10 Years into the 'PG Era,' Did WWE Make the Right Call?

The Doctor Chris Mueller@@BR_DoctorFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2018

The crowd at WrestleMania 34.
The crowd at WrestleMania 34.Credit: WWE.com

The world of pro wrestling has always been filled with controversy. Everything from the level of violence presented on prime-time television to the way women were portrayed as eye candy and the risque content of certain storylines was attacked by critics, especially during the Attitude Era.

However, one choice by WWE stands alone as the most controversial among its fans, and that's the decision to turn the product PG back in 2008.

The Attitude Era had been gone for years by this point, but WWE was still pushing the envelope with things like Edge and Lita's live sex celebration and JBL attempting to murder John Cena with his car.

Times were beginning to change, and Vince McMahon knew he had to adapt or his company would continue to be looked at as being on the outside of the rest of the entertainment world.

People can debate the reason behind McMahon and company choosing to go PG all they want, but the truth is there are several reasons why WWE went in this direction.

Some fans will say the company has never been the same as a result of changing the product, but whether they want to admit it or not, going PG was the right choice in many ways.


Would You Let Your Kid Watch What You Watched?

For many adults fans, pro wrestling was a huge part of their childhood. We looked up to these larger-than-life Superstars as our superheroes.

Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, Andre The Giant and The Road Warriors drew us into the shows and made us believe people could be anything they wanted.

Whether you were a jock, a goth, the class clown or the nerdy kid in the corner, pro wrestling had a character you could relate to and idolize.

Then the Attitude Era came along. The late '90s was a weird time for entertainment because everything was designed to be edgier than anything that came before it. MTV was leading the charge, but WWE wasn't far behind.

The company embraced this period by incorporating foul language, graphic violence and controversial stipulations like Bra and Panties matches. 

We overlooked these things as a product of the time, but most fans who grew up to have kids of their own probably wouldn't want them watching two women rip each other's clothes off or Triple H pretend to have sexual relations with a fake corpse. The less said about the Katie Vick incident, the better.

Anyone who has worked in marketing, or even studied it, will tell you children are one of the most influential groups of people in advertising. If a kid wants it, a parent will end up spending money to get it.

By creating a show adults don't feel embarrassed to let their children watch, WWE ensured it would have more avenues for profit from merchandise, ticket sales and other forms of media like DVDs and the WWE Network.

Think about it this way. WWE makes a wide variety of products. An adult fan who doesn't collect toys will probably like about half of what the company sells, but a child will want it all.

Trading cards, actions figures, posters, phone covers. You name it. If WWE can slap a logo on it, some kid is going to beg their parents to buy it for them. It's just the way things work.

Most grown-ups will only buy their children things they deem appropriate for their age, so making sure it appeals to all ages means WWE will sell more stuff. It's basic business.


Judged by the Company You Keep

WWE is a big part of mainstream pop culture, but it used to be considered a niche product, especially during the Attitude Era.

WWE, and WCW back in the day, loved to bring in celebrities to boost exposure. During the Hulkamania explosion of the '80s, we saw big stars like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Cyndi Lauper work with WWE in different ways. 

A-list celebrities eventually stopped wanting to be associated with the black sheep of the entertainment world, so WWE and WCW took whatever it could get.

Triple H @TripleH

Congrats to the Chicago @Cubs on a long-awaited (and well-deserved) #WorldSeries win. We got you something for the celebration... #EnjoyIt https://t.co/yv3jhY0rLA

Being associated with pro wrestling wasn't something anyone in the spotlight wanted to advertise, but when the company went PG, celebrities began showing up again.

Every time a team wins a championship, Triple H sends the players a WWE title with their logo on the side plates. Every team proudly displays these belts in pictures for the media, which is invaluable free advertising.

Renee Young was sent to interview Harrison Ford, J.J. Abrams and John Boyega when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. Do you think Disney would have allowed a WWE correspondent during the Attitude Era? Probably not.

WWE wants to be seen as a legitimate entertainment company, and in order to do that, it had to change into a more family-friendly entity to attract bigger names. 


A Safer Working Environment

One of the biggest hallmarks of the Attitude Era was the level of violence. In addition to all of the dangerous things wrestlers were expected to do like take chair shots to the head, they were expected to bleed on a regular basis.

Whether it happened the hard way or from a razor blade to the head, most wrestlers found themselves covered in crimson at least once a month, if not more often.

