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Is Raw’s three-hour format sustainable?

In January of 1998, WCW Monday Nitro made the switch to a three-hour format. After trial-running it in the latter parts of 1997, TNT began airing an extra hour in the 8/7CT timeslot, an hour before WWF Raw is War began. The strategy was obvious; get a leg-up on McMahon, tease some must-watch segments for the head-to-head hours and try to keep viewers from changing the channel.

In fact, Nitro was the first to switch to a two-hour format, back in the summer of 1996. Raw at the time was still a one-hour show and the now-longer Nitro, coupled with the invasion of the Outsiders and formation of the nWo, helped TNT’s flagship program begin a two-year run at the top of the ratings. Raw scrambled to a live, two-hour format as well, but they were chasing the leader from the beginning.

By the time Nitro moved to three-hours, the show was still number-one, but it was a far less stable top-spot. Stone Cold Steve Austin was hot as fire and on his way to a Royal Rumble win and eventual WWF Championship victory. Raw’s ratings were steadily improving as the fans who watched Nitro by default and only switched to Raw during a commercial or particularly boring segment slowly started become Raw watchers by default who only switched to Nitro when the coast was clear.

Now Vince McMahon has said before that he thinks the ideal length of a weekly wrestling show should be ninety minutes. His instincts are probably right generally speaking, but the late-90’s was a big wrestling bubble that everyone wanted to enjoy; it’s the nature of capitalism to keep blowing more and more hot air into a bubble until it finally bursts. You gotta milk every last dollar out of a fad before it fades. For a time, WCW was milking Nitro like masters and the three-hour format worked like gangbusters.

The variety of talent on display, who were mostly allowed to just go out and do whatever they wanted, made for a “something for everyone” wrestling show that was almost like a confederation of various independent wrestling groups all under one banner. You had your high-flying cruisers, your wacky characters peppered throughout, your technical wrestlers in the midcard and your poached WWF main-eventers topping the bill.

Despite a lot more air time to cover, WCW did not slow down the pace. Instead they went balls to the wall. It wasn’t uncommon for a three hour Nitro to be almost wall-to-wall wrestling, especially for the first two hours before Hogan showed up. It was perfectly ordinary to see a losing wrestler walk up the ramp while the next competitor walked down it. There was a sense of urgency on display because Eric Bischoff knew if he ever gave the viewer the opportunity, they’d switch to Raw.

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Raw, meanwhile, took a totally different tactic. Instead of wall-to-wall wrestling, Raw flip-flopped between matches and skits, as Vince Russo played offensive coordinator with Vince McMahon’s playbook. The so-called Crash TV era is maligned today, but at least the show was constantly happening, with everyone on TV having a gimmick, a story, a reason for their being on TV, something. They had to, because Vince knew if he ever gave the viewer the opportunity, they’d switch to Nitro.

But Nitro’s three-hour format was not an end unto itself. It was not the reason for the show’s success or its viewer retention (for all the desire to use the first hour as a hook for the next two, fans still flipped over to Raw whenever they got curious or bored). Nitro’s three-hour format was merely an opportunity to exploit the late-90’s wrestling fad. The thing about fads is…once they end you can’t force them to be popular again (see the New Generation Era for exhibit A). Furthermore, once fans started preferring Raw to Nitro there was nothing WCW could do to win those fans back. It was a preference cascade at that point and in January of 2000 Nitro switched back to (the cheaper) two-hour format, a concession that merely fueled the consensus that Raw was pulling away with a victory in the Monday Night Wars.

A little over a year later, WCW was sold to Vince McMahon for a box of skittles and two tickets to Cats on Broadway.

Fast forward to 2012: Raw is still going, but the bubble of the late 90’s burst years ago. It’s not a stretch to say Vince himself popped it with the purchase of WCW and subsequent InVasion angle. Regardless, the WWE in 2012 was not the must-watch program it was in 2000. John Cena was a steady as she goes captain of the ship but he was not the pop culture phenomenon that the Rock or Austin was. That’s not really his fault; as said, once people move on from a fad there’s almost nothing you can do to recapture their attention.

