Wrestling Report Card

Last July when I started tracking my wrestling TV viewing habits, one of the things I was trying to measure was whether or not I thought the televised wrestling programming quality was going downhill (in my opinion). I had the feeling that I wasn’t enjoying watching as much as previous years, and that overall I was enjoying the TNA product more than the WWE.

Something seemed like it was going the wrong direction, but I had a hard time describing exactly what was “broken”. Was it less emphasis on actual wrestling matches? Was it the quality of the wrestling talent? Was it that storylines were getting more unrealistic? Was it that the WWE seemed to be heading back to their format in the 1980’s, before the whole “Attitude” era?

Wrestling’s “Louisville Slugger” Jim Cornette may have summed up what is wrong with today’s pro wrestling business in a single post on his website entitled “The ‘Write’ Stuff” [he posted 4/24/09: there isn’t a direct link to the post, just the commentary page, which may have more items on it in the future].

I’m quoting a few portions of what he wrote, along with my take on the situation. I’d encourage you to read the full article on his site. The highlighting is my emphasis:

Let’s clarify our terms at the start. Pro wrestling doesn’t have “writers”, it has a BOOKER. “Sports entertainment” has “writers”

…The WWE executives and higher-ups have deluded themselves into thinking that they really AREN’T in the wrestling business, that they have created something better than “rasslin’ “, as they condescendingly refer to it…

Nowhere is this more prevalent as on their “creative team”, which is what they optimistically call their “writers”…

Last October, I wrote something about the WWE Push into Japan. The WWE continues to bill themselves as “sports entertainment”, a “genre they created in the US”, and refers to storylines as “good vs. evil”, rather than areas of gray which I find much more interesting.

Last November, CEO Linda McMahon made a statement during the company’s quarterly conference call stating that they didn’t view TNA as competition- they view other forms of entertainment as competition. I can’t find the exact quote that I saw back then, but it was something like “they are wrestling, but we are entertainment. We do television, [crappy] movies, video games, books, merchandising, etc.

Last December, at the UBS Media Conference in New York City, McMahon described the WWE strategy of getting kids hooked on the product at a young age. I remember their strategy about 20 yrs ago was to get the young kids hooked so that they’d sell another ticket for the parent who had to escort them there. And the main reason to get them there was to sell them merchandise. McMahon was recently nominated to the Connecticut Board of Education.

This goes along with Vince McMahon‘s comments about TNA wrestling, saying that the WWE is PG, while TNA is rated TV-14. He also has the balls to be critical of their storylines, considering what he has put on the air in the last decade (the “Kiss My Ass Club” for starters). This taming of the product is a fairly recent change, but he makes it sound like it isn’t. If you consider that they’re getting back to how they were in the 1980s, then I guess it’s partially true.

So I’d say there is quite a bit of evidence supporting the statement that the WWE view themselves as “above” or “more than” just professional wrestling.

TNA president Dixie Carter (sounds like a singer) said in an interview that “Wrestling is kind of a dirty word to a lot of people. Here I am, a young woman not [originally] from the industry. I don’t represent the perception of wrestling.” She also says, “At a time when people can’t buy expensive items, wrestling is a good way of suspending disbelief for just a minute. It can be perceived as blue collar but if you look at our audience you have guys who work at a bank and grandmas and kids and guys getting their masters degree. It’s so much more diverse than people perceive it to be.”

Cornette continues…

So Stephanie [McMahon], as head of creative, hires people like her.Young people with college degrees in writing, many with experience writing scripted television, comedy shows in particular, with little or no respect for wrestling, and little if any experience performing ANYTHING. As a matter of fact, being a fan of wrestling is not even a requirement for the job, and God forbid if you DO admit to being a wrestling fan, and having watched any other wrestling besides WWE, you will at best be viewed as a “mark” and your days numbered…

…In this process, all the individuality has been taken from the talent. As the RAW script which was recently leaked on the internet shows, every word, every bit of business, even every gesture is scripted and only the upper echelon of talent has the liberty of any improvisation. Wrestling has been homogenized, pasteurized, and “sanitized for your protection” like a cellophane wrapper on a toilet seat at a cheap motel…

You can find the (supposed) scan of the Raw script at this link to  ProWrestlingNews.

