On February 24th 2014 World Wrestling Entertainment changed forever. This was the day they launched the WWE Network, where – for a low, monthly fee of just $9.99 – you could access all their past, present, and (eventually) future output, without the need to have cable TV or buy pay-per-views. No longer were their fans beholden to the whims of television schedulers or whether their monthly budget stretched to that extra $40. Instead, they had it all there, ready to go, for just that low, monthly fee.
This signalled more than just a change in the way the product could be accessed, it heralded a change in how the WWE would present its productions. Some might argue – with more than just cause – that the real change in this direction came when Vince McMahon decided to hire (a reported) twenty-eight writers to script the week’s television, most of whom had no experience of or in professional wrestling. But the switch to the network, and the eventual jettisoning of reliance on television ratings and PPV buyrates would make that decision look like small beer.
Previously, wrestling companies have lived or died by their television ratings and PPV buyrates. They also used to monitor their live attendances for non-televised events, but now that so long as these cover their costs they are seen as a necessary evil. No, how many people watched your product, that was the bellwether. Now, although Raw’s ratings on USA are carefully monitored, the only figure that really counts is the amount of subscribers the network attracts, which will hold steady at a certain base figure – the hardcore – but will fluctuate in a way you can’t read accurately as a measure of how your product is received, or at least tell yourself that very thing.
Also, when most wrestling journalists, professionals, and even some fans are screaming at you that a three hour weekly show is too much, especially when matched with a further four hours of first-run TV, you can ignore them – because people who are signing up to a 24-7 WWE network surely can’t get enough?
And the spectre of an absentee champion – the WWE Heavyweight title hasn’t been defended since September 21st 2014, well past the 30 days that Daniel Bryan was stripped of the title for not competing – isn’t seen as damaging because those PPVs that the champion did not appear on are no longer seen as a vital source of revenue for the company, and his non-appearance (and the damage that has historically done) can be explained as just one of a thousand reasons for subscriber “churn” (an actual term they use for the turnover of fans cancelling and signing up for the network).
Furthermore, the emphasis on the long term – targets for levels of subscribers by certain dates, none of which are overly affected on a month-to-month basis – leads to a rugged determination to not change, even when the most vocal feedback shows things are not working. Roman Reigns, for example, has been picked as the successor to John Cena as the company’s standard bearer, and that long term plan will be adhered to, at seemingly any cost, despite the fans’ reluctance to get behind him and his inability to deliver a promo.
Witness the storyline that carried the company into 2014’s Survivor Series, where the evil owners, The Authority, put their, well, authority on the line. The PPV did 103,000 buys worldwide, in a month when the WWE Network was free to new subscribers. Granted, half of those were in the UK, which did not officially have the network at that point, but it shows the level of interest in that storyline by fans who spend money on the product, few of whom would have been invested in seeing The Authority’s reign continue. Of course, The Authority lost and was out of power. For thirty-six days. There’s nothing like telling your fans they’re idiots for caring. The network rolls on.
That’s where we are, then. The WWE in 2015 is still a colossus, seemingly unstoppable as it bestrides the professional wrestling landscape. Any competition from the United States is beneath its contempt, although there are noises coming out of Japan that may become worrisome in time. It’s the only business in town. And if you love professional wrestling, which many of us strangely do, it’s hard to ignore.
I watch Raw and Smackdown each week, and the PPVs each month, with a mixture of anger, resignation, and that eternal hope. Hope that an entertaining and consistent WWE that makes sense and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for suspending your disbelief for three hours, that is good for professional wrestling, will one day return. It may never come, if we ever had it in the first instance.
In the meantime, we watch. And we piss and moan, and point and laugh, and occasionally find something we can become immersed in. That’s where my Raw and Smackdown reviews live, somewhere in-between all that. I like what I like, and I hate what I hate, and this is my way of telling Vince McMahon what this network subscriber thinks. I just don’t think he’s listening right now.