As 2017 draws to a close it’s natural to look back on the year that has been and look ahead to the year to come. 2018 will be a milestone year for WWE as it will bring about the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw. The show has gone through a lot of changes over the years and if there’s one thing WWE excels at, it’s pulling the nostalgia strings with a well-made video and some good cameos. It should be a fun episode next month.
Hopefully the “weeoo weeoo” sirens make a come back…and Vince McMahon in a red bow tie.
Wrestling television is a completely different specimen in 2017 than it was in 1993, or even 2003. With the three hour format on Raw and with SmackDown going live, both of the main-roster shows have fundamentally changed. SmackDown is no longer a B show; even though it’ll never have Brock Lesnar on its roster, it will always have a solid lineup simply because USA will demand it. The show will continue to mean more than it has ever meant before. Raw on the other hand has struggled mightily under the three hour format. The show, especially in the brand-split era, relies too much on padding to stretch out its long runtime, leaving audiences exhausted and viewers at home bored.
It’s become customary for fans at home to pre-record Raw, watch it the next day and fast-forward through the boring or otherwise pointless parts. A three hour broadcast can be cut down to a nice half-hour or forty-five minutes that way. Think I’m exaggerating? Just losing the commercials knocks off an hour. Cut the opening half hour (which is usually worthless) and another half hour’s worth of backstage skits that amount to a pointless segment in the final hour (that itself takes a good half hour to get through) and just like that you’d down to only one-hour of show left to watch. Skip the thirty seconds of wrestlers walking down the isle before every match, and another thirty seconds of commentary recapping what you just saw after every match, and…yeah: You’ve got yourself a forty-five minute show.
That’s not at all what WWE wants you to do, however. And certainly that’s not what USA wants. The network paid big money to Vince McMahon on the understanding that Raw was the network’s big “live TV” program. A live show attracts more money for advertising, since live shows are supposed to be watched…well, live (go figure). Watching live means you can’t skip the commercials, which means advertisers will get more for their money putting their thirty-second spots on a live show, like a sporting event, than they would on an episodic show that viewers might be more inclined to wait and watch in bulk at a later date.
As long as wrestling fans treat Monday Night Raw (and to a lesser—by one hour—extent, Tuesday Night SmackDown) like it’s the wrestling version of Monday Night Football they will tune in and watch it live. Trouble is, they don’t, and the downward rating trends prove it.
Granted, all television is in a downward ratings trend; but that’s the point: Live shows are supposed to be, if not immune to those trends, then at least better insulated from them. Raw has not been.
What’s interesting, however, is that SmackDown has been far more steady in the ratings department since moving to Tuesday nights. They have highs and lows as you’d expect, but the peaks and valleys are far less extreme. Certainly not having football as a competitor for a quarter of the year is a big help, but it’s also the fact that the show—being only two hours—is so much easier to watch. Unlike Raw, SmackDown can’t really be cut down to a sub-hour long watch. Take away the commercials and it’s an hour and twenty minutes or so, but there are less than twenty minutes of superfluous promos and such like to wade through. Because the show is only two hours long, it is written and shot with much more of a sense of urgency. Things move faster so you don’t feel the passage of time as greatly as you do on Raw.
Raw’s biggest problem is how slow it is. It’s a far cry from the 1998-2000 era shows, when the show seemingly threw everything against the wall every week, and even if a segment was a dud there was no time to dwell on it because they quickly moved on to the next one. They had to, because if they bored you for more than four seconds they knew you’d change the channel to TNT to see what Nitro was up to. That sense of urgency is the single biggest hindrance to Monday Night Raw. It’s not even the fact that the show is the length of the Godfather every single week; it’s that the show feels like it’s as long as War and Peace.
On the other side of the spectrum is NXT. The Wednesday night offering is one hour of wrestling that often feels like the first hour of a two hour show. That’s a product of it being a pre-taped show, I suppose, but the show has always struggled (even in its peak 2014-2015 era) with feeling like half a show that doesn’t “end” every week so much as it just “stops.” A good ending can make you want more. A bad one leaves you feeling cheated. NXT has a much smaller roster than the main-shows, so it’s understandable why they space everyone out and stretch everything out across a month’s worth of tapings, but it doesn’t change the fact that the end product is a weekly show that either has to rush through it’s two or three matches or devote 75% of its time to one big match, leaving little for anything else.
Maybe Vince McMahon was right when he said, a lifetime ago, that the ideal length for a wrestling show is “ninety minutes.”
Looking back at this year’s television output, if I were to apply a grade to it, it would be C+. SmackDown has thrived, despite a few weeks-long stretches of mediocrity. Raw has struggled, despite a few stretches of high-quality. NXT has remained constant, though that means constantly mildly frustrating.
I see no hope for Raw, as I see no way they cut back to two hours. The only way I can see them fixing their Monday night problem would be to completely revamp either the first or third hour, turning it into a separate show (either a womens-focused one, or 205 Live, or something like that), leaving the other two hours for a proper two-hour Raw, whose writing can be tailor-made for a two-hour broadcast. SmackDown needs to just keep doing what its doing and NXT will probably never move past a one-hour format, so it will always feel incomplete to me, no matter how good or bad the actual offering is each week.
WWE TV has been alright this year, but not good and certainly not great.
What do you think Cagesiders? There’s been so much WWE to watch this year; did you find yourself watching more or less of the product? Do you watch live from beginning to end? What changes would you like to see—if any—to help the TV product going forward? Besides less of this of course:
Let us know in the comments below!