Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Time for a Discussion on Crowds

Maybe if McMahon put out a good product, he wouldn't have to deal with quiet or sarcastic crowds
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WWE's second semiannual trip to the United Kingdom this calendar year could not have been timed any worse for the multinational sports entertainment conglomerate. Just last week, the company abruptly announced that the launch of its Network in the country would be indefinitely postponed on the day before it was set to debut. America has had it since February and other countries have been slowly added to the frame. Since the US is pretty much WWE's bread and butter, the advertising blitz that the company has perpetrated at the expense of other content or even story development has been overbearing for people who actually could purchase the service. Imagine how annoying and tantalizing it was and still is for Brits who have to go through dubious channels in order to procure a Network feed of varying providence if they want to see it at all.

Britain has a history of raucous crowd reactions that lean towards the side of hardcore fandom. Combine those proclivities with the utter failure on the delivery of a product, and WWE was bound to get angry and vocal reactions from the people in the stands. Live reports bore this scenario out, but the beauty of filming the show six hours earlier because of time differences is that the production crew had six hours to edit out the displeasure before RAW went to air. With Smackdown, the lag time is even greater. Still, having thousands of people in an arena to watch your show do nothing but protest-chant the whole time can be frustrating. Be that as it may, I have no sympathy for WWE in this case because the company did it to itself. Moreover, whenever a crowd reacts in a way that people might find annoying or not conducive to the flow of a show, the blame rarely if ever is on the people.

Crowd analysis has become super-popular to the point where sometimes, I feel as if the main draw for some who watch RAW isn't to critique the content but the fans themselves. Granted, a lot of chants can be annoying; I personally bristle when people start chanting for JBL instead of the wrestlers in the ring. Really, you're going to chant for that blowhard? However regardless, wrestling is unique among most artforms in that feedback is instant. Wrestling companies don't need to workshop material in front of a focus group before release, because that focus group pays money to sit in arenas nearly every day of the week. This nature of the business can be both a blessing and a curse, but the reality is that the fans only should be beholden to the standards of human decency when reacting to something they're presented in real time.

The only time a wrestling company should step in to police its fans is when they go overboard and start chanting or even just blurting out racist, misogynist, or otherwise bigoted things. It's where Absolute Intense Wrestling and all the people who defended them and the fans at Turners Hall for having "freedom of speech" went wrong. Sure, you can choose to yell the N-word at a wrestler, but honestly, why would any wrestling company want that to make tape and then defend that being said? One thing to say you can't prevent those things from happening all the time, but it's another to say you won't do anything about them when brought to your attention. It's not like people haven't been thrown out of wrestling shows before for bad behavior. It's baffling.

Just as baffling are the reports of Vince McMahon coming out to berate the Liverpool crowd during the Smackdown tapings yesterday in the form of a "heel promo." He chastised the crowds for not cheering or booing enough, but those aren't the only true reactions. Granted, it's not like Vince McMahon, real life businessman/wrestling promoter/capitalist tyrant came out to yell at the crowd. The argument could be made that he came out as Mr. McMahon to incite the crowd and maybe get them shouting for more than just the Network. Again, where wrestling is unique is that the line between real and staged can be blurred into discrete pixelation so easily that it's hard to tell when the characters dip into their true feelings. Still, I have to believe that a piece of McMahon's heart was really going out there and yelling at people for real for not reacting to the show, as if a cheer or a boo are the only two true reactions to a wrestling happening.

If anything, the two true reactions are noise and silence, and even then, noise has more characteristic than just its existence, i.e. it's not a Boolean characteristic. The crowd is not part of the script. It doesn't have to abide by any kind of rules about whom they should react, when, or how. The crowd is the feedback, and if that feedback sucks, the problem's with you, not them. If you want the crowd to "have some fun," then you need to give them a reason to have fun. It's no mistake that crowd reactions were at their seemingly most vociferous in 2013 when WWE had a rollicking in-ring product and vibrant stars worth relating to. Sure, the company was still extremely flawed, maybe even as much as it is right now at its core, but the fans didn't have reason to spotlight those flaws when it had Daniel Bryan and The Shield and the nascence of Bray Wyatt and a surprisingly spry Randy Orton and CM Punk and even the rise of passive-aggressive Mom Villain Stephanie McMahon.

Now? The match quality has dropped off, any interesting character has been fed to the wood chipper of conformity, and the focus isn't the story in the ring, but hawking a Network that not everyone can purchase outside of it. If anyone needs to have a heel promo cut on them chiding them for the root cause of bad crowd reactions, it's Vince McMahon, first and foremost. In the meantime, all the breath wasted about crowds and their JBL chants is better directed towards the main narrative. A crowd chanting for JBL or Randy Savage loudly isn't one that should be chided. If anything, those people seem to want to be entertained. I don't know exactly the mindset, because crowd psychology is a fool's errand, but if they react to a bullshit match or segment in the ring with loud voices, imagine what they could do if they had something to sink their teeth into.