Billy Bob Kane
AS THE WRESTLING WORLD TURNS
Thanks from the get-go to Teenage Riot, the guy who helped me figure out the idea for this article. I do need to compare the WWF, or wrestling in general, to the soap opera genre to which it is so often compared. Let me first clarify some things.
I do not like when people call it soap opera. I really don't see the similarities. I find the acting on soaps to be very, very bad and the storylines to implausible. While this is also true of wrestling, I never watch wrestling to see acting or for intellectual storylines. Sports-entertainment, if you want to throw around some ridiculous buzzword, is structured that way for a reason. Sports comes first. I think when you do the sports part correctly the entertainment part comes right into line. I cannot see the comparison between a Benoit suplex and another ridiculous car crash, or a five-star frog splash illuminated by a trail of flashbulbs and a long-thought-dead priest coming out of a coma in Germany. To me, quite frankly, soaps are 100 percent ridiculous, while wrestling is only 90 percent ridiculous. And I live for that ten percent.
Granted, there are many, many similarities.
Far too many to ignore.
For one, soap opera is, in the entertainment community and by the public at large, scoffed upon and looked at as inferior to its peer forms within that genre. Likewise, wrestling, in the sport community and by the public at large is scoffed upon and looked at as inferior to its peer forms with that genre. Soaps go year round, without seasons. So does wrestling. Soap stars work hard as, if not harder than their fellow actors. Wrestlers work I would say harder than most other athletes. Soaps contain poor acting, poor writing, cheap sets, and show little to no consistency. Wrestling has all of these things to a far worse extent.
And on that note, let's be honest. Professional wrestlers are not really actors. Any number of guest roles by Austin, Hogan, or Hart will clearly certify that. Just the thought of seeing Jake Cage, Rip, or Viking Bret again makes my stomach turn in fifteen thousand divergent directions. Wrestling schools don't teach you how to act, how to project emotion, how to say a lot without actually saying a lot (which those of us in the study of drama call subtext). They teach you how to adapt your body to pain, how to take that pain, and how to minimize that pain. They teach you nothing of glory and nothing of passion, while acting school teaches you all about passion, and that you must tap into your own and inject that into whatever role you are trying to bring to life.
Wrestlers, the majority of the time, don't have to remember scripts word-for-word, and if they do I want the sorry son of a bitch who writes Test promos to be shot. I mean, if he didn't ad-lib "...We're TNT, we're dynamite" then someone needs to be shot in the sack real fast. A wrestler can't hold a candle to a real actor, and that is pretty much universally true. (Okay, Rock, but no one can look bad next to Brendan Fraser.)
Now, I must find a way to prove why soaps can market similar material without waning popularity and wrestling, apparently, cannot, given the current ratings decline.
First off, I think it is safe to say that the majority of the soap opera demographic are female. Since most television is geared toward men, I believe soaps provide a safe haven for women in that they are never going to turn into belching, car-guy, violence-crazed shows with busty, pouty-lipped, stupid women abound in two-piece bikinis. Pretty much the opposite is true of wrestling. Soaps have lust, deceit, and true love interwoven in virtually all of their storylines. Wrestling? Deceit maybe, but lust has only been poorly done (remember Meat?) and the Crash/Molly scenario hardly qualifies as 'love' (though I confess I got misty when Liz saved Macho from Sherri at Wrestlemania 7). Also, many of these fans are loyal, over-30 ladies who are attached to the characters and feel a part of the world they sit down to view. The WWF's fan-base, particularly their hardcore fans, is melting by the week.
Right there, we have a reason soap opera politics and marketing can't work for professional wrestling. Women, by and large, don't watch wrestling. I have been able to determine, from various calls to networks, that the female viewer is considered more loyal than the male viewer. This is considered a fact by network executives; and one that does not go ignored. Add to this the fact that women watch more television overall than men do, weekly, by a margin of almost five hours according to studies found on the internet (I forgot the addresses, however). This is why there are many shows that come out every year geared toward gaining that not-so-illusive but loyal female demographic, which if attained is a lucrative one. The WWF's audience is largely males, and males have shorter attentions spans, traditionally, than females. No truer indicator of that exists than the quarter-hour ratings for RAW. Almost always going up and down for each segment, and lately, down. This, according to my analysis of soap operas, does not traditionally happen with the female audience. The Young and the Restless, one of televisions most popular soaps, does not suffer a great discrepancy in quarter-hour ratings, certainly not to the respect and severity that wrestling does. Reason #1 you can't market Wrestling like you can a soap opera.
