Complete Guide to Booking WWE Raw and SmackDown During the Fanless Era
The coronavirus pandemic has affected everything on the planet, including the WWE Universe. It's taken its toll in countless ways, not the least of which being that WWE cannot allow fans to attend its shows.
Instead, all recent events have been recorded in front of empty seats at the WWE Performance Center.
Until this crisis becomes a thing of the past, this is the new normal.
This is a stark contrast to the formula of what makes sports entertainment so amazing. These productions are crowd-driven, so to see shows with no audience interaction is jarring. It's also difficult on the performers, creative team and production crew to adjust to the setup.
No one has all the answers for how to deal with this, but after witnessing several episodes under these conditions, a handful of policies and strategies should be considered to maximize potential and minimize risk.
Here are some tips, pointers and suggestions for how WWE should book empty-arena shows going forward.
Taping Is a Necessity
With each passing show, it becomes increasingly evident how crucial taping is in this era.
As previously explained, taping gives the production crew more flexibility and the editing team more time to record the footage, dress it up and ship it off to broadcast.
Recording at different times, rather than running live, also allows for better scheduling. It is more accommodating for any travel issues performers may have and helps to promote social distancing by not having everyone congregate at the same time.
Taping also opens up room for experimentation and retakes. If someone botches a move, they can do it again and splice the footage together so that nobody would notice. Alternative lines can be recorded for promos, with the best ones chosen to air, just like in films and television shows.
As there are no risks of spoilers leaking out from fans in attendance, there are no drawbacks to taping in advance, which means every part of these shows should be taped and not live.
Acknowledge the Situation
All too often, WWE issues directives that certain words can't be used, so alternative phrasing that must be used, and there are things that cannot be referenced under any circumstances.
Injured wrestlers don't go to hospitals. They get taken to "medical facilities." Championships are not belts, despite how they are fastened around waists.
Lately, WWE has been diverting directly addressing COVID-19 by saying things like "prevailing circumstances" and other vague remarks.
In some ways, it's to be commended that such efforts are being taken to allow for a greater escape for the people watching to help take their minds off things. On the other hand, it can come off tone deaf.
When WWE acts like nothing is different and harps on buzz words to play pretend as though everything is business as usual, it almost draws more attention to the sadness of the situation. It's silly to have the commentary team promote that Steve Austin is about to raise hell while knowing full well there's nothing for him to do.
What's great is when John Morrison and The Miz play into their characters and get cocky, saying if anyone in attendance doesn't think they're the best ever, now is the time to speak up.
It's stupid for Asuka to interfere in a match and pretend like the referee couldn't see or hear her, but it was at least lampshaded by Triple H joking that she must have sneaked in through the crowd.
When there's an elephant in the room, it's better to address it and go with the flow rather than to try to ignore it.
Interviews and Video Packages Work Better Than Promos
Since John Cena and Roman Reigns were booed instead of cheered, WWE's go-to philosophy has been that it doesn't matter how people are reacting as long as they are making noise. The worst-case scenario isn't mass hatred of a segment but total indifference.
Without fans in attendance, there's no way of properly judging how any segment works in real time. Now we have seen that certain types of presentations have advantages. When it comes to talking segments, immediate feedback was taken for granted and is essential for the traditional promo to go over well.
Watch a show like The Big Bang Theory with its laugh track disabled, and you will see how much that hinders each joke. It's not the same as something like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is presented without a laugh track and has jokes written for that format.
WWE writes promos for crowds to react to and to get them more excited for whatever match is being promoted. That can't happen in empty venues, so the in-ring promos have to change dramatically or stop entirely.
Taking a beat after dropping an insult should give room for boos or cheers to breathe. Now it's just silence, which means dead air. In-ring promos are no longer stage performances with built-in responses. Instead, they are conversations fans just happen to be eavesdropping on, and no one speaks like that in real life.
For that matter, this applies out of the ring too. There's no need to bring in Kayla Braxton to film just so she can ask one question to a Superstar backstage as if there's still a show going on.
Interviews clearly work better because they are exchanges between two people that require no other responses. The conversation flows more naturally.
Video packages are another step above that. Mixing in music and clips helps to break the monotony of one person speaking into a camera.
