AS I SEE IT 7/04/2001
A happy (belated) Canada Day to our readers to the North, and a happy Fourth of
July to our American readers...
Now that they're the only game in town, the WWF is discovering the "fun" (insert sarcastic pause here) of having Internet writers turning all their guns on them. In the past, WCW was the favorite promotion for Internet bashing, and often deservedly so. Now its the WWF that gets each and every thing they do examined under a microscope.
A number of Internet wrestling writers have been critical about the WCW invasion angle to the point of being ridiculous. While the angle has had its problems (witness Monday night's segment)... as two organizations that did things in two very different ways are learning to work together, people have to realize that growing pains are going to result and show patience accordingly.
I will concur with one thought from a fan's perspective: I do think that Vince McMahon needs to realize that Ric Flair is the face of WCW in the eyes of many wrestling fans...and needs to find some way to work out things with Time-Warner and buy out Ric Flair Time-Warner contract.
But beyond that one area of agreement, since the entire Turner-owned WCW locker room isn't in place, some online would have you believe the WCW "invasion angle" is a irretrievable failure already.
Even with this massive second-guessing; you'd assume the WWF would have long ago figured that would happen, and just have taken it in stride; especially given the fact that their company still made a healthy profit overall last year, even given the millions of dollars factored into losses from the XFL. Overall, things aren't exactly bad up in Stamford, CT...
Given that they know all that, how does the WWF respond instead?
In her conference call to discuss fourth quarter earnings and review prospects for the coming fiscal year, Linda McMahon said: "...Linda McMahon blamed Internet sites for revealing Smackdown! happenings beforehand and therefore dealing a severe blow to Smackdown's weekly ratings."
Apparently to avoid this "problem", the WWF is moving Smackdown from a taped show on Tuesday nights to being a live Thursday show as of August 16th.
First, if my memory is correct, WWF.com has itself delivered spoilers for Smackdown at least three times during this period of ratings downturn. Even if some of the surprise element in the WCW invasion angle is removed on Smackdown telecasts by spoilers, this would only account for the last month's ratings at most.
Overall, wrestling websites aren't the cause for lower ratings. If the product itself is interesting, spoilers (for those who wish to read them) can help to advertise the programming, and actually encourage viewers to watch these shows...the very reason that WWF.com has posted spoilers. Most of those same wrestling websites also give spoiler-free previews for those who wish to be surprised by what they see on Smackdown.
Spoilers were being posted by websites when the WWF was popping 6.5's and 7.0's in the ratings. No one in the WWF was concerned about wrestling websites then...
Forget scapegoating wrestling websites, Mrs. McMahon. Take a look at your own company.
Instead, here are some things that produce lower ratings:
Major segments of your audience not able to access WWF programming on either TNN, UPN, or both.
Many areas of the United States still don't have TNN on their cable systems. As one example, San Fransisco's major provider, AT&T Cable Services, just got TNN after almost a year of fans campaigning for it. Students at several major universities (such as Penn State) haven't been able to get TNN. Additionally, large segments of the country still don't have UPN affiliates.
While the WWFE relationship with Viacom is extremely beneficial in many other areas; it isn't helping wrestling fans, who were able to access USA Network much more easily than TNN.
WWFE's preoccupation with the XFL over the last year
No matter how hard they work, Vince McMahon and his staff only have 24 hours in one day, and seven days in a week. When McMahon and his staff were working to build the XFL over the last few months, it took time away from the WWF and its programming. Many feel the burnout factor played a part in storylines that weren't as creative as they had been.
No Duane Johnson for months...
It amazes me how few people commenting on the drop in WWF ratings have mentioned the fact that the number one babyface in the company hasn't been on television (save for an occasional taped appearance from an awards show or similar event).
I'm saying that his return will or won't bring back higher ratings in and of itself...but a return of one of the company's top three stars certainly won't hurt.
Along with those business-related problems, there are also three storyline elements that strike me as having contributed to this decline:
Not having turned HHH babyface during the HHH-Angle-Stephanie McMahon triangle
The storyline of that whole Angle led perfectly to HHH turning babyface and going for a run against Kurt Angle who was putting the make on his "wife".
Instead, it's been rumored that HHH refused to turn heel, leaving the angle sort of stopping in mid-stream. Whether or not he refused, or instead Vince McMahon just decided otherwise; this was a halt in logical storyline which blew an opportunity for the crowd to pop for HHH. I'll get into what happens when promoters don't let people treat who they want to as babyfaces in the next example.
Turning Steve Austin heel...and doing it at a time that Duane Johnson is off making movies, and staying home with his wife during her pregnancy.
