A sweeping sense of optimism hit WWE fans when the company shocked them by naming Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff executive directors of Raw and SmackDown, respectively, on June 27.
The move was never about the names themselves—though Heyman's, especially, doesn't hurt. It was more about the greater context and the fact the company went out of its way to create these brand new positions to "oversee the creative development of WWE's flagship programming."
This wasn't just technical jargon, nor was it part of a storyline. Not even looking at whether the programming itself was good or not or well-received, it was clear WWE needed to make something happen on this front.
Sooner rather than later, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon will be tied up with his reformed XFL and the company as a whole has an entirely new challenge on its hands as SmackDown moves to Fox in October, meaning the overarching relationship there is something Bischoff has dealt with in the past.
From a viewer's perspective, though, only one question matters: What if it stinks?
Because from that perspective, the product stinking had been the whole problem. Ratings were significantly down even without an NFL or NBA match to compete with. The company was bleeding talent like Dean Ambrose and seeing the rise of a worthwhile competitor via All Elite Wrestling.
There wasn't much reason to tune in to weekly programs if the storylines weren't great and five hours of programming via Raw and SmackDown was a big ask as it was regardless of quality, as WWE has grossly oversaturated itself with constant specials, social media and additional items like NXT and 205 Live.
And the early returns after the Heyman and Bischoff announcement weren't good, either. Maybe it wasn't fair to expect an immediate change, but the Extreme Rules pay-per-view on July 14 featured a couples storyline where Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch main-evented in a win against Baron Corbin and Lacey Evans, only for The Architect to cough up his universal title again to Brock Lesnar.
And in that same pay-per-view, intercontinental champion Finn Balor lost his title in a sub-10 minute opener on the preshow and The Undertaker was in a tag match to redeem himself for a botched mess at Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia in June to raise a few more question marks.
But here's where there is a ray of hope: Things have been improving.
Maybe the improvement has everything to do with Heyman and Bischoff. Maybe not.
Raw and SmackDown, though, have at least been wildly entertaining as of late. The programing has featured some really fun stuff like Roman Reigns' mystery attacker, which has been used to showcase talent like Buddy Murphy. There have been brawls all over the place to give off an anything-can-happen vibe, and elements such as Bray Wyatt's The Fiend have been turned loose.
The August 19 edition of Raw was a good example. McMahon wasn't there, according to Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin, leaving the controls to Heyman, mostly.
With that in mind, fans got:
- Great King of the Ring matches, including a stiff, violent bout between Cesaro and Samoa Joe.
- Actual character development from Rollins, who ended up winning the tag titles with Braun Strowman.
- Another attack by The Fiend.
- A good showing for The O.C. and AJ Styles.
- Some big-time development for the recently returned Sasha Banks.
Of course, with Heyman and Bischoff as old-school guys at the controls, some silly experimental stuff is bound to happen, too. The Maria Kanellis pregnancy storyline is weird. Part-timers like Goldberg are still getting some run. Rollins-Lesnar was predictable with the title change merely a placeholder to sell SummerSlam. Speaking of the August 11 PPV, the bad double count-out finish to Kofi Kingston-Randy Orton after nearly 20 minutes of action also comes to mind.
In the same breath, though, experimentation can be a good thing. It's better than nothing, which is what fans got for a long time before these moves.
If this all fails, it might reinforce to those in charge that the tired ways of before were working better and things revert a bit. That would probably mean more silly knee-jerk reactions like the ill-fated wild-card rule and more ruining of the brand split.
But even then, a mix-up and simple effort to change in response to low ratings and everything else is welcomed. A stab at a new era was a must, even if it ends up flopping in a modern environment and sets things back again.
The good news on top of the effort itself? The product already seems better, so if Heyman and Bischoff can dial in on what's working and trim the fat a little, fans won't have to worry about the potential repercussions if the experiment doesn't work.