WWE and AEW are embroiled in a war for TV ratings and supremacy currently, but the Monday Night Wars this is not.
A combined 7 million viewers tuned into wrestling last week, which is not a number to be sniffed at by any means. However, it’s not exactly pulling up trees either. They could be doubling that number with a lot of effort and hard work.
Their current problem is pandering to the hardcore fanbase. Pandering is the wrong word, but hopefully you get what I mean. This small core selection of viewers will never go away. They are obsessed with wrestling, in a good way. They live and breathe it. There is no need to give these fans everything they want, because they won’t be leaving. However, giving said fans everything they want does risk alienating the casual viewer by putting on lengthy TV matches, dreadful storylines and shoddy promos. Granted, that’s not what any fan wants to see, but it is how those in the wrestling bubble write to appeal to those people.
The Attitude Era worked so well because Vince Russo took advantage of what was happening in the real world and took it and molded it into wrestling form, creating the greatest rivalry of all time between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon. Everyone despised their bosses back then (most still do), but in the 90s your boss could get away with pretty much anything and you’d have to suck it up and learn to like it. That’s why we loved seeing Austin kicking the ever-loving crap out of McMahon on a weekly basis. We were able to live vicariously through him.
I agree with a lot of what Russo brought to the table creatively, but one thing I don’t is his style of writing to the “marks” in order to garner more interest. This never works for a very good reason. Pro wrestling is confusing enough to explain to the casual viewer as it is let alone complicating the situation further by adding in real and fake elements to it all. It just does not work. It’s a big reason why he was so unsuccessful with WCW and TNA. He forgot what made him and, more importantly, TV work so greatly. Look to the outside world, see what everyone is talking about, mold it to work in wrestling and amp the volume way up.
Here’s the one thing that EVERYONE likes these days – reality TV and control.
Russo explains this a lot on his podcasts, but his version of it will never work for reasons explained above. He wanted a behind the scenes version of WWE played out backstage featuring a power struggle being played out by Vince McMahon, Triple H and Bruce Prichard. Granted, it would make a great reality TV show, but wrestling needs to stay as kayfabe as possible to have a chance of working. So, how do we make wrestling more sociable with reality TV lovers who want to control everything? Pretty simple, and here’s the ways to do it.
Docu-soaps have been around for many years but really took on a new mantle following the release of Spinal Tap and later The Office. If wrestling could take advantage of this staple of creating television they would be onto a winner. They can do so with a few tweaks. The wrestlers already know they are on TV, but when they’re backstage they suddenly don’t see the cameras there, defying all logic. It’s ridiculous. Scrap that. Have them not only acknowledge the cameras, but use them to their advantage to send a message to their rivals. We could also have talking heads which will allow more depth for character development instead of simply relying on tired vignettes and commentary to put them over.
If reality TV has taught us anything over the years it’s that fans love to vote on anything and everything. Whether it be who gets to snog who on Love Island, or which celebrity you want to see munch on a kangaroo’s testicles. Give them something to vote for and they will do so in their droves.
WWE attempted something similar with Taboo Tuesday and Cyber Sunday, but they were too fleeting and during a time where no one really grasped the concept. If they did it on a more regular basis with more stakes, it would put the power of creativity in the fans’ hands, and also boost viewership amongst the general population who love to see if their vote counted. Let them vote on things like next World Title Challenger, Hall Of Fame Inductees, Royal Rumble entrants, TV segments, and even contract terminations. It will work a treat.
We’ve touched on the basic premises of reality TV but the main one is making the show feel real which can be difficult in a wrestling environment. No pretending it’s real, then fake the next here though. In the real world no one gets on with everybody. We are all different, we all have personality quirks that annoy others. Allow this to shine through.
Let AJ Styles, the character, say what he really feels about certain things and superstars. Same with Seth Rollins, let him sound off against the vocal fans who have turned against him. Have Sasha Banks let rip on WWE for passing the torch to Becky Lynch, ala Batista to John Cena all those years earlier. The list goes on. If there’s realism to it, people will buy into it.
