Much has been made lately of the lower ratings for WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night RAW. The numbers this year have been lower than in years past and the hot takes are flying. Are there concrete reasons behind it, is it something fixable, is this just a period to be ridden out, is it even a big deal? Let’s try to figure it out….
First up, let’s remember that the live audience number isn’t as important as it used to be. DVR viewing has literally changed the TV ratings game. A lot of people, like me for instance, almost never watch anything live. And that affects the numbers for everything. Now there are available stats that extend the viewing period to five and even seven says out from the original broadcast of a show, and the smarter TV people are looking at those numbers to gauge the true audience numbers for their shows. But in the world of opining about TV shows people pick and choose which numbers they want to use to serve what ever narrative they want to put out. When it’s convenient to exclude the extended viewing day numbers they leave them out. I don’t know how the extended numbers are shaping up for WWE broadcasts, but I bet they paint a different picture than just the live numbers themselves.
The DVR era doesn’t explain everything of course; some of the dropoff is real. Wrestling’s boom periods almost always coincide with the top guys in the company being huge crossover medium stars. Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock were all over mainstream media and entertainment during the Attitude Era. To sustain a three hour broadcast audience you need more than one guy who moves the needle like that. And they haven’t had that. During the Attitude Era RAW shows you got multiple segments from Austin or the Rock (and sometimes both) along with some entertaining bits from Degeneration X and something from the Undertaker. The rest of the show and the rest of the roster fed off of that. You would sit through a match between Hardcore Holly and D-Lo Brown because you knew Austin or the Rock was coming up in a few minutes.
That just isn’t there now. Since WrestleMania we usually get a long segment from John Cena, one from Seth Rollins/the Authority, and a bunch of matches before the main event. The in ring action today is much better than it was then but there just aren’t enough huge names to carry a three hour show. Undertaker is a part-timer on his way to retirement now. Brock Lesnar is another part timer. Daniel Bryan was getting there but injuries have taken him out. If Bryan was there to hold down a segment and wrestle a match that would help a lot. But he isn’t, and as much as I like watching guys like Cesaro work he doesn’t bring in the kids and the people who are entertainment marks more than wrestling fans.
Now it’s in vogue to complain about the midcard booking but from 30 years of watching I can tell you that midcard booking is overrated. What makes midcard booking work is when you have guys who are all time great performers in midcard angles. Think Randy Savage vs Ricky Steamboat, Jake Roberts vs Rick Rude, Roddy Piper’s non-Hogan feuds, etc. Those are Hall of Famers who were working the high midcard and occasional main event prior to Savage’s title run in 1988. During the Attitude Era you had Rock, Triple H, and Mick Foley on the midcard for a while, then Chris Jericho, Edge and Christian, etc. On the other hand there’s no amount of great storytelling that could have gotten D-Lo, Jeff Jarrett, or the other DX members after 1999 to do big numbers. The midcard is largely flinging stuff at the wall to see what sticks until you get some big stars in waiting to fill it in.
Is it fixable? Sure. They have some guys already. Dean Ambrose is already there. Finn Balor, one he’s called up from NXT, should shine in that kind of role. And then there are the two enigmas, Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens. Owens does great heel work, but the live crowds at televised events just refuse to boo him out of the building like you should to a proper heel. Too many people show their appreciation for his work by cheering, so you might just have to make him a tweener type so he can play up his mic work and his in ring work to the utmost. And Roman……you got me. He’s recovered most of the support he was getting before the crowd turned on him last January but there is still some creeping dissent as he again gets close to the title. It seems like there’s just going to always be an element that sees him as inadequate for whatever reason, and there won’t be any appeasing them. Roman is probably best suited as a guy who’s always in the title picture and gets in a short title run here and there but not as the top overall guy.
So yes, there’s reason to be concerned if you’re in charge of the company but I wouldn’t panic. The business goes in ebbs and flows, and the ultimate goal is to be able to maintain during the low periods until the next megastar emerges. For now they need to max out what they can get from Cena as he plays out the string as a full time top guy (at 38, part-time status is coming sooner than you might think for him), figure out to get the most bang for the buck from Reigns, Ambrose, and Owens, then properly bring Seth Rollins back in when he recovers from his knee injury. Bray Wyatt is also there. The most important thing is not give in to the whims of internet writers and hot takes (put the belt on Cesaro! turn Roman heel!) and play the long game.