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Meet WWE’s new era; same as the old era

Was WWE’s rare mea culpa a sign of true change to come? Or just more lip service?

Last night, WWE did something pretty unprecedented: Their flagship show, Monday Night Raw, had become so stale, so rote, so difficult to sit through for even its most hardcore fans that they turned how legitimately bad the show is into a storyline. It started last week when Seth Rollins, in an early Festivus airing of grievances, lamented the poor quality of the show ever since then-acting General Manager Baron Corbin took over. It culminated in chairman Vince McMahon making a rare television appearance, along with his children and son-in-law, to recognize the show’s shortcomings over the past few months and promise to do better.

The surreal segment felt equal parts real-life and in-universe, as the McMahons acknowledged their obligation to the fans to do better while partially placing blame on kayfabe authority figures.

While it’s as concerning as it is reassuring that things have gotten so bad creatively that the company felt the need to apologize for their product, it does at least instill some amount of hope for the future. Throughout the show, teases of things to come were shown: vignettes for the imminent returns of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. A crop of new NXT callups. The abolishment of archaic or just plain stupid rules like the obligatory championship rematch clause or Lucha House Party rules.

That’s all well and good, but by and large, the rest of the show felt all too familiar. Immediately after decreeing that the show would be infused with new blood and fresh matchups, beleaguered Authority errand boy Baron Corbin wrestled, to determine something that was already determined the previous night at TLC. This isn’t even to mention that this announcement was made by the four most prominent and regularly featured authority figures in company history.

So whether this truly was the dawning of a new era, akin to when Vince McMahon all but declared kayfabe dead in 1997 and ushered in the Attitude Era by announcing that the then-WWF would be pushing the envelope with their storytelling, or just lip service to try to improve sagging ratings before the Road to WrestleMania naturally raises them anyway, remains to be seen. But if WWE truly wants to modernize their product, recapture lapsed fans and be seen as “cool” again, they are going to have to take a look at several factors. Nothing will change if they don’t…

Push stars based on fan reaction, not metrics

“What have they done to you, my boy?”

One of the biggest advantages professional wrestling has over every other medium of storytelling is the ability to change direction on the fly based on audience response. If something doesn’t end up working this week, the plan can be scrapped and they can shift gears next week. In extreme cases, they can even change the outcome of a match during the match itself. No other storytelling format has this luxury, and it’s part of what makes wrestling unique. And WWE squanders it. Sometimes, it feels like they intentionally discard it.

WWE loves to tout that they have the world’s largest focus group every week, live at their shows, to solicit feedback from, and that the number one reason they have become so successful is that they listen to their audience. In recent years, though, that declaration almost comes with a sardonic wink. WWE is essentially a wrestling monopoly in the United States, and not only do they seemingly not listen to their audience at all, at times it feels like they are almost booking their shows to spite their audience, as if to say “what are you gonna do about it?”

There’s an entire category of wrestler that nearly didn’t exist a decade ago — the category of wrestlers who are largely beloved by the fans, but the same fans know better than to waste any hope that they will be placed in a prominent spot or used compellingly, so they no longer care. Arguably kicked off by the baffling underuse of social media pioneer Zack Ryder in the early 2010s, the category has come to include the likes of Finn Balor, Dolph Ziggler, Sasha Banks and Bayley today. Fans love these wrestlers, but have been conditioned to not place any faith in them anymore. It’s the antithesis of listening to your audience.

Change the way the entire show is presented

“Be sure to use the hashtags ‘please relieve me of this torture’ and ‘I’m getting motion sickness’ to join the conversation on Twitter!”

Raw and SmackDown Live are ultra-slick, featuring high-definition LED screens integrated into every possible surface, and the on-screen graphics are usually beautifully rendered. Even if you hate the writing, or don’t even like pro wrestling at all, it’s hard to dispute that WWE is one of, if not the, most impressive live event production company on the planet.