Some wrestlers have developed large patches of scar tissue on their foreheads from blading so often, while others have suffered issues related to concussions and other injuries suffered from being put in dangerous situations.

Even if it was beneficial for the company from a public relations standpoint, banning things like blading, chair shots to the head, piledrivers and other dangerous moves, WWE made it much safer for its wrestlers to work.

This has ensured Superstars will have longer, more fruitful careers without worrying as much about the kind of toll it will take on their body later in life. Wrestling will always be hard on a person, but the company has done a lot of things to improve the way it affects people down the line.

In order to make the company PG, WWE had to do away with certain things some fans like, but you can always find whatever you miss about the old days on the indy scene where restrictions are looser and small companies do whatever it takes to gain exposure.

Daniel Bryan may be the best example of WWE's change in attitude toward wrestler safety. Had his situation happened during the '90s, he would have been back on the road within weeks of his last concussion, maybe sooner.

Management didn't want to risk putting his health in danger unless it was sure his body could handle it. Whether this was done out of fear of looking bad or genuine care for Bryan's safety doesn't matter because it was the right decision for him and his family.


Wrestlers Are More Creative Than Ever

Some people work best when given complete freedom, but a lot of people thrive under certain restrictions. 

Going PG meant certain things were off limits for WWE Superstars, so in order to keep the product entertaining, they had to think outside the box.

Instead of relying on violence to sell a match, wrestlers began getting more creative with their offense, and that led to a better overall product.

The athleticism and innovation in the ring today is at a level most Superstars of the past never came close to reaching, but it might not be that way if the company still focused on shock value like it used to.

We might complain about the repetitiveness of storylines or how kid-friendly characters are boring, but it's hard to deny how many more Match of the Year candidates WWE produces these days.


Debunking the Ratings Myth

Wrestling Observer @WONF4W

WWE Raw posts record-low ratings for modern era https://t.co/f3JC6fsWwi https://t.co/F9EcwT6eHh

According to showbuzzdaily.com (h/t Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc), the June 9 episode of Raw before Extreme Rules had the lowest ratings of any episode in the show's history with just 2.47 million viewers. For any other program, that would be bad news.

Some fans will point to these numbers as proof the company is failing, but those statistics don't tell the whole truth.

For one thing, WWE just landed landmark deals with the USA Network and Fox to broadcast Raw and SmackDown respectively beginning in 2019. If the ratings mattered that much, Fox wouldn't have shelled out a billion dollars for a five-year deal.

WWE has also expanded to bring in new forms of revenue over the past decade to diversify itself. It has monetized its presence on Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to great success.

For instance, the WWE YouTube page has put out over 430 videos from June 20 to July 20. All of them are monetized and most of them have hundreds of thousands of views. Some even top a million.

Then there's the WWE Network. According to a press release from WWE following WrestleMania 34 (h/t Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful.com), the network has more than 1.8 million paid subscribers, with the expectation for that number to reach two million in the near future.

On top of all those things, WWE has merchandise sales, sponsorship deals with brands like Snickers and KFC, WWE Studios, multiple reality shows and live-event ticket sales bringing in the cash.

Between many viewers using DVRs to watch WWE shows later and the number of people cutting cords to save money, television ratings mean less than they ever have before. WWE has responded well to the changes in how people consume content and become more successful than ever.

According to the WWE corporate site's stock tracker, the company's stock was trading at around $20 per share one year ago. It has quadrupled to over $80 per share as of the writing of this article. Don't you wish you had bought into the company when it was at its lowest price?


Was Going PG the Right Choice?

Turning WWE into a PG product will never be seen as the right decision by some members of the WWE Universe simply based on their personal preferences. Everyone is allowed to have their own opinion about these things.

The reality is WWE did the right thing for its employees, investors and Superstars by going PG because times have changed and so has the company.

The world is more politically correct, parents are more cautious about what their kids are watching and advertisers are less willing to back controversial brands. WWE has evolved to change with the rest of the world whether we like it or not.

But don't fret. If you want a different flavor of pro wrestling from what WWE offers, numerous promotions have gained enough success in recent years to offer great production values and top-notch wrestling to meet your demands. 

Impact Wrestling has improved under new leadership, Ring of Honor has steadily gotten better over the years, Lucha Underground is a completely different animal and New Japan Pro Wrestling is making waves in the U.S. market.

WWE has even started working with other promotions to expand into the UK market and bring in new talent because it knows it will always be the biggest dog in the fight.

Was going PG the popular decision? Probably not, but it was definitely the right decision in the end.


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