Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a WWE wrestler comes out to the ring to cut a promo, gets interrupted by someone, who in turn gets interrupted by someone else. This goes on until a tag match is thrown together featuring everyone in that derailed promo train. This is such a common occurrence that internet fans even have a term for it: a Teddy Long Special, named after the former SmackDown Live general manager who was infamous for setting up tag matches in this way.
It’s both WWE’s most-used trope and a symbol for everything that is wrong with WWE creative at the moment. For years, the company has employed this go-to formula over and over (and over) again, with no real sense that it would ever need to change. That seems to be changing: as TV ratings decline ahead of a massive new partnership, the pressure is finally mounting on WWE. So far, it is not rising to the occasion.
According to reports from Dave Meltzer, both NBC Universal (which currently runs Raw and SmackDown Live on the USA Network) and Fox (which will take over SmackDown Live in October) expressed serious concern about WWE’s declining ratings, which sunk to an all-time, non-football-season low of 2.16 million viewers during last week’s Raw. That apparently explains the bizarre opening to Raw this week, wherein Vince McMahon—the TV character, who is played by the person that’s also the CEO of the company—added a poorly described Wild Card Rule, wherein three superstars from each show could pop up on the other each week. The idea was that neither show had enough star power to stand alone, which meant that some of the big names would pull double duty to get people to tune in until conditions improved.
In theory, this helped explain why Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, and WWE Champion Kofi Kingston, all three of whom are SmackDown Live wrestlers as of the Superstar Shake Up a couple of weeks back, all showed up to open Raw. The Wild Card Rule was, this being WWE, immediately broken. That happened when Shane McMahon and Elias showed up to attack Reigns, and it broke further when new monster heel Lars Sullivan also popped up later in the show. That could all have been a continuity error or just a garden variety fuck-up, but it’s also an indication of how WWE’s by-the-seat-of-your-pants booking works, or doesn’t work. Every decision loses its own internal logic as the company goes to the well again and again. At some point, even hardcore fans struggle to understand what’s happening, or why.
On paper, this type of generic, predictable booking isn’t much different than how New Japan Pro Wrestling does its lead-up shows to the big specials: throw together a bunch of tag matches to keep wrestlers from carrying a heavy workload, let fans see their favorites at every show, send everyone home happy. The difference, and the reason why New Japan is considered, rightly, the pinnacle of wrestling this decade, is in how these tag matches are employed. In New Japan, the teams are organic, usually consisting of faction mates, and the matches themselves advance three or four feuds at once. In WWE, the teams and matches are thrown together because they have a lot of programming time to chew up in between Popeye’s ads. That lack of foresight shows.
The worst offender of this style of WWE booking is unfortunately the one that fans are in the midst of right now: ahead of this month’s Money In The Bank special, wherein a handful of competitors fight in a ladder match for a contract that allows them to cash in a chance for the top titles at any time, the wrestlers involved are fighting all sorts of meaningless matches. The idea is that they’re “building momentum,” a phrase WWE loves to bandy around as if it means anything on what is, you will recall, a scripted show.
Another well-worn trope that pops up almost every week, particularly closer to a live special, is the idea that, in order to earn a title shot against a particular champion, a challenger simply has to pin that same champion in a non-title match. Beating the champ should earn a title shot, that part makes sense. But shouldn’t that also just...make you the champion? The Viking Raiders defeated Raw tag team champions Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins on Monday to set up a likely title match at Money In The Bank; the women’s tag team champions, the fantastic Australian trolls the IIconics, have been getting pinned ever since WrestleMania to set up...something? Who knows?
The creative problems even extend to how the show is shot and choreographed; Reddit user DMan304 posted a video of Sullivan—who is currently being outed and chastised for racist and homophobic posts on a forum, because what’s WWE without a little bit of locker room bigotry?—delivering the same move to different wrestlers on different shows. The similarities between the sequences are uncanny.
