Last week, this writer compared a Raw-only PPV from December 2003 (Armageddon) with the content of WWE television – as a whole – in 2010. I concluded that currently, the product offered by WWE lacks the excitement, dynamism and spontaneity of even a middling WWE event from almost seven years ago. Here’s the thing: I was right. Currently, WWE television is generally unwatchable. I haven’t personally enjoyed a WWE show in over a year, and I think the product is dreadful. The presentation is splendid and the production values are always top-notch, but this is all sadly irrelevant in the wake of the ultimate truth: WWE doesn’t care about its actual fans anymore…
The one thing that used to set WWE apart from its rivals was the (sometimes misguided) viewpoint that theoretically speaking, anyone could achieve stardom if the fans willed it to happen. Rob Van Dam was loathed by his peers and deemed untrustworthy by senior management, yet in 2001 when the fresh and exciting RVD burst onto the scene and brimmed with popular support, WWE pushed him because it was the will of the people – the dumb and misguided proletariat who have propelled Vince McMahon into his infrequent billionaire status.
Of course it would be naïve to think that popularity alone can keep a performer in the spotlight. To wit, RVD found himself the victim of Triple H’s wanton chicanery at Hunter’s earliest convenience, and over the course of his six-year association with WWE Van Dam’s push could be quite accurately described as sporadic. However, without the constant affection and support of the fans, that push would have been terminated years earlier.
Something has changed. Somewhere and somehow, someone convinced Vince McMahon that the risks of remaining open to the public’s discretion were just too great. Do not for one solitary second believe that the “PG-13” shift and the interminable “WWE Universe” moniker are anything other than the nakedly political priorities of an empire that has lost its nerve. Where once expansion and advancement was the order of the day, WWE has become utterly obsessed with retaining its own, always-diminishing market share at the permanent expense of entertainment. Creatively speaking, WWE is shrinking to the point that only the most rudimentary of tastes can be sated by the drivel on offer. John Cena’s fan club, basically…
In the interests of addressing an accusation that was levelled at me last week, at no point have I implied that WWE business is “down”. Truth be told, WWE remains a phenomenal business model that has consistently withstood the perils of a recession and the ebb and flow of popular entertainment. No, my argument has always been that this achievement has come at the expense of entertainment value and the willingness to trust the whims of the public in uncertain times. As an aside, I’m sure it would be churlish of me to question just how much of a debt this loving paean to capitalism owes to the willingness, on the McMahon’s part, to cull dozens of employees – without a second’s hesitation – from every area of their business at a moment’s notice.
I don’t begrudge anyone their entertainment, and if the current WWE product floats your respective boats, then so be it. However, the disparity in excitement, enthusiasm and energy between the current product and the attitude era is mindboggling. It wasn’t about the blood or the profanity; it was the integrity of storytelling and the honest drive towards advancing those who were worthy of their potential prominence that separates the two time frames. The moment John Bradshaw Layfield ascended to WWE championship status without the fans consent (let alone approval) Vince McMahon changed the rules. Worse wrestlers than JBL held titles in the past whilst superior workers have floundered, but they were booked against popular opponents or drew money in their own right. JBL had no moneymaking track record to speak of. He was made champion on the capricious whim of Vince McMahon and nobody else.
I am personally amazed how much has apparently changed in WWE. Before Kurt Angle became WWF/E champion for the first time, his progress was evaluated step-by-step as he climbed the ranks. He held European and Intercontinental honours and became King of the Ring as his profile rose to encompass bigger and better opponents and feuds. By the time his moment arrived, Angle was perceived by the fans as being worthy of championship status. There was a narrative and an upward curve they could follow and logically grasp. Essentially speaking, it made sense. Juxtapose this with the veritable thrusting of championship status upon the ill-prepared likes of Sheamus and Jack Swagger. Swagger, in particular, was jobbing to all and sundry on Superstars prior to his winning Money in the Bank at Wrestlemania XXVI. Successful business model or not, that is lazy, incompetent storytelling.
Attempting to look on some sort of bright side, the rise and rise of The Miz has been a textbook example of how WWE used to do business. Gradually rising through the ranks and refining his hugely entertaining, egocentric persona, his progress towards stardom has been organic and natural, and the fans now perceive Miz as a genuine, credible title contender. Seriously boys and girls, the difference is phenomenal, and when Miz reaches the stratosphere, this adherence to a logical process of development will provide Miz with at least a reasonable chance of permanent stardom.
In many ways, the creative torpor afflicting WWE is about paranoia. WWE is so terrified of forfeiting what it has that arrogance and isolationist thinking has crept in, and where once there existed the drive to thrill the fans, it has in many ways turned towards pissing them off. This all centres around proving Vince McMahon and his minions correct in their drive to recreate the WWE into an industry that micromanages everything, including its fan base. When Cactus Jack used headlocks to bore the ECW fans to tears in 1995, the intention was to illustrate the extent to which fans undervalued the sacrifice of the performers. It was more than the spoiling tactics of a preening show pony too fragile to handle the rigours of his slave master’s regimen.
Sadly for Vince (and his beloved daughter), you ignore the majority at your peril. Whilst the lowest common denominators (those Cena fans again) revel in the identikit boredom of WWE television, the rest are turning away in droves, as the across the board decline in all PPV buyrates – Wrestlemania included – strongly attests. Indeed, the pet project of “gimmicking” the various shows to make them more attractive (apparently) has just produced the second poorest drawing show in the modern era. Still watching? I guess that’s the question of our times, and the answer may not be to anyone’s liking…
Daniel R. Browne.