On January 26, 1998, WCW Monday Nitro expanded to three hours. Little more than three years later, the company was dead.
Let’s be clear though – adding an extra hour to their flagship program did not, in and of itself, kill WCW. There were many reasons for the company’s demise, two of the biggest factors being its inability to create new stars as more and more talent bailed for WWE, and the horrendous booking decisions made by the never-ending carousel of people in power. No doubt, their need to fill that extra hour was a big blow to a company that had been hot for so long. People grew tired of too much of the same thing and many of them began to turn their attention elsewhere (namely USA Network). So, does this mean that history is about to repeat itself as WWE prepares to permanently expand Monday Night Raw to three hours beginning July 23rd? Not necessarily. I would argue that if handled properly, it could actually be a great benefit to the show. But then I consider WWE’s track record of “doing the right thing” and I begin to worry. Here’s why.
Vince McMahon is taking perhaps his greatest gamble since the first WrestleMania later this year by launching a new 24-hour cable network. That is, if it ever launches. It has already been delayed once and with few, if any, clearances announced, it’s questionable if it will even roll out this fall as is currently scheduled. WWE is pumping many millions of dollars into this network and if it fails, it could be catastrophic for the company. At the same time, WWE and USA are taking a big gamble by expanding Raw to three hours this summer. Sure, if ratings ultimately suffer as a result, they can always go back to the way things were and USA can go back to airing reruns of NCIS in the 8pm hour (which have, at times, actually garnered more viewers than first-run episodes of Raw), but at what cost? Once you start driving viewers away from your product, it is very hard to get those people back. It took TNA some time to get their numbers back to the levels they were at after Impact’s failed move to Monday nights in 2010.
Two big gambles in the course of a year. What if they both fail? Yikes.
There are other things to consider. First, three hours is simply too long for a weekly wrestling show. You want three or four hours for a pay-per-view? No problem, people have been conditioned to expect that and PPV’s only come but once a month (well, most of the time). But three hours of Big Johnny promos, bad comedy and Popeye’s commercials? I shudder to even think about it. Of course, there will be people who read this and complain that if I hate the product so much, why watch? It’s a valid question. I sometimes ask myself that same thing. But then I realize, the only reason I care enough to complain is BECAUSE I am a fan. I want to see the product improve. Adding more television is not the answer. Oversaturation is a big problem when it comes to pro wrestling. Hell, it’s become a huge problem for UFC as well, a product that has arguably been hotter than wrestling for the last several years. Ratings and overall interest in UFC programming has been on the wane, though they still do pop big buyrates for PPV shows that offer compelling fights. If you give people something they want to see, they will tune in. What do you think WWE is going to give its fans with that extra hour of television? According to a press release put out this past week, it will incorporate interactive elements into the show, allowing fans to vote on matches and stipulations they would like to see throughout the broadcast. It is an interesting way to get people invested in the show, but they’ve tried this before with “Taboo Tuesday” and “Cyber Sunday”, both of which failed. It’s probably a better gimmick for free TV anyway, and I don’t have a problem with them trying something new, just like I don’t have a problem with TNA trying new ideas like “Open Fight Night” and the “Gut Check” challenges. But unless WWE changes its booking philosophy, nothing will change and interest in the product is going to continue to dwindle. We’re already starting to see signs of it.
One of the earliest three hour Raw shows I remember was the night they revived the “King of the Ring” tournament concept. William Regal was crowned king that night, but after mowing down Hornswoggle in the opening round and defeating CM Punk in a relatively brief, uneventful match in the finals, I was left disappointed. They had three hours to get those tournament matches over with the audience and failed to do so. It was the same rushed, bland matches they treat us to every week. It didn’t matter that they had all of that extra time. Why use that on in-ring action when we can just script MORE talking! MORE comedy! MORE dance contests! Dolph Ziggler issued a challenge on Twitter this week for an Iron Man match on the 1,000th episode of Raw, which kicks off the new three-hour era. I would love to see him in the ring with a John Cena or CM Punk for 30 minutes in a competitive match, and who knows, maybe we’ll get it. But anyone who doesn’t think things won’t go right back to the way they are now by week four hasn’t been paying attention. It’s going to be more of the same and that is my biggest beef with this move to three hours. It’s to the point now where even bringing back some of the biggest names from the past, men like Brock Lesnar and The Rock, have meant little to ratings. WWE cannot afford more of the same. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
At the risk of sounding all doom and gloom here, there ARE ways to make this work and improve the show overall by adding a third hour. One way of doing this would be to use it as a pre-show to the traditional two hours of Raw. When I say pre-show, I don’t mean Todd Pettengill or Dok Hendrix standing among a mob of fans waving foam fingers counting down until the top of the hour as we anxiously wait to find out if David Otunga’s bowtie will be red or purple this week, I mean a real pre-show. Steal a page from the NFL or NBA and give us studio analysis with the announcers on what we can expect from that evening’s show, an overview of the key storylines, and interviews with the superstars. You can also throw in a few matches, of course, but everything is designed to build to the main two hours and make the show feel special. Of course, WWE hates modeling itself after “real” sports and likely won’t do this. Okay, fine.
I mentioned WCW earlier. Another idea would be to borrow a page from the Nitro playbook and feature cruiserweight talent during the first hour. Again, I know Vince McMahon is not high on the cruiserweights and treated them like a joke for many years, but you cannot argue with the success Eric Bischoff had with them when he put men like Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Juventud Guerrera on TV (one of the few innovative Bischoff ideas) in feature roles. Even better, it would give WWE an opportunity to expose its audience to the smaller talent ahead of their planned cruiserweight show for the new network. That’s right, WWE is planning some sort of program for the channel built around cruiserweights and has already started reaching out to talent for it. It actually makes a lot of sense to try this. What do you have to lose?
Lastly, having an extra 60 minutes (or 40+ not counting commercials) to devote to your program gives you the opportunity to feature longer matches. WWE now has absolutely no excuse to tap into the talent they have on their roster and let them showcase it. Forget those meaningless, three-minute matches that don’t get anyone over. Now, you can let these guys go out there and show what they’re capable of. And while I’m on that subject, it’s a chance for them to show some respect to the Divas division, which is completely useless these days. Have you ever grabbed a stopwatch and timed a typical Divas match on Raw? Well I have and it’s a complete joke. Either do something with the women or scrap the entire division. With an extra hour, there are no more excuses.
Oh yeah, one more thing. Jim Ross and William Regal are the new announce team for NXT. Last time I checked, in this country at least, NXT aired on WWE’s website. Meanwhile, Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler are responsible for calling the action on Raw. Why not allow JR and Regal to call the 8pm hour of Raw? Both WCW and WWE at various times in their existence have had different announce teams for different hours of a particular show, so why not shake things up a bit and give Ross and Regal a seat (literally) at the table? It might also be a good way of getting people to tune in to NXT, but I don’t get the impression that is a priority of theirs right now. That’s too bad.
Will Raw’s move to three hours on Monday nights spell disaster for wrestling? Sure, long term it could. But as I’ve outlined here, if WWE plays its cards right, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s going to require them to change the way they do things.
Will they? If the past is any indication, I don’t have a great deal of hope.