FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons to be learned from WWE TV Since Summerslam – Everything is Too Meta, Bad TV is Bad Heat, more

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

John Cena (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


Readers of this column might remember a couple of months back I did a piece after Smackdown’s Battleground event diving into reasons why I was now being a lot more selective in what WWE content I watch, hence no more columns based exclusively on WWE PPVs since then. I did however end up watching the vast majority of No Mercy with the exception of Bray Wyatt vs. Finn Balor because life is just too short to be watching Bray Wyatt. So kudos to WWE on producing a build to a show that got me interested. Granted, the two matches I was most excited to see fell really flat relative to what I wanted each of them to be, but you can’t ask for everything overnight I suppose.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get straight into Five Lessons To Be Learned From WWE TV Since Summerslam. I may not be watching everything anymore but I am still watching anything of interest/significance and following everything still. And with WWE producing so much content there’s always plenty of lessons to be learned from what they’re doing.

(1) Everything Is Too Meta

The build to the Cena vs Reigns match wasn’t perfect but it has been really strong. It’s impossible to deny that it created a buzz and got everyone talking about their promos each week. However, too many of these meta exchanges on Raw leading into No Mercy weren’t creating interest in the match. There were too many lines by writers trying to appeal to the most in the know fans by showing them that they know that we know. The reality however is that the audience that they’re trying to appease the most with all these meta lines are the ones who want it the least.

We know that you know that we know. We don’t need you to beat us over the head with it. We aren’t all jumping around the room “marking out” because The Miz references Enzo getting kicked off the bus. What we want isn’t insider remarks but logical writing that enhances our interest in what you’re trying to promote.

Sure, we can appreciate the Daniel Bryan and The Miz exchanges on Talking Smack on a separate level but the important aspect of what made them a success is that they work on an universal level too. They were effective in making you like the babyface and dislike the heel and want to see the heel get beat up (granted by the babyface who can’t wrestle but you take the positives where you can). We enjoyed them segments on the level that anyone watching could enjoy them but ALSO on another more meta level. The also is the key part of it working. If it’s only on a meta level then all you’re achieving is neglecting a huge part of your audience for the sake of at best a smirk from a niche part of your audience that isn’t anywhere near as important as everyone seems to think these days.

A cute line here and there that only the most knowledgeable of fans would get and smirk at is great. Think Punk calling Nash Oz. When it starts becoming the sole focus of an entire segment it doesn’t increase our appreciation, we’re just watching pointing out how ineffective and nonsensical the storytelling is.

Meta comments in it of themselves aren’t a negative. Some of the more “shoot style” comments during the Reigns/Cena exchanges were really good. The Bootleg Cena line, “it’s called a promo, you’re gonna need to learn how to do one” and especially Roman’s go home promo were great examples of edgy comments that work on an extra level for the more knowledgeable fans.

Some of the meta lines, however, have been terrible. Roman “shooting” on Cena for holding talent down or anytime match quality comes up or the entire interaction between Miz and Enzo. There’s two questions that writers should ask themselves when trying to produce this more meta shoot style scripting; (1) Will this make sense to the casual viewer who only takes in what we give them? And (2) Does this make sense to the narrative that we’re telling.

The casual viewer who isn’t reading sites like this is the type of viewer that WWE should be targeting the most. That’s the demographic that WWE have lost in the biggest numbers and are the ones that WWE need to start turning into money paying consumers again if they aspire for the Network to continue to attract new subscribers. One sure fire way to lose them is by confusing them. They’re not fans for life who are in love with the art of wrestling. They’ll tune out far easier than we will.

WWE should be writing for their audience under the assumption that they know the bare minimum to understand the concept of a wrestling show. Not to an insulting degree obviously but write as if everyone watching is a new viewer. Instead what WWE are doing far too often now is writing the show for the target audience of the most informed viewer. When you do that you’re neglecting the ability for the casual viewer to be able to follow what’s going on.

