Because everyone should make New Year’s Resolutions, even billion dollar entertainment empires, this is your official list of New Year’s Resolutions: WWE Edition. What things do Vince and co. need to focus on this year in order to better their product in 2016. At times WWE programming is magical, and its those times that keep us even somewhat interested during the times when the product is abysmal. As the old saying goes, wrestling is usually garbage, but when it’s good it’s amazing. Here are three things WWE can easily do to be less garbage and more amazing.
HAVE A PLAN FOR THE MIDCARD
Not to turn this into a “the Attitude Era was better, because….” sort of thing, because I fully admit the many flaws of the Attitude Era. The wrestling was usually poor and little-focused on, the storylines were embarrassing in their crudeness, and little of it is worth looking back on fondly. But if there’s one thing I wish WWE would do, that they did so well in the Attitude Era, it would be the attention they gave every performer on the roster. Back in those days if you were not using a talent, they were probably soon to get an offer from WCW to jump ship. Not only that, but the Monday Night Wars were so competitive that both sides viewed every quarter hour as a life and death battle that had to be won. There was no opportunity for filler because the second you had a boring segment or a go-nowhere quarter hour, those viewers were hopping over to see what Nitro was up to.
Because of that, every part of the show had a purpose. The main storyline usually was given three or four segments in the two hour+ (nine quarter-hours) broadcast, but the midcard was also focused on. Every midcard act had a gimmick, a purpose, an angle and a goal. Talent like Godfather, the APA, and Kane—performers nowhere near the main event storyline and who rarely had any titles they were challenging or defending, all had stories and purposes on the show. Raw wasn’t much of a wrestling show back then; it was a variety show with tons of different acts to entertain you for a couple hours each week.
These days Raw is a straight-wrestling show, and even though that sounds like a good thing for the hardcore fans, it has ended up being a bad thing for the more casual viewers. It’s three hours of wall-to-wall in-ring action. That’s repetitive and derivative. Not only that but it’s getting their performers injured at much more alarming rates than in days gone by. Wrestlers today are being asked to wrestle PPV-quality matches on Raw, then again on Smackdown, then again the next week, and the week after and then again on PPV, and then again the next night on Raw, and so on. Not to mention the house show circuit is just as busy as ever. The wear and tear on the wrestler’s bodies is much greater than it used to be.
This year WWE needs to put a greater emphasis on giving their midcard talents storylines and gimmicks. Instead of the same dozen people every week, they need to spread the love around. Right now R-Truth being on my TV screen is cause for me to change the channel, but if he had a purpose for being there (apart from randomly losing to someone who matters), such as a gimmick or a storyline he was involved in, I might hold off on seeing what else is on. WWE used to find creative ways to entertain that didn’t involve the same two guys wrestling for a month straight. This year I hope they put a greater emphasis on the “E” in their name. It would not only make the PPV matches more special, it would also ease up on the wear and tear done to their talent.
MAKE SMACKDOWN MATTER
Smackdown has gone through three phases in its existence. Originally, from 1999 to 2002 it was “more Raw.” The same superstars you enjoyed on Raw—Rock, Austin, Foley, Jericho, etc—you got to see on Thursday nights too. Next came the brand split days, from 2002-2011, when the show had its own roster of superstars, its own writers and its own creative direction. In those days Smackdown was often considered the superior show because the storylines and wrestling were more entertaining and fresh than what was happening on Raw. After years of Vince poaching talent to help keep Raw afloat, he eventually ended the branded split and turned Smackdown into its third iteration: “lesser Raw.” This is the Smackdown we have today. It has few of the major stars you see on Raw and nothing that happens on the show is of any major consequence to the overall WWE universe. Anything important that happens on Smackdown simply gets repeated on the next Raw. Sometimes storylines and angles are simply ignored and Raw continues as though Smackdown didn’t happen. There simply isn’t a reason to watch the show.
WWE has taken steps over the years to try to entice viewers to tune in. They changed networks from CW (formerly UPN) to cable, but they moved it to SyFy, so it wasn’t a slamdunk move. They changed nights from Friday (back to) Thursday. They’ve changed homes again to the same network that—in the United States—carries Raw, USA. And now they’ve started sending bigger named talent over to help boost the ratings. Brock Lesnar is even set to make a few appearances. All of these moves are stunts and don’t offer a clear change in the direction of the show. It’s still “lesser Raw” and until that changes the viewership will remain too low for WWE’s standards.
