I’m currently training a newly rescued 3 year old chocolate lab. He’s the sweetest thing; calm (almost too calm for a labrador) and submissive, knows how to sit and is learning how to lay down. He doesn’t poop or pee indoors (when I’m home) and doesn’t tug the leash on walks. He’s almost perfect.
Except for a serious case of separation anxiety.
If I leave the room, he follows. Even if I stand up from my recliner, Charlie sits up from what I had assumed was a deep sleep just to see if I plan on going to the kitchen. Before I even open the fridge, there he is, sitting in the doorway “just checkin on me.” Don’t get me started on what happens when I leave for work. 5 minutes alone and Charlie goes bananas; poop and pee on the floor, doorways chewed up, scratches on the walls. It’s insane.
Naturally I googled what to do to help my beloved dog. Naturally the googles do nothing. You see, there really isn’t a cure for separation anxiety (at least not the severe kind), so when I open a dozen websites that say “treating” or “overcoming” or “solving” or “dealing with” you can imagine my disappointment when I read them only to find 75% of the article deals with “why” my dog has separation anxiety. I KNOW WHY NOW HELP ME FIX IT! But they can’t so they waste 5 minutes of my time just telling me ABOUT the problem.
I said all that to say this: Smackdown has a problem. Now let’s talk about why it has a problem.
When you look at the history of the blue brand, you can basically condense it into four eras.
BLUE RAW (1999-2002)
The “oval” set
Debuting in mid-1999 at the height of the Attitude Era, Smackdown was a new–and logical–next step for pro-wrestling on TV. Keep in mind that the primary competition of the WWF, World Championship Wrestling, had been running WCW Thunder on Thursday as far back as January of 1998, almost 2 years ahead of WWF, but Thunder featured mostly B-list superstars, little storyline advancement and poor ratings compared to Nitro.
Smackdown, on the other hand, aired on free TV (albeit UPN), as opposed to Thunder’s TBS airing. Smackdown saw the same A-list superstars that populated Raw appear every Thursday night. Austin, Undertaker, Rock, Triple H, Mankind, everyone who was big on Raw was there for the viewers on Smackdown. Ratings were lower than Raw, but percentage-wise, WWF retained a larger share of their Monday night audience than WCW did.
WWF took full advantage of late-week broadcast. Before Smackdown, the go-home show was on Raw, a full six days before the PPV. With Smackdown, they could run the last-minute hype packages, stare-downs and pull-apart brawls only three days before the PPV. When business was booming, Smackdown was essentially RAW on Thursday nights. The only major knock against it was the fact that it was a taped broadcast, meaning internet fans (the first smarks of the internet age) knew what would happen a couple days before it did; we still tuned in, however, because the antics were so crazy. Smackdown’s peak in this era was probably the road to WrestleMania 17, as it featured Rock and Austin proverbially circling each other like lions ready to pounce. Their promos, matches (either separately or tagging up), chemistry and tension from January-March 2001 made Smackdown even more must-watch than it had ever been.
The “big fist” set
In 2002 the WWE, now flush with talent acquired from WCW’s buyout and ECW’s collapse, and lacking any measure of competition, decided to fabricate their own “pro wrestling war” by splitting the talent into two groups, with one competing solely on RAW and the other exclusively for Smackdown. Other than sharing PPV’s and the occasional special “inter-brand” match, the two shows and their rosters would remain distinct (an annual draft and occasional trades would reshuffle the deck and allow new rivalries to develop). Paul Heyman was put in charge as head writer of Smackdown, and though he only held the job for a year, his impact and vision for the Blue-Brand shaped the show into the preferred Wrestling Program for at least its initial three years.
While RAW was built around Triple H as the featured attraction, top heel, and nigh-unconquerable champion, Smackdown spread the love around to a bevy of superstars. In a lot of ways, the idea for “two competing brands” almost worked too well in these early years; fans grew frustrated with seeing the same old stuff on RAW: Monday night featured aging superstars, villains who always got the upper hand, better midcard talent being held back…essentially it was WCW 2.0. Smackdown on the other hand had compelling, dramatic storytelling, wrestlers of different sizes, histories and styles, working all over the card. Pushes were given to guys who were popular, regardless of factors that typically worked against them in the WWF of yesteryear…essentially it was ECW 2.0. Take away the obscene violence and shock vulgarity, and Smackdown during the time when Paul Heyman had influence, was the spiritual successor to the beloved counter-culture Wrestling Company.
