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SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, June 15, 2001

Overexposure and desensitization

Eric Benner
By ERIC BENNER
Special to SLAM! Sports


A weekly
SLAM! Wrestling
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You know, in all this talk about the WWF's successes and failures lately, I think something may have been overlooked. We online fans get so enthused about our product that I think at times we're overanalyzing the minutia. Not to say that there's no point in debating the details, because details are critical, but that if focus too much on the details you can miss the big picture. It's in the spirit of this sentiment that I offer another plausible explanation for the World Wrestling Federation's recent fortunes.

Ultimately, wrestling pundits are not analyzing a competition sport -- no matter how legitimate wrestling's injuries may be -- but a dramatic and comedic television series. I think WWF Raw is War is probably closer to what you see on "NYPD Blue" than on "Monday Night Football" in many ways, though I see the sports side of the picture too. Even working with this model, there are a lot of significant differences between WWF programming and regular television. Let's review.

The WWF, of course, is on 52 weeks a year. There are no reruns, no weeks off, and thankfully, no more dog show pre-emptions. I can't off-hand think of another show remotely like RAW or Smackdown! that can boast the same thing.

The WWF has a cast of characters of several dozen, and though there are a few bigger stars, the wrestlers do get close to the same amount of screen time. The Austins and Undertakers of the WWF just get their screen time at the end of the show (and increasingly, the beginning).

The WWF is filmed in front of a live, distinctly non-studio audience. No laugh tracks, no standing ovation tracks, and no naughty chant tracks, either.

I could go on and on. The point is that the World Wrestling Federation, perhaps as alien to dramatic television as it is to competitive sport, is a unique animal in the world of entertainment. Still, it is an inhabitant in that world, and so it does have to follow a few of the basic rules of entertainment. But it's the differences between RAW and everything else on TV that cause the WWF to break those rules. And breaking those rules, I think, may be what's causing the recent slump. I shall elaborate:

Rule #1: Don't ever over-expose yourself. This is one reason that television shows aren't on every week, all year (there are, of course, other reasons). If every show were on all year, there would be no yearning from fans, and people would eventually get bored. Shows that do get overexposed often become stale. Most shows air new episodes less than half of the weeks in a given year. "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", for some reason, violates this rule freely. WWF Raw is War does too, but it's been on longer than "Millionaire", so maybe only now is it paying the price. By being on each and every single week, the WWF is forcing its fans to either watch all the time or miss action. I know I have to tape the show fairly regularly because securing a two-hour evening block in the evening isn't possible for everyone all the time. Eventually, I start to feel like I have to watch, as if it were an obligation, and that's less fun. Meanwhile, you've got to watch something like eighteen reruns of "The X-Files" to get to a new one, and while that may be the opposite extreme, it does leave fans wanting more.

Rule #2: Don't over-expose yourself, part II. The only other genres of comedic or dramatic shows that air more than once a week are the same ones that air most of the year: soap operas and late night comedy. I can't speak for everyone, but I watch soap operas only if I for some reason must watch television during the afternoon, when nothing else is on. I watch late night comedies more willingly, but rarely am I (a) at home and (b) awake enough to do so. RAW takes up two hours and Smackdown!, two more, from my week. That's a heck of a lot.

Rule #3: Don't desensitize. The NBC comedy "Friends" teased the Ross-Rachel relationship for what seemed like an eternity to most fans of the show, and the same could be said for the similar Daffney-Niles relationship on "Frasier". This is certainly because producers know that there's a lot more money in teasing the chase than in the actual result. The same is true for wrestling, only the chase seems to be pretty much dead. It used to be that it would take three or four months' time for a feud to finally result in a one-on-one match. Now that's a payoff. This is no longer possible in today's environment. Now, there's not so much a chase as a constant confrontation. It's still good, but any producer will tell you that the money, along with the water-cooler talk, the attention, and the ratings, is in the chase.

Rule #4: Don't desensitize, part II. It's so hard to do something new nowadays in wrestling. Almost everything seems to have been done. Even the epic and mythical TLC match has been aired on free television. There's no more anticipation. Every once in awhile, a television program will offer up a really 'special' version, with some big event or memorable show. Main characters die in police dramas, characters leave the show in comedies, stuff like that. In most of television, it's rare. In wrestling, we see it every darn week. Wrestling fans, and the WWF itself, have this attitude that every week has to be better than the last.

Going by that logic, the only way the WWF could possibly stay afloat would be to perpetually improve, which isn't entirely possible.

The WWF really peaked a few years back, when they took the reigns from WCW and offered really fresh and original programming. Going by the logic stated above, maybe it's not so much that the WWF is no longer offering such original programming as that even original is boring now. We've seen so much in the WWF since 1997, I'm not sure what they have left to give.

Most regular television shows simply have a life span. Only really versatile shows like "The Simpsons" are able to really beat those odds and air for a very long time. Others have to fold when there is nowhere left to go creatively. Yet we expect so much more from wrestling, as if it should defy these expectations.

