CALDWELL'S TAKE CALDWELL: WWE offers "inside look" at Daniel Bryan/WM30 Creative process, but what were the real messages?
Jan 23, 2015 - 6:59:46 AM
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By James Caldwell, PWTorch assistant editor
WWE wants people to think two things about the promotional arm of the company: they know what they're doing and they're not pro wrestling. Both items have been met with skepticism and resistance from fans and the outside world for decades.
Lately, it's been questions about Creative, especially in December when the product struggled mightily. Over a longer period of time, it's been questions about why WWE shies away from any affiliation with "pro wrestling." Why not be proud of the genre, instead of ashamed?
We know about Vince McMahon's desire to not be what his father promoted. We also know about WWE wanting to be taken seriously in the entertainment marketplace. The problem is the outside world still sees WWE as wrestling, and WWE's determined approach to be anything but has hurt their standing.
The latest rounds of TV negotiations certainly proved that, as WWE tried the sales pitch of "we're the best of both worlds!" WWE wanted TV partners and advertisers to see WWE's product as sports-like in that it's "DVR-proof" like an NFL game, yet full of showmanship and "actors," like a prime-time sitcom. The result was WWE returned to NBC Universal with a slight bump in TV Rights Revenue while watching a developing brand like MLS get a nice payday for the fifth or sixth-most-popular U.S. professional league.
Both elements tie into a new article published on Bleacher Report by author Jonathan Snowden, who was given inside access to the TV Creative process centered on Daniel Bryan's journey to the WrestleMania 30 main event last year.
The "inside access" came across like WWE's way of trying to convince people that they knew what they were doing all along with Daniel Bryan. When, in fact, Bryan got over on his own handling everything from Dr. Shelby to an ill-conceived Wyatt Family affiliation. Then, was only supposed to get over "so far" once WWE got on-board in the second-half of 2014, but not to the point of bumping Batista and Randy Orton out of their one-on-one WWE World Title match at WrestleMania.
"When our fans got behind Daniel Bryan in the beginning, that absolutely was a key indicator to us that Daniel Bryan was an A-Plus player, not just in our minds, but in our fans's minds," Stephanie McMahon said.
"He was absolutely a talented in-ring performer. That anyone could see. The fact that our fans were connecting with him on an even more emotional level - and then when we started telling the story the way they got behind him, we just knew that he was the right guy."
One of the key phrases from Stephanie is that WWE viewed Bryan as a "talented in-ring performer." Being a solid wrestler was not enough for Bryan, even though his in-ring work is some of the refreshing, thrilling, action-packed, and dramatic of any WWE talent over the past decade. If WWE were centered on what happens on the field/on the court/in the rink/on the pitch/in the ring as ultimate storytelling, that would be enough.
"The hardcore fans cringe when we say this," Triple H said. "But the reality of it is, the story is the magic ... and the truth is, though all of our storylines have to end up back in the ring and the wrestling part has to deliver to the point fans say, 'That was awesome, what a payoff,' we're not boxing... It's about characters and their relationship. That's a storyline. We are more like the Rocky movie than we are like a sport. The storylines are what's important."
The assumption within Hunter's comment is that "hardcore fans" just want to see a bunch of matches. The reality is that all fans want to see wrestlers they care about and are emotionally invested in fighting over something that matters. And, what happens inside the ring being protected to the point where there are ramifications, consequences, and next chapters in the story. Ironically, NXT presented that with the Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville all-encompassing match story on the 2014 NXT Takeover finale. But, that wouldn't work in the major leagues, right?
Wrong. WWE's mission to differentiate itself from "old-time pro wrestling" is counter-productive. There are certainly elements of outside-wrestling storytelling that enhance the pro wrestling product, such as strong character development that bonds wrestlers to the audience, but WWE comes across too focused on being something besides what they are.
