WHO'S REALLY KILLING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING? IN DEFENSE OF TALENT
Professional wrestling has lost its mainstream audience.
The business has gradually morphed into a niche, a curiosity of sorts with a smaller and smaller (yet increasingly passionate and opinionated) viewership. Veteran wrestlers, veteran "Sports Entertainment" analysts, and fans-turned-critics expend a great deal of thought and energy theorizing why pro-wrestling is not as popular as it once was and where blame should be assigned for this unfortunate reality.
One of the primary explanations (or criticisms) for pro-wrestling's decreased popularity today is that pro-wrestlers have become smaller, more acrobatic, and interchangeable as opposed to the bigger, "more believable", and distinct personalities who drew mainstream attention in the 80s and late 90s. This smaller, more acrobatic wrestler is often criticized for "no-selling" moves, for performing a style of wrestling that is less rooted in creating a believable fight and more rooted in the spectacle of “performance art”.
Instantaneous gratification rather than methodical storytelling, it would appear, defines today's brand of pro-wrestling. The critic argues that the inability to convincingly "sell" (portray) damage resultant from combat is alienating potential, casual viewers and driving them to legitimate sports like Mixed Martial Arts. The wrestling fan who grew up watching in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s sees what today's younger generation is doing with their acrobatics and their "no-selling" and thinks "that looks fake" and so they stop watching wrestling.
That person inevitably exists due to probability, but is that person the real reason wrestling isn't popular today? Is the person who stopped watching because wrestling became less believable the "mainstream viewer" who has forsaken Monday Night Raw, or is that particular person just a "diehard" wrestling fan by another name? If we assume that the general audience isn't watching wrestling today because acrobatics read as "fake" then we're assuming that the general audience who watched wrestling in the 80s and 90s did so exclusively because they believed wrestling was "real" or legitimate sport.
"Pro-wrestling got too fake for its own good" is not a logical argument, especially when considering the style of actual product the masses consumed in the 80s and 90s. "No-selling" and a more acrobatic style does not adequately explain why millions of people have lost interest in professional wrestling over the past fifteen years (especially when today's wrestlers are objectively better athletes). Almost all of the arguments for why today's talent are "killing the business" completely ignores that such arguments come exclusively from people deeply indoctrinated into the cult of pro-wrestling group-think in the first place.
The general audience who isn't watching wrestling anymore doesn't care, in the slightest, what "no-selling" actually is. No general audience is taking the time to notice the nuances of wrestling the way diehard fans do. A critic can argue that the casual viewer unconsciously registers "no-selling" and intuits how "no-selling" compromises the integrity and realism of a match all they want; why are we assuming that the casual viewer who isn't watching wrestling is disinterested in the modern product for the same reasons we critics cite as problematic?
Again, we're in the cult and we only understand the business through that perspective - we're watching so that we can see the reasons we hate or love what we're watching. If a general audience cared about the “art of selling” or the “art of simulating battle” then how can we ever explain the overwhelming popularity of Hulk Hogan?
Nothing Hogan did in the ring had anything to do with realism. It was the epitome of three-year-old play-fighting, but it was a massive draw to a general audience. That general audience was conditioned ("worked"), through good booking, Hogan's creative freedom, and Hogan’s performance savvy to accept his style of performance as pro-wrestling. People believed in the story of Hulk Hogan because it was fun to believe in, easy to understand, and presented (literally) in an accessible way.
Hulk Hogan's "comeback" spits in the face of the fundamental conceit of professional wrestling far more than any Will Ospreay somersault (Will is at least attempting to one-up his opponent with a display of athletic excellence where as Hogan is randomly "hulking up" like Pop-Eye after downing a can of magical spinach), and yet Hogan's blatantly unrealistic, unbelievable antics drew millions upon millions of viewers. If given the chance, a Hogan comeback would still pop even the most cynical of "smart" crowds to this day.
Realism has very little to do with pro-wrestling's success or lack thereof when it comes to mainstream audiences. Fun determines the success of mainstream professional wrestling. A timely, intriguing style of presentation that's in keeping with what's popular in current television determines the success of mainstream professional wrestling. Quality booking, quality characters, and quality stories determine the success of all professional wrestling.
At the height of pro-wrestling's popularity in the late nineties the main cast of characters on Monday Night Raw consisted of an undead graveskeaper, his illegitimate demon brother, two degenerates who flashed their asses and played strip poker on live TV, a deranged masochistic lunatic in a leather mask, bikini contests, pole matches, Jerry-Springer-like "freak shows", and a beer-drinking red neck who regularly threatened to murder his evil boss. None of it was real and none of it attempted to be real; it was, however, absolutely entertaining and often subversive, water-cooler-television that resonated with most viewers at the time (flaws and all).
