Thursday, May 26, 2016

In Defense of a Brand Split

The brand split is coming back, and that's a good thing
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Variety broke the news yesterday. Smackdown is going live in July, and preceding it, WWE will be reintroducing the brand split, replete with a draft and everything. WWE is fewer than five years or so removed from the soft ending of the last brand extension, which ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and for good reason. It always rang like a hollow compromise for fans of World Championship Wrestling who wanted the endgame of the Invasion to turn into a WWE-sanctioned re-ignition of the Monday Night Wars. Vince McMahon and company tried their hardest to make the competition legit early on, but as the years passed, Smackdown became a clear B-show (and the WWE reboot of Extreme Championship Wrestling, although critically excellent towards the end, became a wet fart in terms of importance). Even worse, the gestures made by WWE to reiterate a difference between the two shows became increasingly tryhard. Brand extension also oversaturated the pay-per-view market, producing the most universally reviled special event in company history, December to Dismember 2006.

Still, for as happy as I was to see brand extension to get the heave-ho then, I'm excited to see it return. The ideas were never bad, to be honest. The execution of them, however, wasn't so much bad as it was premature at best and greedy at worst. The company didn't have the infrastructure or the direction to pull off a split well enough, and its hiring practices, whether by ignoring the seasoned indie wrestlers, whiffing on project signings, or taking in aging WCW/ECW wrestlers who couldn't meet the high demands of full-time employment left its roster ill-equipped to sustain a long term brand split.

However, several things have improved since the last time WWE tried to create two different touring, nationally-televised identities under the same umbrella corporation. The biggest improvement is by far the creation of WWE Network, which can support the ambitious upscaling of the pay-per-view schedule. During the first division, WWE decided it was going promote brand-specific events, which would have been fine if the eight non-Big Four events were split between RAW and Smackdown. However, several events were added over the course of the year. At a $50 price point per event, WWE was pretty much begging its fanbase to pick a side, and with declining numbers of casual fans invested in the product, the revenue generated dropped because people did pick sides.

With the Network in place as a delivery mechanism for special events, WWE no longer has to ask people to pick and choose which narrative they want to follow at the bereft of revenue. The company will get a subscriber's $10 a month no matter whether they watch the RAW, Smackdown, NXT, or any combination of the three events. In fact, it's already experimented with adding interstitial events to the slate. In addition to the 12 normal pay-per-view events, WWE has promoted Elimination Chamber, Beast in the East, the Madison Square Garden special, and Roadblock in the last year, which is in addition to the ten NXT specials it has aired in the last two-plus years. This infrastructure gives WWE the freedom to air as many of these events as it would like, and the on demand library is there for people who want to follow one or more of the three narratives religiously and maybe play catch-up with the remainder.

In addition to the improved delivery system, the actual talent on and off screen has improved markedly since the first extension. Not only is the extended greater WWE roster flush with great wrestlers who have thrived in other companies from a critical standpoint with names like Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Asuka, AJ Styles, Sami Zayn, Cesaro, and Kevin Owens, but its homegrown talents tend to have a much higher upside than the guys pushed in the mid-Aughts. I look at guys like Baron Corbin, Enzo Amore, Colin Cassady, Chad Gable, and Charlotte, and they seem to be way more ready to carry the ball than the Ken Kennedys, Heidenreichs, and Bobby Lashleys of the world. It may be a matter of opinion or recency bias, but it feels like the talent pool now is more conducive to having more complete shows from top to bottom.

The booking feels like it has a better shot. Ryan Ward, who writes Smackdown, seems like he's a lot more likely to keep his job than Paul Heyman was. The Smackdown Six era was unquestionedly the most praised part of anything during the first brand extension. Ward has the run of NXT in 2014 and 2015 under his belt, and he more than anyone could recreate that magic on Tuesday nights. Of course, it's a lot harder to book two hours of live TV with emphasis on fresh advancement of stories every week than it is to put together four hours of pre-taped episodes a month in one shot with heavy emphasis on squash matches and canned vignettes. But then again, maybe part of Ward's strategy could be to incorporate the vignettes, especially the sit-down interviews and pre-produced fluff segments, on Smackdown. All I know is that he has a good rep preceding him and is one of Triple H's boys. Heyman, for all his reputation (and for the record, he's the only guy who was a booker/writer in the past that I'd give the keys to anything creative in the present), clashed a lot with various McMahons and McMahon-adjacent personalities.

Most importantly, the fact that Smackdown will be a live program is the biggest plus. RAW always took precedence in the past because it was WWE's live flagship. Smackdown, however, was taped on a Tuesday for airing on either Thursday or Friday, depending on the era. But with it moving live to Tuesday permanently, it no longer has the air of spoilers to dissuade live-watchers from tuning in. Even though it will still presumably be two hours and not three like RAW, it will finally be on a more equal footing with its Monday night counterpart, which will go a long way into making it feel like a real "competition" and not as pronounced an A/B split.

Obviously, I don't think that this is a slam dunk to succeed, and I'll go over those caveats in a future essay. But I do think WWE is much better equipped to present two dueling brands as competitors now than it was when it first entertained the idea in the early part of last decade. And NXT has a far better chance of appearing like the plucky third competitor for the cool kids, largely in part because it's already the plucky alternative to the main narrative, and because it's not saddled with an existing brand name and high expectations from impossible to please fans. The original brand extension was an idea ahead of its time, but now that WWE has gotten the tools in place, this foray into diversified facets has a high chance to succeed.