Creative Control: Reformatting the WWE (Raw, Smackdown, PPV)

Welcome everyone to the newest column here on Inside Pulse.  My name is John Kincaid.  If you recognize me, you read the comments section way too closely as I comment about once every ice age.  After a couple of comments and an e-mail outline to CB, he decided to give me my own by-line focused on long-term fantasy booking.

Long-term.  That will be the focus of this column.  I will take a look at a storyline or particular wrestler and draft a three-six month arc that takes advantage of history and current threads played out on screen, and draw them out as a logical, well-defined concept with beginning, middle, and end.  Some of them may grab your attention.  Some of them may make you groan.  Some of them may be way over the top as they could ask a lot from the limited talents of some members of the roster.  I will try not to go that far as I will try to book this as realistically as possible given all factors.  The point I want to make with this column is to show that it takes a little thought and some foresight to create engaging storylines in professional wrestling.

To give everyone the idea of the breadth and scope I hope to accomplish with this column, I thought I would tackle the biggest concept there is for fantasy booking: an overhaul of the WWE on a whole.  So below is the layout for how I would present the WWE starting in 2014.

 

Step 1: Bring Back the Brand Separation

I know the majority of people on this site hate this concept and it appears the WWE are getting rid of the last vestiges of the idea with the “not quite calling it a unification” of the WWE and World Heavyweight Titles at TLC.  However, as explained in further detail below, I believe the brand separation is a good long-term decision.

The brand separation is not a bad concept, if the company is willing to hold the line and treat Raw and Smackdown like separate divisions in the same league (think NFC and AFC in the NFL).  You can have occasional cross over appearances, but keep it to a minimum.  You can have one off matches to resolve minor scuffles emerging from backstage moments at PPVs or Twitter wars to mix up the rotation.  You can also have “marquee” interleague matches at PPVs.  Think of the Sean Michaels/Kurt Angle program from Wrestlemania 21.  The potential is there, and there is no shortage of wrestlers either in the company, or in the industry to fill out two separate rosters.  Taking advantage of having two brands with their own rosters allows for more individuals a chance to shine.  Create more headliners and have time to find out whether or not can stand on their own.  If someone does not work, try elevating someone new, rather than just constantly falling back on the same 6 people who take up 60-80% of the air time.

I would not bring back the annual draft lottery.  I think this was one of the biggest contributors to the failure of the concept of the brand separation.  It contributed to the homogenization of the rosters as it occurred every year and there was no storyline or reason for a wrestler changing brands; other than it was on the schedule.  To shuffle the rosters, I would play around with the idea of free agency.  Sometimes make a storyline about it, such as the brands fighting over the rights for a wrestler.  Other times, if you feel a talent has more options or better storyline potential on the other show, just have him show up and proclaim he let his contract expire with the former brand and he chose to sign with the other.  This should not happen on a regular basis though.

So how would I divide things up?  The roster lists are based off the WWE’s web site from their Superstars page.  The division takes into account current champions, tag teams, and stables.

Raw:

Commentary: Michael Cole and JBL.  A three man booth creates the feeling of each broadcaster trying to get a word in, often at the expense of the action in the ring.  This hinders rather than promotes the match or storyline.  Cole and JBL have shown a better chemistry than Cole and Lawler.

Titles: World Title, Intercontinental Title, Tag Titles, Diva’s Title

Roster: John Cena, Big E. Langston, Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Cody Rhodes, Goldust, Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, Erick Rowan, Jack Swagger, Antonio Cesaro, R-Truth, Kofi Kingston, Sheamus, Ryback, Drew McIntyre, Jinder Mahal, Heath Slater, Mark Henry, Diego and Fernando (Los Matadores), Evan Borne, Justin Gabriel, JTG, Sin Cara, David Otunga, AJ Lee, Tamina, Brie Bella, Nikki Bella, Rosa Mendes, Ava Marie, Layla

Smackdown:

Commentary: Renee Young and William Regal.  I hear nothing but praise for Ms. Young and think it is time that a glass ceiling was broken and a woman given the opportunity doing play-by-play.  Having an intelligent and quick-witted, woman teamed with one of the most respected veterans would be a unique dynamic.  From what I understand too, is that the two have shown a good chemistry on NXT.

Titles: WWE Title, US Championship, Tag Titles, Women’s Title

Roster: Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, CM Punk, Big Show, Alberto Del Rio, Damien Sandow, Rey Mysterio, Christian, Miz, Xavier Woods, Jim and Jey Uso, Fandango, Santino Marella, Darren Young, Titus O’Neil, Brodus Clay, Tensai, Hunico, Camacho, Zack Ryder, Curtis Axel, Yoshi Tatsu, Ezekiel Jackson, Natalya, Kaitlyn, Cameron, Naomi, Alicia Fox, Summer Rae, JoJo

Is there enough talent to support two female titles?  They just had 14 women in one match at Survivor Series.  I know plenty will make snide remarks about “talent,” but the bodies are there.  Plus there is Emma, Charlotte, Paige, and some other women who impress on NXT.  There are women out there who I hear raves about in the indies.  It is a matter of making a commitment to actual women’s wrestling, training, storylines, and putting on 1-2 matches a week.  However, fixing the WWE’s women’s division is a separate column.