Were those television viewers worried about "selling"? Did those television viewers roll their eyes whenever RAW suggested magical powers were real by way of well-timed pyrotechnics? Did caskets and buckets of blood and zombies and angels and demons and rednecks alienate viewers?
If those same RAW-viewers from 1999 saw Will Ospreay vs Ricochet would they roll their eyes, call it the death of pro-wrestling, and change the channel...or would they call it "one of the greatest matches they'd ever seen"?
Maybe that general audience from 1999 was simply captivated by a version of Monday Night Raw that was, overall, fun to watch? Maybe Monday Night Raw once offered logical stories, interesting characters, creatively liberated talent, intriguing finishes, and an enthusiastic atmosphere...
Busying ourselves with the craft-related "whys" of wrestling's decreased popularity is obscuring a very simple truth.
The art of "selling" or believability is only important to wrestling-insiders, just as cinematography or editing is only important to movie-insiders.Where a critic or "buff" is actively searching for issues related to a craft (construction, theory, themes, characterizations) the general audience is only thinking "is this good" or "is this bad" (if they're thinking anything at all).
As much as we members of the wrestling-cult want to believe all our reasons for why the business is dying or thriving, those reasons simply do not apply to the actual mindset of a general television viewing audience. The general television viewing audience sees something spectacular and they respond favorably to it no matter what it is - believable or absurd, real or blatantly fabricated.
The fact that they're not watching wrestling anymore suggests that they're not seeing anything they regard as spectacular on the television show that once inspired their fandom. Do we really want to blame the flips of Sami Zayn, the body-type of Kevin Owens, and the scripted acrobatics of Will Ospreay & Ricochet for that? Do we blame the bland, interchangeable personalities of the RAW roster when they're chained to scripts that require them to be bland, interchangeable personalities? Do we blame millennials for lacking the fundamentals of the art and lacking the guts to "get themselves over"?
Or do we take a good, long look at pro-wrestling's largest distributor, the massive conglomerate that has shaped the mainstream perception of professional wrestling for over thirty years?
Monday Night Raw being bad television for over a decade is the soul reason professional wrestling has lost its mainstream audience. Within that decade the WWE has certainly produced great angles, great matches, great moments, and even a couple great talents but only within its increasingly tiny Sports Entertainment hemisphere and without any semblance of consistency. Two genuinely good episodes of Monday Night Raw back to back have been hard to come by. The flagship product, overall, has remained uninventive and uninteresting, beholden to an outdated format while promoting anachronistic tropes. RAW is not unlike a variety show from the 1970s that people passively accept as a staple of American culture rather than anything really worth watching with any sense of urgency.
Any other television show that experienced such a steep decline in both viewership and critical reception would have been cancelled long ago. RAW, and the successful characters it once promoted, is the only way a general audience has ever known wrestling. Given that this is the case, if blame is to be assigned anywhere for the decreased popularity of wrestling is it to be assigned exclusively at the producers of that television show. Even if “no-selling” and “smaller bodies” accounts for a fraction of pro-wrestling's decreased popularity, RAW’s producers have always had the power to change that, to direct its cast, and to choose how, when, and why they promote particular talents.
The fact that mainstream audiences have stopped watching means that they have looked at RAW (the television show itself) and said, "This is bad", and decided to go elsewhere for their entertainment needs. They decided to do this fifteen years ago following the dissolution of WCW (which resultant in creative stagnation in the WWF/E), the departure of The Rock from wrestling (which resulted in a lack of consistent, main event draws), the transformation of Steve Austin into a heel (thereby leaving a vacuum of convincing, sympathetic heroes), and, most importantly, the rise of increasingly illogical, increasingly repetitive narratives presented by way of a dated aesthetic.
Any television viewer can turn on an episode of Monday Night Raw midway through and see, within seconds, that the show looks and sounds out of place on modern television screens. It feels relentlessly campy (and not in a good way) and almost purposefully bad (as if its badness is somehow charming to anyone outside the wrestling cult). From a purely visual perspective, RAW does not look like captivating, modern television that’s worth watching. It looks like a hybrid between soap operas, home movies, and that 90s show formerly known as RAW IS WAR. While general television viewers are not concerned with the “hows” and “whys” of aesthetics, there is no getting around what they literally see with their eyeballs and hear with their ears. If they’re not drawn in within seconds of turning on a television show, they’re going to look away. The judgement a general audience makes of "Is this good" or "Is this bad" is answered instantaneously when they flip to RAW and see performers straining to be good actors while reciting bad dialogue filtered through the perspective of twenty terrified writers, all of whom are trying to make a dictatorial creative overlord giggle...
