Ring Architect 2.24.14: Smack My Down Up
Posted by Obi Justice on 02.24.2014
Friday Night SmackDown! has always been a "good wrestling show," but can it become a second flagship program for WWE?
"Ring Architect" is a format I've come up with to break down wrestling topics. The 20' x 20' is the main idea that I'll be talking about in the column. Red Corner/Blue Corner are two opposing takes on it that I see. Of course, it'll just be my thoughts on it, so I'll leave it to you guys in the comments to see how valid they are. And the last bit, the Main Strands, are three key pieces of information that I think should be kept in mind when considering the topic. It'll definitely help me sort out my thoughts and hopefully it makes things easy for you guys to read.
The whole deal, the main idea.
When you're the top dog, #1 in the world, it's got to be tough to know where to go from there. For a lot of people around the world, WWE is pro wrestling. Just like the UFC is MMA and the NFL is American football. There are other leagues out there but there's only one place that everybody wants to go. It doesn't mean that they've got the "best" guys on any specific measure. It does mean that they're making the most money (quantitatively), they have the most exposure, the most spotlight, and the most capacity to put on a great program. Monday Night Raw has already proven that fact, not only running longer than any other pro wrestling show going today but achieving a level of cultural awareness that no other American wrestling product has been able to replicate. So if there's one thing that stands out in their TV resume it's the relative failure of their other wrestling programming.
I did say relative failure and it is a relative term. Compared to most other TV shows, SmackDown does pretty damn well. ECW/NXT even put up numbers similar to TNA Impact in its day. But in comparison with Raw, all those programs failed to make the same sort of impact. When SmackDown debuted I have to believe they had big big plans for the show, hoped it might hit the same ceiling Raw did. The brand extension definitely gave SmackDown a strong platform to try it out on. For whatever reason, SmackDown never seemed to become a very important show in the scheme of things. Now, this is mostly presumption on my part, as I don't know with any certainty that the WWE ever thought of SmackDown (or ECW/NXT) as getting bigger than they did. What isn't presumption, what is something that anybody can search for and find, is that SmackDown has been considered the "B show" since it's beginning and never shook that off. Even when people said it was the better wrestling show, much like my memory of the beginnings of 3 hour Raws, it seemed more that the SD! crew didn't have enough angles written to fill the time rather than that WWE was booking SD! better than Raw.
The two facts don't quite make sense, at least not to me. On the one hand, you've got a company with the ability to put on a great show, the position to have any talent they desire, the timeslot to put it on. And yet SmackDown has always been a show reliant on audio crowd enhancement because the audiences are, more often than not, sitting on their hands. Instead of being another great place to get exposure, it's traditionally been the midcarder's holding pen and the main eventer's turnstile.
"Talent overcomes everything" the saying goes, or something to that effect. To me, that's the key. It's putting good talent in play, booking them well, letting them run and letting them feel important. That's the thing I've always felt missing, personally, from Friday nights (and from ECW and NXT as well). It's not just that it's taped or that it's "not a good wrestling night," though I think those preconceptions about it definitely don't help it. At the core of it all is a lack of strength in their SmackDown talent. With rumors floating around that SmackDown might change dates, might even go live, this could be the WWE's best chance to put a fresh face on SmackDown. If they want to make it big it's perfectly possible. If they don't, it'll be SmackDown as it always was: a great place to twiddle your thumbs.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: WWE has a lot of excellent talent, definitely enough to make two compelling main event scenes. We all know that, strictly speaking, WWE tried to put two different shows together with their brand split. At first, it was a pretty definite split, but fairly soon you had SmackDown guys going to Raw. Bit by bit the trend seemed to become "put the A guys on Raw and the B guys on SmackDown." If someone needed a break from the "main main event," the fans are getting tired of Orton for example (not a jab at him, he just generally was the SD top guy), just cycle him over to SmackDown for a while. There seemed to be not enough "good talent" to go around for both shows. I don't think that was ever really true, and right now, that's less true than ever.
