Almost two decades ago, Raw is War was a ratings leader on cable TV. At the time HBO aired little original content, Netflix was not even a pipedream and "traditional" channels like TNT, TBS and USA buttered their bread on old movie replays and old show reruns. Raw (and also Nitro) was one of the few shows on cable TV that was new and fresh every week. The huge ratings the two giant wrestling shows hauled in every Monday night probably has more to do with the entirely different landscape of cable TV than with the quality of writing (which, thanks to the WWE Network, we can look back on and recognize was "not that great").
In the 90s, the cinema was the place to see big stories, big budgets and big ideas. Working in TV was seen as either an early-career stepping stone or late-career purgatory. Today, however, the cinema is the place of recycled ideas and focus group-edited features; TV is the new sandbox that bright creators want to play in. The TV marketplace has expanded considerably in the past couple decades, with HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and cable networks all releasing shows with 10-13 episode seasons, whose quality often exceeds that which can be found in a two-hour movie.
Meanwhile, WWE, which was once a trendsetter on television, has become a bottom-feeder. The shows---particularly RAW---are tired and tiring, lacking ideas and any semblance of a “spark” that could retain hardcore viewers and hook casual viewers. RAW’s ratings continue to trend downward, but the problems the show faces are not unsolvable. All that’s needed is for them to take a look around and learn some of the lessons that others learned.
So what makes modern TV shows successful and what can WWE learn from them?
15 PLANNING AHEAD IS GOOD...
Game of Thrones is the most popular show in HBO history, sorry Sopranos fans. The George R.R. Martin adaptation is one of the pioneers of this "cinematic TV" era we're now enjoying. A big part of its success is the patience it employs with its stories. Plots are hinted at in episode one of a season that aren't explored again until episode nine, but when they finally are brought back to light, magic often happens. The confidence the writers have in their stories is what sets it apart, as the developers aren’t afraid to press on with a storyline that fans may initially be skeptical to.
And then there's Raw. It flies by the seat of its pants and is constantly being re-written (sometimes even during the airing of the show). And we’re not talking about moving a segment around or cutting a promo; huge storyline ideas, that were plotted-out and previously approved can be suddenly jettisoned on the capricious whims of Vince McMahon. It’s anarchy and it makes for bad television.
14 ...BUT BE WILLING TO ADAPT
This writer's all-time favorite Sci-Fi show is the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. The 2003-2009 series was famous for being extremely serialized, with a loooong plot that stretched from episode one to the series finale. Many fans were surprised to discover, however, that some of the biggest revelations in the always-plot-twisty series were last-minute decisions. There was always a big picture that the creators never deviated from, but along the way they were willing to take risks and trust they could connect the loose ends along the way.
And then there’s Raw. It frequently butts its head against the wall of fan-unrest, as Vince insists on getting someone or something over (while, as previously mentioned, suddenly nixing the new ideas that might possibly catch fire). And no matter how many times fans boo, or flat-out walk away (or change the channel), he keeps kicking like a mule, determined to get his idea across.
13 SHOW, DON'T TELL
In terms of cable ratings, there’s The Walking Dead, and there’s everything else. The show was a juggernaut from the beginning but from the beginning the creators made a conscious decision not to spend too much time explaining the hows and whys of the zombie apocalypse the show explores. There are specific rules to the universe, but never articulated. Instead you learn them through observation. In episode two, Rick and Glen get the idea to smear zombie guts all over their persons in order to “camouflage” themselves from “walkers.” There is never an explanation for why it works; they just do it and we get it.
And then there’s Raw, where commentary breaks down every little thing so that the audience can “know” what’s happening. Did you know Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho are best friends? Did you know The New Day believe in the Power of Positivity? Did you know Roman Reigns and Rusev don’t get along? You could know all of those things WITHOUT Michael Cole screaming them every ten minutes. Show it, don’t say it!
12 TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE IS PAYING ATTENTION
Game of Thrones has a huge fanbase that has never picked up a single book in the ASOIAF series. The sprawling narrative features dozens of characters and settings, but other than a laughably inadequate pre-show recap, there’s never any exposition. Instead the creators know you’re watching every week. They know you’re binge-watching the previous episodes before each new season. They know you’re interested. And for those who haven’t done their homework, the show has good-enough writers that they can fill you in without hitting you over the head with exposition.
And then there’s Raw, whose viewers are thought to be complete and total idiots judging by the booking approaches of Vince McMahon. How else can you explain promos that are two-dimensional, superficial exposition, with the most bland and obvious character motivations? If Vince is right, then the audience is too stupid to follow nuance in their TV programming. But if that were true, then why are ratings steadily declining while other shows are seeing record numbers?
