Note: This column was written in response to the 4/23 Raw, posted to the
EZBoard, and later edited and expanded for submission on the main page.
THIS WHEEL'S ON FIRE
The phrase most often used for a show that does little to advance plotlines is "spinning the wheels". Tonight's RAW was yet another in an ever lengthening series of listless and empty efforts from the suddenly competition-less federation; five minutes after the show concluded I could barely remember even what had happened in the second hour, let alone anything from the first. Over the course of two hours tonight, virtually nothing happened: the Hardys are back paired with Edge and Christian in the Endless Feud Which Never Ends, on the road to another cookie cutter tag match; Austin's heel turn has still gone nowhere in terms of meaningful and engaging character development, and weeks out of the gate he continues to do every generic heel mannerism in the book in an attempt to make up for the fact that there is no back story to his turn and no compelling tale which his character is acting out; the HHH-Austin pairing still hasn't been explained; and the main event to Backlash is a tag match better suited to the last ten minutes of Smackdown. It's as if the fed is going out of their way in order to do as little as possible on each show, giving out plot developments as stingily as if they were precious gems; perhaps, in their thinking, they are. But when the breakup of the RTC, drawn out over weeks and weeks of television, is the most active plotline in the fed it becomes obvious that there exists a problem somewhere in what the fed perceives as entertaining and effective television
Over the past three months we've seen the most momentous changes in decades within the American wrestling business, as two out of the three major national companies crumbled away like the works of an ancient king, with Bischoff and Heyman in the role of Ozymandias. We've looked now on the truth of their works, and as we have watched them crumble perhaps we ought now to despair. Never before has the state of American wrestling been so dire and so tenuous. The roots of wrestling in America have been cut off: with Memphis cancelled in the last few weeks, the last of the true local territories is gone, and the independents these days are more interested in vampiric bloodletting than the cultivation of new talent. Look around at what little indy coverage exists; virtually all of it is concentrated on XPW and CZW, two second-rate ripoffs of everything ECW ever did wrong. They promote their shows around being "hardcore", which more often than not is code for putting on barbed wire gorefests at the expense of actual craftsmanship in the ring. The next Rock or Steve Austin won't be coming from a place like these.
What we're left with is the fact that the whole of American professional wrestling has been amalgamated into the McMahon Empire. Anything that matters in wrestling today is part of Vince's organization, subject to his whims and ideas, and everyone in wrestling, from the most junior indy worker to supposed master manipulator Triple H himself, is competing for Vince McMahon's attention. There are no more real paying jobs in wrestling which do not come as a result of a WWF contract, and there are no more ideas in professional wrestling that are not approved by Vince. The only path to advancement in wrestling now is through the system of WWF developmental territories, from UPW to Memphis to Ohio Valley and on to the big time, and you can be sure that is a system that will turn out a long line of WWF prototype wrestlers, big steroid-abusing guys with "the look" and a modicum of athletic talent. Some will turn out to be Kurt Angle, some will turn out to be Billy Gunn; but all will be cut from the same mould.
Thus, the industry for the first time ever is dependant on one man; if his ideas and product succeed, wrestling succeeds. If they fail, wrestling fails. If the WWF cannot sustain its popularity it brings down with it the whole of the industry. And this time, there is no ECW to provide new ideas, or WCW to provide a kick in the ass should the WWF begin to crumble. Vince finally has what he's always wanted, an effective monopoly on the idea of wrestling. But what is Vince prepared to do with it?
My friends, who are casual fans, haven't watched more than occasionally in months. The buzz of each show being must see television is long since gone. And these days, when I go to message boards other than CRZ's board the last thing I feel is a sense of excitement. I go to the Smarks board, and I see a thread entitled "I'm losing interest fast". But they're just smarks, right? I go to the squared circle forum and I hear nothing but complaints about the all-talk format of RAW. But they're just pissed off WCW fans, right? I go to the DVDVR board, and every Monday they have a "Monday night alternatives" thread because many of them can't take RAW anymore. But they're just Puro elitists, right? And then I go to the Wrestleline boards, and they're dissatisfied too. And now I'm out of excuses with which to dismiss these opinions as nothing more than niche complaints. The declining television ratings, this widespread dissatisfaction with the WWF product, they amount to the fact that, obviously, the boom is over. Many fans simply have declining interest in the increasingly slipshod and inconsequential WWF product. But this time they may well mean more than that.
This time, as Vince clings to his ossified product and doles out plot advances with a miser's grasp, and we head towards the traditional bottom of the business cycle in wrestling, I wonder sometimes if there will be anything to pull him out. There's no other source of ideas in this business, no other business model out there for the WWF to emulate as they did ECW should things go farther south than they are now. WCW isn't there to push them towards making their product ever more state-of-the-art, and there are no viable new ideas out of Japan with which to revitalize the product. And with the news of "wrestling deaths" in the media, the failure of the XFL, the Gallup poll revealing the essential lack of popularity of wrestling and the youth and low income level of its fans in general, and the PTC, the public profile of wrestling is worse now than at any time since the steroid trials of the early '90's. Network television, even shitty cable, won't touch a new wrestling product. Once TBS cancelled WCW, there was no other place for Fusient to take Nitro to despite its ratings, because of the perception of wrestling fans which inhibits the ability to sell ads during the programs. If Fox Sports or USA wanted to start up a promotion today, or had wanted to buy into WCW, they could have if they wanted to, easily. They haven't, and unless something changes they won't. There now exists a barrier of entry for any new promotion which will be extremely difficult to surpass. For the foreseeable future the WWF is the only game in town.
So as the wrestling business decays around him, tonight I watch Vince play his fiddle long and slow, as he is wont to do. As the popularity and public perception of this business slowly descends towards the near-fatal depths of the early to mid '90's around him, I see him pay less and less attention to quality plotlines, and more and more to stringing out the thinnest of developments for as long as possible, returning towards the standards of WWF programming prevalent in the bad times. Now, as the entire industry rests on his shoulders, I see him repeating many of the same mistakes which killed WCW, ECW, and before that the AWA, and to a degree All Japan: lack of wrestler elevation, angles dropped out of nowhere, an excess of meaningless on air product, excessive raunch destructive to the image of wrestling. Is this just a momentary series of lapses? Perhaps. But now, when he carries on his shoulders the whole of the industry, Vince McMahon cannot afford any lapses. Should his vision fail, there will be no other conception of what wrestling is to turn to which is commercially viable, given the accumulated perception of wrestling created by the death of ECW, WCW, and the perception of wrestling fans within the advertising industry. A collapse of the WWF now just might mean the end of wrestling in America. So is a show like the 4/23 Raw and all the others like it recently just "spinning the wheels"? Perhaps. But:
This wheel's on fire
One day, will it?