Soaps are really popular TV here in England. The shows have been running for decades and when they start referring to characters and storylines that happened before I started watching, I lose interest in the show. If you’re at school and you’re in a lesson that is just going way over your head then you lose interest and zone out. That’s what will happen to the majority of your audience when you start bringing up stuff like Enzo getting kicked off the bus. It didn’t work for WCW when they had Eddie Guerrero cut promos about coffee and it won’t work now.

The second point that writers need to consider is if the line makes sense to the narrative that you’re telling. And too often it doesn’t. What does John Cena and his golden shovel burying talent have to do with anything? Isn’t the narrative of the show that you have to win your matches and the guys who win the most matches are the ones that headline the most cards? So what does John Cena holding down younger talent have to do with anything? If he keeps winning his matches then he keeps proving he’s the best and thus deserving of being a headliner.

What does match quality have to do with anything? Isn’t the narrative of the show that wrestlers have matches against each other to determine who the better wrestler is? What is the reason within the narrative for having an entertaining match? It’s not like there’s a Match of the Night bonus. The overarching narrative of any wrestling show is that wrestling is about winning matches and the wrestlers who are the best and win the most matches hold the titles. If you take that away then what you have is something that isn’t all that interesting and definitely isn’t simple to follow.

Trying to introduce more reality into the narratives of Raw and Smackdown isn’t a bad idea in itself, it’s the implementation of it that hasn’t been a home run. Something like Natalya bringing up Ric to Charlotte and using that to build their match up is good. It’s a reality that the vast majority of the audience is well aware of and it works in making you want to see Charlotte beat Natalya. It’s something that everyone can understand and fits into the narrative of building to a match and making you want to see the babyface beat the heel. That’s the direction that they should be heading in, not the direction that they’ve gone in too often now where you frustrate and confuse viewers by referring to non-kayfabe events that they don’t know about or understand that don’t fit within the existing narrative of the show.

(2) The Inconsistency Of Finishers

One of the biggest flaws in both marquee matches at No Mercy was the use of finishers. It’s not like John Cena’s AA was in any way a protected finisher but Roman Reigns took a massive hammer to the credibility of it. Contrastingly, the complete opposite was the flaw in the main event which saw viewers outraged that Braun Strowman went down for the count after only one F5.

One F5 finishing a match isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. Finishers should be protected and kicked out of once every blue moon. The drama and the suspense should be in the build to hitting the finisher created by counters and reversals, not by how many times does he need to hit his finisher before it ends the match. The entire concept of a finishing move is that when you hit it the match is finished.

Then you protect it over a sustained period of time building equity up in the move that can then be transferred when you finally let someone kick out of the move. That sort of a rub is invaluable as it can allow you to put over someone really big without having to them beat another star that you also want to protect. Brock beats everybody over a two year period with the F5 until one day someone finally kicks out and he needs a second F5 to win the match. Huge rub for that guy who gets to kick out of the move without wasting the rub from someone beating an undefeated monster such as Brock. But if everyone always kicks out of the move then you’re killing that equity for the sake of cheap pops.

In an isolated context, I admire what is trying to happen with Brock and The F5. Like I just said, you want to protect finishers and build equity up in them by having them actually finish the match until one day you give a big rub to one guy when they do kick out. Brock pinning two strong acts like Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman with just one F5 does a great job of protecting the move and building equity back up. Here’s the problem though, you don’t get to make the rules up as you go along and have one rule for one guy and a completely opposite one for everyone else.

Once WWE opened up the Pandora’s Box of mass kickouts of finishers they made it virtually impossible to go back to the way things were beforehand. With anyone and everyone kicking out of finishers even in irrelevant TV matches, you tell everyone watching that that’s what happens. That’s the rule. You create an expectation that if the match you’re watching involves two wrestlers of any note then they’re kicking out of finishers.

The other side of that is when you don’t have someone kick out of a finisher, especially in a big match, it does a significant amount of damage to the perception of that wrestler. Roman Reigns can kick out of four AA’s but Braun Strowman can’t even kick out of one F5, well I guess Roman is a lot tougher than Braun. Or maybe more appropriately, Roman gets to kick out of four AA’s but they won’t let Braun even kick out of one F5, I guess that says a lot about how WWE view Braun.

