For the last couple of years, there’s been one consistent complaint from older, longtime fans when it comes to WWE television. It’s a topic that seems to come up about as many times as the Ultimate Warrior squashed his more talented undercard.
I’m talking, of course, about the WWE’s PG direction.
The summer of 2008 seems to be where Vince McMahon decided to take WWE’s programming and tone it down to fit the current format. At the time, CM Punk and Triple H were the World Heavyweight and WWE Champions, respectively, the Undertaker and Edge were involved in a lengthy feud that included main-eventing WrestleMania 24 and ultimately concluding in a Hell in a Cell match at Summerslam and Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho were at bitter war with each other in what went down as one of the best feuds in the last decade, despite not having the platform of a major PPV to highlight their physicality and instead doing their best to draw buyrates for B shows (Judgment Day, The Great American Bash, Unforgiven and No Mercy).
Specifically, the WWE’s PG direction started around the end of July/mid August point. In Michaels and Jericho’s match at the Bash, HBK bled heavily from a worked eye injury that Jericho focused on and in the end, the ref awarded the win to Y2J as Shawn was deemed unfit to continue. However, just weeks later in the main event of Summerslam, Edge and the Undertaker fought a very brutal match inside Hell in a Cell that still caused fans to complain about the absence of blood in what was the final war between two longtime enemies.
There’s been a mountain of speculation and debate over why the WWE decided to go the family-friendly route. Decreased revenues, dwindling house show attendance, lack of advertising sponsorships, etc. Whatever the case, the company seems upbeat about playing more to younger audiences, who are more than eager to plead with Mommy and Daddy to buy them the newest Cena t-shirt or Mysterio mask.
On the flip side of that coin, the Attitude Era (also called the Austin Era) was a three-year boom period between 1998-2001 that created popularity in the WWF that hadn’t been seen since the 80’s. Most seem to pinpoint WrestleMania 14 in March ’98 as the “official” kickoff to the Era after Steve Austin won the WWF Championship, but the timeline can be pulled back much more earlier to mid-1996 when Austin uttered that famous line at King of the Ring that put him on the map. His feud with Bret Hart later that year and into 1997 only pushed the envelope further and it was obvious that the WWF was testing the deeper, more mature waters when it came to their product.
From that point, it was onward and upward as far as Austin’s popularity, as well as the WWF’s was concerned. Buyrates went through the roof, merchandise flew off the shelves and arena seats were packed even at a Sunday afternoon house show in Nowhere, USA. Guys like Austin, The Rock, DX, the Undertaker, Kane and even McMahon himself attracted viewers like never before and money flowed like water from a fire hydrant.
And then it was over.
Right around the time that WCW folded and McMahon snatched it up, interest in the WWF was waning. There was no more competition, so Vince could sleep easier and rest on his laurels, knowing he was the undisputed king of the industry. WrestleMania 17 was a huge blockbuster, but the product afterward was ill-conceived and left a bad taste in some mouths. Austin’s heel turn at the conclusion of his WWF Title match with The Rock went so far against the grain that not one boo was heard in that stadium in Houston as he rained down chair shot after chair shot on the People’s Champ. The ensuing months were also largely seen as lame when the WCW/ECW Alliance storyline was formed. Instead of attracting big Turner names such as Goldberg, Sting or the nWo to battle the WWF, viewers were supposed to believe that guys like Booker T, Mike Awesome and Rhyno were legitimate threats. The angle was so pro-WWF that Kurt Angle and Austin were moved into the Alliance in an attempt to balance out the stables.
So flashing forward back to today, the question is will the WWE ever go back or at least attempt another boom period like the Attitude Era? From my own critical standpoint, McMahon and Co. seem happy about the current landscape, but is anything really changing as far as increasing money streams and fat profits go?
I’m not gonna sit here and spout off about what WWE should and shouldn’t be doing, but let’s not be blind and pretend we can’t see some of the mistakes they’re pulling. At the top of the list is the all-important PPV buyrate dollars. Everything as far as feuds and angles go should be focused towards building up the next PPV, but instead WWE thinks continuing storylines with PPV matches in-between are what puts food on the table for their wrestlers. And in the face of disappearing PPV customers, McMahon thinks putting on shows twice a month and as little as two weeks apart will be what pulls his company out of lowering profit margins. He couldn’t be more wrong and ignorant. Again.
