Well, that was one hell of a week to be a wrestling fan, eh?
We had TNA underwhelming us with Bound For Glory 2013. It consisted of one good match (Roode/Angle), one okay match (Styles/Ray) with a lot of overbooking, a lot of filler (including tag titles, women’s and Ultimate-X), and one bad match (EC3/jobber). Then we had WWE underwhelming us with Hell in a Cell 2013. It consisted of one good match (tag titles match), one okay match (Bryan/Orton) with a lot of overbooking, a lot of filler (including Cena/Del Rio, Punk/Ryback/Heyman and women’s) and one bad match (Khali et al). Wow. The main difference was that the fans left TNA’s PPV happy that the underdog everyone in authority has been against left with the title, while WWE left fans feeling deflated with the boring heel standing tall next to the boring COO and the underdog everyone in authority has been against leaving on a stretcher.
I don’t get it. It’s like both companies have taken a line that PPVs don’t matter. They’ve just fed us crap that was not value for money. And then I looked at it a bit more objectively. Wrestlemania, the biggest PPV ever all year, is considered a huge success when it breaks the 1 million buys mark. Most WWE PPVs seem to get between 200,000 and 400,000 buys. But Raw is considered a failure when it gets less than 3 million viewers. Smackdown regularly gets 2 and a half million viewers. Even Impact pulls in over a million a week on a consistent basis. Yes, Impact, the show everyone loves to rag on, draws more viewers than Wrestlemania, the greatest wrestling show of the year.
What’s wrong with this picture?
I know, part of the issue is that the TV shows are free (in the USA – not in Australia and I don’t know about elsewhere in the world) whereas a PPV costs money; in the case of Wrestlemania, a lot of money.
But wrestling storylines seem to lead to Pay Per Views. Bound For Glory, for example, was the culmination of months of storyline work. The Bryan-Orton storyline – while I doubt it’s over – has taken months of lead-up. That seems very counter-productive: have the story climax happen when the vast majority of your audience isn’t even watching.
Looking at it, more and more it seems that the wrestling companies are still stuck in their 1980s modelling, when Pay Per Views were big events. Of course, in the 1980s each company with PPV access had no more than 4 PPVs per year, and also one major TV show each week. The long-term booking that carried along the meagre story-lines were expected by audiences because they didn’t get a huge amount of wrestling all the time. Back then, Pay Per Views were big events, events that fans looked forward to. They were rarities, and if you missed one, you likely missed a lot of things that would give closure to storylines. But today we have an overdose of wrestling. Even TNA, with its 2 hour show each weeks, supplements this with tweets, YouTube videos, stories on TNAwrestling-dot-com, and all the rest.
Bound For Glory was just a long episode of Impact (without the too much talking); Hell in a Cell was just another episode of Raw, albeit with a Cell included (though Cells on Raw are not unprecedented either). Both of them lacked that certain “something” to make them seem like anything special.
And there’s the problem.
Pay Per Views no longer seem like anything special. They are just another show that you have to pay money for, and if you miss them, then it doesn’t matter because you’ll be caught up on the next TV show and the stories will undoubtedly continue unabated.
The problem is in this world of complete interconnectivity – and, let’s face it, professional wrestling is very much a first world entertainment form – there is very little that can be considered a big special event. Very little indeed. The opening nights of certain plays or musicals could be, but they are few and far between. Even movie openings are not that special anymore. I am old enough to remember lines waiting for the first showing of Return of the Jedi. Hell, I can remember lines for the opening of the final Lord of the Rings movie. In the past 10 years I can’t recall a film that has had lines waiting for it. Not even The Avengers – probably the most anticipated film of recent times – had huge lines. What gets lines? The latest Apple gadget or the latest SmartPhone. Or some ridiculous midnight sale at a store where people buy things they don’t need at allegedly discounted prices. I remember lining up for 3 days to get tickets to see Pink Floyd in 1988; nowadays it’s sitting in front of a computer clicking with a mouse.
Movies are available for illegal download within half a day of opening; TV series are available within 24 hours. Consumers who are desperate to see these things only need a decent download speed and it’s theirs. And these are things that people know (or hope) are going to be really good and are eagerly anticipated.
Pay Per Views no longer fit that description. They have become extensions of the TV shows, and people are being asked to pay premium prices to view them. And then, 3 hours after they’re over, they can also apparently be downloaded.
Pay Per Views are not must-see, they are not big events. Maybe Wrestlemania, but that is really on name value alone, because a lot of the matches are huge let-downs.
So what does get viewers in? Superbowl is one. Fans – even casual ones – tune in to see the biggest game of the year. It’s a spectacle. It has what is considered by some decent entertainment, it has some of the best commercials and there’s even a bit of sport for those that way inclined. But, and here’s the point, the reason it’s so big in the USA is that it happens once a year. In Australia it’s the Grand Final of the Australian Football League – again, once a year. To a soccer aficionado (not that a soccer follower would know what that word means) it happens every four years, at the World Cup finals. For a follower of gymnastics, it’s at the Olympics, again every four years.
What else? The final of a television series everyone is invested in. Be it done well like Breaking Bad, done confusingly like The Sopranos or Dexter, or done badly like Lost or Seinfeld, people have been invested enough to want to see it end and end in a way they can relate to.
But wrestling expects people to get excited fourteen times a year. And they also never have endings. It’s like a soap opera. When was the last time a soap opera got people excited? I can tell you in Australia (and possibly the UK): when the characters played by Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan got married on Neighbours in 1988. In the USA it was probably the ‘Who Shot JR?’ episodes of Dallas, in 1980-1. The 1980s. Well, wrestling has become the soap operas for the modern era, and so we aren’t going to see that level of sudden, intense interest here.
So what does this mean? It means that the Pay Per View model is out-dated. Long-term story-telling can work with modern audiences – otherwise shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones just would not find an audience – but having to hype a sudden big event every four weeks or so destroys their continuity unless those big events just continue the status quo, and thus dilute themselves.
Next year, assuming it’s still around, TNA is going to a 4-PPV a year model (allegedly). While this might seem like a step backwards, it is definitely the right step in the modern day and age of immediate media. They have 4 big events (possible still 2 too many for what they are offering) to lead up to, making for some decent long-term story possibilities. I’m not saying that is the way it will happen, just that the potential is much more likely to be there. WWE could have anything from 12 to 14 PPVs, and if Battleground and Hell in a Cell have shown us anything, too much of a “good thing” is most definitely not good.
I’m not saying the Pay Per View as a concept is dead – far from it. Boxing uses it really well, and so do some music acts. I’m just saying that the multi-PPV model is simply not cutting it. They either need to utilise better long-term story-telling, or find a way to make PPVs special, and track records have shown that the latter is not going to happen, and the former is beyond the capability of wrestling writers. The only other option would be for PPVs to be stand-alone episodes, but that presents a whole lot more problems than it probably solves. (Mind you, WCW managed it with their Lethal Lottery-Battlebowl, and essentially Royal Rumble is already almost that as well, as was the original incarnation of King Of The Ring. So would it be that bad in small doses?)
I know we’re stuck with it, but maybe we should all be looking at different ways of doing things. And if that means going back to the past, or copying the models of other sports, then so be it.
It might be better – and more entertaining – for everyone in the long run.
Tags: 2013, AJ Styles, bound for glory, Daniel Bryan, Hell in a Cell, impact, olympics, Pay Per View, PPV, randy orton, Raw, Smackdown, TNA, WCW, wrestlemania, WWE