And it’s not like Brock has always been the exception to the rule either. The F5 hasn’t been a greatly protected finisher since he returned in 2012. He’s been playing under the same rules as everyone else. When it comes to a big WWE match you each kick out of each other’s finishers, that’s just the formula for a modern day WWE main event. So it’s not like you can point to Braun not getting to kick out of an F5 as something that barely anyone gets to do against Brock. We’ve all sat through years of not just everyone kicking out of everyone’s finisher but also all of Brock’s top opponents kicking out of the F5. So when someone doesn’t get to kick out of the F5, it leads to a very deflating ending because there’s an expectation that has been created by WWE that if it’s a big match the first finisher is never the end.

If WWE decided that they were going to start protecting finishers again then it needs to be a show wide mentality. And sure it’ll be rough at first as you get met with similar reactions to the finish of Brock vs Braun but the benefits of it are worth it as you begin to establish legitimate equity that lead to significant rubs. The key to making that possible is consistency. Without it, the concept is dead on arrival. You don’t just get to say that you’re now going to protect the F5 and not let anyone kick out of it while continuing to have everyone else on the roster kick out of each other’s finishers.

No Mercy was overwhelming evidence of this. You can’t expect viewers to watch Roman Reigns kicking out of four AA’s and then not be underwhelmed when one F5 finishes off Braun Strowman. You can’t have it both ways and expect both of them to work. If you’re going to decide to start protecting one person’s finisher again then you have to do that throughout the entire card. If not then all you end up doing is producing flat finishes that completely undermine your own work.

(3) The Importance Of Wins & Losses

The double main event of John Cena vs Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar vs Braun Strowman may not have delivered on the night for everyone but it’s without argument that both matches were massive attractions going into the show. For once, WWE’s marketing terminology was actually in line with how viewers felt, this really was a show with two Wrestlemania worthy main events. The main reason for that? All four acts have been protected when it comes to wins and losses.

That’s how you make wrestlers important. Even acts like Roman Reigns and John Cena who a large portion of the audience very much dislike are still treated as stars whose matches even the fans who hate them as individual acts get excited for. You make wrestlers important by protecting them when it comes to wins and losses and you make matches important by featuring wrestlers that are important.

The best matches in terms of builds are the ones where you have big personalities and you struggle to imagine either of them losing to the other. That’s what the two main events at No Mercy had. Sure there will be people after the fact claiming that well of course Roman and Brock were both always going to win. And yes they were both the more likely outcomes but there was legitimate cause for doubt where you could buy into a whole number of outcomes occurring. That’s what happens when you match up wrestlers that you protect. You create matches with a multitude of scenarios that not only do fans buy into happening but also care about because they believe that whatever does happen will matter.

Take a match like Bobby Roode vs. Dolph Ziggler coming up this weekend. They’re both good wrestlers and there’s a good chance that it’s a good wrestling match but nobody is really looking forward to it. That’s because by not protecting him when it comes to wins and losses, nobody cares about the Dolph Ziggler character anymore and nobody buys into him winning so they see the match as a foregone conclusion. Or maybe more accurately with how WWE books these days, they don’t buy into a Dolph Ziggler win meaning anything and if the outcome of the match is meaningless then who cares?

Look at the reactions to Bayley since her return. Bayley being added to the title match at No Mercy was barely even a discussion point. It was literally only this year when she was still a hot act that beat Charlotte for the title on Raw. Fast forward nine months and nobody even bats an eyelid not only at Bayley being a late addition to a title match but to Bayley then being the one to take the fall. She’s been beaten down so much now that when she took the fall in a match involving Emma there was no outrage, just apathy.

That’s the other side of the importance of wins and losses. You don’t get to just continually beat babyfaces and then expect crowds to care about them in the same way that they do about acts that you very rarely beat. We don’t want to support losers and we don’t get invested in something that we have no faith in.

