Tell me a story.
That simple declarative sentence is uttered, consciously or subconsciously, every time an individual turns on a television show or movie.
The art of storytelling is as old as mankind itself and, like mankind; it has continued to evolve with each passing generation. From Neanderthal drawings inside of caves and hieroglyphics on ancient Egyptian pyramids to Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe, the stimulation provided by the art of storytelling is a basic requirement for healthy cognitive functionality.
Furthermore, the art of storytelling, more so than any other intangible, is the lifeblood of any successful professional wrestling organization. A statement that has held true from the days of Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt to Dusty Rhodes and the Four Horsemen to Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon right up to John Cena and Kevin Owens today.
This past Monday’s episode of Raw suffered the second lowest non-holiday rating the show has received in 18 years.
Discouraging news that comes but a few weeks after the show received a 2.5 rating, the lowest rating for any episode of Raw in the last 17 years.
We’re talking about pre Attitude Era-type ratings, a period in time that saw WWE closer to outright bankruptcy than the publicly traded status it enjoys today.
WWE management has been meticulously analyzing and interpreting Raw’s ratings, down to quarter-hour statistics, since the height of the Monday Night War. Since then, a multitude of new and innovative platforms have fundamentally changed the way we as a society watch television, making the manner in which TV ratings are calculated as complex as the manner in which companies like WWE interpret them.
That said, a rudimentary understanding of the psychology influencing an individual’s viewing habits is enough to surmise a credible hypothesis as to why Raw’s ratings continue to sink.
WWE has consistently failed to tell its audience a good story- or in some instances, any story at all.
Let’s begin with Dolph Ziggler.
Ziggler has remained one of the most physically gifted athletes on the WWE roster since signing with the company in 2005 (speaking of bad storytelling, remember the Spirit Squad!). A ten-year veteran, Ziggler has held numerous titles, been involved in dozens of different angles and has shown the ability to wow the audience with an entertaining combination of technical and acrobatic wrestling acumen.
Who is Dolph Ziggler, what makes him tick?
Don’t worry, I’ll wait…
Is he a cocky jock?
A ladies man?
Some complex mixture of all three?
I’ve watched this character on television every week for a decade and I know more about Kevin Owens, who’s been on the main roster for a month, than I do about Dolph Ziggler. This egregious lack of character development has prevented any kind of meaningful emotional connection between Ziggler and the audience.
What kind of story can you tell with a character the audience isn’t connected to?
The answer: a very bad one.
The self professed ‘Showoff’ hasn’t had a 2015 worth showing off. In fact, He hasn’t won a match of importance since becoming the sole survivor and temporarily ridding the WWE Universe of The Authority at last November’s Survivor Series event. That notwithstanding, just two weeks ago on Raw, Ziggler described the most recent stretch of his character’s progression as being, "On a roll".
What roll is he on exactly?
In January he failed to win the Royal Rumble, despite having the advantage of drawing number 30. At Fastlane in February he was part of the losing team in a six-man tag match against Seth Rollins and The Authority. At WrestleMania 31 he failed to win the ladder match for the Intercontinental title. In April he actually won the Kiss Me Arse match against Sheamus, only to have the tides turned against him after he appeared far too eager to allow another man to place his lips on his bare posterior. The month of May was no better, as he lost his rematch with Sheamus before losing the Elimination Chamber match for the vacated IC title.
Despite this lengthy losing streak, Ziggler somehow managed to be included in last month’s Money in the Bank ladder match-only to come up short yet again.
So again, what kind of roll would he have us believe he is on?
Is Ziggler’s character supposed to be ironic? Does he believe he’s winning all these matches he’s actually losing? Is he out of touch with reality?
And what’s the deal with his relationship with Lana? The awkward love triangle story hasn’t been must-see television since it began last month but it has served in keeping Rusev relevant while he heals from an ankle injury. It’s also allowed Lana to shine. It’s even allowed Summer Rae the opportunity to get back on television in a meaningful way.
The only thing it hasn’t done is make Ziggler any more compelling as a character.
An overly braggadocios lothario who calls himself a showoff but never wins and openly admits to letting a woman use him to make another man jealous…sound like a heel to me.
Is Ziggler a heel?
Speaking of heels, can someone please tell me if Brie and Nikki Bella are heels or babyfaces?
The answer is likely no, since they don’t actually know week to week what they are.
How can anyone be expected to tell a story when they don’t even know what role they play in the story?
This brings us to Wade Barrett.
I mean Bad News Barrett.
I mean King Barrett.
Before long I’m sure he’ll fall in line with the latest Vince McMahon fixation, one name characters, and he’ll just be, Barrett.
Whatever his name is, why should I care about this character, because he won the prestigious King of the Ring tournament?
A tournament so important WWE spent exactly one week promoting the event before airing the finals on the WWE Network-a platform two thirds of its regular viewing audience has refused to purchase.
Ok so he’s King of the Ring, I guess that means he’s a pretty good wrestler.
What’s that, he’s not really that good?
What do you mean he’s not that good; he’s the King of the Ring.
He loses every week?
Yea but he’s King of the Ring, he’s competing against the best wrestlers on the roster.
He routinely loses to wrestlers at the bottom of the card while continuing to portray a character that rules over the WWE Universe with great power and skill?
So am I.
Monday Night Raw has been one of the few constants in my life since the show originally debuted in January of 1993. Around 7pm every Monday I start to get the itch. The eager anticipation to see something great, no matter how disappointing the show may have been the week before. A weekly reset of emotions and expectations not unlike the beginning of a new baseball season.
Sure, there are always going to be moments that make me pop. A high spot in an entertaining match, a surprising return or a skit that makes me laugh. Unfortunately these moments are few and far between anymore and before long the reset transforms into fatigue.
Fatigue from being forced to fill in the gaping holes in story after story in my own head. From wondering if I should be rooting for or against a certain character. From trying to equate what my eyes are seeing with the completely different narrative my ears are hearing.
Watching Raw is an exhausting exercise.
McMahon has pounded his audience over the head for 30 years with the concept that WWE is not wrestling- it’s entertainment.
Entertainment is supposed to be, well, entertaining. It’s not supposed to be work.
Loyal WWE fans and pro wrestling enthusiasts like myself will continue to watch Raw each week whether it’s compelling or not, not unlike a loyal fan of a pro sports franchise that has failed to make the playoffs for ten consecutive seasons. WWE (and by extension, Raw) is part of our internal identity. It’s very existence provides the cognitive stimulation we require.
Fans like us are represented in a 2.5 rating or the 1.3 million WWE Network subscribers. We watch and we will continue to watch, disgruntled though we may be.
But brand loyalty will only take you so far.
According to the Neilson Ratings Company, the average TV viewer watches five hours of programming a day. Asking that average viewer to dedicate 75% of their Monday viewing time to your product is a tall order-if not a complete overreach. Refusing to provide compelling, well designed, thoughtful and entertaining stories with a natural arch and satisfying conclusion is a sure way to fail in that endeavor.
People tune in to a TV show to be taken away on a journey, if only for a brief moment in time, by interesting characters doing crazy things in wild settings. When they don't receive what they're looking for they change the channel.
Pro wrestling is the perfect stage for that kind of journey to take place.
Oh that's right, I forgot, WWE isn't pro wrestling.
Unfortunately, it isn't very entertaining right now either.