The past present and future of Monday Night Raw

Factoid: Shawn Michaels has now been away longer than when he was first forced out of action after WrestleMania 14.

Does that seem right? He left after the 1998 WrestleMania and returned for SummerSlam 2002. Essentially he was gone for 4 1/2 years. After a brilliant seven years he retired at the 2010 WrestleMania. Had he come back at SummerSlam 2014 it would have equaled his previous time away. Here we are approaching the 2015 WrestleMania event where he’ll mark five years gone.

Doesn’t it seem like, when he returned from his first hiatus, that a lifetime had passed in the interim? And that’s with his occasional appearances as Commissioner. If he were to come back now, he could slip right back in without missing a beat. He could even resume a lot of his old feuds. In fact there have only been a small number of superstars to climb the ladder in his absence.

If that isn’t an indictment on the past several years of WWE programming, I don’t know what is.

The landscape of WWF programming changed dramatically after HBK first took time off. New superstars debuted and made an impact seemingly every few months. New, first time champions were crowned, new feuds captivated the landscape of pro wrestling and the entire creative approach of the company was altered considerably from the days when Michaels was WWF champion. Keep in mind that HBK left while the Attitude Era was just starting to blossom, nevertheless the hard edge, risqué formula was already in full swing. It was in its dying days when he returned in 2002, but was still the same hard edge TV-14 show that he left. Yet it felt like he was stepping into a whole new playground because so much had changed.

A 2015 return would see Michaels come back to a WWE landscape dominated by John Cena, Randy Orton and Triple H (though a part-timer). Yes there is some new blood on the scene (the three individual members of the Shield, Bray Wyatt and of course, Daniel Bryan), but those who carried the show a decade ago are still doing that today. The same stale Monday night product is still around. A fan who left the product in 2010 and then came back today would return to the same lack of originality, consistency and continuity. Everything that made the product hard to watch back then would still be en vogue and the same problems that made RAW and Smackdown so stale would still be around today, albeit with an even longer RAW to have to sit through.

The fact is television has changed over the years, and where once Vince McMahon was leading the charge in changing the landscape of TV, he now seems content with coasting on the same tired formula that he settled on almost a decade ago.

So how has RAW fallen into such mediocrity? Let’s start at the beginning and chart its course through television history…

RAW debuted as a uniquely-formated show. It replaced the old Prime Time Wrestling show that aired Monday nights on USA. PTW was filmed with a studio backdrop, the way all pro wrestling shows were presented. Monday Night RAW was–in keeping with it’s name–designed to be less sterile and more unpredictable. Even though it aired on tape-delay, it was filmed in front of a live audience. That change immediately set it apart from the competition, and put it on the path to be the longest running and most successful live show in TV history. Even though it was a time when the WWF was struggling and its popularity was a fraction of what it almost a decade prior, the uniqueness of RAW gave Vince an edge, not only over other Wrestling programs, but over other cable shows as well.

It would not be long before the cartoony characters and cheesy production would wear thin on viewers. WCW debuted Nitro in the fall of 1995, less than two years after RAW premiered, and for the next 17 weeks (from Nitro’s premiere to the last Monday of 1995), Nitro scored ten outright ratings victories over RAW. Only five times did RAW win the ratings battle head to head in 1995 (the two shows tied twice in a row in early October). And this was before the invasion of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash and the eventual formation of the nWo.

Scott Hall first appeared on Nitro in 1996, during the May 27th episode. It was the 22nd episode of the year. The previous 21 had seen RAW climb back to competitiveness against Nitro. Through the WWF only won 4 of the first 13 episodes of the year, RAW went on a springtime tear and won the next nine Monday nights, including the week that Hall debuted. The week after Hall debuted, Nitro won. The next week was won by RAW, and then then Kevin Nash debuted on Nitro in partnership with Hall, and Nitro would not lose another Monday night battle until April of 1997. In fact RAW only won the head to head battle five times in all of 1997. WCW’s gritty, young adult-driven storylines were bringing in viewers, while the family-oriented programming on RAW was sinking like a rock.

Forced to either adapt or perish, Vince adapted. RAW embraced the element of attitude that was bubbling under the surface of the WWF in 1997. With Steve Austin as its spokesman, the Attitude Era kicked off the next period of WWF success. Austin, however, was only the crown jewel of RAW’s resurgence. Below him was a whole new cast of characters, still as over-the-top as ever, but now with an edgier makeover. The Rock, Mick Foley, a demonic version of the Undertaker, DX and others rounded out and jam-packed a can’t miss RAW every Monday night. RAW won 29 head-to-head battles in 1998, with Nitro only mustering one six-week stretch of victories after WrestleMania.

