As Luis Paez-Pumar noted here last Thursday, WWE is currently flailing its way through a ratings panic. Two weeks ago, Monday Night Raw did the lowest non-holiday ratings number in its history, posting an average of 2,158,000 viewers across the three-hour show; hour three was at 1,898,000 viewers. The promotion got the numbers back up last week thanks to a newly instituted, poorly explained, objectively confusing “wildcard” rule that was designed to facilitate Raw/SmackDown crossovers. The early crossovers included a WrestleMania rematch, and those match-ups did attract some eyes. But that’s just one week, and there’s a long road ahead. In a way, though, the most striking thing about WWE’s ratings dip is just how deeply weird and surprising it seems on the surface. WWE just feels more popular than it did, say, 10 years ago. Raw had 5 million viewers for the last show of April 2009, though, and in the present WWE is scrambling to get even half that.
It’s not like the product was better a decade ago, either. Seriously, read a recap of this shit—other than the latest chapter in Randy Orton and Shane McMahon’s feud, nothing was remotely memorable. WWE’s creative is struggling and has been for some time, but the promotion is absolutely more in the zeitgeist now than it was a decade ago, or than it has been at any time since the end of the last boom period around 2001. It’s a strange tradeoff: Wrestling is much more a part of the broader culture than it has been in decades, but with a fraction of the viewership; the April 25, 1999 Raw pulled in 6,748,000 viewers. Just five months away from Raw getting $265 million annually from USA Network and SmackDown—with similar viewership erosion—getting $205 million annually from Fox, the WWE’s current situation seems stranger still.
When WWE jumped from USA to TNN (now Paramount Network) in 2000, at the end of the biggest boom in the promotion’s history, it got $28.6 million annually for the whole WWE cable package; 19 years later, USA is paying 9.27 times as much now for a show with an audience one third the size. Sure, TV has changed a lot and yes WWE is uniquely situated in offering live programming in the DVR era, but what could possibly justify this?
It’s not the wrestling, that’s for sure. As Luis wrote, WWE programming in 2019 is incredibly rote, generally in the lamest possible ways. WWE’s roster is the most talented one the promotion has ever had, but other than occasional bursts of wrestler-driven creativity—think strident leftist vegan Daniel Bryan or Bray Wyatt’s ongoing reinvention as a demented children’s edutainer—there’s nothing there. This seems to be by design: Nobody is allowed to stand out, and nothing is remotely inspired. It’s asking a lot for WWE to deliver something as edgy and compelling and strange as CM Punk’s 2009 run as a preachy straight edge heel taunting recovering addict Jeff Hardy. But, creatively speaking, what was the last thing WWE did that even close to as well-formed as, say, Teddy Long’s 2007 “wedding” to Kristal Marshall, which isn’t generally considered a highlight of its era?
WWE went through a lot of weddings around that time, pretty much for the same reasons that traditionally scripted TV shows do. All had the same dramatic beats, and even used the same damn WWE wedding song that Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth first used in 1991. But the Long/Marshall nuptials were different, in large part because the characters were allowed to be distinct humans—the kind that would hire Bruce Bruce as a wedding officiant and Jagged Edge to perform “Let’s Get Married” as their wedding song. If similar WWE characters got married today, such notes wouldn’t make the cut. If recent work is any indication, there wouldn’t even be an acknowledgment that the two people of color getting married might have different taste than the (largely) white males in WWE’s writers room. In the WWE of 2019, no wrestler can be bigger—or more interesting—than the brand that the promotion has worked so hard to build.
As discussed in this space a year ago as the details of new contracts broke, the current WWE is the culmination of decades of work on the promotion’s part to disentangle itself from idea of “fake wrestling,” and the broader conception that wrestling was a pretend sport conning dullards out of their money. Even during the company’s mid-’80s national expansion, Vince McMahon and his spokespeople took great care to try to rebrand both the promotion and pro wrestling itself as “sports entertainment.” McMahon added it to the intros of his TV shows, used it in mainstream media interview, and generally did his best to make that concept concrete enough to sell.