Over on Smackdown you’re seeing another layer of why wins and losses matter with Jinder Mahal. Everyone continues to not take anything that he does seriously because wins and losses matter. His history of losing to literally anyone and everyone at every level on the roster doesn’t get forgotten about overnight. You don’t get to beat someone over and over again and then out of nowhere give them a couple of wins and expect everyone to react to them like they’re someone important. You do that by protecting them when it comes to wins and losses over a sustained period of time.

Compare the hype for a Brock Lesnar title match with the hype for a Jinder Mahal title match. Even looking past the obvious talent disparity, people aren’t even invested in the outcome of Jinder’s title defences because nobody buys him as being something important and because of that nobody buys into it meaning anything when someone does beat him for the title.

Wins and losses matter. I’m sure that nobody reading this needed that reaffirming for themselves really, but if you ever wanted further proof, just compare the excitement for matches like Reigns vs Cena and Lesnar vs Strowman at No Mercy to matches like Roode vs Ziggler and Mahal vs Nakamura at Hell In A Cell. You get people excited for matches by making them feel important. You do that by featuring wrestlers that are perceived as being important in them and that perception is created based on wins and losses.

(4) Bad TV Is Bad Heat

Regular readers of my column will be aware that I don’t watch every segment that WWE produces and that recently I’ve begun to take a more cynical approach when it comes to the PPVs as well in terms of what I choose to watch and what I choose to ignore. Now it’s a case of I’m only watching something if I have a genuine interest going into it or if something gets good reviews and convinces me into watching it. Smackdown post Summerslam however has introduced a new variable into the equation; TV so bad that you have to see it.

Yes those Jinder Mahal and Dolph Ziggler segments over the past few weeks sounded so awful that I just had to see them for myself. And yes, they really were awful. I’m not at all surprised that those Ziggler segments drummed up a lot of views on YouTube though. They are at least something different and something that definitely got people talking. Generating a buzz in it of itself isn’t necessarily a good thing though.

My job is in marketing and a big challenge in that field is turning awareness into revenue. Generating traffic isn’t all that hard. If I created an ad and put it onto YouTube and it got over a million views then I’d be pretty damn happy with myself. I’d take it to my boss with all these numbers in this pretty little spreadsheet with lots of colors and charts showing him how it’s performed so well generating all this awareness of whatever the advert is promoting. You know the first thing that any boss in that scenario will ask me?

How much money did it make me?

Because that’s what matters at the end of the day. YouTube views are great but they don’t mean anything if they don’t convert into something that generates revenue. And that’s where we link it back to these awful segments that have been airing lately on Smackdown. How can they be converted into anything that will generate revenue for WWE?

Does anyone know anyone more excited to see a Dolph Ziggler match now than they were before these segments aired? Sure, your wrestling buddy may text you saying have you been watching these Dolph Ziggler videos, but when it comes to Hell In A Cell, that same wrestling buddy won’t be texting you again on Sunday afternoon asking are you excited for Dolph Ziggler vs. Bobby Roode (unless they’re a big Bobby Roode fan excited to see him on the main roster but, that’s excitement for Roode not Ziggler).

Everything that airs on Raw and Smackdown is filmed with the intention of generating viewer interest in an upcoming match. That’s the primary objective of the show and the measure of success for any segment. Did it make you more excited to see what’s coming next? Sure, some viewers may have been excited to see what entrance Dolph Ziggler imitated the following week. That would be just fine if Dolph Ziggler was now the guy who imitates famous entrances and was no longer a wrestler. But he is still a wrestler and the goal is still to get people to care about his wrestling matches. Nobody did before and nobody does now.

The other half of the terrific one-two punch has been Jinder Mahal’s intentionally bad comedy segments. These have been just about as bad as it gets. The only thing worse than bad comedy is offensively bad comedy. I’m sure WWE’s rationalization for these segments will be that they’re building heat on Mahal and hey look, everyone is hating him after them segments. Except that’s not the type of heat that draws money.

That’s go-away heat. That’s “I’ve had enough of this I’m tuning out heat.” And part of it is just the fact that Jinder and The Singh Brothers just aren’t talented enough to pull the promos off. I’m sure if you gave that type of segment to Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho this time last year it would still have been bad, but it might have been bad in a “so cute it’s almost funny how funny those not funny guys think they are” way. They can’t pull that off though and instead it’s just bad TV that annoys people and makes them embarrassed to be watching.