A lot are probably also asking if there is enough talent to support two separate tag titles?  Again, with the separation, it should allow for the attention of a few more people to each roster.  Bring new talent in as tag teams, or create new ones out of some people who have “nothing to do” and see if they click. If the shows are treated as separate entities, it is possible to make them work as such.  After all, there are plenty of other federations that each has a primary, secondary, tag, and women’s title.

Lastly, there is the matter of authority figures.  I would return to the authority being an unnamed individual or individuals.  Not the “Anonymous GM,” but just the authority that makes the matches, handles the roster, and manages the show off screen.  Periodically see some type of representative, but keep it as a vague stagehand or intern in a backstage moment.  As several people have pointed out the evil authority figure has been done to death and face authority figures are generally bland and uninspiring.  Make the focus the wrestlers, not the management.  After all, who watches the NFL to see Roger Goodell?

 

Step 2: Put Smackdown on Equal Footing to Raw

Another reason why the brand extension failed was that from the very beginning, Smackdown was considered the “B show” to Raw. It was treated like a back-up show that could have their storylines pushed aside to allow for overflow from Raw.  There were far more recaps about what happened on Raw then what happened on Smackdown.  It is hard for fans to invest in a brand when a company does not put its support behind it and blatantly treats it as inferior.

Therefore, Smackdown should be live (as someone suggested here on Pulse a couple months ago).  Part of the mystique of Raw is that for most of the year, you do not know what is going to happen as it is live with no spoilers.  There is the excitement of the unpredictability.  Smackdown needs that to elevate its importance.

Next, it needs a better station then SyFy.  I am a science fiction junkie (been a fan of Doctor Who for over 25 years), and I love wrestling, but the two do not mix (see Max Moon).  Even with SyFy’s current not really science fiction format (with shows like Naked Vegas), Smackdown sits there like a bizarre anomaly because NBC/Universal could not figure out where else to stick it.  Consider putting it on USA Network, NBC Sports, or even the new Esquire channel (which appears to be the USA original programming rerun station).  Any one of those three would be a better option than SyFy.  It would be better if Smackdown could be on network television to increase availability of WWE’s product, but that is unlikely (although with NBC’s continuing failure in primetime, it may be worth a second thought).

With these basics, the rest falls into place.  Focus equal time on the storylines to Raw.  Make the players on Smackdown seem as important as those on Raw; the titles just as important.  Do not make Smackdown the chance to catch what one missed on Raw.  Only mention Raw when there is cross-promotional interest.  Let Smackdown flourish as its own product.

 

Step 3: Raw should go back to 2 hours

Another criticism that many people have made that is valid.  While they have more than enough talent to fill three hours, it is clear they are struggling with a wealth of time and lack of ideas.  By forcing the WWE to tell its stories for Raw within two hours, it will lead to better decisions and a more engaging show.  It will also hopefully lead to a reduction in drop-off of viewers.  For example, I watched Raw Country the week before Survivor Series.  I turned it on at 8:30 after my wife and I finished watching something else we were more interested in and figured I could miss the likely opening Triple H promo and/or needless country sketch.  I shut it off around 10:15 because I was bored with it and wanted a good night’s rest before I had to get up at my usual early hour.  I knew about the 12-man tag main event, and wanted to watch it, but I honestly did not feel like sitting through another half-hour (including a mini-concert) to see it since I could find it on-line at a later point.  How many people join the show late or leave it early for similar reasons?  By cutting it down to two hours, there should be fewer people tuning in late or leaving early; which mean there will be less need for endless recaps of what happened earlier as the audience will be more consistent.  Also, cutting it down to two hours again deals with putting Raw and Smackdown on equal footing.

What does one do about that third hour that the USA Network wants so badly on Monday night?  Simple, show a repeat of the previous week’s NXT in that first hour spot.  I hear good things about NXT, and would love to watch it regularly.  However, I do not have Hulu Plus, and am not going to pay however much a month just to watch a one hour wrestling show every week.  While viewing habits are evolving and I am part of the growing minority of those who primarily watch television through just cable, we still occupy a large market share.  Take the opportunity for the commercials on NXT to play up what other exclusive shows are on Hulu as a way to try to draw in new subscribers.

The results are more eyes on the development league show, a tighter main show, and still fill the desired three hours of wrestling on Monday night that the network wants.

 

Step 4: The New Calendar

This is the biggest thing that has rattled around in my head for several years.  I watch wrestling with a mixture of enjoyment and guilt.  Enjoyment of the product, but guilt for the way the talent are treated.  We all know the stories of the toil being on the road almost all year is for wrestlers.  The drive to work through injuries; the risk of addiction; the torn apart relationships; the shortened careers, all sometimes followed by tragic stories of suicide are stories that have been played out too many times in the industry.  Much like the NFL evolving with the awareness of concussions, it is time for wrestling to acknowledge the overall strain the business puts on the performers and do something about it.  The WWE has made some strides in trying to be there for former stars with their drug rehab policy and the generosity of offering Legends contracts to a large number of former performers.  However, it would be better to try to address the problem at the front end.

