In my tribute to Owen Hart, I mentioned what it was like for me watching WWE Pay-Per-Views in the late 1990s. During this time in the UK, RAW aired on Friday nights, and I was too young to understand that the show had already happened, and although I had access to the Internet, I had never heard the term ‘dirt sheet’. My usual routine on a Friday evening consisted of sending mum and dad to bed around 8.30, so that I could get the armchair and my snacks all ready for 9pm, which is when RAW is War started at 9pm on Sky Sports.
Fresh in my mind every week were the events of the week before, especially if my favourite wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin has been beat down as the show went off the air. I wanted to know how he would retaliate. Storyline continuity, no matter how minor, carried on from the first minute, all the way until the last. From the Godfather and Val Venis, to Austin and The Rock, everyone had their spot, and knew how to maximise their TV time.
That was then. Today is a very different environment. What was socially acceptable in the late 1990s, would now be socially annihilated by the media and everyone with an opinion, for better or worse. When World Championship Wrestling was faltering in 1999, I looked at their product and saw a company who had no creative direction, were quite clearly working on scripts during the day of shows, and to reiterate, and this point kayfabe still had me on the right side of the curtain. I looked at the WWF at the time as a company that were doing everything right and catering to an 18-30 age demographic. Never in my wildest vision did I ever see the WWE becoming WCW circa 1999-2000, but here we are.
People can attribute the WWE’s decline in popularity to a plethora of things. The main one always seemed to be their lack of competition in the early 2000s. Their play on ‘sports entertainment’ instead of pro wrestling rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but their ratings stayed strong for a time and I continued watching.
From a personal standpoint, I started slowing down on watching the WWE product in around 2008. Thanks to the internet, I didn’t need to watch all of RAW and SmackDown anymore. Sky Sports had caught up and was airing both shows live (1am Tuesday morning for RAW), and I dotted in and out of shows that had any high points, like a return segment or a great end to a match or story.
My reasoning for its decline is threefold. One more than the other. The first is the emphasis on a PG program. Now I know people have been putting their two cents in on this subject for some time, but constraints that ultimately affected certain aspects of storytelling in the WWE were taken away. One example (and it’s a bad one) is the use of blood. I get it, you don’t want talents to be blading every week. Nor would I want that. But look what a blade job did for the Cody-Dustin match at Double or Nothing. It added to the drama of the story being told in the ring. It seems like a small thing, and maybe it is. But when you couple that with all the other little things, certain divisions of your audience will fall off.
Secondly, and probably most damning is creative. A wide area of coverage I appreciate, but the overly-scripted feel of the show is really damaging to the viewers, many of whom like me are ‘in the know’ of the business. When something doesn’t sound legitimate, or like the character who’s saying it, it feels fake. Again, during the 90s, The Rock and Austin reacted to situations in the exact way that their characters would. This made what they were doing believable. Allowing for a suspension of disbelief however small. Building someone organically like Becky Lynch who came across as the anti-authoritarian only to have her apologise to the authority on television really hurts the mystique of the character that you are trying to get over. Five hours of television a week is daunting and horrific task for anyone, and almost guarantee’s failure of at least one angle.
For example, the Iiconic’s have lost over 805 of their matches on television since they became Women’s Tag Team Champions. How am I supposed to invest in their characters if I see them lose so frequently that it gets into my mind-set? I believe that they will lose every match on television and it shocks me when they win.
Finally, there are no stars being built. With the way talents are booked week to week, it is almost impossible that if you’re not Roman or Brock, you’re probably not super over with the live crowd. With Brock, I invest in his legitimised MMA career, which makes me believe he could seriously hurt someone. With Roman, he has the Superman edge to him, so he is great at telling the superhero story in a match. I wanted to believe in Braun Strowman and the first incarnation of Bray Wyatt and looked what 50/50 booking did to their mystique.
I realised the other day that aside from WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble, I have not watched WWE programming since the build to WrestleMania 33. That’s over two years ago now. I remember a time in my life when I was so invested in the WWE and their incredible characters and stories, and now it’s simply a marriage of convenience. With the influx of potential competition, hopefully the antiquated way Vince has been micromanaging will eventually stop and lead to a much better product across the board. For me, the spark has gone.
All videos and photos courtesy of WWE.com