WWE is once again embarking upon a historic milestone.
In celebration of episode No. 1000 of Monday Night Raw, beginning July 23, 2012, Raw will be moving permanently to a 3-hour timeslot. The news itself came from an ecstatic John Cena via Twitter:
“STARTING Monday Night July 23 @USA_NETWORK WILL BE ADDING A 3RD HOUR TO @WWE MONDAY NIGHT RAW – PERMANENTLY. #3hourRaw”
The WWE has certainly seen its share of ups and downs over the years. In general, they’ve done well in advertising and adapting their product with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. They’ve also grown as a company, shedding their ‘professional wrestling’ label and donning the more family-friendly ‘sports entertainment’ one.
Outside of the squared circle, the WWE and its Superstars have spent countless hours volunteering and dedicating themselves to doing things like granting wishes in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and protesting bullying through the Be A STAR Campaign.
While there’s no doubt that WWE has grown, it has also fallen significantly over the past decade or so. WWE has essentially forced by hand to implement a comprehensive Talent Wellness Program–a policy that tests for recreational drug use and abuse of prescription medication, including anabolic steroids, as well as for pre-existing or developing cardiac issues–following the untimely deaths of stars such as Eddie Guerrero (heart failure) and Chris Benoit (double-murder suicide).
Ratings are down across the board, and with the new PG-style programming–no more chairshots to the head, no more bleeding, no more Attittude Era Superstars–WWE has successfully alienated a large market of their older audience, which, in turn, can negatively affect their younger audience as well.
The quality of Monday Night Raw has also steadily declined in recent years. While ratings remain high enough that USA Network continues to back them, the Nielson ratings are almost half of what they were in the mid-to-late 1990′s. The roster is as deep as ever now, with an abundance of talent scraping and clawing for non-existent airtime. It’s fair to compare undeveloped WWE talent to undeveloped professional athletes. Sometimes, it’s the situation at hand that forces a talent to bud into a Superstar, as we saw with CM Punk’s rise to fame.
With Raw permanently moving to 3-hour shows, though, this could be the opening that many WWE Superstars need to finally gain that crucial exposure. The question remains, though, is a weekly 3-hour show in WWE’s best interest?
Generally, when I learn of a 3-hour Raw in the near future, I cringe. That’s not good. Often, when Raw is stretched an extra hour, the product is rammed with short, filler matches; we get extraneous video packages highlighting what we just saw a week or two before; and we get pointless backstage segments that accomplish nothing and don’t advance any characters or storylines. Why? It serves no purpose, and it makes the quality of the show suffer.
In the rare case that we don’t get the barrage of nonsense I just listed, we’ll usually get one hour of John Cena on camera. Now sometimes, that isn’t always a bad thing, but having a character overexposed and overused can be bad because it ruins novelty and momentum. It’s fine to dance with the one that brought you, but it needs to be within reason. Filling three hours with your top five guys doesn’t necessarily make the show better.
Think of it like this–when The Rock comes out, the arena absolutely explodes. “If ya smell” sounding through the speakers is the equivalent of gunpowder on a spark. But if we hear that song three or four times on a show, including backstage segments and promos, the lustre and uniqueness of the moment is lost. Ultimately, WWE often isn’t efficient with the extra time, and that’s the biggest thing they’ll need to address entering the July 23 show.
The first big benefit of the move is what I mentioned earlier–the abundance of talent that simply can’t fit into a 2-hour show. So many stars are forced to compete in mundane 60-second matches that don’t allow them to showcase what they’re truly capable of, in the ring or on the mic. By adding another hour, these stars can get more exposure, and for some of them, get some airtime at all.
It seems simple enough. Why not give your best mic and in-ring performers some more time? Or even your underrated, seldom-used, super-athletic talent some time? Instead of Dolph Ziggler vs. Kofi Kingston getting 9 minutes, how about 15 with a good story with riveting in-ring action? Surely, the two are more than capable of it, as we’ve seen countless times. Instead of 6-minute tag matches between four singles wrestlers thrown together, why not develop a real tag team division and build storylines, letting them go more than 10 minutes to perform?
Or how about developing a legitimate stable? Legacy was cool, and Nexus was a good concept, but both had their flaws. The biggest one in my eyes was the shortage of people. How can a stable consist of just three people? A stable needs to be like five or more. Nexus had the ability to really take flight when CM Punk’s short reign began, but that’s an argument for a different day.