Let's face it, when you take your #1 babyface off of television for several months, it's going to have a major effect on your TV ratings. Austin could have been turned heel at a later date, after Maivia's return this summer.
On top of this, things were made worse by the injury to HHH removing his star power from the mix as well. The injury eliminated the option of finally turning HHH babyface for a run against Austin.
Just because Steve Austin is a good heel, and an often entertaining heel doesn't mean that turning him heel was a good thing for business.
Witness what happened with WCW each time they turned Ric Flair heel, especially in 2000. Crowds wanted to cheer Flair. But WCW booking wouldn't let them do so. This was especially obvious when WCW ran the Carolinas. Of all places that WCW should have been able to draw, the Carolinas were it. But people wouldn't come out to see Flair as heel as this stage of his career.
You can draw a clear parallel with Flair's heel turn to Austin's heel turn. Both WWF house show crowds and even some RAW/Smackdown crowds have dropped noticeably. While the drop-off is obviously nowhere near the level of WCW's, it's enough to take notice of.
The toning down of the WWF product
Since the campaign of corporate terrorism waged by the PTC, the WWF has toned down its product, suggesting it doesn't want to get advertisers nervous.
Mild profanity on RAW and Smackdown (if you can even call it that) is bleeped, especially in the 8:00-9:00 pm hour. Until very recently, the T&A has been toned down. So had the violence quotient.
As a result, the ratings among the 18-35 "target audience" for advertisers on WWF programming have dropped considerably.
If the WWF is going to run a sports entertainment product tailored not to offend advertisers, it runs the risk of turning off its audience to other entertainment programming whose producers have no such apprehension. The WWF should remember that lower ratings will turn off advertisers, too.
It will also turn off dedicated supporters. Many of the people who have been involved with me in Wrestling Fans Against Censorship long ago complained about the watering down of the WWF product as a surrender of sorts to the PTC. I'd be curious how many of the casual fans who were involved in WFAC activities a year ago still consider WWF programming a must-see event on Monday and Thursday nights.
As for the Internet media and violence, a number criticized the Kurt Angle-Shane McMahon match. Much of the criticism related to the fall Shane McMahon took on his head, due to the glass's failure to break properly. Others questioned whether or not Kurt Angle should even be in such a match.
The fact of the matter is that wrestling has to feature a mix of violent content, aerial moves, and submissions...all booked in a logical manner through the personalities of established and new characters. An non-offensive wrestling alternative of running 1980's style wrestling, entirely character driven to sell toys...just won't work.
American audiences aren't inclined to watch a purely athletic product, either...at least not enough of an audience to make for a viable company. The return of UFC to PPV later this year may tell a different story, but even that is a legitimate athletic contest, not a worked performance. For better or worse, in North America, professional wrestling is simulated violence that tells a story. Period. It isn't ballet.
It also isn't a comedy show. Humor mixed into the wrestling product, or some wrestlers with comedy gimmicks is fine. As an example, it was fine with Mick Foley doing skits when ratings were higher. But since Foley did it successfully, it seems that the WWF decided that if 5 minutes of humor was good, than 20 minutes would be four times better.
For the last several months, too much time was being spent on WWF television on too many comedy skits, not to mention 20 minute interviews opening the show for the tastes of the WWF audience. In recent weeks, the WWF seems to have learned not to repeat at least these mistakes.
To conclude, the WWF as well ECW and the Turner-owned WCW have had a love-hate relationship with wrestling websites. People within ECW and who were supportive of it attacked PWBTS.com, and other websites that were critical of some of its actions. The same thing happened with WCW.
The WWF itself has gone so far as to send cease and desist letters to websites of WWF fans with WWF in their name. These websites aren't falsely claiming to be WWFE-owned websites, just websites of fans of their product.
The WWF has threatened to do the same to websites that do live play-by-play of PPVs (some of which carry this column) claiming this play-by-play costs the WWF PPV buys. Now, this past week, Linda McMahon has gone so far as to claim that the posting of results is costing them ratings.
The wrestling business goes through cycles. It's been speculated that wrestling may be going through a down cycle. The returns of Duane Johnson around Summer Slam, HHH in October, and Chris Benoit in 2002 will show if this is one of those cyclical downturns, or just a temporary one due to circumstances.
Nonetheless, it's more important for the WWF to show the traditional attention to detail in storytelling and brand-building that has brought it consistent ratings, long-term revenue growth, and entertaining programming....than to scapegoat fan-based wrestling websites.
Until next time...
(If you have comments or questions, I can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)