THE ART OF THE BRAND SPLIT: OR THE REBIRTH OF THE WWE
The WWE announced on Wednesday morning, May 25th, 2016 that in addition to broadcasting SmackDown live, Tuesdays on the USA Network, a brand split will once again take effect in its fictional universe. Raw & SmackDown will feature "separate cast, plots and writing teams". Currently these shows loosely share casts and plots with talent often trading victories from one show to the next. Very little of what happens on either show is essential-viewing.
There are a lot of obvious benefits to a brand split in modern WWE.
Not only does a switch to a live presentation of SmackDown help revitalize the WWE's stagnant B-Show, a definitive split in an over-crowded roster means less repeat match-ups, less over-exposed, over-worked talent, and more creative focus (hopefully) on improving the overall quality of these separate casts and plots.
With each roster able to focus on one live television show a week (rather than two where wins and loses cancel each other out) there could be more room for the performers to establish their characters via backstage interviews, in-ring promos, exciting vignettes, and main event matches that represent the culmination of a story's through-line rather than a contrived mash-up of heroes and villains.
There are a variety of great creative opportunities available to the WWE following this decision, opportunities that could help revitalize not just SmackDown but a flagship show in Monday Night Raw that continues to become more and more niche, appealing to complacent "internet fans", and lacking in urgency and intrigue.
The way the WWE presents this brand split in the coming weeks will reveal the ideology behind it, and whether or not they're moving in a direction that capitalizes on the inherent potential of this direction.
The benefits of this choice to split brands can easily be undone, however, should the company decide to rehash the creative direction of their previous brand split, and refuse to move ahead with a more coherent fictional universe.
"While it is indeed logical that SmackDown & RAW be divided between Shane & Stephanie, the fictional or real-world purpose behind that divide must not be founded on competition within the McMahon family..."
In the past, Raw and SmackDown were pitted against each other as warring brands. The company had no direct competition in the form of "Sports Entertainment" and so it decided to compete against itself. That creative philosophy is inherently flawed and unsustainable (as evidenced by the fact that it didn't last and never produced a star on par with members of The Attitude Era).
That kind of philosophy is similar to members of an orchestra trying to knock their fellow musician's instrument out of the hands or mouths.
Dissonance and chaos follows - not beautiful music.
Creative entities and businesses, no matter how fragmented, must work in concert with each other to create compelling, consistent products (see Marvel's Cinematic Universe as a useful guide to telling the story of a harmonious fictional universe through several different yet interconnected stories). A WWE that competes against itself with dueling, synonymous title divisions is a resource-divided WWE that isn't making a positive, uplifting, intelligent, team-effort toward improving the all-encompassing WWE-brand. The WWE's resources and creative efforts are divided enough as it is.
RAW has long-been established as the flagship or "more important show". No matter how good SmackDown ever was during the previous brand split, the lord of the WWE was never going to allow SmackDown to be anything other than The B-Show. The significance of championships and champions became diluted in that environment, and the company pecking order was a vague suggestion rather than a clearly defined, easily-comprehended fictional framework. Viewers had to guess what title was going to headline a pay-per-view and then they moaned if "their champion" didn't get the top spot even if they were "more deserving". The previous brand split was the result of internal boredom (never a good motivator), and often felt petty, intrusive, and confusing. WWE fans were encouraged to devolve into children who shouted "My show is better than yours!" and all of it lacked the excitement of the Monday Night War because the stakes were never clear.
That could very easily happen again. But it must not.
The stage is already set for the WWE to defer to its tried and true, never-ending McMahon-family melodrama with Mr. McMahon pitting Stephanie and Shane against each other as the leaders of Raw & SmackDown where "the winner takes all" (whatever "winner" and "takes all" would mean).
While a logical result of their story since WrestleMania, the company and its fans will not benefit from another re-telling of SmackDown vs RAW especially given how hard the company is pushing the idea that they've entered a "New Era".
It's easy to avoid being a hypocrite if one simply does what they say they're doing.