John Cena, Daniel Bryan, and Randy Orton are your bona-fide top guys in WWE right now. Right on that level as far as title contendership there's a great class: Big Show, Mark Henry, Sheamus, Christian, Ziggler, Alberto Del Rio, Jack Swagger. Cody Rhodes could definitely use a big push. Cesaro is probably going to be huge. Then there are the members of the Shield and the Wyatts who've been amazingly gripping since their debuts. You have guys like Big E, Kofi Kingston, Damien Sandow, Curtis Axel, and so on for your next rung guys. Everyone is talking about the tag team renaissance and more spotlight would just help a second show get more eyes. With all the resources, the huge roster and all the polished NXT guys to call on, if they wanted to, a second top-level show shouldn't be out of the question for WWE.
BLUE CORNER: Monday Night RAW has been WWE's flagship show since its debut and SmackDown has never been able to make solid competition for it in importance. What makes a show important to a company? The money it brings in, gotta be. There's a lot of factors that go into that, but the main thing that ties them all together is eyeballs. More eyeballs on your product, the more money you make. RAW has a lot of things going for it. There's its Monday night timeslot which has always been a hot one for TV, being the site of the Monday Night Wars as well as the NFL's hugely successful Monday Night Football franchise. It's got its history as a TV show and also as a ratings getter. Plus, the Raw brand (i.e., brand identity, brand name) is very strong, probably right up there with WWE as a brand itself. So it's not just a lack of want from WWE that's working against SmackDown, there are a lot of things that the show had to work uphill against from the very beginning.
But even given all of that, there was still a (perhaps outside) chance that SmackDown would have been a success on a level with Raw. For whatever reason, that didn't happen. SmackDown has been around for about 14 years (just 5/6 years fewer than Raw) and has never broken out of that stigma. After this long, what chance does SmackDown really have? The talent is there, sure. If you turn on SmackDown and a real fan favorite arrives, the crowd gets excited. But for some reason, the majority of the time the fans don't seem to care, WWE cares less, and Raw gets the meaningful stuff. Sitting here, it's tough to peel apart exactly why this is, but if the trend is going to change it will require some serious effort.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: WWE has a lot of work pushing people if they want to get two top shows. WWE has got the talent to burn, but an important thing they're going to need to master is pushing their guys to the top. It might be a symptom of going public (and therefore having to satisfy shareholders) but they have had a huge problem elevating guys in the last several years. Guys like Kofi Kingston and Jack Swagger definitely have the skill, but they'll need a lot of repair to seem credible again. Then you've got guys like Zack Ryder, 3MB, Damien Sandow who need to be featured again more than anything if they're going to look ready for second-level titles. I'm not sure I would say it's an impossible project but given the WWE's track record, it is one that they'll really have to change their mindset about if they're going to bring it off.
MIDDLE ROPE: WWE has just merged their top titles; unless they simply break the belts apart again, the strategy they'll use for SmackDown's top talent isn't clear. There were a lot of problems with the WWE/WHC title split. Chief among them, to me, was the treatment of both as world-level titles when clearly one was far more important to the other. The only real exchangability between them was that the important title was on Raw and the second one was on SD, so when the titles switched over you could have a bit of leveling. Even then, the WWE title spent a lot more time on Raw and I think was always seen as the one to shoot for. Getting an A-level SmackDown to me would require having a main event scene for SmackDown that doesn't resonate much on Raw. That is to say, rather than the WHC feud having notable advancements on Raw (which happened pretty much the whole last 2/3 years of the split), you need to make sure that all stays on SmackDown. The easiest way to do that is by having a spotlight title. Unless they split the WWE World Heavyweight Championship apart, I'm not sure what their focus would be.
BOTTOM ROPE: Can people's attention spans hold two "flagship" shows from one company? I think this is probably the question at the base of any thinking about elevating SmackDown. The reason I put it last is because it's really the question that is unanswerable just by thinking about it. You kind of have to put your best foot forward and hope people come along. But I think what's important here, and what could prove to be the main determinant, is the idea of "two flagship shows from one company." Maybe it is too tough, if we think the same angles are going to be reiterated on SmackDown, to get excited for that. It might be that a "hard" brand split, really keeping SmackDown and Raw at more of a distance, could provide a stronger identity and stronger audience for SmackDown. But it could also be that the experiment failed because, for whichever reason, WWE found it impossible to keep the brands too far apart. It's a difficult question. It's also why when I think about getting into the wrestling industry, my fantasies revolve around being the booker and not the guy in charge of all the rights deals and television strategy.