Nevertheless, despite no new market to tap into, no uptick in interest from casual viewers to exploit, and no real desire from loyalists, Raw switched to three hours. Despite Vince’s belief that a show literally half that length was “ideal” Raw switched to three hours. USA was probably the driving factor here, as Raw was the most popular show on the number-one network on cable and they wanted to get more for their money. No one involved believed that too much of a good thing was a problem. It also never occurred to them that the two-hour Raw wasn’t even a consistent “good thing” either, so giving fans more to sit through was not a guaranteed recipe for success.

Unlike Nitro, that went out of its way to make the first hour unique (with different announcers and talent on display), Raw’s three-hour show is basically like the two-hour version, only an hour longer. And unlike Nitro, that felt the pressure to push push push, and play the pro wrestling equivalent of a two-minute offense, Raw goes through its three-hour broadcast with the deliberate pace of the turtle who raced the hare.

Raw is slow. Raw is padded. Raw is stretched thin, and even during the short-lived era between the end of the first brand-split and beginning of the second, when the show had more talent on hand than it’d had in a decade, Raw still felt far too slow, padded and thin.

Maybe USA was not interested in increasing the ratings with the third-hour addition; maybe they just wanted to hold on to the two-hour audience and get them to watch the third and then reap the rewards in extra ad revenue. If that was their strategy it was a misfire; Raw’s numbers have trended downward regardless…

There was a slight uptick after the move to three hours, but it was a only a bounce, and it has now faded. In fact, since the move to three hours, Raw has lost 25% of its audience. There are outside factors to consider (such as the decline of cable TV viewership in the era of cord-cutting) but 25% is a huge chunk no matter how you slice it.

For Memorial Day (an easy benchmark for comparison as it’s a Monday holiday every year), Raw in 2013 drew almost 4 million viewers. In 2014 it was 3.6 million. In 2015 they held true with the same number, but it dropped in 2016 to 3.2. This year was abysmal with only 2.6 million tuning in. Going from four million to two-and-a-half million is a 35% decrease in viewers. Not good.

So what’s the problem? There are many, but each of them has to be viewed through the prism of general apathy toward WWE. This is not an era where TV watchers are falling over themselves to watch the product. As a result, any excuse you give someone to pass on watching is a good enough excuse for them...and WWE has been giving TV watchers plenty of excuses not to watch.

For one thing the west coast is not watching the first hour and the east coast is not watching the third hour. Raw starts at 5pm in Aberdeen right as many are getting home from work or are out to dinner. Raw ends at 11:05pm in Charlotte well after much of their target audience (eleven year old kids) are in bed on a school night. At this point it’s such a given that the third hour will be the weakest of the three that Raw basically books its biggest segment at the end of hour two and leaves the third hour for the garbage-time filler stuff.

There’s also simply too much fat meant to pad the length that viewers are forced to sit through. To go back to Vince’s quote about the ideal length of a wrestling broadcast, these three-hour Raws feel like the WWE “creative” team writes a ninety-minute show and then pads it with more cheap filler than a mob-built Las Vegas hotel. A lack of enthusiasm among hardcore fans and certainly casual viewers means that massive three-hour time block is a commitment most will pass on. Three hours is a long time; you’re basically saying “this is what I’m doing from the moment I settle in after work to the moment I get ready for bed.” There’s just not enough viewers out there willing to agree to give WWE three hours of their evening every Monday.

And then there are the plethora of little reasons to skip the show that WWE happily gives its fans. Did you pass on Raw last week? That’s fine you can watch the 90 minute Hulu version. Don’t have Hulu? No problem, all the important moments are on WWE’s official YouTube channel within twenty-four hours. And beyond that, if you missed a hot match just wait: It’ll be rematched as early the next week.

If you listen to Forbes (don’t), they surmise that WWE may return to 2 hours when their current TV deal with USA expires. If they do, it’s likely they will drop the third hour not the first, and make Raw a 7-9pm (central time) show. But so far Vince has shown no inclination to do this. If anything he’s doubling down on the idea that longer=better (a six-hour SummerSlam event shows that much). And while he does, Raw continues to bleed viewers and continues giving fans every reason to keep tuning out.

Sound off, Cagesiders: Do you think WWE can sustain its three-hour format every week? Do you see them dropping the third hour? Would you like to see the company reformat the show and make either the first or third hour something different (maybe move 205Live to USA, or a show exclusively staring women)?

Let us know in the comments below, and as always I’m Matthew Martin: I love WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching it again.

See you next Monday.

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