We’re now about half-a-year into WWE’s second attempt at a Brand Split, and while it may yet be too early to give a definitive review on whether or not it has (or will) succeed, enough time has passed that we can look at the product and see where improvement needs to be made. What better time than now, Survivor Series time, to do that, as WWE is putting greater emphasis on “Raw vs Smackdown” than ever before. So, looking at Raw and Smackdown, as well as Raw vs Smackdown, can we say things are better? Are things worse? Is all this just a big waste of time or is there potential for this split to usher in a new wrestling boom?
Alas, it seems the negatives are still outweighing the positives. There are positives, don’t misunderstand: Commentary is lightyears better than it was pre-split, the overall look of the shows is noticeably improved thanks to the new stages and the occasionally new camera angles. The old hands like Kane, Big Show and even John Cena have taken a step back while new talent is pushed in and around the main event. There’s a lot to celebrate, but this is the internet; let’s get to the complaining…
RAW IS STILL SIMULTANEOUSLY BLOATED AND STRETCHED THIN
With this brand split, Vince McMahon has tried to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he wants Smackdown and Raw to have separate rosters and storylines, in order for viewers to have good reason to tune into both shows, but on the other hand he refuses to do the one thing that is keeping Raw from gaining and retaining viewers: Cut the show to two hours. The allure of ad revenue that the third hour brings is too much to overcome and Raw, now with a third smaller roster, remains a three hour slog.
Keep in mind that the show was already a three-hour slog even before the brand split. It’s the same now as it was then, only without many of the names people might have wanted to tune in and watch. Vince tried to mitigate this by keeping the SmackDown roster small but it doesn’t matter: Raw before the brand split, with the full roster available, was still a show that felt like two hours of material stretched out over three (or more with the overrun). Because of this, time-wasting skits, backstage shenanigans and oh so many in-ring promos pepper the broadcast, designed to fill time. And it does…but that’s all it does. Vince is no longer booking Raw like it’s a show designed to gain and retain viewers. He’s basically running it for those who are guaranteed to tune in—the most die-hard loyalists—and as a result, his only concern is filling time. The trouble is, those die-hard loyalist are eventually going to get so bored that they tune out.
SMACKDOWN IS STILL UNDERFED
Without question, the blue brand has benefited tremendously from the brand split. Since the original split ended, Smackdown has been pointless and meaningless. It’s changed networks, times and airdates, but nothing WWE did made the show matter. Finally now it matters. But unfortunately, as a result of the aforementioned troubles with Raw, Smackdown is forced to play with one hand behind its back. Despite that, it has thrived and become arguably the best pro wrestling show on TV. The writing is sharp, the booking logical, the flow of the show smooth and fast-paced.
Insiders swear that Vince is just as much involved with Smackdown as he is Raw, which just boggles my mind if that’s true. The only explanation is that Raw is the show he wants it to be and so is Smackdown. He doesn’t see it as “one is watchable and fun, the other is unwatchable and boring.” He sees it as “Smackdown is the wrestling show, Raw is the sports entertainment show.” And yet Smackdown—despite its ingrained history as the B-Show—is neck and neck with Raw in the ratings and is consistently enjoyed more by viewers. Still, Vince sees Raw as the crown jewel of the company; the keystone around which the whole empire is built. Which means, as Raw continues to struggle, it’s only a matter of time before the talent on Smackdown starts getting raided. It happened before; it’ll happen again. In the meantime, Smackdown is succeeding in spite of the hand Vince dealt it. Unless something changes, the tiny roster and limited number of superstar main-eventers is going to hurt it. When that happens the show will lose viewers and the problems that plague Raw will remain, driving fans away from both shows.
TALENT IS STILL BEING MISUSED
Smackdown is doing a good job taking advantage of everyone they have access to, out of necessity more than anything since they have to fill two hours every week with a such a small roster. Raw has almost twice as many superstars and only one more hour to deal with, and yet they consistently struggle with utilizing their available talent. Some performers are spinning their wheels going nowhere, others disappear for weeks at a time, others are seen often but are in the midst of storylines that are at odds with what fans want, in terms of who they boo and who they cheer.
Case in point is the current women’s champion Charlotte. After a long run with the inaugural Women’s Championship she finally dropped the belt to Sasha Banks, much to the unbridled joy of the fans. Immediately thereafter Charlotte regained the belt, much to the consternation of the fans. This was explained away with rumors that Sasha was hurt and had to drop the belt. Okay fine, but then Sasha (quickly) returned and regained the title, much to the unbridled joy of the fans. It looked as though her temporary time away from the belt was just a hiccup…until she went and lost the belt back to Charlotte at Hell in a Cell. Now the fans aren’t even consternated, they are just bewildered and dejected. There’s a constant feeling that what Vince wants and who Vince wants to push is at odds with who the fans want to see. The brand split has given new talent a chance to be seen, but at the end of the day only a handful of people are given the spotlight, and too many of them only satisfy the audience of one.
THE SPECIFIC DIVISIONS ARE TOO SHALLOW
I wasn’t the only one, but I was one of the ones who said, as soon as the brand splits were announced, that WWE would do well to split up divisions between brands. In other words, everyone in the women’s division needed to be on one show, everyone in the tag division needed to be on the other show. Instead, WWE split the roster right down the middle, putting half the women on Raw and half on Smackdown, half the teams on Raw and half on Smackdown. This has resulted in there being only a half-dozen competitors on each show to build stories and feuds around. It’s also meant that rematches have become exhausting and repetitive since there’s not enough talent to go around to fill up matches every week. Sasha Banks addressed this problem recently, saying…
“I wrestle the same people every single week, Dana Brooke or Charlotte, Charlotte, Dana Brooke. There [are] only six of us and I think that’s the hardest part, just we need more faces on Raw.”
The same problem exists with the tag teams. New Day was already reaching critical mass before the brand split happened, and since then, there’s not as many teams to work with and the long-reigning champs have become terribly stale. The Tag division is even more sparse on Smackdown though the matches are a bit more exciting. It’s not too late to course-correct, merge the divisions and make each show a platform for one or the other, but there doesn’t seem to be any desire to do that. WWE seems to like having two women’s champs and two tag champs even if the shallow divisions are hurting the week-to-week product.
Again, the brand split was not a bad idea, and overall it hasn’t been a disaster, but there are still problems that need to be addressed. Some of them were present before the split and only seem to have gotten worse since then. Other problems have popped up as a result of the way the split was implemented, but the problems are not unfixable. All it takes is a willingness to listen to what the fans are grumbling about: Make Raw a show where “anything can happen” again, give Smackdown some of the talent that’s not being used on Raw, merge the divisions and assign them to a specific show. Along the same lines, maybe develop the first hour of Raw into a women’s-only wrestling show. That would give the first hour something different and would free up the rest of Raw (with its world title, midcard title and cruiserweight title) to be a tighter, leaner two-hour broadcast like Smackdown gets to be.
Something needs to be done, however. Because right now Raw is becoming…not just “unwatchable” but “unnecessary,” and that’s a dangerous place to be for a TV show. At the same time it’s only a matter of time before Smackdown gets gutted to try and save Raw, making both irrelevant to weekly viewers. And when that happens it’ll really be panic time at Titan Tower.