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WWE SmackDown Continues to Struggle with Remaining Relevant

Chris Harrington@mookieghanaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2014

WWE SmackDown
WWE SmackDownwwe.com

SmackDown faces an identity crisis. After nearly 800 episodes, WWE's No. 2 show is struggling to remain relevant to wrestling fans.

Clearly ending the brand extension had a major impact on the design and booking of weekly episodes of SmackDown. Still, there's a lot more going on than just that.

After all, when SmackDown originally launched in 1999, there were no "brand" barriers that prevented a wrestler from competing on both Raw and SmackDown.

And the early years of SmackDown had plenty of memorable moments and lots of flavor. By comparison, today's incarnation of SmackDown feels empty. The show often seems meaningless.

In particular, there's three key reasons why SmackDown has become such an unremarkable show:

  1. Raw rematches are increasingly common on SmackDown.
  2. SmackDown is no longer the "wrestling show."
  3. Both Raw and SmackDown reach the same cable/satellite audience. 

Killing the Brand Split

The brand extension began to crumble in 2011.

My analysis of WWE house show data (using information gathered from Wrestling Observer Newsletters, subscription required) demonstrates that attendance at non-televised SmackDown house shows began lagging behind non-televised Raw branded house shows in 2011.

Therefore, it wasn't a surprise when Triple H announced on the Aug. 29, 2011, episode of Raw that SmackDown competitors would begin appearing each week on Raw. It wasn't long before the "Supershow" format spilled over to SmackDown, too.

As Dave Meltzer and Bryan Alvarez of f4wonline.com reported in May 2012, "the brand extension is pretty much dead." By August 2013, WWE quietly abandoned the concept of branded house shows altogether. 

The final nail in the coffin came at 2013's TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view in December. Randy Orton faced off with John Cena in a title unification match. At the end of the night, WWE crowned its first WWE World Heavyweight Champion and the last remaining elements of SmackDown's uniqueness faded away.

Now there's only one heavyweight champion. Wrestlers are free to appear on any WWE television show. Without a unique draw, SmackDown seems destined to be an inferior copy of Raw.

Repetition

Raw Matches Repeated Same Week on SmackDown
YearSinglesTagTotal
1999325
2000257
2001437
2002000
2003000
2004000
2005000
2006011
2007112
2008000
2009000
2010202
2011336
201212214
201313518
201411112
Analysis by Chris Harrington, https://sites.google.com/site/chrisharrington/raw_smackdown_match_repeats

A measure of importance for a show is originality. Consider how SmackDown books the same singles or tag match that a viewer already saw that same week on Raw.

From 2002 to 2005, I could not find a solitary match that was held on Raw and repeated on SmackDown during the same broadcast week. Four years of research yielded zero examples.

During the brand extension, repeating matches simply was not an issue.

Things have dramatically changed in recent years.

Since 2012, I've chronicled more than 40 examples of SmackDown rehashing the exact same singles or tag match from Raw. Again and again SmackDown viewers are exposed to the same matchups that they saw just a few days earlier.

Even in the years prior to the brand split, viewers never saw this level of repetition.

At most, there was just seven matches repeated in 2000 and 2001. In recent years, WWE has averaged more than twice that amount.

When viewers are being exposed to the exact same matchups twice in the same broadcast week, it hurts SmackDown's reputation. It doesn't take long for someone to conclude that SmackDown is merely a retread of Raw. 

This idea should greatly trouble the WWE.

Repetition proclaims that it's probably OK to miss SmackDown. After all, it's just the same material you already saw on Monday night.

The 'Wrestling Show'

For years, SmackDown had the reputation as the "wrestling show." The implication was that compared to Raw, SmackDown offered longer televised wrestling matches.

Since SmackDown was usually taped, mistakes could be edited out of matches. Matches could also be edited for time and commercial breaks. Viewers were often treated to high-flying (and high-risk) wrestlers such as Rey Mysterio or Sin Cara. While Raw had plenty of long interview segments, SmackDown was more packed with in-ring action. It was a valuable contrast.

My analysis finds that in recent years the "wrestling show" distinction has completely fizzled away.

Prior to 2011, the average tag team match on SmackDown was six minutes and 29 seconds long. Meanwhile on Raw, the average tag team match from 1999 to 2010 was five minutes and 43 seconds long. Smackdown tag team matches were longer.

However, since 2011, while the average tag team match on SmackDown has basically stayed the same (6:29), tag team matches on Raw have grown longer. Now, the average tag team match on Raw clocks in at seven minutes and 12 seconds. SmackDown's edge is gone.

It's the same story story with singles matches. The average singles match on SmackDown went from 5:43 (1999-2010) to 5:32 (2011-13). Meanwhile, singles matches on Raw went from 4:49 (1999-2010) to 5:54 (2011-13).