I can’t say for sure whether the RAW script is real or not. I guess I would have expected the WWE logo to be on it, and to have “company confidential” or some other disclaimer on it as what you would have in an office environment. Possibly even individually numbered, or printed on colored paper making it harder to copy. Maybe they don’t have to go to such lengths as a movie studio would, or a TV show protecting plot twists, since the script is short lived and broadcast live in a matter of days. Still, I would have expected it to look more official.

For the purpose of this discussion I’ll assume it’s legit, although if it isn’t it makes a weaker case for the argument that “..every word, every bit of business, even every gesture is scripted…“.

At the local level, we have only the promoters/bookers (usually the same person, but not always). The wrestling talent are given a lot of creative freedom, both in the interviews and promos we cut, and in the matches themselves. That doesn’t mean you don’t need some oversight though. You need someone to make sure everyone doesn’t do the same finish. Ideally you have someone thinking about matches a few months down the road and not just about tonight, but things can change around a lot when people don’t show up due to travel problems or “personal issues”. Unless you run regularly in the same venue(s), you can’t really put together a program.

Ten years ago, many of the promoters weren’t quite up on the fact that there was this thing called the “internet”, and that you couldn’t have the same finish two nights in a row without someone finding out about it. Even if you weren’t online, there were times when there would be Fri & Sat shows within a 20 mile radius that would get the same people. Having a guy be a heel one night and a babyface the next didn’t make sense. But if someone no-showed, there wasn’t a lot that could be done. Would have been nice to give a reason for the turn, but that’s a whole other issue.

With one exception (another story), nobody ever told me what to moves to do or what not to do. They may give their opinion on what they think doesn’t work for me, but other than some very basic direction I never was told specifically what to say or do. I think this holds true for everyone else as far as I know. You sank or swam based on what you yourself came up with. If you got over, you got over. If not, you had to decide whether or not to come up with another gimmick.

Who you were paired against (or paired with in a tag team) could make a big difference, but the guys who were good could work with anybody. They made lemonade.

There were some promoters that required you to get permission from them to get on the mic, but they were just trying to keep the people who weren’t good talkers from spending 10 mins going from one run-on sentence to another.

Which brings me to one of the next points from Cornette:

The matches themselves, the very basis of how wrestling sells tickets, are minimized in importance because, from bell to bell, the matches are the one thing that’s hardest for the “writers” to control. The overwritten, overproduced skits take precedent.

That is one of my biggest beefs with the product today. On average, a Monday Night Raw episode has about 17 mins of programming before they have the first match or any physical confrontation. TNA is about 15 mins. During the episodes that have a shorter amount of time at the opening, the skits and mic time are just shifted until later in the program. On my data, since I usually fast forward through these segments, that results in less time watching the program.

Unfortunately, when you look at the quarter hour ratings for these programs, these segments are probably around the highest rated (at least they used to be when I was tracking this stuff more closely). Why? My theory is that the higher ratings are due to Neilsen “rubber-neckers”. Like a slowdown on the freeway due to an accident being mostly from people who are trying to see what happened, there is a certain percentage of non wrestling fans that stop on wrestling while flipping channels. If they are in the middle of a match, they may just keep flipping, but if there is something else going on, they may hang out for awhile. They won’t be tuning in next week, and they won’t be buying any of your merchandise or PPVs, but if they’re on the Neilsen list, they give you a little tick in the ratings. This makes the “creative team” think that it’s a sign they’re heading down the right path. So they keep trying to top themselves chasing an audience they are never going to have, while simultaneously alienating the audience they did have (like me).

Cornette finishes with this:

Wrestling is a talent-driven industry.The stars are ultimately the ones the fans pay to see, or watch on TV. But never in our sport’s history have people who have no experience and background in or respect for our industry had so much control over those who do. And that’s sad, for the wrestlers AND the fans.

What’s interesting is that Cornette is a part of TNA wrestling, who I’m assuming also has a “creative team” of “writers”. The difference may be that they don’t script every comma and exclamation point, but they sure come up with some God-awful ideas. Embarrassingly bad ideas (see Circling the Bowl?). The X-Division stars have been minimized in favor of the aging stars of yesteryear (see  TNA Boneheads Volume 2).

While I agree with just about everything Cornette has to say, I don’t see the promotion he’s involved in being any better. It was better a year ago than it is now. It was better two years ago than it was last year . Where will it be a year from now?