EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.
Friday, May 11, 2001
It's true -- the WWF is slipping
It used to be that I looked forward to each episode of Monday Night Raw, and even the often blander Thursday Smackdown! I would parade about, spreading the faith, preaching the gospel of wrestling to non-believers, trying to convince them of what I already knew: in its heyday, WWF television was some of the most cutting edge material on the small screen, on any network, at any time of day or night. I've never said it had the best programming on television, but certainly that it was up there.
I'm not so sure anymore.
I'm all for peaks and valleys. I understand that no one could possibly produce two, two-hour shows, each and every single week of the year, no re-runs, and never experience a lull. Obviously, some programs will be better than others. Still, though, there are certain benchmarks of entertainment that WWF programming must pass to retain its audience. It's one thing to viewers to be reasonable about maintaining such high standards, but it's quite another to expect charity.
Sure, they're fresh off their XFL fiasco. I say fiasco not because the XFL product itself was terrible -- I think it got fairly good toward the end, and was a fun alternative -- but simply because they got so trashed by critics, media, and ratings. [Editor's note: This column was written before the announcement of the XFL folding.] Sure, they're in the process of re-engineering their competition, which involves assembling a roster and a production team. Sure, their marquee babyface is off in a desert somewhere pretending to be fighting Egyptians thousands of years ago. These might be reasons for the WWF's recent troubles, but they are not excuses. And they are not reasons for viewers to continue to watch.
It's more than blandness that Raw is experiencing lately, though -- it's gotten to be downright bad in some instances. Granted, wrestling shows, simply because of their nature, tend to never be devoid of bad acting or strange scenes, but WWF programming lately has been chock-full of them. The Chyna and Lita angle is just strange. Steve Austin's heel turn is not going terribly well -- then again, I have no idea how exactly you might create a heel whose main characteristics as a face were heelish to begin with. Midcard programs almost seem to be in perpetual re-run, as Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, and William Regal always seem to be fighting some combination of each other. Undertaker doesn't seem to be healthy enough to participate in an angle that is centered on him. The lightheavyweight division has been resurrected, but I'm not sure more than two thoughts have been put into it. The tag team division, a staple of WWF highlight reels for the past few years, has become something of an afterthought. New talents like Raven are being wasted, as terrible old angles -- like the drunken tag team partner -- have been brought back.
More so than any of that, though, the WWF has a problem. For the first time in a long time, they have nothing on the backburner, ready to leap forward and take the spotlight. As I wrote in my metaphor-laced column last week, it's easier to make stars when you have stars. The WWF isn't doing the former, and soon they won't have the latter, either. Since 1997, when they clawed their way back up to the top of the wrestling world and re-wrote the book on sports entertainment, they've always had an up-and-comer who was looked ready to jump into the spotlight. Now, not really. They probably have more such talent now than ever before, but no one looks as though they're being prepped for bigger things.
I like to go light on criticism like this, most of the time, because I believe it's harder than most people think to run a wrestling organization. But this past week, I had to force myself to watch the entire episode of Raw -- regular network television and a beautiful summer evening were drawing me away. That rarely happens, and this week makes it about four in a row. This isn't a valley, it's a crater. And it's deep. Best as I can tell from the mail I get and the articles I read, I'm not alone in this regard.
If the WWF should fail now, it would be with one of the most talent-laden rosters in recent history. But the timing would make sense, as not only do the McMahons have no competition (they own them, remember), but they're as distracted with other matters as they have ever been.
Recently, a company that many Canadians may have heard of, Molson, decided to sell off the Montreal Canadiens. Despite the fact that the Canadiens are a great marketing tool and the number one brand name in Montreal (number two: McGill University, believe it or not), shareholders rejoiced and their share price received a boost. If you're asking yourself why, then I'll tell you: because this move allows Molson to concentrate on their core business -- beer. It reflects a more-or-less abandonment of their entertainment division, which has never done tremendously well, and a focus back on the business that has made them all of their money. Conglomerates are good at many things, but they sometimes lose sight over what brought them to the dance.