Don't Forget the Matches
A hot crowd can make a good match great, so it's a shame that such a core component is missing. However, even in front of no one, matches can still be fantastic.
Every indy show drawing a handful of people has just as much potential to be a 5-star classic than matches taking place with thousands surrounding the ring. Just because WrestleMania is the biggest show of the year doesn't mean the matches are always better.
It's awkward and harder to pull off, but professional wrestling needs to be part of a show about professional wrestling. Raw and SmackDown can't sustain themselves on nothing but promos, interviews and recap footage.
Wednesday's NXT, which comprised only three short documentaries on current feuds, wasn't captivating for audiences. It would have made for a great edition of Prime Target, but it was a terrible episode of NXT, which is renowned for its high-quality in-ring action.
Keep the Focus on the Big Event to Come
The coronavirus pandemic has arrived at the worst time of year from WWE's standpoint, but it's provided ample time to keep fans invested in the WrestleMania storylines.
These are supposed to be the most grandiose feuds involving the biggest Superstars on the roster, so WWE should exhaust all efforts to remind fans of how epic this can be. Not a single second should be wasted bothering with anything other than the build to WrestleMania. There's no room for fluff.
If WWE is airing a rerun of a match to eat up time, it has to pertain to this big event. John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt from WrestleMania XXX was a great example of that, as it gives more context to their feud.
Once WrestleMania has passed, if the fanless shows at the Performance Center have to continue, WWE has to start building toward the next special event. Not only will that be a happy reminder to viewers that our lives will eventually return to normal, which will keep spirits up, but it's also good for the brand's morale. WWE continuing to truck along during this crisis is a symbol of its tenacity and always-forward progression, no matter the adversity.
If Raw and SmackDown become clip shows that have nothing to do with moving the narrative to what's next and don't offer something to look forward to, fans will have no reason to tune in every week and will just go back to checking out older content on WWE Network when they need their wrestling fixes.
Gimmicky Characters Need Their Gimmicks
As bad as it was for Stone Cold to not be able to get a crowd on its feet, at least he could give Byron Saxton a Stunner and it didn't break his character. Far sadder was The Undertaker's contract signing with AJ Styles.
No sensible person thinks The Deadman is supernatural, but we are willing to play along. That suspension of disbelief is harder to maintain, though, when the curtain is pulled back.
Having the lights go out and reappear with The Phenom popping up in a new location is a staple of his character. What isn't part of that formula, though, is overhearing the stage director ask whether everyone is in place so they can turn the lights back on.
Perhaps he should revert to his American Badass persona until the smoke and mirrors can return.
Firefly Fun House doesn't feel the same without the set. Without the lighting and the mystique, The Fiend won't be as intimidating. He will just be Husky Harris in a mask that he thinks looks scary, which makes it the opposite of cool.
Even Elias doesn't pack the same punch without fans singing along to his songs or getting hyped by yelling that WWE stands for "walk with Elias."
WWE has to think about how each character is presented and write scenarios that don't position the weirder ones as hokey.
Above All Else, Be Safe and Kind to Each Other
The most important thing that should be on everyone's minds is safety. The health and well-being of WWE's staff and fans trump any positives or negatives that can come out of being entertained, which is a luxury, not a necessity.
WWE must always adhere to the rules and regulations put in place rather than value profit over people.
Risk management is key. Anything that can be done safely should be on the table, but if something is dangerous, caution wins every argument. Fans have a responsibility to keep this in mind too. Whatever hiccups come up from this—be it a bad performance, an advertised match being canceled, etc.—we have to be willing to forgive.
WWE employees are doing their best to provide the best entertainment they can and deserve immense credit for these efforts. Bad things are still bad, but the criticism doesn't need to be as biting as it would be under normal circumstances.
Much of this is out of everyone's control, and for this to be a true WWE Universe, it needs everyone to work together. The promotion must acknowledge how scared and frustrated its audience is, and the fans have to cut the company some slack for any missteps along the way.
Once fans are able to pack arenas again, we can all celebrate and take the lessons learned from this experience, apply these guidelines and make this business we love better and stronger than what it is now.
Anthony Mango is the owner of the wrestling website Smark Out Moment and the host of the podcast show Smack Talk on YouTube, iTunes and Stitcher. You can follow him on Facebook and elsewhere for more.