The presentation and execution of a modern backstage segment does more harm to professional wrestling and the interest it's capable of generating than any poorly executed move or fiction-breaking flip. Bad dialogue, bad acting, and dull stories are why RAW clings to its indoctrinated niche for dear life while failing to captivate the minds of modern television viewers.
That general audience can find better writing, better acting, and better stories on every other major network, every other cable network, and every video streaming service available within seconds. The only unique asset RAW offers is the "live event" atmosphere, but that is negated by a script that refuses to allow anything to feel live, let alone genuinely raw.
The talent, even with their "no-selling" and their "acrobatics" is the only thing keeping professional wrestling alive. The talent are the ones who maintain the two million viewers (give or take) who WWE milks for all their worth. The talent, using social media platforms to compensate for the lack of promotion they receive on prime-time-television, cultivates various followings, and those various followings remain invested in the careers of these talents despite the WWE's counter-intuitive booking.
The WWE needs "internet fans" who are able to see through the blatantly bad production values and blatantly bad scripting; otherwise the fans wouldn't be able to place their faith in any aspect of Raw. Fans simply accept that their favorite talents will not succeed or they rationalize why they keep watching. They tune in for brief sparks of excellence and the hope that maybe...just maybe...if they cheer loudly enough that Vince McMahon will finally crack and push "their guy". They also take to Twitter and podcasts and blogs (not unlike this one) to continue creating as many reasons for themselves to go on watching even when they're utterly bored by it all. And then, of course, there are those fans who still enjoy RAW and they're not the least bit wrong to do so; they watch to get lost in it and it's none too different from the style of wrestling they've always known.
Regardless of one's degree of fandom within the "WWE Universe" itself, it remains a positively depressing, bleak creative landscape, a three-hour beast of illogical television that trudges along because its "family" refuses to let it die. It has the feel of a concert hall that's been vacated by most people save a few drunken stalwarts unwilling to accept that the party is over.
Who really wants to go to that party?
On the surface, in the company's own fiction, through confounding booking and amateur writing, the flagship program actively tells television viewers that millennials are weak, gutless buffoons, that the roster is made up primarily of geeks, freaks, and nerds who will never be as cool or as successful as the varsity quarterbacks of the world.
What general audience wants to watch that kind of television show?
Add to that fundamentally cynical perspective a commentary team who seems to hate everything they talk about and half-formed characters who recite hackneyed speeches and it's absolutely no mystery why RAW's ratings are so low and why wrestling is so unpopular with the masses. The show is fundamentally unwatchable before it even starts (given that three hour run-time), designed from first to last minute to be consumed in stops and starts when, in the past, it was designed to be "must-see, can't-miss" television and it was necessarily aware of what else what actually on television.
While other writers and pro-wrestling commentators rightly level these same criticisms at RAW, many continue to simultaneously lump in "smaller bodytypes" and "acrobatics" as among the primary reasons for wrestling's lack of mainstream attention, as if a body-type and performance-style have just as much power to shape public perception as the media behemoth that is the WWE.
These two issues just aren't as connected as critics seem to think.
If the WWE convinced people that Hulk Hogan was an American hero, then the WWE can convince people that Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are worthy of a big money main event. It would just take a good story that emphasized the strengths of those performers and hid their weaknesses.
The only reason the WWE isn't doing that (even with the kinds of talents it does regard as big money draws) is because the company has become inept at creating good characters and unfocused when telling good stories, more preoccupied with repackaging long-expired reality-television concepts like "prank shows" and "adult cartoons" than creating an interesting cast of compelling characters and telling intriguing stories on its flagship Sports Entertainment broadcast.
"Because the WWE is the standard-bearer of pro-wrestling popularity (the Disney of its medium), when it isn't producing competitive television that captures the imaginations of mainstream audiences it's not fulfilling its purpose..."
The criticisms leveled at modern talents "killing the business" with their small bodies and their acrobatic hijinks are also often directed at independent wrestlers. This is a painfully clear example of misplaced criticism when trying to formulate an argument for why wrestling isn't popular anymore; it's like blaming an independent documentary about a small-town cop for the over-abundance of comic book movies in cinemas. It makes absolutely no sense to blame what happens at any independent wrestling show for the WWE's failure to maintain mainstream popularity. Independent wrestling is independent. By definition, it's not supposed to garner mainstream attention (it's not even possible for it to do so given the way it's distributed); it's supposed to be a platform for potentially popular talents to refine their craft and innovate their medium. In that respect, independent wrestling is more alive than it’s ever been. Independent wrestling is the lifeblood of the art, maintaining interest in the medium among fans who would have otherwise stopped watching altogether if the WWE was the only means of wrestling-consumption.