That gambit wasn’t new per se—Superstation WTBS, cable’s original wrestling home, had branded its wrestling shows as World Championship Sports and Sunday Sports in ratings books to make them more palatable to sponsors—but McMahon took it to a different level. That didn’t really change anything about the product, at least at first, but over time it chipped away at the distaste for pro wrestling in the TV business and on Madison Avenue. A decade ago, WWE made all its shows rated TV-PG in the hope that they’d appear more family-friendly. Stephanie McMahon’s installation as Chief Brand Officer in December 2013 really got the ball rolling, especially with her charity initiatives. WWE was still what it was—a strange and overstated and brutal family business—but it was also working hard to look legitimate.
Branding efforts can only go so far, though. Let’s look back to 1989. Thirty years ago this week, WWE was just not quite a month past a massively successful WrestleMania V, which brought in about 767,000 buys on pay-per-view, a figure that wouldn’t be matched or beaten until the next wrestling boom a decade later. This was also about 10 weeks after WWE brass admitted that their product wasn’t pure sport, a move made to avoid athletic commission regulation and assorted related taxes in New Jersey. As noted here on the 30th anniversary of that story, this wasn’t the first time such an admission had been made, just the most visible; it also didn’t work as the promotion hoped it would. That was the beginning of an era during which WWE would become increasingly open about the fact that it is show business, which over time diminished the idea that the wrestling business is inherently a con and its promoters inherently con men.
Back then, WWE’s key programming wasn’t on cable at all. It was syndicated to 250 broadcast stations across the country, and there are not and probably won’t ever be any reliable viewership information for those old WWE syndicated productions. For some unexplained reason, wrestling promotions and wrestling syndicators were allowed to roll all their shows into a single number, cable shows included. Open up trade magazines like Broadcasting to the ratings page and you’d see the syndication rankings followed by a heading reading “the following programs are included, but not ranked.” There, you’d see “World Wrestling Fed.” next to an improbably high rating—9.5 for the last weekend of April 1989, ahead of every syndicated show other than Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and reruns of The Cosby Show—and exactly zero context as to why it wasn’t ranked. There’s no useful comparison point, in short, but there is with WWE’s cable programming. Matwatch, then the premier trade newsletter for pro wrestling on television, did not report total viewership figures for cable programming, but it did include the total number of households tuning in.
Anyway, on April 30, 1989, Prime Time Wrestling, the precursor to Raw, was viewed in 1.4 million homes. The Raw episode from two weeks ago was, based on the Wrestling Observer Newsletter reporting 1.55 viewers per home, was viewed by...a little over 1,392,000. This looks worse why you consider that Prime Time, while the company’s top cable show at the time, was largely an afterthought—a mix of recaps and weeks-old arena matches, with occasional exclusives mixed in. Cable was different then, too, to be fair, and not a priority for a company that was making its money on live event tickets, which it sold with localized interviews in syndication. For what it’s worth, the day before, All-American Wrestling, the lesser cable recap show that aired Sundays at noon, was viewed in 1,120,000 households. The business was doing well at the time, but per the metric that gives us the closest possible comparison, Raw is flat with its numbers from a significantly smaller cable universe 30 years ago.
But this is also true: Raw and SmackDown are still among the top shows on cable. Even if the latter is moving to a major broadcast network come October, less than $4 million a week for Fox to program its entire Friday night while reliably bringing in a couple million viewers—and possibly more, as WWE’s ceiling as a weekly major network show is completely unknown—qualifies as a steal compared to traditionally scripted fare. That’s doubly so now that advertisers see WWE’s viewers as something other than dumb, downmarket marks. Even the Sports Entertainment thing pays off to a certain extent, here, as WWE’s ad inventory suggests that advertisers consider it to be close enough to live sports to command similar advertising rates; John Ourand’s reporting on the WWE TV deals last year for Sports Business Journal backs up optimism on that front.
All of which is to say that WWE’s ratings dip isn’t insurmountable at all. This week’s expected announcement of All Elite Wrestling hitting one of the Turner Networks this Fall seems like a threat to WWE’s dominance, and it is. But it might also just be the nudge that Vince McMahon needs to try to excel creatively. The business is cyclical, but the storytelling work is a different story. When WWE gets weird and creative with its product, it wins. McMahon surely knows this, but he’s also 73 years old. It’s hard not to wonder how much McMahon really has it in him to push himself creatively. At any rate, the challenge is plain. The question is whether he and his company can rise to meet it.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.