SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, November 2, 2001

WWF's air of panic has turned

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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Given the tone of the feedback that I have received from SLAM! readers over the past weeks and months, one of the WWF's main problems seems to have been boring, predictable stories. If you compare it with Degeneration X or the New World Order, it's definitely true that the Alliance hasn't really offered us any true surprises. Granted, there was Steve Austin's turn joining the Alliance, but let's be honest, he was already a heel. Kurt Angle's heel turn this past Monday was not only well-constructed and delivered, but one of the first real surprises of this new era of wrestling. For once, the WWF seems to have people's attention.

Crash TV, the name given to the WWF's fast-paced programming format over the past several years, works best when the viewer doesn't know what to expect. At the same time, as we saw with WCW's failed attempt at Crash TV when Vince Russo took over booking duties there, that format doesn't work when there's no solid base on which to build. You can't reinvent the wheel every week, and you can't offer the same surprises over and over. You can't reform groups every week, either. If your storylines seem schizophrenic, it won't matter when you actually do pull a rabbit out of your hat, because no one will care. You have to build a base of stability, of strong wrestling and sensible storylines, before you can start with the surprises.

That's what the WWF did in 1998. Sure, we were complaining that we were seeing Kane vs. Undertaker and Steve Austin vs. Mankind over and over again, but the matches were good, the storylines were simple and effective, and people were satisfied. When they started offering heel turns and screw-jobs, the fans were ready to accept them.

Lately, the WWF has an air of panic. You can almost smell it. It's probably self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling, but watching their ratings decline week after week and seeing them struggle just makes me closely scrutinize their storylines. Fortunately, the WWF is still largely offering up great wrestling. Over the past few months, it's just been having trouble convincing people to watch via their stories.

Watching Raw this week, there seemed to be a change of attitude. On one hand, the WWF didn't seem particularly panicky. They weren't hyping Raw as the best Raw ever (always a bad sign), and they weren't hot-shotting the whole show. At the same time, they actually gave me a reason to watch. At first, I thought the Alliance turn would end up being silly, but they hyped it so well throughout the show that I eventually got interested and paid close attention to the remainder. Paul Heyman in particular was effective here.

Sure, once the scene was set calling the Angle turn may not have been rocket science, but it was fairly unpredictable. At the same time, hints were laid out throughout the show, like Angle's over-eagerness to accuse The Rock of being the one to turn.

Teaming Kurt Angle with Steve Austin should be a really humorous combination, but if played right, it may also draw viewers. The jury's still out on whether Smackdown! was a strong follow-up to Raw, but I was satisfied with it. Angle at least tried to explain his heel turn, and he had as much reason to do it as he seems to have to anything else he does. His match with Kane then demonstrated exactly how this new dynamic will work.

I'm not entirely sold on Survivor Series. Perhaps that's because I can't really see where this is going, and by definition I can't be surprised if I'm not expecting anything. Still, the wrestling has sure been solid lately, and there are a lot of likeable characters on the show. I'd love to see the WWF gain some momentum at their next pay-per-view. If they stay cool and don't try to re-invent the concept of pay-per-view wrestling or completely redefine the Alliance again, then I think we might be in for a treat.

Here's the mailbag.

Pat Merjo writes:
"WWF House Shows on RADIO! Randomly put house shows on radio, like Mojo Radio here in Toronto. Make these count a little more, but never announce in advance that these particular shows would be aired. Costs for the WWF would remain low, fans attending would get a nice treat. Possible title changes could ensue. Lastly, being random could create more of a desire to attend house shows. Just a thought."

Crazy as it may sound, that's actually not a terrible thought. I have no idea what the revenue structure is like in radio, so I can't really make a judgment about the business sense of this idea. It does intrigue me, though. For one, wrestling on radio actually makes some sense. I mean that in the sense that I often watch wrestling and do something else at the same time, focusing on the main spots and angles but reading a magazine or something during the lulls. Radio is ideal for that kind of show, perfect for background.

I'm not exactly sure why you'd want to not hype the shows and make them surprises -- that seems like a strange way to draw listeners. Other than that, great idea. Someone should tell the WWF.

That's all for this week. Have a fantastic weekend and thanks for writing in.

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CNEWS covers the Attack on America

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