In a sense, it's in a different category, like late-night talk shows or soap operas, but it's still got the heart of a sporty drama, to me. The WWF's biggest competition, once on top, was never WCW, never ECW, never a lack of competition, never Vince McMahon or anyone else's ego. It has always been itself. Not itself of the present, but the past. The WWF has to constantly compete to surpass expectations, and improve over previous shows. Some of the WWF's work in the nineties, at least to this wrestling fan, has been like magic in a bottle, though. I don't see how the WWF could even try to repeat it every week, let alone improve on it.

When I first saw someone get shot on television, I was horrified. Shortly after, I became desensitized. Then, when I first saw one of those realistic gunshots, the really graphic ones, I was surprised to find myself kind of aghast at that. Now, that doesn't phase me either. Neither, logically, does a superplex or a folding chair.

This line of argument doesn't lead to a neat little packaged solution, like others. It's more of an observation. Either we could lower expectations, which is never a good idea, or the WWF could try to find new directions in which to head. Instead of constantly trying to beat itself, it should be constantly redefining itself. Looking for new stars, new gimmicks and angles, and new forms of entertainment. The only way it can survive as a big, international entity in the long run is to adapt, and adapt often.

Well, that's my opinion at least.

MAILBAG

Michael Gent, from mikegent@hotmail.com, writes:
"I've just got a few questions I thought of while watching Raw this Monday...

#1. What ever happened to the steel cage they USED to use? Remember the blue iron bar one? It looked like jail bars. Why don't they ever use it anymore? The fence they use now is just not that menacing, save for the enclosed one used for Hell in a Cell matches.

#2. What's with The WWF just up and changing the names of finishers? When Albert "Albert-Bombed" Kane, J.R. referred to it as a "Baldo-Bomb" or something like that...And for the last month or so, Kurt Angle's "Olympic Slam" has been renamed the "Angle Slam". What gives?"

To your first question, I always thought that the blue cage looked like fake plastic, and not nearly as sturdy. It looks gimmicky, and I never really bought those cage matches as epic. I have always preferred more realistic WCW cages, and I think I'm in the majority here.

As for your second query, I'm not sure why the WWF is so finicky. I guess that's why they're a giant marketing machine and I'm not. They're probably just picky about how they promote and push their stars, and the names of their finishing moves are probably as important as anything else.


Dan Shea, from danshea@cadvision.com, writes:
"Eric: Two of your favourite wrestlers are getting pushes, and you say it's bittersweet. Get over yourself. Enjoy the show.

Let me expand on that. First, you're comparing the way the WWF elevates wrestlers now to the way they used to do it, and find that 'There was always the perception of the Next Big Thing being just around the corner, so that no matter what was on RAW, you knew there were better things coming.' I guess your point is that Jericho and Benoit aren't being put forward as 'The Next Big Thing'. Well, Eric, if elevation to main event status doesn't count as being the Next Big Thing, what does? They're rising stars in virtue of the fact that they ARE RISING. Granted, we can't say they've come out of nowhere, taken the wrestling world by storm, etc. etc. The WWF blew their chance to do that with Jericho and Benoit when the two first showed up in the fed. It would be stupid (and we'd all bitch about having our respective intelligences insulted) if the WWF tried to do it now.

Second, you say that when you watch them wrestle, you feel as if 'Y2J has to prove himself in this very match or his push will be cut short, aborted again'. So some people behind the scenes question the wisdom of these pushes? Heaven forbid there should be different opinions amongst the bookers! Personally, I would give the bookers a little more credit for their ability to think in the long term than that, but hey -- even if you're right, it should make for Y2J putting on awesome matches.

If the only way you can truly enjoy watching wrestlers succed is to believe in that "perception of inevitable superstardom", you should get out of the insider news trade. Where's the surprise? Where's the mystery, the excitement? I enjoy watching Chris Benoit suplex the hell out of Steve Austin as much as anyone, but I don't like it just because I think it demonstrates his "destiny". Enjoy it while it lasts, make sure the WWF knows you enjoy it, so they'll keep the push up, and forget all that "bittersweet" crap."

Fair points and an understandable position, Dan, but I don't think you get my point. It's not that I'm not enjoying the ring work of Benoit or Jericho -- of course I am. But watching wrestling, at least to me and to some others, is not just about grading matches and admiring technical proficiency. I like to get lost in the story, as I do with any good television program.

I just find it hard to do that knowing that some of what the WWF is doing, it's less confident about. It's the same thing as listening to two speakers: both say the same things, but one has much more self-confidence. They may use the same logic, but one of them will convince more people. I'm watching RAW to be convinced that what I'm seeing is plausible and real. I love what's going on with Jericho, and with Benoit, but the last time I tried to lose myself in the story, the story got yanked and replaced with a Triple H-Austin feud. Now, I am afraid the same will happen.

The WWF became a huge marketing machine by constantly repeating their mantra -- they're the best, they have attitude, they know wrestling, and so on -- and by making people believe.

People started to think of WCW as a nut house, and that's how their product, even great matches, began to be perceived. Perception is important, and I don't have faith right now that the WWF is going to continue to push the two Chrises. Once I do, I'll be fully on-board.

I hope that explains it better.


That's all the time I have for this week. Thanks for writing in, and have a great weekend.


Send email to ebenner@hotmail.com.


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