What's more, the WWF does not have the consistency of a soap opera in terms of characterization. I don't consider Rob Van Dam to be a character, ladies and germs. That's a wrestler who points to himself and to call that a "character" is like gluing five non-consecutive Spider-Man comic books together and calling it a novel. A soap, on the other hand, can develop someone over time, getting them 'over' you might say, as a 'heel' or a 'face'. In wrestling, not only is there little way outside of strict 5-minute in-ring performances to express/develop one's character, but two stories must also be told simultaneously and outside of that character development, two story arcs must be actualized in that one 5-minute match. Those being the specific match story (i.e. david/goliath, one-legged man, face has the number of chickenshit heel etc.), and the eventual pay-per-view story that is part of the larger feud the performance is designed to develop. It is not as easy to do this to develop a character as it is on a soap opera, where poisoning a drink or killing someone's twin is more or less an inalienable statement of ethical orientation. Reason #2 you can't market wrestling like soap.
Then there's performer consistency. A soap star has a contract, and they honour it or get killed off. This is generally not a commandment that anyone messes with. Wrestlers have a contract that they don't have to honour if they are a star. Austin, Triple H, Undertaker, Kevin Nash, and of course, Hulk Hogan, have all been guilty of fucking with the plans by throwing their weight around via star power/impact on product. McMahon, despite trying to pass himself off as this fearless Herculean marketing mastermind, is not above being swayed by the top guys. He's been led around on a leash in WWF history by the clique, Hogan himself, and Triple H and had little to no recourse for it. If you're Vinny K, and Undertaker, eleven year cornerstone that he is, says "I don't want to job to Booker T", your balls are on the chopping block. Soaps don't generally have these situations. Big stars have been killed off and the shows have almost always managed to survive without them, but if Stone Cold was fired tomorrow, not only would there be a huge impact, not only would there be damage to the company, but the crown jewel of the company, the WWF title, would be irreparably damaged. Reason #3, and we'll get back to the WWF title later.
Let's factor injuries into this equation. This is a reason all its own, but also ties into reasons 1-3. An injury can hurt character development rather badly. Wrestling fans with their short attentions spans (see #1) don't care about you once you're off TV, because you really haven't developed a character (see #2) and you can't possibly, when injured, given the requirements of wrestling, be a consistent performer (#3). Injuries as a stand-alone are reason #4.
And then there's the belt. Soap operas don't have a championship or a universal theme, because they don't descend from anything. Pro wrestling as we know it today, descends from legitimate sport. For this reason, wrestling has a universal theme that soaps lack, and that theme is the pursuit of victory/glory and, of course, the indicator of this glory, their #1 championship. In truth, whereas a soap star probably doesn't love the person their character is making a sacrifice for, wrestlers, truly do want the same thing that their "character" wants: to be the best, which means having the big belt. Everyone in wrestling wants to hold the #1 title, because it means more money, more prestige, more recognition, and more overall significance if you win it. Really, wrestlers want to win the championship for all the reasons other athletes want to win championships in their sports, why Derek Jeter wants to win a world series or Dominik Hasek wants to win a Stanley Cup. Look back, how many people does that belt go on? And of those people, how many do you think the WWF intends to let go of? They put it on guys in their primes and whom they have no intention of letting go. Austin, Angle, Rock, Triple H, the men who have held the belt for the majority of the last three years, are all now, integral parts of the federation. This is the also part of the motivation for athletes in other sports. Michael Jordan never had trouble around contract negotiation time when he played in the Windy City because he proved himself as a champion and therefore a draw, and while in wrestling the order is reversed, the result is still the same. There is no such overall determining desire or compulsion for an actor. A desire to be the best can still be there, assuredly, but it is far more personal and far less tangible then in the WWF where it can be said, I'm a top guy because I held the belt and they only give it to top guys. This drive, and this drive alone, is what keeps the root of professional wrestling lodged in the realm of sport, even if its branches have spread outward into entertainment.
And finally, my fifth, final, and I think most important reason that you can't market wrestling as you can a soap opera, the fans. The fans in wrestling are exactly as they are in any sport, and their participation is structured in much the same way. A soap opera doesn't have a studio audience, doesn't have people, by the thousands, booing characters or performances, and as a result of this cannot possibly be marketed the same way as wrestling can. Wrestling without fans there, and a lot of fans, cannot exist. There are four pillars of wrestling that keep it going financially. Television, pay-per-view, live arena events (house shows) and merchandising. Not one of these pillars can operate independent of live fan interaction. The key to this is, simply, that a soap opera simply doesn't have to impress its fans to be effective to the extent wrestling does. It takes a lot to expect people to leave their homes, buy expensive tickets, and scream for three hours. It takes a lot to expect people to buy shirts they could match the quality of at home with a magazine clipping and an iron. It takes a lot to expect people to plop down thirty bucks every month. And most of all, tying this new essay in with my last one, it takes a lot to expect people to sit down, for two hours twice a week, and watch bad acting, bad storylines, and a blatantly over-the-top world.
So ultimately, my first thesis is the core of this one. Wrestling, unlike a soap opera, cannot be over-exposed. People aren't willing to watch as many hours of wrestling as they are of soaps. It costs way, way more to be a wrestling fan than it does to be a soap opera fan, and the WWF has over-saturated their audience, and will be paying that for some time to come.Billy Bob Kane
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