RAW in the Attitude Era played off of the popular “anything can happen” craze of shock-TV made famous by acts such as Jerry Springer. This so-called Crash TV style didn’t make much room for in-ring action, but it did bring plenty of must-see excitement. Fans would tune in to episodes, see the most outlandish and unexpected happenings, and then call friends who had never watched RAW before, demanding that they see it for themselves. The classic “This is your life” sketch between Rock and Mick Foley was infamous for increasing viewership as it was playing out (well past the allotted time that Vince had given it). Fans were calling the poor saps who were watching Nitro (or nothing at all) and were bringing over new eyeballs to the product; eyeballs that would remain week after week.

RAW did not lose a head-to-head battle with Nitro once in 1999 (when comparing the final ratings of show vs. show). It did not lose a head-to-head battle with Nitro once in 2000 or in 2001. The March 26, 2001 edition of Nitro was the first time the show had scored at least a 3.0 rating since September. It was also the final broadcast of the show. Vince had ridden his unpredictable show, with its loaded roster of stars, to the very top of the industry. RAW was not just the dominate sports entertainment show, it was frequently the most watched show in all of cable TV and garnered consistent ratings that would make network TV shows envious.

With their primary competition out of the way, the company coasted for the rest of the 2000’s. Ratings fell and fell, and as Attitude Era stars retired or moved on to other endeavors, fans of the Attitude Era left as well. The show had moved from USA to TNN (later renamed Spike) in September of 2000 (which slashed potential viewers and kept the show from ever again achieving a 6.0 rating) but even with the 2005 return to USA and the additional viewers that could access that channel, the show never regained steam. The rise of John Cena stabilized viewership and kept the ship from sinking further, but his star power is not comparable to Austin or Rock. RAW went from a show that used to get 7.0 and 6.0 ratings, to a show that was happy with 4.0 ratings.

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Once again faced with an adapt or die moment, the decision was made to introduce the next paradigm shift in WWE programming. In 2008 the company announced that all broadcasts would adhere to a TV-PG standard. This move not only would remove the more gratuitous features that were keeping advertisers away, it would also mean the end of the occasional blood-spillage in the midst of a heated contest, and the dumbing down of storylines to appeal to a new, younger demographic. John Cena, already the face of the WWE (playing the role of a chain-wielding, no nonsense, street thug), would evolve into a more PG-friendly character (happy, jokey John who fights for you and never gives up, etc).

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The biggest effect that the change to PG has caused to WWE programming, is the stagnation of the product. Without direct competition, and with a younger, less hardcore, target audience, the show’s pace has slowed considerably. Because of this, WWE has conditioned its audience to accept that very little events of substance happen on a week to week basis. And what things of importance that due happen are usually announced well ahead of time, and usually occur at the top of one of the three (!) hours. Fans have no reason to watch from beginning to end; they just tune in, see the big event, and tune out.

Coasting has caught up with Vince. He likes to say that WWE has never competed with other wrestling shows, because WWE is a “sports entertainment” company, and thus his programs compete against other “entertainment” shows. Even though that’s a crock–and the lack of creative urgency since WCW went under is proof of that–let’s humor that thought.

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WWE says they are competing against all other shows on TV. If that’s the case they are very much behind the times. Despite the fact that RAW is a long running show, with no off-season or break in the storytelling, the shows are more “episodic” than ever. Back in the days of the Attitude Era, the saga of Austin vs. McMahon was a long-running storyline. A fan needed to tune in every week to see the next chapter, which slowly built toward a monthly game-changing PPV, and then reset the table the next night, as the overall story continued to be unfolded. This was novel on television, as in those days, shows were usually much more episodic. A viewer could tune in to a show on TBS or NBC or FOX and watch an episode, follow the story, and tune out for months without worrying about needing to catch up on weeks and weeks of backstory.

Today, shows have evolved to being much more serialized. Shows have large season-wide arcs that require devout audience participation in order to fully appreciate the story being unfolded. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad became major hits because they took viewers on a months-long rides, and demanded weekly attention. And because of the quality of the writing, they got it. What’s interesting is in the case those shows in particular (which were, in their days, among the most critically acclaimed shows in their genres), is that the week-to-week stories still stood on their own; they only needed to adhere to a very broad concept. The twists and turns of the arcs were written and rewritten on the fly. Big plot twists that came to define the show were–by the creators’ own admissions–thought up randomly and inserted. The ideas worked because the big picture was never altered; the creators had enough confidence in their original ideas to stick with them and just play around with the ideas that grew off of them.

Vince McMahon used to adhere to a big picture idea. The booking of WrestleMania IV and V is probably the most famous example, and one of the few in which the original idea was followed through without a big rewrite. The idea of the story is simple and broad: “Savage wins his first world title, teams up with Hogan, grows paranoid and jealous and then turns on him, leading to Hogan winning the title back the next year.” That’s a great story, and it’s “big picture” enough that all the little details can be played around with and altered on the fly.