Independent wrestling has the power to inspire future generations, to give that "next big star" an outlet to fail or succeed as they rise to the top and learn their craft, hopefully one day booked according to their strengths (for even the most talented of individuals can't overcome a 50/50 record, a reality television writer's dialogue, and an egomaniac's bad taste).
Independent wrestling and conversation-starting matches like Will Ospreay vs Ricochet give the medium a defibrillator shot it desperately needs in the wake of all the damage caused by consistently bad episodes of RAW.
Last week, within the pro-wrestling community, fans were talking more about a match in New Japan Pro-Wrestling than anything that happened in the WWE. Fans will continue talking about Will Ospreay vs Ricochet long after WWE’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view. This reveals that even within its own core group of reliable viewers, the WWE fails to create any kind of lasting intrigue, controversy, or even basic enthusiasm for wrestling.
Whatever a critic or fan's stance on Ospreay & Ricochet's acrobatic style may be, their match, at the very least, provoked fun, thoughtful dialogues. It reignited the passion among diehard wrestling fans that the WWE consistently stamps out.
Craft-specific criticisms related to "selling" and body-type have been unnecessarily shoved together with the accurate criticisms of the WWE's bad television show, and the results are entirely unproductive. The young talent naturally resists such criticism, pushing back and forging ahead regardless of whether or not they should heed the good advice of their veteran forefathers & foremothers, fans & analysts lose sight of the damage RAW does to modern talent, ignoring how much power the WWE has in shaping public perception of a roster regardless of what that roster looks like or how that roster chooses to perform, indy-wrestling gets attacked for failing at something it's not even designed to do, and pro-wrestling's largest distributor gets to prove itself right when it regards millennials as nothing more than complacent, overly-opinionated, mouth-breathing keyboard warriors who keep forking over their disposable incomes no matter how bad the show gets.
Pro-wrestling continues to get smaller and smaller in this environment, shrinking in on itself, having the same conversations about the same topics, believing these conversations are incredibly important while the vast majority of the outside world has absolutely no idea what we're talking about and doesn't care what we're talking about because they're having too much fun watching The Bachelorette, the NBA Finals, UFC, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and The People vs OJ Simpson...
For some wrestling fans that's perfectly fine. They take pride in their unwavering WWE-devotion, in knowing the value of the good times because they lived through the bad. For others it feels like shouting inside a steel drum and trying to have a conversation with the echo.
Regardless of how any WWE-fan watches or judges the current WWE-product, the company is designed to be mainstream-wrestling. It’s not supposed to be a niche where a handful of the same people continue huddling together in the same row of seats to pontificate about the nuances of the craft. At its core, the WWE is supposed to be quick, easy fun for the masses, (and within that quick, easy fun will occasionally reside great artistry). Despite that foundation (the foundation that once made it successful) it's currently operating like an independent promotion; a very large, poorly booked independent promotion but an independent promotion nonetheless, catering to its devoted following the way a local theater company relies on its regulars, donors, benefactors, and word of mouth to survive.
Because the WWE is the standard-bearer of pro-wrestling popularity (the Disney of its medium), when it isn't producing competitive television that captures the imaginations of mainstream audiences it's not fulfilling its purpose. The fanbase gradually devolves into a collection of know-it-alls who "hijack shows” (also contributing to an alienating atmosphere that no general audience wants to be a part of) and the joy of watching pro-wrestling on the same grande scale of organized sport or televised drama diminishes.
That environment is not the result of bad talent who don’t know how to properly sell a DDT. All responsibility, when it comes to wrestling’s mainstream popularity or lack of popularity, lies with the WWE. The company has permitted itself to become a niche product that doesn't need to be as creative, daring, or experimental as almost all other niche products because it gets to rest on its superior history.
Only WrestleMania manages to comes close to fulfilling the promise, and intended purpose, of World Wrestling Entertainment.
While today's younger generation could obviously benefit from incorporating the insights of veteran wrestlers, that particular discussion is not the same discussion as "who's killing pro-wrestling" or "who's to blame for wrestling losing its mainstream popularity”.
The loss of an excited, engaged, diverse, wide audience can be easily explained by what takes place every single week between 8pm and 11pm on The USA Network.
Flips aren't killing professional wrestling for mainstream television viewers.
That's not even possible.
Monday Night Raw is.