Whereas Raw was the “sports entertainment” show, where a 10 minute promo mattered more than a 10 minute match, Smackdown was the “wrestling” show, featuring the Smackdown Six (a handful of super talented performers like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Rey Mysterio, and others) who put on incredible matches every week. When Heyman was forced out, his vision remained but diminished over time as JBL took the spotlight at held the WWE Championship for almost a year.
The first “HD” set
As Raw’s ratings declined and the show was moved from TNN/Spike back to USA, Vince and co. knew they needed heavy hitters to bring in and keep the viewers invested in the Monday Night cash cow. John Cena was the hottest thing going at the time and though his title win at WrestleMania 21 was secondary to Batista’s, it was clear which of the new “new faces” was the future “Face” of the company. Cena was traded to Raw and soon after Batista moved to Smackdown, marking the biggest example of “poaching” from Smackdown to Raw to date. It was a decision that was easily repeated; as Raw became the place for the top superstars of today, Smackdown naturally became the place for top superstars of tomorrow. As those talents blossomed and their fan-following grew, they were plucked from Fridays (the show moved days in 2005) to Monday’s, giving fans the impression that Smackdown was a glorified farm league, with only a few staple veterans kept to work with the new guys (specifically Undertaker and Rey Mysterio, who anchored Smackdown almost throughout the entire brand split).
During this period, Smackdown solidified itself as the little brother to Raw. Whereas it had been viewed almost equally with Raw in the early years of the brand split, by this point it was simply there to give their surplus talent something to do. Smackdown regularly featured videos detailing the happenings on Raw, but almost never did Raw mention what happened on Smackdown. If you only watched RAW you would almost never know that Smackdown existed.
If you watched the show, however, you’d see it be the home of great feuds like Eddie Guerrero vs Rey Mysterio, Edge v Undertaker and Jeff Hardy v CM Punk. Long after Paul Heyman’s time, Smackdown was still the place where you were guaranteed 2 hours of good wrestling, which was not a promise on Monday nights. Still, this was the era where WWE cared little about promoting the show, and they trained the fans to care little about checking it out.
The current “HD” set
As old talent was leaving faster than new talent was coming in, both brands found themselves stretched pretty thin. The biggest draw back to the brand split was the crippling of the tag team division. When the split first happened, most of the top teams were split up and forced to go solo. In the years that followed, both brands formed their own tag belts but neither had enough teams to really maintain a “division.” Another obvious sign of the thin roster depth was the annual Elimination Chamber matches. RAW usually had enough superstars to fill the chamber, but Smackdown’s match often looked woeful. Talent that had no business being in a title match or a number one contenders bout were forced to compete just to fill a body in the six-man contest. Around this time, talent from Smackdown would occasionally and inexplicably appear on Raw to supplement the thin roster.
In 2011 the company announced that Raw was being re-branded as a “Supershow” featuring talent from both brands. This did not actually end the brand split as Raw talent rarely if ever appeared on Smackdown. Eventually, however, any independence that Smackdown had was gone and after the merger of the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships (with the champion rarely appearing on Smackdown), the brand split essentially was allowed to quietly fizzle out. Raw moved to three hours in 2012 and Smackdown turned into WWE’s version of Thunder: Its the blue show were the B-stars (and occasional A-lister) show up to play, but nothing really happens of not; storylines aren’t progressed and whatever happens there is hardly even acknowledged come Monday night.
In light of Smackdown’s devolution, fans have argued for a return of the brand split, but for reasons to be discussed next, that is not a viable solution. What Smackdown needs is not its own brand; it simply needs to give the fans a reason to watch. What Smackdown needs is a reason for being.
What can be done? See page 2…