Today Vince has lost control over himself. He no longer has the restraint to let a big picture idea be carried through to completion. Instead of writing and rewriting all the adjacent elements as needed, he throws the whole baby out with the bathwater and rewrites the book from scratch. This leads to a weekly RAW that doesn’t know where it’s going, because the captain of the ship keeps changing his mind. As a result the shows are more episodic and fragmented instead of serialized pieces of a larger puzzle, the way the biggest shows on TV are presented (Mad Men, Better Call Saul, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Where once was a show that pioneered the TV landscape, now is a show that is far behind the times.

Better Call Saul, the prequel show to Breaking Bad, recently premiered on AMC. Breaking Bad used to air on Sunday nights, offering WWE competition only one week a month.  Better Call Saul, however, is aired on Monday nights. Its one hour show overlaps with RAW’s second hour and in so doing has crushed RAW’s total viewership every Monday since it debuted. For the show’s second week on the air, Better Call Saul was the number 1 program on cable. RAW was number 3.

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WWE insiders are said to view the show like the NFL or the occasional big Monday event like a national championship or an awards show; semi-occasional things that are just going to eat into RAW every now and then. After all, Better Call Saul only has a ten-episode order for the first season, and a thirteen episode order is planned for next year. That’s–at worst–only a quarter of the weeks RAW is on the air each year.

But since when did Vince start conceding viewers? He had direct brand competition in the Monday Night Wars and he didn’t concede anything; the ratings were triple what they are now, as well. Not to mention in those days there was a much stronger lineup of network TV shows to draw viewers.

The fact is WWE doesn’t give viewers a reason to tune in every Monday night the way they used to. It used to be “I have to watch RAW because anything can happen on RAW” and that meant “Something always happens on RAW, I just don’t know what it will be this week!” Whereas today the saying is: “I might tune in to watch RAW, because something might happen on RAW.”

Remember a few months ago when The Rock suddenly showed up to talk smack to Rusev? That came out of nowhere, right? That sort of shock used to occur weekly, thus the fans tuned in weekly. Now it’s not even a big deal because those who missed The Rock’s return could catch it online the next morning.

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Nowadays RAW is 70% skippable. It’s important to tune into the show after a PPV, and it’s important to check out the last segment of the go-home show before a PPV, but the 2 & 3/4 shows in between are totally pointless unless you are a diehard fan. Nothing happens in the middle. They set up the feuds for the next PPV in week one, have the big collision on week four, but weeks two an three just feature the guys in the feud doing the same thing over and over. In week one a feud is set up because the heel causes the face a match (usually by distracting him, causing his opponent to get a surprise rollup for the win), the next week, the face causes the heel a match, the next week the heel causes the face a match (always a match against the same opponent, mind you), and in week four they come to blows and point fingers at each other while the announcers hype their PPV match to settle the feud.

That’s not cutting edge TV. That’s not must-see TV. That’s boring. There are an average of 12 hours of RAW between each PPV. But when only two and a half of them are necessary to watch, you’re not giving your fans any reason to tune in. All the pertinent info can be gleaned online or in between commercials of Better Call Saul.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the late 80’s/early 90’s biggest hits on TV. It relied on a heavily episodic format that saw the crew of the Enterprise journey to a new planet or meet a new alien race, or deal with a new intergalactic problem every week. A viewer can watch almost any episode at random and, apart from the age of the crew and some minor fashion changes, have no idea in which season the episode originally aired. The next Star Trek show to air on TV was Star Trek: Deep Space 9. This show took an entirely different approach to storytelling. Instead of a ship on a journey, it was a spacestation where the aliens visited them. Because of this change, the show had a larger cast of semi-regular characters, which allowed for more character development and longer-arced storylines. The final three years of the show saw DS9 evolve into a totally serialized format, as a galaxy-wide war broke out. The serialized nature gripped the audience’s attention and viewership until the very end. Running alongside DS9 was another Star Trek spinoff: Voyager. Unlike DS9, Voyager returned to The Next Generation’s format of a new story every week. Viewers were turned off and eventually tuned out, as the show felt stale and behind the times. Another attempt at a Star Trek show (Enterprise) followed the same tired formula and was cancelled after only a few years on air.

Vince likes to claim that his show is a pioneer. Indeed it was in the beginning. He likes to claim he was at the forefront of “new television” and indeed the long-form stories told on Monday nights in the Attitude Era were a precursor to the kind of serialized dramatic shows that exist today.

Right now WWE’s flagship program is far from pioneering anything. Right now RAW is the stalwart of the old guard of TV that has been passed over for a new kind of show. If WWE is to reclaim its top spot among TV entertainment programs, it’s going to have to change the way it presents itself: with more urgency every week, more shocks to hold the viewer, more big picture stories, and less 11th hour rewrites.

Maybe then, Monday Night RAW will be able to compete with “all of entertainment” again.

Until then, it’s woefully behind the times.

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