Carrying on from our previous entry, the storylines have to be grounded in realism. To do this, WWE and AEW have to be patient and stay true to characters which is something Vince Russo made an art during his time with the pen. It’s not difficult at all.
They just have to ask themselves, if this situation happened how would said character react? Brock Lesnar would react a whole lot different to Roman Reigns, for example. The stories themselves also have to be realistic and the characters have to portray real people. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope on certain things, and if you need to do a sex angle, at least have it make sense.
There’s zero need for scripted promos in wrestling. AEW have kind of skewed away from this which is great but WWE is still scripted to the letter and it’s suffocating the product. Let them speak from the heart. By all means give them a guide of what to say, a subject, and let them run with it. They’re either going to sink or swim. Judging from most of the wrestlers’ social media posts, they have a lot to say and all of it is more interesting than what’s written for them on Raw and SmackDown, that’s for sure.
Another issue is lengthy TV matches. They will never entice the casual viewer to stick around. Same with anything. If you’re forced to watch The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, the last thing you want to see is singing and dancing. You want to see drama and excitement. You want to see Simon Cowell rip into some poor tone deaf teenager. You want to see someone break their leg doing the Samba. It makes for great television.
Casual viewers don’t tune into wrestling to watch 30 minute battles, they tune in for the drama and entertainment. WWE and AEW would be wise to keep their weekly shows full of angles and leave the long wrestling bouts for PPV. There was a reason the Monday Night Wars were getting a combined 10 million viewers most weeks. Don’t give the viewer the opportunity to switch channels.
Something Vince Russo in the Attitude Era did extremely well was construct a major story arc that weaved through every episode of Raw for months and years. You’d of course have sub plots, minor plots and everything in between, but the bulk of the show was dedicated to your main story, like in any serial drama or movie should be. Back then it was McMahon and Austin. Today it could be anything.
Maybe viewers don’t have the patience to sit through such a long story arc these days, so instead the writers could make a little effort and create weekly stories that weave through the episode. Start the night with something unexpected or shocking, weave the story, develop the plot throughout the night, before climaxing with a major cliffhanger that begs you to tune in next week. The biggest thrill in writing is to get people talking about your show.
A controversial one, I know, but we should also bring back heel authority figures. However, WWE has been extremely dull since they did away with the evil GM story. AEW will suffer the same fate too. Wrestlers need someone to side with and someone to rise up against. Fans also want to know who is booking the show. Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff were two of the best because they always got their comeuppance. Something Shane and Stephanie McMahon could learn to incorporate into their arsenal. If they did so, it would make for great TV.
Easiest way to make stars, generate heat and create interest in the product. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, we all have bosses we hate to work for. Wrestling can manipulate this better than any TV show out there and they should be doing so. Whenever an authority figure gets attacked, it always garners a monster pop. There’s the clue.
If we’re going to run it as a documentary where the wrestlers know they’re on camera at all times, then we need to bring the backstage area into play more as it makes things seem more real. Arguments in dressing rooms, brawls in the car park, talking heads, heated confrontations and more. WWE used to be fantastic at this, but have since forgotten how to do it. The sooner it makes a comeback, the better.
My next thought would be to use more sex appeal in their programming. Again, this may stir up some controversy, but hear me out. Ever since the incredible Women’s Revolution kicked in, we’ve been told not to look at them as sexy or anything like that. Why? Because it comes across sexist which is ridiculous. You can be both successful and sexy, they’re not mutually exclusive. Alexa Bliss, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks are three of the baddest and hottest females on the planet. We should be allowed to say that, and WWE should promote it more.
Trust me, a LOT more viewers would tune in. Not saying let’s return to the dark ages of bra & panty matches, of course not. But don’t be afraid to sex the show up, make them more appealing. Play on it. Same for the guys such as Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Ricochet. Make them men that women would do anything to be with and guys would do anything to be. But we are in 2019, so all roles can be reversed of course. Whatever takes your fancy, sex sells.
Just not the way they’re currently doing it with Lana and Bobby Lashley.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @JK_CFC3. Thanks for reading!