WWE’s decision to make Raw a permanent three hour show was met with mixed reaction among the so called “universe” of fans. Older fans mocked the expansion with comparisons to the bloated three hour episodes of WCW Monday Nitro. Some expressed concern that the product–being the only major Pro Wrestling show in town, in an era very much post-90’s boom–would be overexposed and stretched thin. Indeed those fears were realized when Smackdown was gutted and turned into a glorified WCW Thunder; its exclusive talent was brought over to supplement Raw. Others worried about viewer fatigue with having 8pm-11pm broadcasts weekly.
All of those concerns were legitimate and most of them were revealed to be well-founded, but the real drawback to three hour RAWs wasn’t even realized until months into the change. For years, WWE’s main programming consisted of a duo of independent, 2-hour shows, building up to a three hour, combined super show, one Sunday a month. With “only” two hours a week, four weeks a month, to tell your story, writers were forced to work in constant crunch time. There was a frantic pace to the shows; and on the occasions where that pace was lacking the show obviously suffered for it, and “creative” was forced to get their butts in gear once again. All of the programming was building toward the three hour PPV events when the best talent available was given plenty of time to work their matches. On Raw/Smackdown, those feuds featured matches, but usually they were condensed heavily, usually featuring non-finishes and other gimmicks to tease the fans along toward the pay off one Sunday a month.
That all changed when Raw moved to three hours and soon after settled into its groove for how to manage the new format. RAW became something it had never been before. In the early years, it was a show featuring B-stars (with occasional appearances by the top talent) working average-lengthed matches. In the Attitude Era, the best talent on hand was seen weekly, usually in talking segments, whereas the matches they were involved in where usually lightning quick and rarely ever decisive. In the days of the brand split, Raw became an amalgam of the previous two eras: The undercard worked good matches, while the top stars cut promos. Once the show moved to three hours, it developed a new identity: Weekly Pay-Per-View.
With so much airtime to fill, RAW has become the place where top stars worked 10-15 minute matches. It’s become the show where the lower card guys have 6-10 minute matches. More often than not these fights have pinfall finishes. Sure, there is usually some measure of shenanigan or interference that leads to the pin, but its still a “finish.” In between those average-lengthed matches is usually a backstage segment or an in-ring promo, or a hype video getting fans revved up for an upcoming fight. In other words, Raw has become a typical WWE B-PPV in the late 2000’s era.
It’s no wonder why PPV buyrates tanked in the last few years of the pre-WWE Network era. Why pay 60 dollars to watch Babyface-A take on Heel-B when both of them spend the majority of their “feud” wrestling each other on Raw four weeks straight?
Now, with the advent of the WWE Network, fans only have to pay one-sixth of the price. But again: Why spend even 10 dollars to watch a fight when WWE can’t help but show it on RAW at least once in the month leading up to it? The novelty of seeing two guys not lay a hand on each other finally fighting “for the first time” is still a money-making one, even if it is a feud that has been done in the past. WWE’s general fanbase typically live in the moment (thanks to conditioning by WWE creative). It didn’t matter that we’d seen Brock vs Cena two years ago in an equally high profile match. The fact that they went this entire month with barely even a staredown only added to the desire to see what would happen when the bell finally rang to start the fight.
And that takes us to SummerSlam, a show that was an unquestionable home run for the WWE. What made it stand out from every other show since WrestleMania 30 (the first show on the Network) was a feeling that set it apart from the other three hour shows we get every week. It wasn’t the high profile matches or the length of the contests or the three titles being defended; what made SummerSlam “feel” so special was the outcome of the matches.
Look at the list of winners last night: Dolph Ziggler, Paige, Rusev, Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Stephanie McMahon, Brock Lesnar. Each of those represent either an NXT guy or a favorite of the smart crowd. The only one I didn’t mention was Seth Rollins since both he and Ambrose are so beloved right now, I don’t know anyone who was upset with the finish of that instant-classic match.
This was the first PPV that felt like a WWE Network event, and not a same-ole-PPV event that just happened to be on the WWEN. What I mean by that is, in PPV’s past, conventional wisdom usually reigned. In PPVs past, AJ would have defeated Paige, even though there’s no progression of the storyline with AJ retaining. In PPVs past, Miz would have beaten Ziggler, because he’s the Miz and Dolph is Dolph. In PPV’s past, Swagger would have gotten an unneeded win over Rusev and the Bulgarian/Russian would have seen his push stymied.
Those are the kind of Vince McMahon/Kevin Dunn-approved fan-frustrating-finishes that killed ratings and murdered buyrates in the era of 3-hour Raws; the kinds of finishes that make fans tweet “WWE hates its audience.”
Then the WWE Network came along, and with it NXT, a show where storylines are (more) logical, continuity is king, women wrestle with the same legitimacy as men, characters thrive and workrate is supreme. It’s not just the show with the stars of the future, it’s the SHOW of the future: It’s a weekly, one hour sneak peak at a Triple H/Stephanie run WWE. AND IT IS AWESOMESAUCE!
SummerSlam was NXT cranked up to 11. Who won at SummerSlam? Fan favorite Dolph Ziggler. The “right” winner in Paige. The “fan-preferred” (even if a heel) winner in Stephanie and Lesnar. It wasn’t about “just the babyfaces” winning or “just the heels” winning; you can’t sustain a monthly super-show where heels always lose (just like WCW couldn’t sustain their PPV business where heels were almost always booked to win). There has to be a balance between heel and faces winning, but there doesn’t need to be a balance with guys fans love (whether heel or face) winning and losing. That doesn’t make good business sense.
What was great about Summerslam was the fact that the matches, from top to bottom had “our guys” winning; it was about seeing the wrestlers whom the fans prefer and are passionate about, getting spotlight matches and decisive victories. Ziggler got that, Paige got that, Wyatt got that (not that Jericho isn’t beloved, but fans clearly preferred a Wyatt victory last month and this month), Lesnar certainly got that.
Look at the 8-match card at Summerslam 2014 and find the filler match. Every contest had a proper feud building up to it. Ziggler and Miz were given mic time, face time and in ring time (but not against each other). Paige and AJ had a real blood feud going, as did Rusev and Swagger. The uppercard was loaded with well-developed feuds. The result? A show that had the Staples Center crowd (infamous for being hit-or-miss with their reactions) on its feet and LOUD all night long. They were invested in every single match and the weakest match of the bunch featured an always beloved Dolph Ziggler winning when no one gave him a chance; and that was the opening contest! Talk about laying out a card just right.
Look at the main event: Cena and Lesnar barely had any facetime, they didn’t even touch each other before the bell sounded on Sunday. But the fight was as hyped as any title fight since Cena vs Punk in 2011. If Lesnar is going to take the title on hiatus with him, this SummerSlam build up was a great trial-run for how to build to the next Lesnar title defense. Video packages, dueling promos between challenger and Heyman, a staredown on the gohome show and a fight on the WWE Network.
If WWE wants the Network to succeed, they need a reason for their faithful fanbase to pull the trigger and subscribe (and resubscribe). They need more PPVs like Summerlam; events that have the quality current subscribers have come to love about NXT. If WWE is to continue their three hour Raw format, and they certainly are, they would do well in following the template used to build up SummerSlam: Feuds were nurtured, matches weren’t overexposed on free TV, time was given to each contest and fans who paid (even or only) ten dollars were rewarded by seeing their favorites get the “W.”
This show felt like a Triple H production. This show made me feel like tweeting “WWE loves its audience.”
More of that please.