Looking at the buyrates from shows during the Attitude Era and then from 2009/10 is a frightening practice.
Attitude Era PPV Buyrates
Wrestlemania 14 – 730,000
Summerslam 98 – 700,000
Wrestlemania 15 – 800,000
Summerslam 99 – 600,000
Royal Rumble 2000 – 590,000
No Way Out 2000 – 480,000
Wrestlemania 2000 – 824,000
Backlash 2000 – 675,000
Judgement Day 2000 – 420,000
KOTR 2000 – 475,000
Fully Loaded 2000 – 420,000
Summerslam 2000 – 570,000
Unforgiven 2000 – 605,000
No Mercy 2000 – 550,000
Survivor Series 2000 – 400,000
Armageddon 2000 – 465,000
Royal Rumble 2001 – 550,000
Wrestlemania 17 – 1,040,000
WWE PPV Buyrates 2009
Royal Rumble did 450,000 buys (down 83,000 from 2008 numbers)
No Way Out did 272,000 (down 57,000)
WrestleMania 25 did 960,000 (down 98,000)
Backlash did 182,000 (down 70,000)
Judgment Day did 228,000 (down 24,000)
Extreme Rules did 213,000 buys (up 19,000 from 2008 numbers)
The Bash did 178,000 (down 18,000)
Night of Champions did 267,000 (down 6,000)
SummerSlam did 369,000 (down 108,000)
Breaking Point did 169,000 (down 42,000)
Hell in a Cell did 283,000
Bragging Rights did 181,000
Survivor Series did 235,000
TLC did 228,000
WWE PPV Buyrates 2010 (so far)
Royal Rumble – 462,000
Elimination Chamber – 272,000
WrestleMania 26 – 885,000
Extreme Rules – 182,000
Over The Limit – 197,000
Fatal Four-Way – 143,000
Money in the Bank – 189,000
Summerslam – 350,000
The differences are staggering.
There are pros and cons to both eras if one was to sit down and think about it. The current PG era is lambasted by lifetime fans for being too cartoonish, too corny and going way too far when it comes to looking squeaky clean to the outside media (no blood, no swearing, Divas parading around in 1950’s swimsuits), but the WWE has found a younger audience again and parents don’t mind their kids watching their shows, ordering the PPVs (at least some of the time, it would appear) and gobbling up every last piece of merchandise that the company puts out. The Attitude Era used to be criticized for its emphasis on sex, violence and more than its fair share of trash TV (early DX skits, Mae Young giving birth to a hand, the antics of the Corporate Ministry), but it came along at a time when the demographic shift had changed and McMahon had the stars to push his company’s popularity to the moon, resulting in engaging feuds, media attention whether it was good or bad and skyrocketing PPV buyrates.
So will WWE change its format anytime soon? Is it possible to find another Stone Cold or The Rock and mold the company around them? I think so. The problem is that McMahon has his hands in too many cookie jars and there’s no structure to the company, as far as its roster is concerned. In the 80’s it was simple. The WWF was molded around main event guys like Hogan and Savage while the mid-card had a deep talent pool of babyfaces and heels. Guys were built up, promoted and then booked to go against the top talent in ways that made fans and viewers tune in and part with their cash easily. It isn’t rocket science, folks. Today, Vince appears to be so moody that his decisions change at the drop of a hat and that structure hasn’t been there for a long time. I said he has his hands in too many cookie jars, and by that I mean ventures like WWE Films and making sure his wife gets into office. Let Linda get herself into politics and do away with the whole movie studio schtick which, let’s face it, isn’t putting much green into the bank accounts of anyone. He should be concentrating on his talent, building up anticipated PPV matches and nothing more.
I truly believe times can change again. It won’t be anytime soon, probably not for another year and a half or two years. But at its core, it’s not even really a question of staying PG or going PG-13. What people really want is feuds and angles between guys that have a lot of simmer before you give them the steak. Champions that hold the belt longer than two or three months. A PPV schedule that’s reduced both in actual shows and their price tags. Sooner than later, McMahon will realize that recycled Champions and gimmick PPVs won’t be what gives WWE a big surge in popularity again.
At least I hope.
See you at ringside,
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