to keep NXT as the lame dog in the race. When The Shield appear on Raw, WWE should encourage fans to tune into NXT to see their further activities.
I am not suggesting NXT be promoted as a third major brand on WWE (they made that mistake with ECW), but it could certainly be a far more popular show than it is at present. All it would require is a shift in focus. Right now, WWE's message is "if you like Raw, check out our other shows too!". NXT will not necessarily appeal to a Raw crowd, but it might appeal to other audiences. Big names like CM Punk have been known to head down and do work at NXT and these really should be seen by a wider audience.
NXT could do with a few franchise players in the way that Raw and SmackDown do. For this I suggest the NXT Championship and a few other titles be used as a way to keep stars on NXT. Obviously once a star is ready for the main roster, they will become frustrated if they are kept on NXT and fans might think it strange too. If WWE set a rule that title holders could not advance to the main roster, this would allow them to build the show for a year or so around a few title holders, rather than having any of the wrestlers that are over with fans immediately depart.
Fixing Main Event
Main Event is the last of WWE's shows I think could really be made into something special. The show has a unique format, starting with The Miz and Michael Cole talking from the ring and quite detailed packages on each of the stars featured. Rather than lots of short matches, Main Event features a few big matches and is built around these. Less flashy than Raw and SmackDown but still made into something of a spectacle, Main Event reminds me of WWE circa the Hulkamania and New Generation eras. There's something "classic" about it, but it still doesn't seem as "cheap" as NXT.
I would advocate shifting the well-past-his-best Jerry Lawler on to Main Event, as he is from that bygone era. Main Event feels like a show for hardcore fans who have watched WWE for the last 20 year,s and I think this would be a great place for the occasional returns of legends such as Sgt. Slaughter who plenty of people nowadays have never heard of. Maybe squeeze in guys like Jim Ross and "Mean" Gene Okerlund to present the show from time to time. Heck I think it would be a nostalgic touch to see Vince McMahon return to the commentary chair for a while and that would really help establish Main Event. Vince is probably at most Main Event tapings anyway so it wouldn't be out of his way at all.
Superstars - best left as it is?
This leaves Superstars. I cannot really think of a way to salvage Superstars, which is currently a web-only show. It seems to primarily be a proving ground for lower/mid card talent, an extra place to show off their skills in the hope of getting a push. Maybe that is all it can amount to.
The only suggestion I would make for Superstars is to perhaps make a rule that anyone from WWE's main roster who does not feature on any of WWE's other programming is excluded from Superstars except for the show's main event. Superstars' focus is highlighting talent that do not usually get much exposure, so really pushing it as the only place to see your favourites, if they do not appear elsewhere, adds to the show's gimmick slightly.
Summary Of Suggestions
To wrap up, here's a quick summary of what I think WWE should do to revitalise their company on all fronts:
- Remove the focus on Raw, encourage fans to pick a show that best suits their tastes
- Allow WWE's other shows to establish an individual sense of identity and promote this as a hook for audiences
- Reduce the number of pay-per-views but still charge more money to attend supercard events with PPV-calibre matches
- Shift some of the audience attention away from WrestleMania by giving more big matches to WWE's other big PPVs to build them into equivalent events, starting with SummerSlam and then expanding this to other events
I know many WWE fans feel the PG rating is what is wrong with WWE. Well, WWE has made steps towards an edgier product recently, and I feel sure Saturday Morning Slam is part of why.
Many fans point to poor writing of storylines as an issue. If storylines weren't designed around PPVs, setting deadlines for a feud's peaks and conclusion, they would probably improve. If WWE's core business model changed, I think we could very well see an improvement in the script writing.
If gimmicky celebrity appearances are your issue, go watch Main Event or NXT. The option is there, and will probably feature more wrestling and better matches than Raw and SmackDown anyway. While this article includes suggestions for WWE, you the viewer can also improve your viewing experience. Likewise, if you are a parent who is a fan of the PG era, watch Saturday Morning Slam with your child.
Suggestions, comments and criticisms gladly accepted in the comments section below.