A SmackDown versus RAW story where Shane is trying to make his show the best while Stephanie is trying to make her show the best at the expense of the other is a dynamic wherein the significance of the talent roster goes to die. The rosters become extensions of the McMahon-drama, not characters unto themselves who win the love of viewers.
The wrestlers will be the ones working on these shows weekly. The wrestlers will be the ones selling merchandise. The wrestlers will be the ones taking the bumps for their paychecks. While it is indeed logical that SmackDown & RAW be divided between Shane & Stephanie, the fictional or real-world purpose behind that divide must not be founded on competition within the McMahon family or, as Mr. McMahon might put it, "Going for blood".
Obviously it's impossible to know, at this time, what the WWE's creative direction will be or what thought-process is behind a new brand split. While some would argue it's foolish or cynical to condemn this decision before it even has the chance to materialize on television, it's important to remember the company's track record with regard to instituting changes. Again and again, WWE fans have gathered together and rejoiced in the proposed changes to the product only to see those changes never come forth in a lasting, beneficial manner.
Someone in the company needs to impress upon the powers that be that this move not be a repeat of the past, and that it must capitalize on the enthusiasm it has sparked. Enthusiasm fades quickly when the promise isn't kept, and eventually turns to frustration and lower ratings. Before the company even puts pen to paper or books a single match during this split, the ideology behind it and the company-structure born out of it must be clear, concise, absolutely transparent, positive, and based in realism.
The goal, going forward, must be to get fans and prospective viewers (who are too busy watching UFC, reality television, and organized sports to care about modern wrestling) to say, "WWE has gotten really good again" not "SmackDown is so much better than RAW" or "RAW is so much better than SmackDown".
The former is a sentiment that comes from a wider audience, and that means more money.
The latter is a sentiment that comes from the complacent, obnoxious wrestling fans who are hijacking shows and helping to ruin the product.
The WWE can subtly reinvent their formula for the better if the fundamental philosophy behind this split is grounded not in internal competition, but rather in getting talent over and establishing a clear championship-pecking-order that mimics the structure of organized sports. I understand that the WWE thrived in the late 90s due to its competition with WCW, but that was the late 90s and this is 2016. A WWE that thrives in 2016 is one where the entire company-machine is galvanized behind the single, positive guiding principle: we have the best athletes in the world.
The best athletes in the world. Everything trickles down from that perspective.
That is an exciting edict, and it's one the WWE can prove every week through its style of wrestling magic.
What is the WWE's current philosophy? Something along the lines of "We're here to entertain you!" That philosophy has resulted in a litany of disgruntled employees who never "got over" and an absolute bloodletting in the ratings over the past fifteen years.
Given that SmackDown has always been presented as the B-Show and that a massive portion of WWE-fans will never think of it as anything else, there is no reason to try changing that perception.
The WWE, whether the creative heads are conscious of it or not, has a brilliant structure already in place if only they would spend time thinking about it, ironing it out, and making it expressly clear on television via interviews with Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Shane McMahon, and Vince McMahon:
NXT is Double-A Sports Entertainment booked by Triple H.
SmackDown is Triple-A Sports Entertainment booked by Shane.
RAW is Major League Sports Entertainment booked by Stephanie.
(Or swap Shane & Stephanie's shows, though it makes more sense to put Shane on SmackDown in an effort to increase ratings, and because Stephanie will always be Vince's favorite in the storyline)
Vince McMahon would then be the overseer or commissioner of the entire Sports Entertainment league, wanting to get the best out of his show-runners (coaches) and his athletes (superstars) the way any team owner or organization president would.
In this proposed, realism-based structure, all of them would believe in the company. They would be passionate about the talents on every show. None of them would needlessly attempt to negate the efforts of the other just to be "evil" or "manipulative". The dramas and the conflicts would be reserved for the wrestlers - not these boss characters.
Triple H, Stephanie, Shane, and Vince would be working together to make the WWE's three television shows the best shows on television. That would be the goal of their characters - a believable priority in keeping with their real-world priorities. The morality of these characters would no longer be relevant and they would no longer belittle the talent in favor of nostalgia-pops.