Therefore, using 2014 as the template, here is my schedule for the WWE, largely based on PPV dates:

January 26: Royal Rumble

February 23: A Newly Named PPV (what is currently occupied by Elimination Chamber)

April 6: Wrestlemania

April 21: Last Raw before it goes on 8-week hiatus

May 18: Smackdown only PPV

June 22: NXT PPV

June 23: Raw returns

August 3: SummerSlam

August 15: Last Smackdown before it goes on 8-week hiatus

September 14: Raw only PPV

October 10: Smackdown returns

November 16: Survivor Series

December 14: Night of Champions

December 15 and 19: Last live shows of the year before Raw returns Monday January 5, 2015

The biggest change is the eight week hiatus for each brand.  This way, each wrestler has a guaranteed two month vacation and there is still at least one live, original weekly program on throughout the year.  Giving the wrestlers a chance to rest should help with reducing the risk of nagging injuries, lets them rehabilitate without fear of losing their spot, and gives the writer’s a chance to come up with new storylines and ideas.  Each brand gets their own PPV when the other is on hiatus.  The breaks start two weeks after the two biggest PPVs (Wrestlemania and SummerSlam).  This allows for proper epilogues to major storylines and allowing for the seeds of new feuds to develop just before executing a classic cliffhanger.

Another advantage to this break is the chance to work with those performers who are not meeting their potential.  Everyone is evaluated, and those who are struggling on the mic or in the ring, could be required to maybe spend a week or two of their vacation down at the development center in Florida.  While they would be “working,” they would not be on the road and under the normal strains.  They would be in one location, practicing promos, learning basic acting, or running through ring drills.

I know the big question everyone is asking is what to do with the time-slots not filled with live programming?  That is actually pretty easy.  WWE has an endless catalogue documentaries, and an unparalleled library of wrestling.  Play edited versions of those.  Focus on specific wrestlers and show certain matches.  The last show before it comes back from hiatus can be a recap show, teasing what is to come.  While not an original, two hour wrestling show, it still provides wrestling.

The schedule also cuts down the number of PPVs to nine.  The “big four” are still in place and there is a concentration of them around Wrestlemania season.  There is 4-6 weeks between each PPV, making them once again important events, not just extended episodes of the weekly shows that cost $40-80.  I think having fewer PPVs would increase the revenue stream from this area.  Going with the concept of limited supply, people are more likely to buy when there is the feeling they cannot miss the possibility of a big event.  Currently, everyone knows there are 3-4 PPVs that can be ignored as nothing of note will happen.

I also included a PPV that is for NXT.  There was a huge gap in my original schedule and the NXT one slid in perfectly.  This should be a less expensive show and marketed for what it is; the developmental league of WWE.  Take it on the road, but go to a smaller venue.  Here you give the developmental roster the training and experience of doing a PPV and can gauge what a larger live audience thinks of them versus the narrow sample size of the Florida crowd (a la TNA’s Impact Zone problem).

The other big thing I have done with the PPVs is remove the majority of the “gimmick PPVs” such as Money in the Bank, Elimination Chamber, and Hell in a Cell.  Specialty matches should be reserved for major events or blow-offs to serious feuds.  With the fewer PPVs, you need less “gimmicks” to get people to turn in by raising the importance of the fewer shows.  I would put Money in the Bank back on Wrestlemania and be one briefcase that gives the winner the option of going after either top level belt (creating rare crossover storyline potential).

Survivor Series, as many have pointed out, is the original gimmick PPV.  The show should go back to being just the traditional elimination tag matches to make it unique and standout.  I would have one none elimination tag match on the show as the main event.  The Elimination Chamber debuted at Survivor Series, and I would return it there, as it fits with the theme of the show.  I would comprise the match of three wrestlers each from Raw and Smackdown, with the winner getting a title shot at his respective brand’s top belt at Night of Champions.  Therefore, you have created a mini-Rumble to promote a rising star and gauge audience reaction.  It also gives the winner a taste of a main event program and see if they are ready for that level.  I would also do a Raw vs. Smackdown elimination match, allowing for the brand rivalry.

The year ends with a December 20th supershow, pre-recording the Raw and Smackdown for the coming week, and then letting the rosters have a two-week holiday break.  The final week of the year can be “Best of 2014″ clip shows for each brand, which leads into 2015 and a new year using the format.

And there you have it ladies and gentlemen.  How I would “fix” the WWE in four steps.  I will admit they are not simple steps.  I admit there are several things I am not aware of that could impact this (for example, what agreements say about “original” programming they are required to provide).  But from a logical standpoint, this makes sense.  You still have at least two hours of new wrestling 51 weeks a year.  The wrestlers are getting some much needed, extended time-off, and PPVs are now made into “can’t miss” shows, which should increase the revenue each one produces.

Until next week, I relinquish creative control.

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