On Saturday night, WWE put on one of its typically excellent TakeOver specials from its NXT developmental brand at the Toyota Center in Houston. Featuring a breakout performance from Velveteen Dream, an excellent world title match with a surprising ending, and the return of the beloved “WarGames” cage match gimmick, it absolutely lived up to its potential in the ring. The WWE Network broadcast of the show, however, was difficult to watch. It was among the worst-shot and worst-directed WWE shows in recent memory, with important moments missed by the director, static shots composed where numerous empty seats were visible, and a series of punches where Kassius’s Ohno’s thigh-slapping (to make noise) was on-camera for several punches in a row.
Most distractingly, though, it was over-produced even by the standards of the most overproduced promotion in wrestling history. Unnecessary camera switching, a longtime trademark of the WWE production style, and even more unnecessary camera movement, a more recent addition, were both more noticeable than usual, rendering the main event a dizzying, nigh-unwatchable experience at times.
Thankfully, the next night, Survivor Series, held in the same building, was a more typical WWE show from a production standpoint, which is to say overproduced but not distractingly so if you’re used to it. And wrestling fans have had a long time to get used to it.
The perception of pro wrestling among non-fans as lumbering non-athletes throwing badly-missed punches while obviously stomping the ring to make noise is, if anything, a reaction to the old WWF style more than anything else. It has been, of course, the most visible promotion nationally since the mid-’80s, but it also had a monopoly in major population centers in the northeast before that. This meant that having the the worst in-ring action in the mainstream of the wrestling business for decades wasn’t an issue of lasting concern. WWF television was similarly boring, with little story progression on top of the weak matches. This was not the norm in the business, though. Compare, for example, Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, which is on WWE Network. It’s not just an example of a promotion that didn’t have the more insultingly phoniness of the WWF style, but was also the first show to really advance how wrestling was produced for television. In 1982, they launched a nationally syndicated show featuring a six-camera shoot and microphones in the ring, which completely blew away what everyone else in North America was doing. Since it aired outside of Texas, other promotions needed to catch up.
When the WWF went national in 1984, one of Vince McMahon’s first moves was to overhaul television production. Shows were moved out of Pennsylvania community centers into larger buildings in New York and Ontario (to make it a local production for Canadian regulatory purposes), as well as adding a third show taped at a major arena, the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Baltimore’s Video One made improvements to production, and certain McMahon-specific quirks (like shaved armpits) started to pop up, but the WWF/WWE production style as we know it was birthed in 1985 for the Saturday Night’s Main Event specials on NBC. A glitzy multi-camera shoot in major arenas with fans carefully arranged to make crowds look bigger and heavy post-production (other WWF shows were shot “live to tape”), it came off as more major league than anything else in wrestling. For the Fall 1986 television season, the WWF syndicated shows, the company’s flagship programming, were rebranded and refreshed, all getting the same type of presentation as the NBC shows.
It was here that the WWF/WWE style of television, as we know it, came to be. The biggest change was that the director (often Kerwin Silfes) would switch camera angles on the impact of a strike so as to hide that it didn’t make contact, something that wasn’t needed in other promotions because there weren’t as many holes in the ringwork. Even though the company had dramatically upgraded its talent level in the expansion, there was still something of a house style in the ring, plus most of the wrestlers were tired out by a grueling schedule. WWE never really let up on the quick cuts, and it only got worse as the years went on. Even as the schedule got easier and more high-end talent made their way over, changing the in-ring style so that there were much less in the way of badly missed strikes, the dizzying camera switching never stopped. Over the years, the quick cuts got even worse: Eventually, it didn’t just happen for strikes, but also happened on the impact of moves that, even if messed up, wouldn’t be camouflaged the same way, like suplexes.
Another camera trick, the worst part of modern WWE production quirks, dates back almost exactly five years, to The Shield’s debut at the 2012 Survivor Series show. To indicate a sense of chaos, a new wrinkle was added: Rapid camera movement to indicate chaos, accompanied by similarly fast-paced zooming in and out. At first it only accompanied The Shield’s ambushes, but nowadays, you can expect most in-ring beatdowns to have a nauseating mess shaking and zooming. Camera tricks that, in the narrative of what WWE programming is supposed to be, don’t even make any sense. After all, in-storyline, you’re theoretically watching a sports broadcast, so why would the camera operator do that? On Saturday at TakeOver, all of the camera moves got especially bad in the main event, where it seemed as if the production team had an especially hard time adjusting to shooting the WarGames match. It was the first bout in WWE history to encompassed two rings, and cage matches have their own production issues in the first place. The result was physically unpleasant to watch.
On top of the various camera issues, crowd noise can be “sweetened,” which usually means supplementing or outright replacing it with canned audio. Sometimes, in the past, the ring announcer would cheerlead before the show to get something approaching natural-sounding audio, but often, especially on Saturday Night’s Main Event, it sounded more like white noise. If you listen with headphones, you can sometimes find shows on WWE Network where the entire audio track was clearly replaced in post-production. This is harder to do now when the flagship WWE shows air live in its primary markets, but there are still moments where the crowd noise is noticeably futzed with, even on live broadcasts. The international versions—which end up on WWE Network 30 days after the live broadcast—still get “sweetened” in post-production, too, and are the lasting record of the shows.
Probably the most egregious sweetening comes from when SmackDown was still pre-taped: The same sample of what’s supposed to be a crowd popping, often referred to the “seagull pop” online, was obscenely overused. It’s especially noticeable when it would be used repeatedly in the same segment, or when someone is very obviously being cheered while boos are dubbed in and/or the crowd noise is turned down.
WWE is not the only culprit when it comes to over-producing shows like this, but they’re (usually) the most egregious. In the ‘70s, Big Time Wrestling in northern California piped in crowd from an arena show even though it was taped in a small TV studio, which was more funny than anything else. Other promotions have done it, too, but only when absolutely necessary, as opposed to the detail-obsessed WWE shows that have nonsensical moments of sweetening. The camera shaking/zooming is exclusive to WWE, while the rapid cuts have been limited to just a few other promotions, most notably Impact Wrestling and the short-lived WOW: Women of Wrestling. The Impact edits, though, were once reported in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter as being a byproduct of haphazard edits for time, while WOW was dealing with an incredibly inexperience roster that needed some smoke and mirrors. Both could give WWE a run for their money in terms of the speed and number of camera changes. It could get so bad that once, I remember having to turn off Impact because it was literally making my sister ill. They’ve cut down on it in recent years, though, to the point that WWE’s issues stick out like a sore thumb more than ever.
It’s no wonder that independent wrestling is in a boom period and New Japan Pro Wrestling is building a sizable, vociferous western fanbase. WWE can be actively hard to watch, between the frustrating production and the back to back long shows. Still, good production values really do make wrestling easier to watch, something that will likely always be a hurdle for some fans in checking out indies, and that should be an asset in WWE’s favor. It’s seemingly helped Ring of Honor, which added a lighting grid and an elaborate stage in the last year and a half, and NJPW likely benefits from putting on some of the best-looking shows in wrestling. WWE, though, uses its resources to do much more than make the shows pretty, and it’s become not just over complicated but also distracting. Especially for a genre that flourished on TV in the first place because it was cheap to shoot.