Wednesday, September 28, 2016

WWE Should Be For the Kids

The Reading Challenge is great, but it's not enough to keep kids involved in WWE
Photo Credit:
Conor McGregor recently was announced to fight for a title in Ultimate Fighting Championship against Eddie Alvarez, and in the press conference, he went on an expletive laden tirade promising to not only take Alvarez's title, but keep the one that he has. Dave Meltzer on Twitter raved about the promo (which is what it was, basically), saying everyone in pro wrestling needed to tune into it and that it was "pay attention or fall behind hour." Disregarding that pro wrestling and mixed martial arts, though similar in demographic, are still two highly different forms of sport/sports entertainment, Meltzer is off-base, especially when it concerns WWE. McGregor may have tremendous charisma and speaking ability, but is his style of promotional tactic, the kind that relies on latent homophobia and ugly slurs, what WWE wrestlers should be studying?

Meltzer and his other short-sighted brethren in the wrestling media would have people believe that WWE is in bad shape because ratings are falling to pre-Monday Night Wars era levels. Looking at viewership numbers post-closure of World Championship Wrestling has always been a fool's errand, but now, it's even more asinine. Fans who normally identify as wrestling fans don't need to watch live. Few kinds of shows are growing in live audience, and while wrestling is still results-based, it is far more rooted in how the stories and matches progress towards the finish rather than basely on a win/loss binary. In that respect, episodic wrestling approaches the territory of other scripted dramas more than "real" sports do. WWE still brings in a ton of revenue through Network subscriptions, ad fees from USA Network, and other areas.

But that doesn't mean all is fine in Titan Land, because a look at the breakdown of the audience suggests that the company may not be so secure in the future. Two years ago, The Observer posted results of a WWE demographic survey (transcription from 411 Mania) that suggested that WWE's push towards a more family-friendly environment wasn't working. The number of viewers over the age of 50 was just about double the number aged 19 or younger. The audience is getting older and more importantly is not refreshing itself, which will spell disaster for the company's long-term health. Is that to say WWE's push towards a PG show isn't working? Well, it is, but only because WWE is only half-assing that dedication. I've been watching nearly every week for the last eight years, and let me tell you, it's only kid-friendly in the same way that a D gets one a degree in college. WWE is meeting the bare minimum requirements, but it's by and large still a show for young male viewers, and believe me, if it could get away with the same shit it could have in 1998 with that PG rating, it would.

The Attitude Era didn't happen because the company brought in new fans of the 18-49 demographic with its programming. It reaped a harvest of the leftover kid fans from the Rock 'n Wrestling Era who liked wrestling before and came back when it got cool again. So telling folks in the business to sit under the learning tree with McGregor teaching is not going to do much of anything. Only an insignificant number of people are going to abandon MMA or take on wrestling in addition to MMA  because, say, Randy Orton started doing a bad Chael Sonnen tribute act. That audience is far gone.

The new viewers will come in with children, and outside of lip service, WWE is really not doing anything to court those kids or families. Ignoring the fact that RAW and Smackdown both still run angles of questionable providence (and honestly, I admit the story material has gotten a bit better in terms of what I'd want my kids to see mostly over the last few weeks), RAW especially isn't really built with kids in mind. Smackdown at least ends at 10 PM, on the dot, but the big payoff for RAW doesn't happen until around 11:15 PM Eastern on a good night. How many kids are going to be allowed to stay up that late? The younger you go, the less likely it is to happen.

So while a nominal attempt to catch adolescents and teens is in place, it still won't be as effective as trying to catch children when they're really young. And in that respect, WWE fails. It has no youth-oriented shows, either tangential or essential. Where is the Saturday Morning Slam-type of show? Where is the next generation version of Rock 'n Wrestling? Camp WWE is great, and this new animated show looks like it might have potential, but for fuck's sake, animation is generally an art for children to indulge in. Where the heck are the WWE cartoons on The Network for kids? Why are the only for-children properties being produced (a la carte, mind you, not on The Network) by WWE team-ups with properties like Scooby-Doo and the Flintstones, shows that my parents, and thus the grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents of kids today were watching when they were young?

It's great that WWE does charity work for kids all over the spectrum with Connor's Cure, WrestleMania Reading Challenge, and B.A. Star, but without any kind of actual deliverable on its product's end, they aren't providing those kids a chance to engage further. It's lip-service to kids before going back and begging and pleading for 20-something male fans to come back and watch at the same levels their forebears did 20 years ago. All the other things Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, Kevin Dunn, and the rest of the braintrust in the company get raked over the coals for are child's play compared to the missed opportunities they are letting slip by them by not focusing intently on children.

Of course, WWE will always have a place for more adult stuff. Hell, kids have to have parents to pay for things like a cable bill, Network subscriptions, live event tickets, and merchandise at shows. But the idea is to provide a lifelong schedule of entertainment for someone, from young childhood through adulthood. Right now, WWE is only really concentrating on the latter, and that more than anything is why it should have cause for concern. I don't expect myopic wrestling journalists to get it, because they're too busy pretending falling ratings without context mean anything. More than ever, it feels like dirtsheet journalism, from Meltzer's ignorance on social issues to Bryan Alvarez's general apathy to The Torch's pearl-clutching in regards to what they think kayfabe should be, is not the place to be listening to for valid criticism of WWE anymore. No more piece of evidence is apparent than Meltzer thinking that Conor McGregor is the guy pro wrestling locker rooms should be studying.