11 HEROES DON'T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE RELATABLE...
Hopefully no one ended Breaking Bad by saying “I see a lot of myself in old Walter White…” But maybe they saw a little of themselves in the Walter White that started that series: The down on his luck, middle class loser who does something illegal just to make money for his family. As the show developed, White’s character grew darker and more megalomaniacal while the whimsical early episodes eventually turned lugubrious. But viewers never turned away and in fact grew every year, because they didn’t have to see themselves in White. They only needed to understand him.
And then there’s Raw. I don’t need to necessarily sympathize with Roman Reigns, but if you want me to cheer for him I at least need to understand him. For the most part he’s a heelish bully who picks on heels instead of defending himself against them. This problem persists across the spectrum.
10 ...BUT THEY MUST DO *SOMETHING* TO CHEER FOR
Even during some of the darkest times for Walter White, the show still gave us “even more evil” characters to root against. White’s fight against Gus Fring, to end season four, made for some riveting television. And even though much of Walter’s actions were deplorable (the fake cigarette, anyone?) we turned a blind eye because we understood the severity of his fight.
And then there’s Raw, whose heroes typically give viewers nothing to cheer for. They connive, whine, cheat, but unlike in Breaking Bad, the heels they fight are not written well-enough to lead the audience to side with the hero. Instead the heels often end up looking more noble than the babyfaces! And Vince wonders why his faces often get booed and his heels cheered. It’s not because fans are contrarian; it’s because his writing is!
9 THE CAMERA IS NOT THE STAR
Battlestar Galactica was (partially) conceived by Ronald Moore to be an answer for all that didn’t work with the current versions of Star Trek that were on TV (Voyager in particular). The stale music, safe stories, and boring directing turned Star Trek into more of a slog than a weekly adventure. BSG rectified that with big, sweeping scores, edge-pushing stories, and a cinematic presentation. But despite that emphasize on the “look” of the show, the focus was always kept on the actors and not the production. It was flashy, but never showy. No one ever watched an episode of BSG and thought, "the director is really getting cute with the camera there." Instead the camera work was subtle and only ever did something crazy (like a dolly zoom or a little handheld work) on special occasions, not as the norm.
And then there’s Raw…
8 "BORING" IS NEVER NECESSARY
If there was ever a time when The Walking Dead might have lost its fans it was during season two, when the show suffered massive budget cuts and spent the entirety of the thirteen episodes cooped up on a farm. The frantic and exciting pace of the original season slowed to a crawl and unrest set in among fans about the show’s direction. Producers thought slowing everything down and spacing out the zombie attacks would save money and make the action (when it did happen) more exciting. It did not, and the show course-corrected from season three onward.
And then there’s Raw, which is simply a chore to watch. Sure you can catch the condensed, 90-minute Hulu version or catch the important moments on YouTube, but that’s the point: The actual three-hour broadcast is such a slog it’s simply not worth it anymore. These days Raw is a two-hour show (at best) that is padded out and stretched to three. That’s bad TV.
7 FIGURE OUT "WHAT'S THE POINT"...
Breaking Bad was famously pitched as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” Even after five years, the basic premise of the show remained easily-explained: “A meek chemistry teacher begins making and selling meth in order to finance cancer treatment…along the way he grows into a ruthless kingpin.” That’s it; the premise is simple but enticing. No matter what the show did over the years that simple idea (that a good person could slowly “break bad”) was always at the forefront. It kept the writers focused, kept the actors focused and kept the viewers focused.
And then there’s Raw, whose various storylines often lack any semblance of sense or “focus.” Motivations change without logical explanation, goals for heroes (and villains) are sometimes, suddenly dropped without reason. And the “all-important” commentary team is forbidden from talking about it by McMahon, who uses Orwellian tactics to act like the sudden change has “always been” the way things were. It creates a show that can’t be followed, and thus can’t be enjoyed.
6 ...BUT BE BRAVE ENOUGH TO EVOLVE
On the other hand, Breaking Bad was not originally supposed to be the big, expansive narrative it became. By the end of the show, the plot stretched from Albuquerque, New Mexico all the way to the Czech Republic . What was intended to be a “dark comedy” ended up being something more akin to a “crime epic.” The reason for the change is simply because creator Vince Gilligan was humble enough to let his idea evolve. Like The Lord of the Rings, “the tale grew in the telling” and Gilligan didn’t fight against the current. As a result the show thrived.
