Hardtime: Underlying Cycles In WWE's Product
When wrestling fans discuss different title reigns, their lengths and numbers attributed to certain wrestlers, a question that arises is “Will Bruno Sammartino’s seven year WWWF Title reign ever be surpassed?” And almost always, the answer is no. They say today’s audience doesn’t have the patience for another seven year reign. And while that is true, most of the reason can be credited with how WWF altered their product, going back to 1985.
When WrestleMania was announced, the biggest wrestling extravaganza of all time, fans were lead to expect something big. And while the event arguably doesn’t stand the test of time, it delivered back then. It was a success, and while this was on closed circuit television, it started the successful concept for WWF called pay per views. Once Hulk Hogan, then reigning champion, beat Andre The Giant at WrestleMania 3, there was no challenger more credible. How do you sell WrestleMania 4? You vacate the title, hold a night long tournament, and the excitement of a new champion being crowned sells the show.
A cycle started where big storylines climaxed at WrestleMania, with significant parts happening at other pay per views. In what became an almost annual tradition, the WWF’s World Title changed hands at WrestleMania. Fans expected something important in late March/early April, and Title changes are naturally more notable than successful title defenses.
WrestleMania, Monday Night Raw, and monthly pay per views started underlying cycles in the product.
Before Monday Night Raw, most of WWE’s tv shows (Superstars, Challenge, Prime Time Wrestling, All American Wrestling) were really just shows where hosts talked up ongoing events. The live event report, ongoing feuds, upcoming pay per views, etc. We got taped matches, taped green screen promos, but overall not much happened. Prime Time Wrestling was mostly just Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon bantering over WWF related topics.
The overall purpose of these shows was not to bring shock value, but to draw out and develop storylines. (Saturday Night Main Event could be considered an exception, but this show was only on once a month, and after a while it was aired considerably less, so its overall contributions to the product lessened)
When Monday Night Raw started, the entire format of the WWF changed. The change didn't start at first, but the wheels were in motion. Raw was designed to give us something special, week in and week out. Some types of major storyline advancements would take place, and we'd get more developments in stories then we got before. This snowballed into a show where the viewers expected shock value for two straight hours. Considering this and that most of the new footage for the WWF was coming from this show, it shaped the overall product of the WWF.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. During the Monday Night Wars is when I feel WWF programming really hit the mark with how Raw was structuring their shows. The structure was geared towards weekly excitement, not slow developments. A roaring boil, not a low simmer. In order to compete with Monday Nitro, WWF tried to give us something thrilling almost every segment. You could argue it came at the expense of well crafted narratives between good and evil, but it was made up for in the product becoming a non-stop rollercoaster ride.
When we watched Superstars or Prime Time Wrestling back in the day, we might see a sneak attack from one feuding wrestler to another, but more often than not, we got two separate interviews, each trashing the other. Overall, the product was more geared towards character development rather than plot advancements. Everything was more focused on wrestlers selling themselves rather than intricate plot twists.
A byproduct of storylines is they make the audience form an emotional connection with the wrestlers involved. As they go through different rivalries, big matches, back stabbings, new alliances, love interests, etc., fans take those twists and turns with them. After enough of drops, loops and sidewinders of these rollercoaster rides, fans get burned out with said wrestler.
Pay per views increasing from four to twelve a year made substantial alterations. Before there were usually only four main times a feud could be culminated. Sometimes rivalries would go on for two ppvs and span half a year. Vince McMahon didn't need to throw monkey wrenches into wrestler's storybook lives to sell twelve pay per views a year, and thus there was less of a chance for fans to become emotionally burned out with wrestlers too soon.
Look at Hulk Hogan in 1987. He focused on facing Andre The Giant at WrestleMania 3, then defeated his team at Survivor Series that year (there was no Summer Slam yet). He formed an alliance with Randy Savage, and his rival Andre with Ted Dibiase. Hogan wrestled Andre to a double dq at WM 4, and "The Mega Powers defeated “The Mega Bucks” at the first Summer Slam. Once friction started between them, the Mega Powers “exploded” at WrestleMania 5. In a three year span, the Hulkster really only went through two major programs: against Andre (with Dibiase eventually added in) and aligning with and going against Macho Man.
When the In Your House pay per views supplemented the Big Four and King Of The Ring, major stars now went through more feuds a year. Their shelf life became shorter, in that the time came sooner that fans became jaded with them.
With Monday Night Raw demanding so much plot progression, there were even more ups and downs for wrestlers packed into their programs. A beat down to end Raw, their rival costing them a title, having a close ally attacked, all things that made the emotional rides stronger and more intense.
Look at John Cena in 2005. He started focusing on the Royal Rumble, and lost. He won a tournament to challenge JBL at WrestleMania 21 for the WWE Title, and won that too. Throughout the rest of 2005 on pay per view he wrestled JBL (rematch), Chris Jericho twice, Christian, Kurt Angle multiple times, Shawn Michaels, and had Raw storylines with Eric Bischoff, Carlito and Chris Masters. While Cena was a good draw for the next ten years, many fans grew tired of him, and within a few years considered him stale. (Reading through posts in the IWC, no longer the minority voice it once was, can show this to you.) In 2008 he was pushed to the backburner, losing in feuds to Triple H, JBL and Batista.
In Sammartino’s time, there were no pay per views. Fans didn't need thrilling plot developments on a consistent basis. They didn’t have these expectations. He and Bob Backlund being champion for years was reasonable then. Backlund’s character didn’t need to go through emotional, tumultuous incidents every week. There were no pay per view cycles, no Monday Night Raw, thus fans took longer to grow impatient with wrestling characters.
John Cena has been the face of WWE since 2005. But he hasn’t always been champion, and he hasn’t always had the most spotlight. Similarly, once the ppv cycle started, Hogan took a year off from being champion, and for a while Ultimate Warrior was arguably getting more spotlight. This isn't Sammartino's era, the brightest stars will burn out if they're not careful.
The concepts of WrestleMania and Monday Night Raw have transformed the WWE landscape. Underlying cycles have developed where wrestlers need to go through more storylines in order to sell more pay per views, and get over the concept of Raw. WrestleMania lead to twelve pay per views a year, meaning that many more plot twists for wrestlers like John Cena, Batista, Triple H, etc. When Vince McMahon bet the company on WrestleMania 1's success, I don't think he fathomed the long term effects.
(Thanks to Skitz for critiquing this column.)