"(Writers) come from everywhere," Hunter said. "From soap operas to late-night television to movies to theater to former wrestlers. Storytelling is storytelling. Some of them are fans and have a wrestling background. Others don't. They might be really good at the relationship part and somebody else has to help them bring it back to the ring."
The stories of Zayn vs. Neville, Tanahashi vs. Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, and Samoa Joe vs. Kurt Angle at TNA's Lockdown 2008 PPV were compelling, thrilling, physical, and satisfying. They were all centered on what happened before, during, and after a carefully built-up wrestling match.
Daniel Bryan would like to add his name to that list with a match against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, describing the potential match-up in recent interviews as something not seen by many North American wrestling fans. How Bryan even got to this point of being in consideration for back-to-back WrestleMania main events is a testament to how hard he's worked despite not "fitting the mold." Not just in terms of size or look, but how WWE thinks.
"(Hunter's) got years of experience working with these top-level, high-level storylines," Bryan said. "My brain doesn't work like that. I was on the independent scene so long, I think in terms of matches. 'Oh, this would be a great concept for a match or this would be a great story within the context of a match.' And sometimes we might not necessarily agree, and we'd go and talk to Vince (McMahon)," Bryan said.
McMahon's role in Daniel Bryan's Journey is not focused on in the Bleacher Report article. It's more about how the on-screen villains, Hunter and Stephanie, were part of the behind-the-scenes Creative team driving the vehicle. But, they certainly carry forward McMahon's mission of attempting a separation between sports and entertainment, which is built on the fallacy that "entertainment" is separate from "pro wrestling." When in fact, the entertainment is seeing how sports or sports-like competition and stories play out in football, basketball, baseball, or pro wrestling.
“There is no athlete that will tell you it’s a sport - they will all tell you they are entertainers,” McMahon told the Fort Worth Star Telegram at the WrestleMania 32 press conference in Dallas. “We are all entertainers. That’s what we are."
McMahon followed with an interesting comment on being sure of what product he is selling to the audience.
"Sports is entertainment, but we are different because we know what we are. We get to write our own stories and our own outcomes. In sports, you cover what happens. It’s far more difficult to be able to write what you hope is going to happen and get the result," McMahon said.
There appears to be some acknowledgement of the link between sport and entertainment, but from the reverse approach of football, basketball, and baseball players being "entertainers," not just athletes. McMahon, in attempt to link what he promotes to big-time sporting events and entertainment spectacles, misses the opportunity to put his premiere wrestlers in the same category as big-time athletes. If only what happens in the ring is treated more seriously and is protected, rather than often-times seeming like an inconvenience trying to get "soap opera" elements "back into the ring."
But, WWE would have you believe they know what they're doing promoting their brand of entertainment; something that appeals to the masses and brings them back next week on Raw, next month on PPV, or next year when the circus comes back to town.
Sadly, WWE has all of the elements to promote a very strong pro wrestling-centered product, while advancing the genre forward. Platform, talented roster, big arenas (as opposed to the cliched smoke-filled boxing arenas), TV clearances, and history. But, they're working too hard to be something else. Ask Daniel Bryan, who wasn't supposed to get that over, but ended up being the best option when it came down to needing the top pro wrestler on the roster to tell a strong story.
"It was all very crafted," Stephanie claimed. "And it was an incredible story that took us on quite a ride. We're really proud of Daniel, and we're proud of the story we were able to tell."
There are more stories out there to tell with the likes of Cesaro, Bad News Barrett, Randy Orton, etc. They don't have to be centered on out-of-the-ring power struggles. What happens inside the ring - desire for respect, simulated competition, the championship chase, being alone at the top of the mountain, nationalism with an Olympics-like feel built on respect, comebacks, cut-downs, and inflated, ahem, ring boots - are all compelling stories or themes that apply to all wrestlers.
If wrestlers are fighting over something that matters, people will watch and be drawn in and come back for more. It's about making what happens inside the ring matter. And being okay with being "pro wrestling."
[ LINKS: Full Article on Bleacher Report HERE. McMahon's Interview HERE ]
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