And then there’s Raw. How many different ways are we going to see “evil authority fights outnumbered hero” or “superman overcome the odds”? Over and over the same few storylines that Vince loves (i.e. knows how to tell) are repeated ad nauseam. It leads to a show that touts itself with the slogan “anything can happen” but in reality, everything that will happen already has…and will again.
5 LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
The Walking Dead began with a half-dozen or so characters, focusing specifically on Rick and his relationship to both his police-partner Shane and his son Carl. Three episodes into the first season the character Daryl was introduced and though he was never supposed to be any more than another secondary character, he quickly became a fan favorite. Over the years, as character after character bit the dust, the writers toyed with killing off Daryl but kept refusing due to the certain backlash the fans would bring if they did. They listen, in other words, and they made decisions that keep viewers happy.
And then there’s Raw, whose chief creative voice likes to say “we give the people what they want” and “we put smiles on people’s faces” while simultaneously pushing unpopular acts, and booking popular characters to lose repeatedly. Sometimes it seems like the only logical explanation for WWE’s booking is to conclude “Vince secretly hates the fans.”
4 PROGRESSIVE GOALS KEEPS PEOPLE TUNED IN
Game of Thrones is essentially about the machiavellian machinations of a few power-hungry people, desperate to sit on a very uncomfortable chair. Almost every major character has one primary goal: The Iron Throne. But the show (and book series) would never have exploded in popularity if those motivations remained so one-dimensional. Instead, the characters have small, medium and large goals. There’s always something immediate to achieve, which will help them achieve something bigger, as they work toward their biggest prize. Little goals are necessary, lest the audience get restless waiting for a payoff…any payoff.
And then there’s Raw, whose characters have one goal that is stated and then restated. And then restated. Those characters fight for that goal; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but no matter what that one goal is all they have. This is why there are so many rematches and never-ending feuds; there’s no nuance to the characters, because they only have one thing to fight for. Thus, they spin their wheels and “fight for it” over and over and over again.
3 FLAWED HEROES ARE GOOD...
Walter White loves his family…but he’s also a crime boss. Starbuck is brave, but she’s also a drunk. Jon Snow is loyal, but he knows nothing. Rick is a natural leader, but he’s also stubborn and sometimes slow to act. These are great TV characters; they are all protagonists, but none of them are perfect. They have obvious flaws that do more than just make them relatable to the audience, they also give the writers opportunity for drama.
And then there’s Raw, whose heroes only “conquer.” A hero (not counting jobbers to the stars) in WWE is either an invincible superman that only loses to cheating or impossible odds (even then he sometimes wins) or he’s someone that isn’t the focus of the spotlight and for whom wins and loses aren’t treated as a big deal. The top face in WWE is protected to an absurd degree, to the point where there is no drama in his feuds. And where there is no drama, there is no entertainment. Thus the fans boo.
2 2 RATIONAL VILLAINS ARE BETTER...
Back in the day viewers liked their bad guys bad and their good guys good. Subtlety was a bug, not a feature. Modern television shows have given us the rise of, not just the anti-hero, but also the anti-villain. When a bad guy has a clear and understandable motivation, it becomes harder to just dismiss them out of hand. You’re forced to think about who and what you’re rooting for (and against). That makes for better drama, which makes for better TV.
And then there’s Raw, and while the show has had a few famous anti-heroes in the past, it has never embraced the idea of a “rational villain.” Vince’s bad guys are always mustache-twirling, cardboard cutouts. They’re glorified cartoon characters, except even some cartoon shows have villains will more depth. As long as the show continues with one-dimensional baddies, viewers are always going be just half-interested.
1 LOGICAL STORYLINES ARE BEST
If there is one thing that WWE could do to change the perception that Monday Night Raw is “skippable” it would be simply to embrace the idea of “logic.” Whether the show is about a meth kingpin, a galaxy-spanning “humans vs evil robots” adventure, or about a zombie apocalypse, a show has to maintain logical, internal consistency, there have to be rules and those rules have to be followed.
When you tout a match between two superstars as being “career threatening” then someone needs to go away (at least for a while) when it’s over. When you hype a match-type like Hell in a Cell as “the ultimate conflict” between two superstars, you can’t have them rematch literally 24 hours later. When you say a match is "Once in a Lifetime" you can't just do it over the next year! You’re betraying your own internal logic, and once that’s gone there’s nothing for the fans to hold on to. The show becomes just something to stare at, as opposed to something to “enjoy.” There is some great TV out there to enjoy.
And then there's Raw.