On Raw, NXT and the decline of a must-see TV show.

The past present and future of Monday Night Raw

Raw’s ratings are in the ditch. There’s no good way to spin it.

Viewership is down across the board, enthusiasm for the live product has never been lower and what once was a fanbase annoyed at Raw’s meandering, pointless weekly output has now—at least in large chunks—simply given up to find something new to watch.

I used to speculate that the reason Vince doesn’t do any sort of an off-season is because he relies on the fact that Raw is always on, every Monday, every week. The familiarity and consistency of it breeds a routine that is hard to break. We watch Raw every week because we watch Raw every week. If there came a day when Raw was gone, even for a few months, we’d find something else to watch and might not come back.

That used to be the thing that held fans to the product. Now? Now it seems as though fans are ready to take a break from Raw even if WWE is not. Every week it seems like there is a new “lowest Raw rating since…” to report, and with each week the report gets worse and worse. It started out as “worst Raw rating since x-episode on x-holiday” or “worst Raw rating since the show coincided with x-major event” but now it’s just “worst Raw rating since x-week in 1995.” How long before it is simply “worst Raw rating ever.”

Blame is likely being passed around like Halloween candy and well it should; there’s a lot of little things wrong with Raw right now. But the single biggest problem is simply that it has forgotten what made it so special in the first place. It has forgotten the reason it was named “Raw” in the first place. It’s lost it’s “raw” and gritty “anything can happen” attitude it once had, and has instead become a corporate approved, safe and cookie cutter show.

In many ways it has become the very thing it conquered when it finally and officially bested Monday Nitro in early 2001.

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That’s not to say everything in WWE is at rock bottom. NXT remains the company’s jewel. Its weekly show is always exciting and the old “anything can happen” vibe is alive in well between the yellow ropes. For everything NXT on Wednesday nights is doing right, WWE is doing wrong on Monday’s. What gives? How can one show “get it” so well while the other flounders for so long. Obviously the difference is in the corporate-approved approach to the show, but that’s no excuse. A show either works or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t it needs to revamp. Raw desperately needs to revamp.

The list of balls that WWE has dropped lately could circle the globe. Here are just a few:

They have no fresh babyfaces that can rise to the level of “mainevent draw.” Instead the show features a roster of midcarders, past-their-prime old hats, and fading legends.

There is no energy, no sense of urgency, and nothing driving the show forward segment-by-segment, hour-by-hour, week-by-week. In more ways than one Raw is just three hours of wheel-spinning.

The show’s midcard is a roster of very talented in-ring performers that either have no personality, or have enough of a personality to matter but are fed to the top-card talent as fodder to get the top-card talent over enough to be credible enough to have a short main event run. In other words, they are cannibalizing their future. It’s like fixing a hole in the front of the boat by cutting another hole in the back in order to use that wood to patch the first hole. Either way the ship is going down.

And I hate to turn this into yet another “look at what NXT is doing…” article, because it’s so cliche at this point to say it. But seriously, look at what NXT is doing. Look at the effort they are putting to get new talent over. They have to, because sooner or later the best talent at the moment is going to get called up. They have the same sense of urgency that WWF had when they were at risk of losing talent to WCW.

Now? Raw has no risk. The show is fat and lazy, not unlike later-era WCW. How did it happen where Vince and WWE became WCW, while Triple H and NXT became the old WWF? It couldn’t have been on purpose. It is frequently said that WWE knows what it’s doing with NXT. It’s marketing that show to a particular kind of audience, so naturally guys like me are going to love it. But who are they targeting Raw to? Whoever it is, they’re not tuning in anymore as the ratings show. All that is left watching Raw is the hardcore audience, i.e. “guys like me.”

In the Attitude Era, WCW and WWF didn’t market their shows to casual audiences. They fought over the hardcore fans; they guys who tuned into one show and flipped over at the promise of a hot angle or big match. The casual fans didn’t care, but they got suckered in because the enthusiasm among the hardcore fans was palpable. Appealing to the drive by viewers is foolishness, but it’s been WWE’s biggest problem since going PG.

~~~~~

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Raw needs an entire, ground-up, reconfiguration. It can’t keep relying on the same old hands anymore. After ten years Cena is a full-time legend. He can lose ten times in a row to a midcarder and still walk out onto some random Raw and start a world title feud, and no one would bat an eye. So why is he still going over guys like Kevin Owens and Rusev (this year’s big John Cena feuds)? Rusev beat him in February, so Cena went over in March, April and May. Owens went over him in June, so Cena beat him in June and July. Seth Rollins–the current top champion in the company–got a dirty win over him in August, and then spent the rest of the summer and early autumn getting beaten in non-WWE title matches. Why does Cena need such protecting? Cena is bullet proof. That’s just one example of how myopic the thinking is. The show is still stuck in 2009 and viewers are tired of it.

Why is it, as the ratings continued to crater, Vince thought what we needed was a Kane feud for the WWE title? Something is wrong with the company’s entire thought process when a decision like that is even suggested, much less followed through on. Don’t even get me started on wasting a Brock Lesnar match on Big Show last month.

It’s not hard to see why these decisions are being made: Vince is panicking so his solution is to put the company back on the shoulders of the old guard. He’s scared to give the ball to the young guys in case they flop so he sticks with the old reliable hands. He’s scared to take a risk, but also has no competitive pressure to take one either.

~~~~~

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So what can be done to “fix” Raw? Let me just offer one thing, though many more could be said. Right now, Raw lacks that one central babyface that the casual fan can relate to and the hardcore fan can support. That’s not to say one isn’t on the roster, but there isn’t one being pushed.

Seth Rollins is the champ and he’s a heel. So who is the babyface he’s feuding with that’s supposed to capture my attention? Kane? John Cena? Roman Reigns? Roman is the next one up, and while his responses have been so much better than they were at the start of this year, he still lacks the natural charisma on the mic that a top babyface needs to carry the show.

This is maybe the biggest area where the modern show fails and where the Attitude Era succeeded. The Attitude Era had one central story that concerned the main event. There was a clearly defined heel antagonist and babyface protagonist. The rest of the show was an undercard of entertaining gimmick-acts, each with their own well-defined characters and motivations, feuds and storylines. But while the midcard was well-defined, the bread and butter of the show was Austin vs McMahon and later Rock vs McMahon/Helmsley. There was “one story” that you could follow. The rest of the show was a collection of sideshow acts to keep you entertained in the meantime.

Granted, NXT doesn’t have a single protagonist/antagonist storyline right now either, but the nature of that show is different. On NXT you only see certain stars once or twice a month so there isn’t one story that carries the show but two or three.

Still, whether it’s two or three or one big one, a show needs something to hook the viewer and right now Raw has none of it.

And if nothing changes, Raw won’t just have record low ratings for Raw, it’ll have low ratings period. And then it won’t be Vince, but USA Network that will have a decision to make…

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