Not only would that structure and creative philosophy result in a generally more pleasant viewing experience, it would also provide resolution to the McMahon-family drama. There would be a good ending to one of pro-wrestling's longest running narratives, bad blood resolved in the pursuit of making money and preserving legacies. Basically Shane, Steph, and Triple H are "all grown up" and now everything is grounded in the sport they've inherited.
WWE would instantly posses more credibility if it presented itself with this kind of clear, believable, non-hokey, non-jokey, no-nonsense, sport-focused structure.
Everyone would be fighting to win, not fighting to entertain.
The reason NXT has been so successful is not because it attempts to directly compete with Monday Night Raw. NXT is successful because it attempts to be the best "WWE farm-league wrestling show" available on the WWE Network. And that's exactly what it is. It is able to exist for itself, by itself, for its fans, by its fans without concern for what happens on RAW or SmackDown. There aren't any inconsistencies. It's focused and its creative team is permitted to be focused. It builds talent, tells stories, and puts on fun matches. That's it.
Currently, it is unclear how NXT relates to RAW, and in this proposed WWE Universe that would immediately change. If NXT, SmackDown, and RAW represent a progression through the WWE company the way an athlete progresses from high school (NXT) to college (SmackDown) to the professional level (RAW), then each of these shows would serve a clearer, more recognizable purpose.
Each of these shows would feed into the WWE's larger story and the stories of its talent. The WWE would have a tangible, in-house record of a particular talent's entire career, building franchise players who earn their way to that top spot within the system. And while one level might be more "prestigious" than the other, no level would be more essential than the other.
Athletes must move through the system of their organized sport before they get to "the show". Just because they're in the minors doesn't mean their efforts in the minors are any less significant to them personally, or, in WWE's case, a talent being on SmackDown doesn't need to be presented as "lesser" than a talent being on RAW. That talent is simply progressing through the WWE system at the level they're at, and all levels of that system are integral to their growth. This kind of progression would also help intensify the bonds between viewers and superstars. Imagine watching a single talent go from their early days at the performance center all the way from NXT to SmackDown to RAW and then eventually to the main event at WrestleMania. That's the story the WWE can tell if they choose to structure their organization in this logical, transparent manner. Rather than encouraging fans to regard one show as "better" than the other, fans would be encouraged to regard all shows as necessary, exciting platforms for athletes to tell their stories and earn main event spots.
Everything matters in this highly organized, carefully structured WWE, especially the championships.
The big gold belt, the World Heavyweight Championship that some fans are clamoring to see make a return, is retired and it should remain retired in this "New Era". The WWE has their championship structure for these three different shows already in place, and little, if anything, needs to change. NXT has their female champion, male champion, and tag champion and each show can follow that basic setup with some minor alterations: Male lead, female lead, pair leads.
For example, given that SmackDown is still the minors, the title this division should fight for is the midcard and currently insignificant Intercontinental Championship. That title needs to serve its intended purpose again, and that can only happen if performers like Miz, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Cesaro gain trajectory after holding it. As is, it offers no trajectory, only occasionally good matches.
In a WWE where SmackDown is a definitive stepping stone to bigger & better championships, suddenly the Intercontinental Championship becomes incredibly important. SmackDown's roster wouldn't be RAW-midcarders or jobbers, they'd be elite athletes in their division fighting for the best prize in their division. That perspective is the difference between floundering superstars who inevitably ask for their release and talents who get over. The fans need to be conditioned to regard a show like SmackDown as an essential part of an athlete's journey just as a college football fan emotionally invests in a particular player at a young age. This structure would inject the WWE's proceedings with a previously untapped form of believable drama. Drafts become less random and more important. New matches, tournaments, and Battle Royals could be put in place with the victor of these contests earning a rare golden ticket to skip a step, progress through the system, and prove their worth or earn heat as an undeserving villain.
Each show's individual structure could mirror the other, but the talent, the individual motivations, and the specific titles on the shows would determine what makes each event unique and must-see, can't-miss television.
"This proposed structure also incentivizes the WWE Network. Currently, the Network is something to have if someone wants cheap pay-per-views, nostalgic sketch comedy, and raunchy cartoons. What if the Network was an archive of dreams?"
