Monday Night RAW ratings have been declining heavily in the past twelve months. Meanwhile, WWE’s sister brand NXT continues to increase popularity with its weekly shows exclusively available on the WWE Network streaming service. The question remains then – should RAW be taking lessons from how NXT’s weekly programming? Or perhaps there’s a very good reason to why RAW is not like NXT.
First let’s compare the two shows. First Monday Night RAW. RAW follows a format that remains relatively unchanged from the Attitude Era. The average show will begin with a 20-minute opening promo usually hyping and setting up the main event. Several matches will follow interspersed with a few more in-ring promos and the occasional backstage interview. Oh, and there will more than likely be a guest commentary segment.
The matches on RAW will generally be two established talents facing off against each other. This makes repeat matches an inevitability. Regularly a challenger will face a champion on RAW in a non-title match before getting the actual title match at the pay-per-view event. There are positives to this approach. For instance, this means that you are likely to get many competitive, back-and-forth matches on RAW which provide great in-ring action. In addition, if you have a big match between two talents on RAW instead of a PPV, it will likely increase television ratings (and in WWE’s current climate TV is its most important commodity). This was a tactic used constantly by WCW Monday Nitro (see Goldberg vs Hogan).
The problems with this approach comes from the law of diminishing returns. The more you repeat the same matches, week-after-week, the less impact they have on the overall product. As the company also employs a lot of 50/50 booking, these matches also fail to get anyone over as most of the roster spends their time trading wins and losses. That’s probably one of the big reasons why the part-time stars are so much more over than the full-time ones. Part-timers don’t generally have to fight on RAW and get stuck in 50/50 booking purgatory.
NXT’s approach really does focus on building stars. The majority of NXT’s weekly programming consists of squash matches between an established talent and an enhancement talent. One or two matches a week will see two established talents square off against each other and their match will almost always be promoted in advance.
This process makes almost every named member of the NXT roster look like a star. Even when many of the established talents will have to ‘do the job’ at the Takeover special, they will ultimately get the chance to redeem themselves in squashes after that defeat. This also makes talent they want to push look particularly strong, enabling the creation of clear NXT stars. It also means when two established talents go head-to-head at a Takeover special, they have likely never or rarely faced their opponent in the ring before. This makes all these match-ups feel fresh and special.
There are downsides to this approach however. Back in the early days of RAW, it was also booked as a show consisting mostly of squash matches. As a result, it began to lose ratings, leading to WCW winning the Monday Night Wars for two years. Squash matches are usually of little significance and can feel like they are just there to kill time on a programme. When you see them again and again on NXT, it does make you want to hit that skip button and not watch it.
NXT does do a good job at adding nuance to their squash matches. Recently Asuka knocked out Deonna Purrazzo as opposed to pinning her. This established Asuka as a really dangerous threat who could not only beat an opponent but be a hazard to their health as well. However for every Asuka nuance there’s a bloody Elias Samson squash match which is pretty unwatchable in my opinion.
So what’s the best option? Well I believe variety is the spice of life. Both shows seem to have quite the regimented format and it would be nice to see them mix it up now and again. In fairness, NXT did this a few weeks ago by providing a bumper episode with lots of important matches on. RAW however rarely changes things up. The last time I can remember RAW starting with a match was the Chris Jericho vs Bray Wyatt cage match from about 18 months ago (correct me if I’m wrong).
I think WWE’s approach to its main show is one of fear and nostalgia. Vince McMahon and co. know that the current format worked back in the 1990s and are worried that changing it will mean the ratings will drastically go down instead of the more gentle decline they’ve experienced over the years. They won’t adopt the NXT format because they don’t want to go back to the dark days of the early to mid-90s that almost put the company out of business. For NXT though, the squash format works. They don’t have to worry about TV deals as they are exclusive to the WWE Network so their individual ratings are not as important as RAW’s. The format also allows them to showcase new stars and get them prepared to at least be recognised when they make their transition to the main roster.
While I’m definitely an advocate for changing the format of Monday Night RAW, I’m not entirely convinced that the answer to all of WWE’s ills can come from NXT. Ratings and money matter and while I might not agree with it, I can definitely understand why RAW is what it is in 2016.