It’s important to remember that it doesn’t need to be like this. There are other ways of staging wrestling, and indie companies, despite vastly inferior budgets and more rudimentary production value, find ways to shoot big moves in dynamic ways so that every show feels unique, if not necessarily stylistically different. Those same indies are predisposed to taking risks, though, and WWE is decidedly not. The smaller companies have to take those risks if they’re going to win mindshare on timelines and internet forums; at the most basic level, the same old shit just isn’t going to attract anyone’s attention. This is why Meltzer, who has seen it all in wrestling, proclaimed that All Elite Wrestling’s promos ahead of its first special were “going to make WWE promos obsolete.” The All Elite promos were excellent, but also WWE’s were pretty well obsolete to begin with, and hadn’t changed in years.
Meltzer might be overstating things a bit, but it’s easy to see why. A big part of what makes AEW so promising, both in the abstract and in its promos, is the relentless sameness of the biggest and most visible wrestling company in the world. The promo trains that reliably open most WWE weekly shows; the same thrown-together tag matches, often featuring future opponents as partners in an effort to see if they can “coexist”; the general feeling that you can read results instead of watching the show and still visualize exactly what happened. WWE has turned its most valuable production asset—five hours of weekly television, in prime-time, on an easily accessible channel—from must-see TV to if-nothing-else-is-on drudgery.
The worst part is that WWE does have the potential to do weird, innovative content. Take the Firefly Fun House, Bray Wyatt’s newest gimmick, which plugs him into a Mr. Rogers-esque character bubbling with enough barely concealed cruelty and insipidness. Over a month of vignettes, it has made Wyatt more interesting than he has been in years. That it’s so weird and so different from the rest of the promotion’s programming helps a great deal.
Obviously, not every feud or wrestler can pull off something as wild as Firefly Fun House; Wyatt is, for all his faults, an extremely talented performer with a grasp for just how weird wrestling can get if you let it. Part of the fun, here, is that WWE is even trying something this irregular. It really is good, but it pops twice as hard because everything around it is so rote. Bland creative serves no one: the fans are bored by it, the TV executives are anxious about what it means to the bottom line, and the wrestlers themselves will begin to consider other options if they’re used as cannon fodder in some lame advertising campaign.
It’s a common refrain among fans that WWE is never better than when it is backed into a corner. Usually, this refers to injuries derailing long-held plans and forcing WWE to abandon formulaic plots and scramble to put together something at the last minute. More often than not, that improvisatory story ends up being more exciting and much out-of-the-box than the more generic long-term plans the company tends to favor. The most recent example of this was, not coincidentally, the best WWE storyline of 2019. Mustafa Ali got hurt before a gauntlet match ahead of the Elimination Chamber special, Kofi Kingston got subbed in and went off, fans got behind him, and WWE decided to push him to the moon, ultimately giving him a WWE title win at WrestleMania.
WWE is indeed in a corner once again, but this current moment feels different. The ratings drops and subsequent complaints from NBC and Fox are monsters of WWE’s own making, and the result of years of continuously similar booking and creative decisions. Since the launch of the WWE Network in 2014, the party line has been that ratings truly don’t matter, and for corporate’s purpose that is true. The revenue really has shifted over to streaming. As a business philosophy, it makes sense. The nature of the product has traditionally made wrestling a hard sell for advertisers, and relying on the Network and the superfans who subscribe to it is the most forward-thinking business move the company has done in years. It’s made the rich people atop the company much richer.
But the Fox partnership (and the reported $205 million annually coming with it) highlight the necessity of a fresher and more coherent weekly show. WWE has treated its weekly shows as just necessary precursors to its live pay-per-view specials at least since the Attitude Era, back when every Monday night was a battleground between Raw and WCW’s Nitro. Once WWE gobbled up its most dangerous competitor to date, the quality of its weekly shows almost immediately plummeted. The ratings followed suit:
Playing it safe seems to no longer be an option, though. Despite almost two decades of fans begging for a better and more consistent weekly product, there remains a resignation that this is just how things are and will ever be in the promotion. Under pressure from those two corporate partners, though, WWE will have no choice but to change. The same old stuff just isn’t delivering the ratings it used to; trying something new is the only answer left. The company can’t say they didn’t see it coming.