With regard to SmackDown's tag division there is an obvious, instantly exciting possibility for the company to capitalize on the renewed enthusiasm women's wrestling. SmackDown could be the home of the WWE Women's Tag Team Champions, offering entirely unique match-ups that RAW simply wouldn't have, thereby making SmackDown worth watching, and it giving the entire women's roster the opportunities they need to define their characters on live, national television.
If both shows are to have parallel titles (like a WWE Championship on RAW and a World Championship on SmackDown), then the company would be right back where it was during the first brand-split and those titles would mean less. If the company uses the titles they currently have, in addition to adding one or two in the form of a Women's Tag title and the upcoming Cruiserweight Title then each show and each title becomes more important.
On RAW, the Men's Tag Team Championships would remain and the United States Championship would be retired. The highest men's and women's honors in the company would also remain on RAW in the form of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Women's Championship.
The WWE's Cruiserweight Championship could perhaps be the one title that's featured on both programs.
This structure also increases the value of RAW and every performer on RAW, the show that the WWE will always present as superior no matter what (hence why figurative or literal internal competition is pointless). Titles would signify true career-greatness. WWE fans would have seen those title-holders progress through the WWE system, and so they'd be likelier to believe in that particular champion. The common complaint that someone is being "pushed too fast, too soon" or not "getting over organically" is more easily dismissed in this proposed environment because there will be an on-screen record detailing a talent's rise to the top. The booking becomes less transparent. The story of an athlete (or WWE Superstar) becomes the focus - not whether or not someone is "corporate enough". It's also easier to know what to do with a talent if the desired aim is making them the top WWE Superstar - run them through the system.
Currently, RAW seems unaware of NXT and that negates a lot of the hard work and excellent storytelling of wrestlers like Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Neville, Tyler Breeze, Baron Corbin, Becky Lynch, and a host of others who have recently come up.
If the RAW creative team was intimately aware of these performer's NXT-exploits, and if the way wrestlers earned the right to progress or regress between shows was made abundantly clear, then RAW-viewers would be more familiar with these NXT-talents, the WWE would benefit from their own investment, and the talent wouldn't have as big an uphill battle when they arrived on the main-stage.
Only in the past few months have homegrown NXT talents like Charlotte been able to formulate a character and connect with audiences. But she debuted in the spring of 2015. Had all her work in NXT been packaged-in with her RAW-debut through vignettes and sit down interviews then the Divas Revolution wouldn't have been such a blatant disaster.
RAW-viewers would have learned about the women in a "organic way", and they would have been more inclined to buy-in and form stronger bonds sooner. It took a solid year to get to a point that the company could've been in about a month had the relationship between NXT and RAW been clearer, and had NXT footage been used to help promote debuting talents.
This proposed structure also incentivizes the WWE Network. Currently, the Network is something to have if someone wants cheap pay-per-views, nostalgic sketch comedy, and raunchy cartoons.
What if the Network was an archive of dreams?
What if the Network was the only way you could see where the superstar gets made? What if the Network was an exclusive, once in a lifetime chance to witness the birth of the next great WWE Champion?
All of this is well within the WWE's reach. They have the momentum. They seem to have the desire. There's no reason this can't be, right from the start, an instant success that recaptures the imaginations of wrestling fans who haven't been watching for the past fifteen years.
Clarity will be key to the success of this brand split. Both on-screen and online in as many charts and graphs and brackets as the WWE would like to reveal, fans and future fans need to know exactly how these shows relate to each other, exactly why the talent rosters are so important, and exactly what championship gold is meant to represent.
The WWE has attempted to institute a lot of changes in the past two years, and many of them have faded into oblivion because they were superficial or ill-conceived. The company has gifted itself with an opportunity to break that unfortunate trend, to make this a success before it even comes to fruition. There is a chance, starting tonight, to institute tangible, lucrative changes, by restructuring and clarifying the company's fictional universe in a manner that makes sense and helps talent become genuine stars.
The pieces are in place, the talent is ready, and the enthusiasm is there.
All that's needed is the will to cut chaff, the determination to showcase strengths and hide weaknesses, and the intelligence to listen to good ideas.