Last month we looked at the ratings war between AEW and WWE, and came away with the indisputable evidence that AEW is currently winning the Wednesday Night War. Whether or not WWE is really worried about that is answered by the repeated “call-downs” of main-roster stars to their Wednesday Night show, the frequent special episodes being run as counter-programming to AEW’s semi-occasional big episodes, and just the fact that NXT moved off the WWE Network onto USA in response to AEW Dynamite beginning on TNT.
WWE is in a war, they are fighting it, and they are losing it.
So what can WWE learn from this? I have a couple of common sense observations from the past almost-year’s worth of Wednesday Night fighting, though the truth is these are just observations; they’re not solutions. The reason is because the problems with WWE right now are systemic.
OBSERVATION ONE: IF YOU TAKE YOUR TALENT FOR GRANTED,
YOUR TALENT WILL GO WHERE THEY’RE APPRECIATED
AEW’s success can’t be pinned down to any one particular person; a lot of people have worked extremely hard to make it the success it is. And certainly, it is way too early to start talking about an AEW Hall of Fame (it was too early when TNA/Impact did it nearly a decade ago). Nevertheless, if I had to pick one on-screen performer to chisel into the first slot on AEW’s Mount Rushmore, it would be Chris Jericho.
Before AEW, Jericho was thought to be a WWE-lifer. Having spent decades wrestling basically anywhere, everywhere, and for all-possible promotions, Jericho looked poised to settle into his WWE-appointed role as “part-time veteran upper midcarder.” He was never going to be a guy to main-event a PPV, not anymore. Even when he had, arguably, the hottest feud in the company a few years back (vs. Kevin Owens, featuring “The List”), his WrestleMania match was bumped from main-event status to match number two on the show. Jericho felt insulted by the move and, according to him, it was a key factor in his deciding to sign with AEW.
Before AEW there really was nowhere for top tier performers to go—other than the other side of the world—where they could make good money and retain some degree of superstar status. AEW opened the possibility for big names to jump ship to a degree not seen since WCW was a viable alternative to the WWF.
The other name for AEW’s Year One Mount Rushmore is Jon Moxley, who toiled in frustration in WWE as Dean Ambrose. Despite being a semi-main-eventer, and holding the company’s top title, Ambrose found himself being hamstrung by bad creative decisions forced upon him. His own creative ideas were rejected, fueling the fire inside him to go his own way.
AEW provided an outlet for him to come to town, be his own man, and prove he—not the WWE-manufactured Dean Ambrose, but he, Jon Moxley—was a superstar. In less than a year with AEW, he has more than proved it.
Both cases represent the flawed mindset at the top of WWE. With Jericho, the company’s monopoly on “major pro wrestling” led them to underpay and undervalue the veteran performer and living legend. With Mox/Ambrose, WWE disregarded his frustrations and thought they could keep him from leaving by simply throwing more and more money at him. Both tactics failed because AEW offered Jericho the respect he wasn’t getting, and Moxley the creative outlet he’d been denied. That’s not a WWE problem; that’s a Vince McMahon problem.
He took his talent for granted, so they left.
OBSERVATION TWO: IF YOU TAKE YOUR FANS FOR GRANTED,
THEY WILL CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Raw’s ratings are dropping at a rate well beyond the norm for primetime television. It used to be, whenever WWE’s sagging viewership was mentioned, someone would always point out that the axiom: All of TV’s viewership is going down so WWE is in the same boat. There’s more competition than ever, after all.
While true, that observation leaves out an important point:
Raw and Smackdown are live “sports” shows, which are supposed to be immune to (or at least able to better withstand) the modern TV trend of declining ratings. With regards to the NFL, NBA, NCAA, etc, ratings year after year are dropping just like the rest of television, but at a slower rate than non-live shows. Raw is falling at a rate faster than non-live shows. That’s a big problem, especially when you consider that their big TV contracts with USA and Fox were done on the assumption that they would be ratings winners not “steady losers.”
Granted, Smackdown has held up better than anticipated, but it’s still flirting with steady sub-2mm viewers. All it takes is one of the other networks to catch fire with a hit Friday night show, and suddenly those SmackDown numbers are going to look a lot worse in comparison. For RAW, though, there is no spinning it. The show has obviously taken a hit during the pandemic, but even still the numbers were bad and getting worse; now they worse and getting remarkably bad.
For the longest time, if you wanted to watch pro wrestling on network TV, you had to watch WWE (or whatever D-level cable channel TNA/Impact was floating around on for a year). They tried to offer variety with Raw and Smackdown offering different rosters, but other than a color swap, the same bad writing problems persist on both shows. There was no true alternative.
AEW Dynamite’s ratings have, with only a handful of exceptions, won the head-to-head battle with WWE every single week of its existence. Considering that Dynamite is going up against the one WWE brand the least-tainted by Vince McMahon and the most-beloved by the company’s fanbase, that’s a tremendous achievement, and it goes to show that the years of WWE flipping off their fans, refusing to support the performers fans loved, bait-and-switch booking decisions, lazy writing, and other bad choices over the years, has finally caught up with them.
In response to sagging ratings, Vince McMahon has both hired and fired Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman as the head writers of RAW and Smackdown. Writers come at go at breakneck speed but the only constant is the man at the top, and he’s out of people to blame. This is not simply a WWE problem: This is a Vince McMahon problem.
He has taken his TV viewers for granted for too long and now they’re changing the channel.
Can WWE turn things around? Yes. They can even do it with Vince McMahon at the helm, but the odds of that happening (with Vince McMahon at the helm) are growing slimmer and slimmer with every passing week. WWE’s problems point right back to the top. If things are going to get better, it’s going to take the man at the top to make systemic, long-term changes to the way he operates.
Don’t hold your breath.