In both cases, Raw matches grew longer. Thus, SmackDown is now the show with shorter televised wrestling matches on average.

Undeniably, these longer Raw matches are attributable to Raw permanently moving to a three-hour format. 

Now, in 2014, Raw averages more than eight matches across a three-hour live show. An average Raw match lasts about six minutes and 48 seconds.

Meanwhile, SmackDown shows in 2014 have about only six matches per show. Each SmackDown match lasts, on average, about five minutes and 55 seconds.

Raw eclipses SmackDown for wrestling content. This is true both in term of sheer volume of matches and length of individual matches. It's a staggering blow to SmackDown's reputation.

For years, SmackDown carried the banner as the "wrestling show." Viewers could tune in to see longer matches that featured different talent. Those sort of credentials made SmackDown a meaningful television show. Now that uniqueness is gone.

Audience Reach

Raw and SmackDown Broadcast History
YearAverage Raw RatingRaw Network & NightAverage SmackDown RatingSmackDown Network & Night
1999 5.90 Monday, USA 4.37 Thursday, UPN (special April 29; weekly starting Aug. 26)
2000 5.88 Monday, USA (Jan-Sept); TNN (Sept-Dec) 4.73 Thursday, UPN
2001 4.64 Monday, TNN 4.03 Thursday, UPN
2002 4.01 Monday, TNN 3.52 Thursday, UPN
2003 3.76 Monday, Spike TV (TNN rebrands) 3.30 Thursday, UPN
2004 3.67 Monday, Spike TV 3.18 Thursday, UPN
2005 3.81 Monday, Spike TV (Jan-Sept); USA (Oct-Dec) 3.04 UPN, Thursday (Jan.Aug); Friday (Sept-Dec)
2006 3.90 Monday, USA 2.46 Friday, UPN (Jan-Sept. 15); CW (Sept. 22-Dec)
2007 3.61 Monday, USA 2.64 Friday, CW
2008 3.27 Monday, USA 2.33 Friday, CW (Jan-Sept); MyNetworkTV (Oct-Dec)
2009 3.57 Monday, USA 1.94 Friday, MyNetworkTV
2010 3.28 Monday, USA 1.81 Friday, MyNetworkTV (Jan-Sept); Syfy (Oct-Dec)
2011 3.21 Monday, USA 1.95 Friday, Syfy
2012 3.00 Monday, USA, 3 hours (starting July) 1.89 Friday, Syfy
2013 3.01 Monday, USA, 3 hours 1.92 Friday, Syfy
2014 3.05 Monday, USA, 3 hours 1.91 Friday, Syfy
Gerwick.net and sites.google.com/site/chrisharrington/wwftv

In the United States, NBCUniversal has the television broadcast rights to air both Raw (USA Network) and SmackDown (Syfy Network). 

Throughout the history of WWE, the company has always utilized myriad distribution mediums, including syndicated programming, cable networks and broadcast television specials.

However, WWE has become increasingly reliant on connecting with fans either through the WWE Network or and weekly programs that are only available on cable/satellite television. 

When Main Event left Ion TV in April, that signaled the end for weekly original WWE programming available on a regular, broadcast television. 

Now, to keep up with the product, WWE fans need to either subscribe to a cable or satellite provider, order the WWE Network, watch clips online or view the programs through a service such as Hulu. 

Some fans are being left out of the television equation. For years, SmackDown was available to those fans who did not have cable or satellite television subscriptions. That's not true anymore.

Until SmackDown moved to the Syfy Network in September 2010, SmackDown was available on broadcast television. The show had stints on UPN (1999-2006), CW (2006-08) and MyNetworkTV (2008-10).

I believe that the decade of SmackDown being available to a non-cable audience played an important role in promoting WWE programming to a different audience than the weekly Raw viewers.

Last year, according to Nielsen, the USA Network was available in over 98 million homes. The Syfy Network was available in over 97 million homes. While both networks have excellent coverage on cable and satellite, the networks are only available to subscribers.

SmackDown used to reach potential fans who would attend house shows or order merchandise. Now, these non-cable fans may be potential subscribers to the WWE Network. However, without regular WWE programming on broadcast television, WWE stopped reaching a potential pool of fans.

Providing no weekly WWE programming on broadcast television leaves WWE at a disadvantage. It's a mistake.

Now, SmackDown is left being the inferior cable wrestling programming. It's an unfortunate role for the program.

Final Words

SmackDown won the award for "Best Wrestling Television Show" in the annual Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards in 2002, 2009 and 2011. The show has been great before and it can be great again.

There was a time that the SmackDown program meant something.

SmackDown used to have longer wrestling matches. SmackDown used to be available to a different audience than Raw reached. SmackDown had fresh and unique content.

None of this is true anymore.

As a result, SmackDown languishes on Friday nights.

Before it's too late, WWE needs to make some serious changes to freshen up this important television property.