January 19, 2011
Mat Matters: WWE needs a more varied menu
By DAVE HILLHOUSE -- SLAM! Wrestling
The Internet is buzzing. According to many fans, writers, and all other manner of both legitimate and would-be experts, WWE programming is not what it could be in terms of excitement or drama. The reason for this state of unfulfilled potential is also largely agreed upon by a large scope of fans and journalists, and it comes down to two capital letters and one mission statement found on the corporate side of the WWE website:
"WWE is committed to creating family-friendly, PG content across all of its platforms."
Ah, the dreaded "PG" label. If an episode of Monday Night Raw or Friday Night Smackdown fails to entertain, a lot of people suggest that it's because the wrestlers are handcuffed by the PG ("Parental Guidance suggested") rating. Wrestlers even comment on the PG rating of the show during the broadcasts themselves, almost to excuse themselves from the obligation to present good television because, hey, they can't help it -- it's PG.
It is my opinion, though, that the PG rating itself is not the problem. Rather, I believe there is a two-tiered solution, and that the WWE has simply played the right ratings card at the wrong time, along with failing to fully capitalize on their resources.
On the one hand, this notion of scapegoating the PG rating seems ludicrous. To suggest that dramatic intrigue cannot be created within a PG-rated vehicle is to deny the effect that films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back to the Future have all had on the very demographic that the WWE presumably relies on: young males.
However, I've gone and betrayed my age. Yes, those three movies bore the PG stamp, but all were released in the 1980s -- well, two-thirds of the original Star Wars trilogy were released in the '80s, to be precise. Looking back over the last three decades, though, a connection between what the majority of moviegoers wanted and what the WWE was hawking is evident.
In the 1980s, the WWE was also running a PG-rated spectacle, with family-friendly characters like Hillbilly Jim and The Honky Tonk Man filling the card below Hulk Hogan -- who, at the time, was about as PG a champion as you could get.
To list similarly influential movies from the 1990s, though, is to jump up in the ratings scale from PG to R (for Restricted to those 18 or older). Suddenly, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, and The Matrix were announcing that a harder edge was required to capture the imagination. Guess what happened in the WWE? The "Attitude Era" was built upon an R-rated foundation.
Now here we are, having long closed the book on the 2000s, and it's becoming easier to look back upon that decade for the trends that drove entertainment. In Hollywood, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, and Avatar unquestionably powered the box office -- and they all did it with that awkward middle-child rating: PG-13. The WWE, emerging from the Attitude Era and into the current PG landscape, has perhaps attained a foothold on a rung just one below the popular favourite on the ratings ladder.
Why is PG-13 an awkward rating? Well, it all started in those PG 1980s with Steven Spielberg -- one of those that had mastered the art of appealing to the masses through family-friendly entertainment. Two films, though, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, directed by Spielberg, and Gremlins, a film on which he held a producing credit, pushed some buttons and received some backlash from parents who felt the movies were a little mature to be rated PG.
Specifically, it was a Gremlin exploding in a microwave and a man having his still-beating heart pulled from his chest.
Spielberg himself acknowledged that the films were best suited for somewhere between pre-teens and young adults, so he spearheaded a movement to create the PG-13 rating for films that, as is listed on the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) website, "may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category."
Furthermore, there are subtle distinctions between the MPAA ratings system and the voluntary ratings system created for television programs by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association, and the MPAA. This ratings system was established in the late 1990s, and is responsible for the graphic you see during the first 15 seconds of a programís broadcast advising viewers of the show's content.
The next step up in the television ratings system is TV-14, which is comparable to filmís PG-13 rating, but film and television simply use a different age as a threshold for the next level to help distinguish the two systems. In case you're wondering, it would seem impossible for any televised wrestling program to ever fall under the G rating, since a television show or film must only contain, at the most, "minimal" violence to qualify. Professional wrestling is, of course, wholly violent in nature, and that means you start at PG and work your way up.
There are many speculations as to why the WWE has taken on this PG crusade in the first place. Rumours swirled that it was part of a ploy to broaden the scope of influence and reduce the risk of controversial attachment for Linda McMahon as she hunted a seat in the U.S. Senate. Theories were put forth that suggested it was many of the wrestlers who, though they themselves had enjoyed the Attitude Era as either performers or fans, now had families and wanted to create an atmosphere that focused on younger kids again.
Consideration must also be given to the fact that both Raw and Smackdown are broadcast on stations owned by the same company, NBC Universal, so there may be some influence on the programming by the overseeing corporation. However, it is telling that Superstars, although shown on WGN, which is not under the NBC Universal umbrella, bears that same unmistakable WWE "feel."
This is all speculative, to be sure, but if any of these reasons are true, they must certainly take a backseat to the WWE's goal of delivering the most enticing product to the largest possible audience.
And that's where I believe the WWE fails to use one of its most valuable assets: TV time. It's very difficult to judge what an audience wants ahead of time, but, for the WWE, it is possible to give them everything they could want. The WWE has four weekly shows running, and yet, despite the stylistic exceptions of NXT, all are basically offering the same thing.
Why not try to appease the crowd that still hungers for a more salacious theme with a Monday Night Raw that does carry a TV-14 rating, while also offering a Friday Night Smackdown that really plays to a younger crowd with true PG programming? ECW is currently done for, but it's been revived before and it would be the perfect hour for TV-MA storytelling (TV-MA is for Mature Audiences, and is television's version of the R-rated film).
If anything has really defined the evolution of audience wants and needs over the past several years, it has been the emergence of choice. Choices such as the traditional "which show to watch" dilemmas have been replaced with "how" and "when" to take in our entertainment. The WWE can offer people the choice of how to watch their programming in a manner more all-encompassing than any other weekly show.
Imagine what a show like The Simpsons could have been doing over the years if they had two different timeslots -- with two different ratings.
In other words, it would seem to be in the WWE's best interests to do what they have done for the past few decades: go with the flow and meet the consumer where they want to be met. Plus, they actually have the opportunity to hit different markets simultaneously, and it would also help the pay-per-view gridlock problem.
Going back to brand-focused shows, whereby each program has two to three months to build storylines towards a pay-per-view, would help flesh out storylines and lead to greater anticipation of the events.
A unique, multi-levelled presentation of their product such as this would be a breath of fresh air for the WWE and probably draw in fans that have specific ideas of what they want to watch. Ultimately, giving people what they want makes it very hard for them to complain about the product.
Dave Hillhouse is a screenwriter and teacher, and covers Smackdown for this website.