Maybe that's what going on in the WWF. Or maybe there really are only 'seven angles in wrestling', and they have to be recycled over and over again, and maybe the creative team is running out of ideas. Either way, they had better do something, whether it's bringing in WCW guys to give them and the shows a shot in the arm or simply shaping up and coming up with some new material.
Our own John Powell could probably interpret this better than I, but after an immediate ratings increase the week that WCW went off the air, Monday Night Raw has descended back steadily back to their former level, and may fall even further.
Far more importantly, though, SLAM! readers -- even the WWF loyalists -- are starting to groan. When the patient Canadians become restless, you know there's a problem.
Here's the mailbag.
Ross Williams, from email@example.com, writes:
"Whilst I very much enjoyed your column question whether certain pushes were warranted or not, I must disagree with you on one point -- I personally think that Austin and the Rock were held back after it was clear that they were the main players within the company. Allow me to substantiate this: Austin was clearly over at WrestleMania XIII -- when Bret Hart and Steve switched sides of the fence, it would not have worked unless the audience were willing to embrace Austin as a face. From here, Austin clearly raced towards the top babyface spot in the federation, eclipsing the popularity of the then-world champion, The Undertaker. By Summerslam, Austin had not been shifted up to the main event, he was wrestling Owen Hart for the IC title. When the WWF finally got around to throwing the top strap Steve's way, it was a full year after his turn, and holding him back approximately nine months from when he was actually ready to win the title only made it seem like more of an accomplishment. Likewise, The Rock was on the verge of assuming top babyface honours at Survivors '98, but instead of pushing him into the superface role, they pulled the swerve to keep him as a heel. Only 12 months later, when Austin was eliminated from the main event mix, did The Rock truly assume the position as the top guy. Aside from this, I can't see Benoit or Jeff Hardy ever making it to the main event -- Benoit simply cannot carry himself as a credible main eventer, and Hardy is going to be in a wheelchair by the age of 25 unless he slows down -- and if he slows down, he won't get the push you need to get to the top. I'm hopeful of Angle's long term prospects and Jericho can do it, but desperately needs to turn heel and return to the heady days of his heel stint in WCW circa '98.
You're spot on about removing wrestlers from the top slots in order to up the other players -- the problem is that Triple H, Austin and The Undertaker seem absolutely unwilling to allow anyone to usurp their spots on the card. Personally, I'd love to see them move aside slowly to put over Test, Christian and Kane (I know that Christian as a top liner is rather optimistic, but hey -- I can dream!). If you think about it, whether it was a pure accident or not, when WCW shifted the focus off Sting, Hogan, DDP and Sid, only then did Jarrett, Booker T and Steiner become genuine main eventers.
I'd be interested to see what you make of this -- and keep writing; it's always good (and mostly rare) to read a thoughtful and well written article on the web."
Actually, I remember Austin's push as having been fairly brisk, and in the case of The Rock, I think that was more an instance of the WWF being cautious to avoid being burned twice -- they pushed him way too fast the first time out. Still, with The Rock, even when he was fighting Ken Shamrock and the like, there was this sense that he was going places.
I like Angle as a top choice, but everyone else is a wildcard to me. Jericho, Benoit, Edge, Christian, and Jeff Hardy don't have that much momentum going for them right now, so I have no idea how a real push would turn out for them. I think Benoit could be a really big star, but it would have to be handled properly. Edge and Christian aren't perceived as even close to main event calibre. I have trouble taking Chris Jericho seriously sometimes, in the role he typically plays. I can't imagine a match between him and Kane, or Triple H, or Steve Austin as actually being tense. And I agree about Jeff Hardy -- by the time he realizes what he's doing and stops, it may be too late even to tone it down, ala Shawn Michaels.
I don't have the answers here, I am afraid, but I think it makes sense for Kurt to step up to the plate and take on Triple H and Austin, maybe turning Edge and Christian in the process. That's just a thought, though.
"You don't fool me, Eric! You're really Vince Russo! Just take a look at the pictures!"
Robert, though there are clearly a few years between myself and Mr. Russo, and I quite disturbed that there is any resemblance at all.
That's all for this week. Have a sunny weekend with some cloudiness and a chance of showers around midday.
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