There were several years, primarily during the forced Roman Reigns baby face super push that completely flopped, when the WWE product was often paint-by-numbers drek. The three hours of Raw every week, often booked without a champion when Brock Lesnar appeared enough to still be qualified for the witness protection program, was simply just a tedious viewing experience that many fans watched out of habit, not with anticipation. If you need proof of how tough it was to script a show without the championship to serve as a centerpiece, the company created a consolation prize belt not too long ago to avoid the booking hurdles of a show without a champion again. In 2016, a few years before the launch of All Elite Wrestling, and when the lead-in programming for Impact Wrestling was ice fishing, the sports entertainment industry was completely stagnant. The WWE was king of the hill, but the recycled concepts and forced corporate agendas eroded the audience each year.
Granted, when the climate of the television business led to broadcast rights fees that garnered record profits in more recent years and the company was just a part of a $21.9 billion merger, any criticism of a few years of stale programming is moot. Still, that lackluster era that saw talent underutilized and ultimately the corporate image, not the fan demand catered to had an effect on the organization. While Smackdown will land on USA, and NXT will have a new network with the CW, Raw is currently without a new deal in place. That’s not to say that it’s time for management to panic or that the Monday night show won’t find a spot, because obviously, it will, but the fact that the company was seemingly put on autopilot for a few years and then the pandemic hindered every aspect of the world, the organization definitely needed something to freshen up its presentation, specifically for when it shops Raw around to networks.
As we know, Roman Reign turned heel so that he could organically evolve as a performer, Cody Rhodes returned to the company and is more or less the top baby face on the roster, and while the total viewers declined compared to five years ago, the current WWE product is something that the remaining audience is willing to spend money for. The costs of live event tickets increased, but still sell very well because management seems more focused on serving its audience rather than just its shareholders. That’s not to say that the WWE is in the midst of some boom period, that would imply that the organization is a part of pop culture, it’s not, outside of an occasional mainstream reference to a prior era when the sport was more popular. However, that’s not a knock on the current direction of WWE, but rather to point out that even though the product isn’t necessarily mainstream, it caters to the current WWE audience. As much as corporate lip service as one of the aspects of being a publicly-traded corporation, the bottom line is, if management provides programming that the audience wants to watch then more revenue will be generated so it’s still a win for the stockholders on the next conference call.
That’s why this week’s edition of Raw, while still tedious, might be an indication of a continued upswing in terms of the overall presentation in 2024.
Don’t get me wrong, we all know that three hours is too long for a weekly show, and proof of that is that the vast majority of the episodes of Raw see a dip in the ratings for the third hour since the casual fans simply don’t want to sit through three hours of wrestling. That said, the third hour is also one of the reasons that the company landed the massive TV deals so despite the fact that it was a common criticism for more than a decade, most of the discussion about the domino effect of three hours of Raw is cannon fodder.
This week’s episode, outside of the anticipated CM Punk promo, was mostly an average Raw as far as its content, but that’s not the biggest takeaway from this past Monday. The bottom line is, there was anticipation to see what was going to happen, and that’s a rarity within modern pro wrestling. The reasons for that are numerous, with online leaks and social media not helping the situation, but the reality is, it’s been years since there was a genuine buzz around WWE programming the way that there is right now. Obviously, there was cache with the return of Randy Orton after he was on the sidelines for a year and a half, an example of the Jim Cornette theory of, “how can we miss you if you don’t go away” and then the shock of the CM Punk return. It goes without saying that by nature you can’t have those things happen on a weekly basis to boost the television show, but the point being, the fact that the WWE had both happen in one night puts a renewed spotlight on the WWE product to allow for the company to showcase itself to a broader audience that might’ve stopped watching during the previously mentioned stagnant period for the organization.
Randy Orton worked a very safe style for the past twenty years, his matches weren’t flashy, but everything was solid and he was the prototype for what Vince McMahon wants in a main event. That’s not a knock on him either, he stayed at or near the top of the card for most of his career because of the style he worked. Orton is there for the cash, and that’s the point of the pro wrestling business. However, even with the safer style, after two decades of in-ring competition, injuries can happen. The fact that Orton was able to return is quite remarkable, especially when he probably already has enough money to hang up his boots. I don’t think it’d be wise for him to work any of the reduced number of house shows to avoid any extra toll on his body after the serious back injury. Instead, they can use Orton as an asset of Raw to spotlight him and showcase his status as an established veteran. Orton vs. Dominik Mysterio was a wise choice and allowed both to shine in their specific roles.
Cody Rhodes continues to be a staple of the show and it goes without saying that his segments will continue to give viewers a reason to tune into the show, particularly as the company moves toward Wrestlemania season. Similar to how Dominik was used against Orton on Monday, The Judgment Day are a strong enough heel group to be used to fuel the baby faces on the brand.
Of course, everyone wanted to hear what CM Punk had to say with a live mic, and the office was smart enough to promote it throughout the night to attempt to keep viewers tuned into the show. That being said, the eight-minute segment was essentially a generic return promo, with the exception of the last line that Punk uttered into the camera. I think it’d be fair to say that after all of the anti-WWE rhetoric, specifically taking jabs at the two-night format of Wrestlemania during his feud with MJF in AEW, CM Punk is a complete hypocrite. Again, Punk is about the biggest spot possible for Punk, not the prosperity of pro wrestling, but that’s fine because as I’ve said before, the business is about making money. It’s just ironic that Punk claimed he wanted to make the sport better, but is willing to praise WWE when the price is right. He will gleefully main event of the the show of the same two-night concept of Wrestlemania that he mocked previously. Phil Brooks isn’t ethically better than anyone else in the often seedy sports entertainment industry, even if he tries to spin the narrative that way.
CM Punk claiming that he was “home” in the WWE was laughable, but it was lip service that he will get paid a lot of money for, the new line of CM Punk merchandise is already on the WWE Shop website. It was even more comical that Brooks said that he “changed” in the segment. As I wrote when I discussed his return to the organization in an article a few days ago, he got into another backstage fight in AEW just three months ago so it’s very doubtful that he had a personal revelation within those three months. After he concluded the mic work, he said into the camera, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make money” before the broadcast went off the air. That’s probably the only authentic statement he made when he was on Raw, and that’s fine because again, making money in the entire point. It’s just important to remember that Punk is there for the cash, not to improve pro wrestling.
All that said, the hypocritical nature of Punk’s return doesn’t matter at all. The point being, he was away from the organization for almost a decade and there was a demand for him to return to the company, setting up a lot of intriguing possibilities. Make no mistake about it, Phil Brooks is a jerk, but he’s a talented jerk that has a dedicated fan base. There were more viewers for Raw before he left than there are now, and his return, along with the other talent mentioned, could give fans that haven’t watched the show a reason to be reintroduced to the product in some ways. It might be an artificial boost based on the post-PPV buzz, but Raw had a 29% increase of viewers compared to last week, despite competition from Monday Night Football. That’s the biggest takeaway from the return of Randy Orton and CM Punk to Raw, it provides an opportunity for the company to bring back some of the causal fans that might’ve stopped regularly watching WWE programming several years ago.
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Until next week
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