Since the 1950s, pro wrestling has been a staple of American television. Television and pro wrestling arguably helped create one another; the latter needed exposure to go from carnivals and bingo halls to stadiums, while the former needed cheap, abundant, and lurid (but not too much so) programming to fill the early airwaves. It was love at first sight, and the symbiotic relationship never stopped.
Raw has been on the USA network for all of its history, save for a five-year stint on TNN between 2000 and 2005. The relationship between network and show is a microcosm of the broader relationship between wrestling and television. With the way networks are now swallowed up, sliced, folded, and repackaged, it's possible that USA might not be around without Raw. WWE made USA, constituting the most lucrative part of its catalogue for years.
This cuts both ways, of course. Network executives are nervous sorts, prone to tics and biases for or against certain programs, and a trigger finger over ratings itchy enough to leave you amazed that any show gets a second season. Yet USA's executives have always stuck by Raw. From the outside, there seems to be a recognition that wrestling's popularity is cyclical, that the lows of the New Generation give way to the highs of the Attitude Era, only to wane and wax again, on and on, presumably until television ceases to exist after we've all killed ourselves in the impending Water Wars.
But Raw is in trouble. Potentially big trouble. The ratings are absolutely in the toilet and continue to drop each week. The ratings are lower than the post-Austin/Rock doldrums, worse than the terrible days of Cena wins everything each week. They're in the region of when Mantaur was stomping toward the ring to cow noises.
Of course, this is happening at the same time that we're talking and writing about pro wrestling more than ever before, and at a time when it's widely acknowledged that we're at one of pro wrestling's creative high points. That last bit is across the form, not just WWE—the American indie wrestling scene is amazing, New Japan is on a multiyear hot streak, and even poor old TNA has seen a revitalization centered on the absurd, compelling spectacle of the Hardy Boys' third act.
Moreover, there's now a ton of pro wrestling writing—good pro wrestling writing—online for anyone to read. We can talk about it for what it is, not what it pretended to be for so many decades, which allows us to criticize it in new, fun, more honest ways. And, honestly, pro wrestling is fucking fascinating, so there's a lot of pro wrestling chatter. What that does is lend a sense of exaggeration to the numbers: if there's so much noise around pro wrestling, if it's in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN, if John Cena is hosting the ESPYs, If Brock Lesnar is on WWE and CM Punk on UFC, how can pro wrestling possibly be at a low ebb of popularity?
Yet all the signals of a probable down period are there. Raw's ratings and TNA's money problems are the most obvious, but the Japanese wrestling scene outside of New Japan has been treading water for years, and venerable Mexican promotion, AAA, is a complete mess (Alberto Del Rio just no-showed a date for them, a fate usually reserved for small promotions running sketchy shows).
There is surely a point at which ratings for Raw are so low that the traditionally hefty renewal contract isn't feasible. We also as surely must be close to it; while acknowledging the that car crash of a first presidential debate brought in record viewership and probably siphoned eyeballs from Raw, the show has been on a precipitous decline since early this year.
If the unthinkable happens, if USA walks away or lowballs WWE, then we're in strange territory. If WWE can't carry a flagship primetime pro wrestling show, nobody can. And if nobody can, pro wrestling irrevocably changes. For many, WWE is pro wrestling; its accessibility and ubiquity mean that it's an easy vector for new or more casual fans to get into. That has real knock-on effects for the smaller promotions—that is to say, everyone—who rely on a steady drip of fans coming over from WWE.
Realistically, everyone needs WWE's visibility, though they can still do without the talent poaching and no-compete contracts. Casual fans become hardcore fans, until suddenly you find yourself in a National Guard armory on weekends, watching death matches and wondering if you couldn't do it, too.
USA shares a large amount of the blame for Raw's recent woes. In 2012, USA expanded Raw from two hours to three. The greedy thinking at the heart of the decision was simple: more airtime means more advertising revenue. Problem is, three hours is too damned long to hold anyone's attention, including the show's writers.
For proof, just compare Raw to Smackdown. At two hours, Smackdown is a far leaner show. While Raw's roster is more robust on paper, having one less hour to deal with means the Smackdown creative team has no room to dawdle. Two hours is the perfect length for a wrestling program; not coincidentally, Smackdown has been getting far better reviews than Raw for weeks now, though the ratings are still lagging, at least in part because Smackdown has yet to shake its long reputation as a missable, B-quality show.
None of this is a specific prediction that Raw is going to be canceled or that pro wrestling is going to be relegated from national television to a strictly local format. That would be too bold and too out there. But it is to say that, for all the smiles and press, there are real causes for alarm that pro wrestling as it's currently constructed is flirting with hard times.
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