So what can be done? Unfortunately I don’t think they can return the show to its original format (“more Raw”) and expect to see too much of a viewership spike. Smackdown was a hot show early on because WWE programming in general was hot in those days. People wanted to see more of Steve Austin, more of The Rock, more of Kurt Angle. What can WWE offer today? More of Roman Reigns, more of Kevin Owens, and more of Cesaro—no offense to any of those guys—doesn’t offer the same starpower. If it did Raw’s ratings wouldn’t be in the dumps right now either. Can they bring back the brand-split? They can, but it’s not likely they will. Raw is now a three hour show and they need all the roster they can get to fill it every Monday night. Smackdown was always going to be shafted as a result. So what can they do? There are a few things. They can advertise and push Smackdown as heavily as Smackdown pushes and promotes Raw. They can use Raw to build storylines and use Smackdown as the show where you get to watch the performers compete in matches. They can offer cliffhangers on Raw that are resolved on Smackdown. Any of those three things would make the Blue brand at least something to think about watching. As it is now, the show is inconsequential. That can’t be what WWE or USA wanted when the show changed channels.
BE MORE LIKE NXT
Not to go all “NXT is better, because…” but seriously, NXT is better than Raw in every conceivable way. NXT may only have one third of Raw’s roster but it only airs for one third of Raw’s time every week. It uses its roster and time more effectively than Raw. In every possible way NXT outshines Raw and makes someone like me long for the day when Triple H takes over the booking of Raw. I say that knowing full well that NXT is allowed to exist without a cable network breathing down its neck. It gets to be a pure “pro wrestling” show, while Raw has to be a little more varied in its flavors (although, as said above, it has failed at that too). Still, it’s not just that NXT has better wrestling, because Raw has had some killer matches lately. The real difference between NXT and WWE, and what sets the Yellow brand apart from WWE can be condensed into three areas. These three are things that Raw could easily adopt starting next Monday and the show would instantly be better for it:
MORE ENERGY IN PROMOS
NXT performers aren’t overly scripted. They aren’t forced to stand in front of a huge crowd and recite pages of text written by WWE’s “creative” (term used loosely) department. They stand backstage usually, with a mic in their face and they get their point across simply and effectively. It probably helps that the show is only an hour long, so they have to keep things moving, but again they only have a third of the roster too, so it balances out. NXT promos are 2-3 minute bursts of intensity, not 20 minutes monologues about the state of the WWE. Adopting NXT’s style of promoing would go a long way to keeping fans interested in Raw, because right now people are changing the channel whenever Stephanie McMahon or Roman Reigns picks up a mic.
CONSISTENT STORIES FOR THE DIVAS
In my SO OF COURSE preview of the 2016 Royal Rumble I state that the Becky Lynch vs Charlotte storyline is the best womens feud the main roster has had in years. The reason is simply because it’s logical and not insulting to the women involved. NXT does this all the time and there are still some major problems with the way WWE books its women. On NXT, characters have defined motivations and personalities and the face/heel alignments are instantly known. On WWE, divas change from face to heel sometimes from week to week and rarely with even a storyline reason for the change. Divas are treated like they exist in a parallel dimension where there are no heroes and villains, only catty, jealous men-seekers who hate everyone and have no loyalty to anyone. Paige has changed from face to heel and back to face more times than Big Show. On NXT you know who is good and who is bad. You know what they stand for and who they are feuding with. They are treated like human beings with real people feelings and the show is all the better for it. WWE can upgrade the talent in the divas division, but until they upgrade the booking, it’s still going to be a bathroom break whenever they come out.
NO MORE HOUR BY HOUR BOOKING
Perhaps the biggest problem with Raw is how it feels like everything is happening on the fly and nothing is planned ahead. This is especially true in the spring and summer months, post-WrestleMania. When the Mania high is worn off and the WWE settles in to lower ratings and declined interest it seems like the show takes a nosedive in quality, and the biggest reason is because it seems like the show is booked on, not even a week to week basis but an hour by hour basis. It used to be that major storylines were plotted out a few months at a time and WWE/Vince had the patience to let things play out. On NXT there is still that feeling. It helps, I’m sure, that NXT films a month’s worth of shows at a time. That forces the writers to plot things out. Raw is live so that luxury isn’t available, but still the show used to be booked with some forward-thinking in mind, and the show was live in those days. The problem isn’t that it’s a live, weekly show. The problem is that Vince has become unbearably capricious. He changes his mind faster than Cena changes t-shirts. There’s no patience with the booking and as a result it feels like the show has no forward momentum. Everything starts and stops, starts and stops, every week. Raw often doesn’t feel like it’s advancing from one week to the next. If they would simply adopt NXT’s commitment to telling a story from one month to the next the show would instantly become must-watch every week.
There’s a lot WWE can do to improve things in 2016. Some things—like the rash of injuries they’ve recently suffered—are mostly out of their control. But what they can control is the product they put out every week. A renewed focus on their midcard, on making Smackdown a show worth watching and having the humility to emulate their little brother brand would go a long way to making this year a much better year than 2015 was.