This Sunday at TLC the WWE and world heavyweight titles will be hanging above the ring for two young, rising stars in Randy Orton and John Cena to gr...wait. Okay, so perhaps Orton and Cena aren't young and possibly don't really need the rub of winning the new unified WWE championship.
Once Cena defeated Alberto Del Rio for the world heavyweight championship it became evident what creative had in mind -- a unification match. Early into the Orton-Cena feud it actually looked like WWE may not pull the trigger on unifying the two championships -- but things have changed. Unifying the championships makes sense -- the brand extension is over and nobody actually believes the two titles are on the same level anymore. (The world heavyweight championship hasn't closed out a pay-per-view since 2010). But WWE has waited to find the moment to finally end the charade and crown one world champion. It's the logical next step in the company, but is it the right move for the company's health long-term?
Stephanie McMahon publicly acknowledged the end of the brand split earlier this year saying, "We are all telling the same stories. And digital and social offer the ability to continue storylines 24/7 so our fans can consume content anytime, anywhere on the device they prefer."
There a lot of fallacies within this quote from Stephanie that to the casual wrestling observer probably seems fine. The majority of WWE superstars are now appearing on both Raw and SmackDown. That's true. So, storylines should be continuing on both shows but for that to really be the case things of consequence must transpire on both shows. Just taking 2013 for example, if you have missed every single SmackDown this year but tuned into every edition of Raw you would not find yourself scratching your head wondering what's going on at any point in time. That's the case because even though superstars are competing on both shows the mega stars (Cena and CM Punk) are rarely appearing on SmackDown and any event from that show is rarely mentioned the following week on Raw.
The other major issue with the storytelling aspect of Stephanie's quote is the assumption that it's best for a messy, disorganized WWE storyline climate. With how quickly plans change it's becoming increasingly more difficult for fans to fully buy in to the product and it's simply because WWE doesn't have the organization and long-term vision necessary to get what it truly wants -- besides more money -- for fans to connect with the product.
The cluttered strategy of having superstars appear on every show probably relieves a lot of stress for the creative team. The only big picture storylines they really have to worry about is the WWE title picture and the rest can change on the fly because it's inconsequential and the fans forget. If you asked the average fan who currently holds the United States title I'd be willing to bet most would have no clue -- and it's not their fault. Dean Ambrose has held the title since early this summer, but has not been in one long-term singles feud over the belt in that span of time. It's an ornament that isn't doing anything for anyone because they haven't given fans a reason to care about the mid-card titles. How do you get fans to once again care about the mid-card titles? Placing the title holders in long-term, personal feuds at a consistent rate.
It's the same situation with the world heavyweight championship. Del Rio held that title for what felt like decades. He is an incredibly talented worker but the audience could not care any less about him as a character. His feuds haven't been personal, and the writing team hasn't given fans a reason to hate him -- although carrying a Mexican flag to the ring just might be exactly what the doctor ordered (it's not). The last time Del Rio had any consistent heat was after the double-turn at Extreme Rules, but that didn't last. Del Rio really hasn't had consistent heat since his feud with Rey Mysterio because of how that storyline played out. Del Rio could regain a lot of his heat, but it will require a sympathetic face and consistent television and promo time for that to happen.
WWE originally created the brand split because of their surplus in superstars -- thanks to the WCW purchase -- but ratings gradually dropped over the years for SmackDown because of the inability to create new stars. The move to Friday nights from Thursday night didn't help, but as SmackDown became less important in the grand scheme of things the ratings reflected that. It's entirely possible for SmackDown to matter again, but it would probably have to add a third hour and the brand split would have to be restarted, which is definitely not happening anytime soon.
WWE is back where it started with Cena and Orton on top after they fumbled away Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Wade Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, The Miz, Zack Ryder, and Ryback's rise to the top. If things get rocky, WWE panics and goes back to Cena and Orton or other old stars. Sure, some of the superstars listed weren't perfect but they were over and had WWE stuck behind them long-term the company may not be trotting out Orton vs. Big Show WWE championship matches in 2013.
Perhaps it's time for Vince McMahon, Triple H, and Stephanie to take a step back and really think about how the current product is going to produce any new stars. The more unorganized the company gets with shows, Apps, etc. the more superstars get lost in the shuffle. PPV's like Survivor Series, SummerSlam, and Royal Rumble lose their luster. I wrote a few weeks back how WWE is conditioning their audience to believe everyone is on the same playing field for the most part. The company is also conditioning its audience to really only care about the WWE title picture. And that's a long-term problem the company is going full-speed into.
The best television shows generally feature slow-burn stories but still tie up loose ends (see Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc). WWE made the change years back to target children so tying up loose ends is not a necessity anymore because young kids don't care. If they did my generation would have turned off Power Rangers five minutes into the first episode. WWE doesn't worry about how feuds and storylines end because they can always drop everything and start a new course without a significant viewer drop-off (See: Big Show and Triple H).
The business is stagnant in viewership due to a number of factors, but mainly because they no longer have the adult male demographic. WWE can regain some of that market without even making significant changes to their current product. It just requires patience, sticking with guys even if it gets rocky at times, and giving the fans satisfying endings to storylines and feuds.