However, all this futuristic presentation can sometimes rob what’s going on in the ring of its soul. At its core, wrestling is two people with a grudge fighting each other. You don’t need a lot of extraneous bells and whistles to sell that premise. But as WWE shifts from selling its tickets based on those grudges to selling them based on the “experience” of witnessing “the brand” live and in person, the result is a loss of heart. The show comes off as hyper-sanitized, presenting only a shell of the urgency it once did.

20 years ago, Jim Ross would witness a TLC match and may scream out in utter shock, “My god! There’s no other way to describe this disturbing violence — it’s a human demolition derby!” The 2018 equivalent is Michael Cole and Corey Graves picking petty nits about each other’s observations, and Cole flatly instructing, “Haha, it’s our yearly demolition derby! This is TLC! Be sure to use the hashtag #DemolitionDerby on Twitter to join the conversation!” The net result is that even if the matches are just as or even more well executed than the days of old, it comes across as too processed, too slick, too corporate.

The solution here is easy, as a working model is produced in-house: NXT. NXT is a much simpler, but much better received show. It’s one hour long, for starters; Raw will never be afforded that same luxury, but there’s still plenty the red brand can adopt from its yellow little brother: Less crowd lighting and more emphasis on what’s happening in the ring. A reduction of the seizure-inducing camera tricks that permeate Raw and SmackDown, and irrelevant backstage skits. A focus on simple, but consistently executed and logical storylines that always culminate in appropriate matchups in the ring.

Make wins and losses matter

“Why is this match happening for the fourth time this month? Who knows? Who cares?”

At the end of the day, though, the most important thing is the creative. If matches don’t feel like they mean anything, how can anyone be expected to get invested in anything that happens on the show? Most matchups on Raw are utterly meaningless and feel like simply filler to get to the segment at the top of the hour that actually matters. If you want Raw to feel must-watch, there have to be actual stakes; winners and losers. Somebody winning a match one week should mean at some point in the very near future, that somebody should receive an opportunity to defeat a wrestler higher in the pecking order.

There doesn’t need to be a full-blown ranking system, but any semblance of progressing toward a goal would go a long way to making otherwise unimportant matches feel like they have a reason for existing. Wrestlers like Dana Brooke are often presented as hungry for an opportunity. Give her one! Instead of having a throwaway match that’ll be forgotten immediately after the three count, have her beat some enhancement talent. The next week, maybe she gets one over on Alicia Fox. The following week, she has to try her luck against a more established star like Mickie James. These are all matchups you can easily imagine happening on Raw, but simply framing them as somebody trying to work their way up the ladder and improve their standing instead of just a way to kill 10 minutes changes the entire feel of them. Yes, WWE is entertainment and even in kayfabe, one of the driving factors for many Superstars is simply to entertain the crowd. But it’s still simulating a competition, so it has to feel like they are fighting for some kind of a prize.

This isn’t just a problem in the undercard, either: look at the tepid (at best) reaction to the Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose matchup from TLC. This has been sold as an absolute blood feud from the beginning: these two guys were as close as brothers, and Ambrose betrayed Rollins’ trust on one of the darkest, most somber days of their friendship. He said in so many words that Roman Reigns deserved to get cancer.

As a result, Ambrose and Rollins had a match scheduled for TLC— and considering all the emotion behind it and the fact that they know one another like the backs of their hands from years of wrestling both beside and against each other for the better part of a decade, this one was gonna be violent. Right? The match starting with a collar and elbow tie up and the resulting “regular TV match” dashed any hopes of that. Two premier talents of this generation, embroiled in one of the most personal feuds of the decade, at a show dedicated to violent gimmicks, had a regular ole’ match with almost no heat behind it and received “this is boring” chants.

Something isn’t right there, and it isn’t the performers’ athletic talents. It’s heartening (if disconcerting) that WWE has recognized that their flagship show hasn’t been all that fun to watch lately. Whether they’ve learned the right lessons from this whole debacle, however, is another question entirely.

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