Monday, July 28, 2014

Special Ops-Ed: How To Save The WWE Network Era

Can it be saved? OF COURSE it can!
Graphics Credit: John Lefteratos, via International Object
Earlier this year, WWE unveiled a supposedly revolutionary product that would change the wrestling game forever - The WWE Network. It's a hybrid on-demand Netflix-style program for the extensive tape library, a live-streaming “channel” that promises 24-hour wrestling content, original programming, and mostly importantly the pay-per-views. We’re nearing six months since the launch and I feel like the Network is reaching the point where it has become an indispensable service for wrestling fans young and old. Unfortunately, McMahon vastly oversold how many subscribers would sign up for the Network and stockholders freaked out, tanking the stock and putting the company into panic mode to figure out the best way to get people to subscribe and interested in the program again. Financial losses have forced them to cut the budget of their production and catering, which as any first-year film student can tell you, is the absolute last thing you should be cutting if you want your show to be any good.

Of course, this is not the first time WWE has found themselves backed into a corner financially and with people turned off by the product. The company is back in a similar situation to the outset of the Monday Night War against WCW, but without a true competitor and in a totally different generation of wrestling fan, I’m afraid WWE will find that booking like they did during the Attitude Era won’t help them like it did then.

The Attitude Era programming was renowned for both titillating storylines and “car crash” style writing - fast-paced angles where the writers rarely knew the direction the stories would take but were writing to shock and get people to tune in to free TV. This style of writing often caused the pay-per-views to suffer, as matches and moments on the show were designed to create buzz about RAW the next night, but certainly did boost ratings for TV. It’s carried over all the way into modern era. However, the type of wrestling fan nowadays is vastly different than wrestling fans in the late '90s/early '00s, and with no real competition WWE isn’t really fighting with another promotion to get eyes on TV. Instead they’re fighting to for a way to unify the mindsets and wallets of the average and “diehard” wrestling fan.

The average WWE fan probably only watches RAW every Monday, and maybe only catches one of the big pay-per-views, whereas the diehard fan will find a way to seek out everything wrestling they can get. Obviously reaching beyond just WWE, the diehard wrestling fan follows the indies, probably discusses wrestling online, and nitpicks the crap out of everything they see. The diehard wrestling fan would have interest in the WWE Network, seeing as it has an ever-expanding and encyclopedic catalog of classic wrestling, and the average WWE might be interested just to get the pay-per-views for free. Maybe they might want to check out the wrestling they grew up with. Why, then, are so few people (compared to the numbers McMahon suggested they needed to break even) are subscribing?

The biggest issue we have here is a growing dissatisfaction with WWE’s product. We’ve seen in recent months crowds turn on what WWE is putting in the ring, cheering for Daniel Bryan over the returning Batista, expressing their frustration with fan-favorite CM Punk leaving unexpectedly, and generally trying to cheer for guys outside of who WWE is pushing as “the guy.” This is the same year the WrestleMania crown chanted “John Cena Sucks” in time to Cena’s entrance music. This is the year Rey Mysterio got booed just for not being Daniel Bryan. How could WWE expect to launch such a groundbreaking product successfully this year of all years?

All isn’t lost for WWE, though. There’s a chance they can right the ship and fix things and get the WWE Network to be successful. They just need to stop booking like it’s 1999. The biggest fault with how WWE handles pay-per-views is there’s very little reason to ever buy more than just the big ones. This worked when each show was around 50 dollars and you couldn’t guarantee that everyone would watch every show. With a subscription based service, there’s a much larger incentive to make each pay-per-view event special to put a higher interest in buying your product. Case in point -  Battleground. There wasn’t a single match on that card that couldn’t have been done the same way on free TV, and so many moments on it were just set up for what happened on RAW the next night. The only real special match was the tag title match to open the show, and it was a matchup we had seen several times since WrestleMania.

If you’re not going to make every pay-per-view special there’s no reason to do twelve PPVs a year. Cut the number down to eight. Just do the big four of Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Survivor Series, and save your extra four special events as showcases to bridge the gap to the bigger show. Of course, you may have performers complain about not getting as many pay-per-view bonuses, but with the money WWE would be saving not doing 12 huge shows a year they might be able to afford to pay their wrestlers a little more. Along with cutting pay-per-view events and making the shows they are doing matter and creating moments worth subscribing for, WWE should be producing more wrestling content that showcases the varying styles of talent they have available.

With NXT and a bolstered Main Event, talent that may not get the exposure they deserve on RAW are getting more showcase matches and connecting with the crowd a lot more than they ever have. Why not increase that and show you have more faith in the future of your program by doing more live Network-exclusive wrestling shows? We already are starting to get that with NXT’s live specials, two-hour live events that act as supercards for NXT’s young roster, but I’d love to see specialty cards like this for the main roster.

Yes, it’s ripping off TNA’s One Night Only pay-per-view gimmick, but genius steals. It’s a great concept that is sadly underused. These don’t have to be big shows and could be run out of the arena’s WWE typically runs house shows, but would be a lot of fun and would give fans more of an incentive to subscribe to see this great content they aren’t getting elsewhere.

I’d love to also see more WWE-produced reality programming. No, not more Total Divas or Legends’ House. I’m not opposed to either program, but what I’d like to see is more documentary programs portraying the lives of their Superstars. The “Journey To WrestleMania” documentary that was produced for Daniel Bryan was superb. I wish it went more into his past, even though I understand why it didn’t. Why not do more “week in the life” style stuff for your undercard guys like Dolph Ziggler and Big E? While I wish they’d give them more promo time on RAW and Smackdown; this would be a good way to allow people who may not be connected to the crowd now connect better. WWE has already added something similar to their current Network programming with the Beyond The Ring series, a repackaging of their already-produced documentaries, but I’d love to see new stuff for wrestlers who may not ever get a DVD set like Mick Foley or Randy Orton did. Watching Big Show’s documentary on a lark on the Network gave me a heck of a lot more respect for Mr. Wight than I ever might have on my own.

Like I said above, there’s a chance to right the ship. It’s right in front of WWE. They just have to grab it. Make the Network something you just have to buy. Give us a reason to want all 12 pay-per-views for $9.99 a month, give us a reason to tune into the Network for more than just these supercards, and give your wrestlers more of a chance to shine using this service you’ve created and have every incentive to put more into.