One rationalization for it that I could somewhat understand is that they were designed to get Nakamura over. You make the heel so annoying that you want to see someone shut them up and then, boom, Nakamura comes out and gives you exactly what you want which makes you like him more. Except they did two weeks of this and never once had Nakamura, or anyone for that matter come out and shut him up.

Intentionally bad TV isn’t some new age meta way of getting heels over. It doesn’t get anyone over. It doesn’t make you more excited for any upcoming matches or entice you to spend money on anything. It’s just bad TV and bad TV causes people to tune out.

(5) 205 Live Is Better Now

I’m not going to sit here and write a piece claiming that this current angle with Enzo is great or that it has much longevity. One thing that I will say about it however, it’s definitely a better reason to watch 205 Live than what the show had going for it beforehand.

The existing formula wasn’t working. An extra ***-***1/2 match featuring wrestlers that we’re not invested about in matches that barely have any consequences isn’t something that viewers need more of. WWE viewers get enough of them on Raw and Smackdown and there’s no lack of choice when it comes to easy to access good wrestling either through the WWE Network or the many other streaming services now available to wrestling fans. It’s not like the good wrestling supplied by 205 Live is all that unique either. Maybe if the in ring style had a unique selling point that differentiated it from a ***-***1/2 match that you’d find on a ROH or a New Japan show then it would be more appealing.

Something new to fail with is always better than failing with something that’s already failed. Will making a heel Enzo Amore the centrepiece of the Cruiserweight division turn 205 Live round from a sinking ship to a thriving show? Unlikely. Has it helped to reignite some lapsed interest in the division though? Absolutely. And that’s the main problem that both the show and the division has had, there’s just not a lot of interest. Nobody talks about what happens on 205 Live. Even websites and podcasts that cover pro wrestling in staggering detail barely devote any coverage to the show. Until Enzo showed up that is.

Now the show is getting talked about more. And it’s not in the way that the terrible Dolph Ziggler segments got talked about. These segments with Enzo aren’t great but they’re definitely good and most importantly of all, they’re getting Enzo over as a heel. So now 205 Live at least has one more act who is genuinely over with the live crowds. Plus the good thing about the current direction with Enzo is by getting someone genuinely over as a heel, it makes it so much for easier for you to then also get a babyface over by pairing them up with a heel that people want to see get beat.

Obviously, the downside with pushing Enzo in the Cruiserweight division is that the standard of wrestling isn’t going to be good. Well, first of all it’s not like the good wrestling on 205 Live is really drawing viewers in and secondly, it’s not like the Cruiserweight matches on PPV beforehand have actually been all that good. Solid is the word that springs to mind, along with forgettable. Dead crowds is another term that would spring to mind when thinking about the Cruiserweight matches on PPV. Nothing is worse than wrestling in front of a dead crowd. It’s bad for everyone there live having to sit on their hands and it makes the product look so unappealing to anyone watching on TV. So no, Enzo probably won’t be putting on great matches but if he starts getting genuinely over as a heel like he’s shown signs of doing so far, at least his matches show promise of getting over more than the majority of the Cruiserweight matches have done so far.

Enzo might not be the hero that 205 Live wants but he’s the hero that they need. The show needs eyeballs and the division needs viewers getting invested in what it’s producing. It’s been a year now since 205 Live debuted and it hasn’t been able to do that at any point until recently with Enzo and his heel turn. He’s making 205 Live newsworthy, relevant and giving it an actual unique selling point. The kind of match that you’ll get from TJP vs Rich Swann are ten a penny but the type of content that you’ll get from these Enzo promos are not only good viewing but they’re also unique. That combination gets eyeballs on the Cruiserweight product and the only way that the more talented wrestlers such as Neville, Rich Swann, Cedric Alexander and so on are going to get over is with more eyeballs watching them in more than just a meaningless three minute match on Raw.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to be learned from WWE’s Mae Young Classic including binge watch format, backstories lacking, early match formats flawed

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