Back to match times–even the Divas are limited. Arguably the two most talented Divas in the company, Beth Phoenix and Natalya, are rarely used to their full potential (especially the latter), and the extra hour could be used to show what the more talented Divas can do. Come to think of it, none of the Divas really have any character or personality. Sure, they’re either heel or babyface, but for no reason other than backstabbing an ally or coming to the aid of a babyface. None of them cut promos, and none of them perform for longer than 2 minutes in a single match. There’s just no depth in their character. As with the midcard, it’s very easy change this, and I hope the added time will help to rectify this.
Essentially, the success of a 3-hour show is contingent on WWE’s Creative booking. If they choose to add five matches in that extra hour, all of them will be short and insignificant–an inconsequential move that won’t benefit anyone–talent or fans. With the proper booking and storytelling, the Creative team is more than capable of developing some very intriguing and compelling storylines that shift the focus away from the major championships for once. Not everything needs to come down to the WWE Championship or World Heavyweight Championship. By keeping the focus on the two major belts, you alienate everyone else not in that picture, and basically streamline your attention to two or three stars.
Given the current state of affairs, the WWE midcard is booked so poorly these days, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the extra time was dedicated solely to the main event stars. Like I said, it’s possible to have strong setups away from the major titles. It can be done, and it has been done. It requires good promo work and a good storyline, but most of all, it requires adequate buildup. If there’s no human interest element, it won’t draw any eyes, and fans will turn themselves off.
The extra hour could also mean fewer roster cuts come ‘spring cleaning.’ The roster currently has more than 70 people on it (more than 100 counting NXT & FCW), and only a fraction of them are consistent Raw or SmackDown performers. Generally, the rule of thumb when roster cuts come is as follows: if you don’t see them in either show consistently, their job is considered in jeopardy. Hopefully the added time will allow WWE to use their talent more efficiently.
On Sunday, Figure 4 Weekly reported that many backstage are concerned about the move. There are logistical problems when taping Raw on the West coast (for example, Raw would begin taping at 4:30pm local time on a work day), but the extra hour of programming can burn out its staff–writers, wrestlers and fans. Of course, WWE makes so much money on a yearly basis, they’ve built up an immunity to try new things without having it sink the ship. Should 3-hour shows become too much for whatever reason, WWE can easily return it to its regular 2-hour timeslot in 6-12 months with no harm being done. The extra hour could also be moved to a 1-hour pre-show (possibly on WWE Network), a tactic the company has experimented with in showing pre-show matches on YouTube prior to Pay-Per-Views.
As such, the other main problem I foresee is the amount of programming in one week. It’s insane. On a Pay-Per-View week, we’ll get a 3-hour show (four hours for WrestleMania), on top of a 3-hour show and 2-hour SmackDown. And that’s excluding NXT on WWE.com, FCW and other minor shows that recap the past week. That’s a minimum of eight hours of programming, 12 weeks a year. I consistently watch Raw and every Pay-Per-View show and I’m usually burned out by mid-week. I can’t even find the time to watch SmackDown on a regular basis.
The reason I bring this up is because many wrestling fans are quick to recall WCW Monday Nitro moving from two hours to three in January 1998. Three short years later, WWE bought their biggest competition and WCW officially went belly up. WCW had their problems, but the same will not happen to WWE–they’re an empire with a firm grasp over the professional wrestling market, built on a foundation that has lasted for decades. It’s impossible for WWE to topple because, as I said, they’ve built up that immunity. TNA Wrestling will never buy WWE, and the move to 3-hour shows will not help TNA close the gap.
Ultimately, the success or failure of regular 3-hour Raw shows comes down to the Creative team. The power is in their hands, and given their history of Raw’s of this length, it’s fair to call it a risk vs. reward move. Creative controls the programming, storylines and character development within the WWE. If they don’t do their job efficiently, we’re going to get the same nonsense we get when we have unnecessary 3-hour shows now–all filler and no substance. If it doesn’t work out, they can always revert back to 2-hour shows. But if Creative is committed to really turning the shows around–with fresh faces and new, exciting storylines developed with their extra time–truthfully, the sky is the limit.
It wasn’t long ago that WWE was complaining about lack of superstars in their developmental system. Simply put, that’s because you don’t take the time to develop any. Developing your next Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Rock or The Undertaker isn’t a process that’s completed overnight. It takes time and effort to build a talent with style, flare, personality and character. As we’ve seen time and time again, creating your next franchise Superstar can and has been done.
Starting July 23, this is WWE’s golden ticket. Take it and run with it. Create your next CM Punk. Develop your next Daniel Bryan. Who will be the next to electrify the crowd like The Rock? Who will be the next face of WWE after John Cena? Part of it lies with the Creative team to give those deserving the opportunity to succeed. The other part lies with the WWE talent to take their chance and make a name for themselves. How will it turn out? We’ll have to wait and see.
It’s a new era in the WWE Universe, one that will begin to take shape on July 23.