Monday, February 22, 2021

The Myth of "Good Booking" And Ratings

Bad Bunny is a good idea, but will WWE keep him retaining the viewers he's bringing to their TV? Photo Credit:

The year is 2021. Vince McMahon makes billions upon billions of dollars before the first fan walks through the gate, or at least before the first fan WOULD walk through the gate if These Times weren’t so Uncertain. All Elite Wrestling is privately backed by a billionaire family that owns two professional sports franchises in leagues that are basically licenses to print money. Yet, people, and not just shortsighted fans either, look at the ratings of their various programs and start clutching pearls. There may be reason to do so if you work in either company and are feeling pressure to improve on those metrics. If you’re a fan though, wouldn’t you look upon the fact that McMahon just got a cool billion from NBC to merge the WWE Network onto Peacock or that AEW received a renewal from TNT before Dynamite hit its stride and not have to worry about your favorite wrestling program going anywhere?

I know where the neurosis comes from. In the late ‘90s, the then-World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling engaged in mortal battle over who’d attract more viewers on a given Monday. It’s a vestige of a lost time, one where television options were live only and the range of avenues for watching entertainment or news on the screen was more limited than it is today. While ratings still are crucial to determine ad rates, the raw numbers of 1999 are not going to translate to today because of how the landscape has changed. The main thing is you should judge a wrestling program by how much you enjoyed it, not by how good or bad the ratings are according to people who have refused to calibrate their brains from 25 years ago. That’s right, I see people subscribing to the “83 Weeks” podcast by Eric Bischoff or who somehow pay money to Vince Russo for his “insight.” I see people who might misinterpret what Dave Meltzer has to say about ratings, or who giddily retweet Bryan Alvarez’s weekly Thursday tweet comparing viewers between Dynamite and NXT. There’s just so much concentration on something that in the grand scheme of things means so little.

That doesn’t stop people from musing on how they can improve ratings on either show, and generally, outside of Russo’s harebrained, non-specific “ideas” that say “WWE AND AEW MUST BRING BACK MAIN STREAM,” the consensus says that wrestling should be “booked better” to attract more viewers. Allow me to tell you why that reasoning is myopic to be kind. Booking doesn’t mean shit in terms of business, at least good booking by itself doesn’t. No one goes to a wrestling show who hasn’t already gone to a wrestling show before goes because of good booking. No lapsed fan comes back because they heard babyfaces and heels were conforming to traditional roles in exquisite manner. Good booking is more likely to retain an existing audience even though the opposite may not entirely be true. People kept tuning into WWE television during the Attitude Era, and that, to the letter, was some of the sloppiest, disjointed, week-to-week booking in wrestling history. Yet, it was the most popular. Why is that the case?

As it turns out, new people come to wrestling more than any other entertainment or sporting medium for which it might be true because they heard about a transcendent personality who did outrageous things that were worth setting aside at least 15 minutes for on a Monday night. In case you’re a young’un who hasn’t pored into the past, both WWE and WCW had those personalities in spades: Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Mick Foley, Chyna, Bill Goldberg, Sid Vicious, Diamond Dallas Page, Sting, and Eddy Guerrero just to name a few. The cool part about those names is all of them were organic to the wrestling industry. Either they were guys the respective companies’ homegrown talents, like Rock and Goldberg, or they were just dudes who got hot at the right time in the right circumstances like Austin or Page. Because of the way WWE does business nowadays, that phenomenon is almost impossible to come by. You either have to be a big returning name like Brock Lesnar or a celebrity in order to be the root that takes hold.

WWE has the right idea by bringing in Bad Bunny. No matter what anyone says, having him be such a huge part of the build towards WrestleMania is a boon to the company. Not all of his fans, which number in the millions at this point, will come aboard, but enough might be able to replenish the audience lost over the years. Of course, “audience lost over the years” is why this Bad Bunny relationship isn’t going to be a lock to increase the audience. Again, good booking is a retention policy, and if the new fans who come to see Bad Bunny do his thing look at the other stuff and are embarrassed to watch it, well, I hope Vince McMahon enjoys his temporary bump in sales. WWE has done this almost non-stop since McMahon bought WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling, thus ending the last era of domestic wrestling diversity and ushering the Sixth Age of American Wrestling History, Vince McMahon’s Utter and Ruthless Hegemony.

Think of all the times WWE has garnered interest because of an outside act coming in. Floyd Mayweather wrestled The Big Show at WrestleMania. Donald Trump shaved McMahon’s head and then sold the Stone Cold Stunner in the absolute worst manner ever. Machine Gun Kelly, the Muppets, Hugh Jackman, Snooki, Stephen Amell, Snoop Dogg, Flo Rida, Kevin Hart, Ariel Winter, Johnny Knoxville, Toby Keith, and Larry the Cable Guy among others have all appeared with WWE in some manner with prior advertising, and none of it has made the slightest difference. In the biggest indictment, WWE had a guy who was poised to bring it out of doldrums and become an organic difference-maker in CM Punk. They let him say what he wanted on the microphone for two solid months and gave him a leg up on John Cena, but his big angle led to a vanity gimmick match between Triple H, who had become a top-shelf company executive by that point, and his buddy, a mostly-washed Kevin Nash. Punk had been shoved down from transcendent star to “just another guy in the churn” in record time. WWE has a “capitalist ubermensch” problem with McMahon and company wanting to make the brand bigger than the talent, and I’m not sure that’s ever going to change unless the company is sold to an interested third party.

AEW is actually in a similar boat if not a smaller one comparatively. While Shaquille O’Neal is a household name among boomers and the same white wrestling fans who tend to go “WHO?!?!” when a mention of Bad Bunny passes their ears, his star is not nearly as bright as it was when he was still the BMOC in Los Angeles with the Lakers in the early 2000s. However, his reach as a NBA studio analyst nowadays is still larger than any single wrestler involved with that company right now. He will be an interesting test case, because he’s the first big-name celebrity who is coming in and actually working a match. His presence enough might add a few viewers, but will AEW’s programming be enough to keep them aboard? While I have my problems with how the company is booked, there’s no question it is a far less embarrassing product than WWE’s.

But it will be an interesting test case for how much good booking matters, or what definition of “good booking” is closest to objective. Is not being a nightmare cringe factory enough to keep viewers aboard? Do you have to have good stories, excellent in-ring action, and sound presentation to do that? Or does none of that really matter at all except to the hardcore wrestling fans who will tune in no matter what? Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not sure I’ll ever know. Really, the way viewing patterns are as such nowadays, AEW’s audience could be a lot bigger than anyone really knows, but if you just go off ratings, I don’t think you’ll know what the true ceiling really is. There’s always a cap to watching live anymore with how irregular work schedules are and how DVR has changed the way people watch television. Listening to dinosaurs will give you terminal dinosaur brain anyway.

The point is though, I don’t give a shit what the business metrics are, and outside of whether or not that money is being passed along to the workers, I’m not sure anyone else should either. Wrestling is one of the many problematic areas of leisure that people have to cope with the pain of everyday life. I used to think Speaking Out was endemic of the industry more than anywhere else, but when one domestic abuser counsels another one in a baseball locker room and it’s seen as a good story, I begin to think nowhere is a haven for ethical consumption outside of the increasingly rigorous and decreasingly fruitful day-to-day lives of working and surviving. Basically, tying any bit of care you have to the financial performance of billionaires who own wrestling companies is the height of loser shit. Don’t be a jabroni mark. If you have cares in the business, turn them towards social justice causes, and if a show doesn’t have “good booking” anymore, whatever that is, you don’t owe it your view just out of habit.