WWE is sports entertainment and are basically the only name in that game. Granted Impact Wrestling is the same thing, but they copy what WWE does so you can't really use them as a comparison. The closest sports comparison would be UFC shows that generally run five to six hours with about ten fights give or take depending on everybody making weight. And also the idea of matches is pretty similar. Plus many fighters in UFC and other MMA shows have been happy to cut wrestling promos after wins to get the crowd to boo them and be invested in a future loss for them. The difference is the scripted nature of wrestling, but there is no other scripted show that is anything like WWE. Mostly because scripted shows have a story they tell over an episode and they generally run nowhere near as long as WWE. I've got several idea of how WWE presents themselves like those other things and how they can make themselves more proficient in those areas.
WWE as a Sport
We're going to look at how WWE presents itself like a sport and how to be more like a sport first, because that is the method I would like WWE to adapt to the most. The first comparison goes toward all other sports on television and how WWE differs from them and that is that they cut away from the action for a commercial.
Granted a wrestling match doesn't have timeouts or stops in play, but hockey and soccer both run for longer than almost any match WWE puts on without a commercial so it can be done. And I've seen both of those sports on USA as well. Putting a commercial break in the middle of a match can kill the flow, but a lot of other wrestling shows that do it are at least tape so they can just restart without the viewer missing anything. For the most part WWE should have the leverage to negotiate a twenty-five minute match without commercial breaks and throw them in more often before and after, or possibly get what they had with the Smackdown debut where the match would continue in a small window while the ad aired. The fact that interviews are never interrupted while matches always are shows where the importance lies in the company. Related to that are there are many times when they will show a replay or cut to the audience and miss action that is happening in the match right away. Yes, the crowd is important to a wrestling match, but their noise is more important than seeing them.
The big changes WWE can make to fix the commercial problem is sell advertisements on the show or the mat. They do the ads in the show already with Snickers and KFC being pretty obvious examples and every PPV is sponsored by something. The mat is pretty empty as are the turnbuckles, but WWE seems pretty insistent on keeping that on brand for them. If they couldn't negotiate for longer breaks between commercials they should have the leverage to get the split screen during commercials or just have the announcers pick up slack with announcing the advertisers more.
After the commercial issue we have to address the fact that nobody ever knows what's going to happen on an episode of RAW/ Sometimes like this week we have a match made on Saturday on twitter to give us a random match on the middle of the show. What WWE really needs is to have some kind of schedule for what we're going to see on a given show. At least three matches. I'd prefer they have five matches planned out for each episode, but I'll give them some leeway for the element of surprise that they love. But the viewer should always have an announced main event, even if it changes during the show, and a couple of other matches that matter ahead of time. They have five different titles on the show and usually four shows between PPVs they can have a different title defended on the main event every RAW and only have the World Heavyweight's Championship defended on PPVs because it's the big belt that means the most. So the main event for every week is simple just a different title defense. That means the week before you have a number one contenders match and that's built out of people who are winning matches on previous shows.
Now once WWE is building schedules up ahead of time and naming contenders you need a ranking system or at least an acknowledgment of wins and losses going into the fight. Are they on a hot run that can negate a bunch of losses earlier. Maybe somebody can't win the number one contenders match, but they've beaten the champ before he won the belt and wins all the other matches. Just a general sense of what has been going on before hand is important for building up credibility of the challengers going into title matches and even the number one contenders match. The win loss record for their career isn't something WWE needs to keep track of, but just a general sense of having a hot run before getting a title show would be nice. Even stealing an idea from Chikara where they require a tag team to win three matches in a row before they can challenge for the belts. This gives non-title matches repercussions as well so there is something at stake whenever a match is happening.
You can still keep the concept of anything can happen by having interference that leads to impromptu tag matches and stuff, but really the concept of anything can happen at any time has kind of run its course when WWE isn't trying to compete with WCW anymore for viewers. There is no need to keep up the idea of stealing a wrestler from the competition or having a bigger surprise match than them.
The setup of established matches ahead of time allows for another great thing to steal from UFC and that is the hype videos they have ahead of the match. There is an interview with both fighters and the interview footage is intercut and overlayed on highlight videos from past fights. Showing big moves gets people excited for what they might see and the heavy production can allow wrestlers with weaker promo skills to still sound badass. And while I can point out bad production elements in WWE one thing they have been great at it for as long as I can remember is cutting together a hype video with music and interviews. I don't know who does that for them, but they are amazing at their job and deserve so much money and awards.
Now this presentation style would be my preference. You still have promos live in front of the crowd, but it puts the emphasis on the sports aspect and gives a more structured style to build the show around. Granted it may not be for everybody, but there is another way to change how WWE is presented that is to put the emphasis on the entertainment part of the show.
WWE as Entertainment
If WWE wants to focus more on the entertainment they need to work on their story telling and make the stories compelling on the basis of the story. A lot of fan involvement in feuds is more related to liking the wrestlers in the feud than enjoying the story that is being told. The stories have to be structured more like comic books than any other kind of medium, because the performers stick around after the story is done. So ideally every story will make both performers seem more interesting afterward and won't just be one person's credibility taking a dive because they can't get the win. One of the big flaws in WWE's stories is that people will just disappear after a story finishes. Rhino and Heath Slater are a great example of that. Heath's quest to get signed by one of the two shows was a strong plotline that lead to the tag team and some fun shenanigans before they won the belts and secured Heath a job. Once they lost the tag belts they just kind of never had a story for a rematch and they just became directionless and then got moved to RAW and haven't done anything. Now not everybody needs to be involved in a story at all times, but there is a need for them to have some kind of direction that they are moving in. Sometimes in comics or tv characters are just kind of there, but it's generally not going from being the head of a team (tag champs) to drifting around in the background while other people get stuff done.
If you look at the basic story structure of an episode of RAW it's a fucking mess. There is usually no episode long story, which makes sense as there are three hours and not all of it should be devoted to one story all the time. In general an episode of RAW we start with a long promo that sets up the main event of the evening, or if leading up to something like Money in the Bank you get a bunch of matches set up for the show one of which happens after the commercial break. Starting a show about wrestling with somebody talking for twenty minutes isn't exactly exciting, and it's also just having people tell the fans what they are going to do. There is no drama in most of these promos, they follow a standard format every time and generally lead to the same conclusions. A lot of the suggestions I'm going to make for fixing the entertainment part of WWE are going to kind of suck for a live audience, so I'll try and work other stuff in that keeps the live crowd interested.
One of the suggestions people often throw out on how to fix RAW is to cut it to two hours, but really there is plenty of talent and stories to tell to fill all three hours. The thing is since RAW is presented as a single episode for the whole time they are running one major story throughout the whole thing. RAW has five titles on it, kind of four since Brock Lesnar doesn't show up with the World Championship, and each of those titles can be given a section of RAW as their own show. Or at least have a story that is important for that week that leads to what happens to next week. With five or six episodes between PPVs, in general, they can main event each show with a different title and change the focus between the weeks and also change the formula of the show which gets tired after being the same for years so far. With 180 minutes you can give the division you have main eventing the show a full hour of focus and split the remaining time evenly between the other four divisions with a half hour each. Obviously there is leeway as the time division isn't super important, but it gives a good baseline for how to build each divisions story. A focus on monthly stories from PPV to PPV for a title is important, and having more long term plans so they keep undercard workers present and can have them getting built up so that they are ready if they are going to become a championship contender in future months.
Each week every division gets time for a lengthy match or two shorter matches and time for promos or vignettes for the characters. The important thing is to build up why people are fighting. A lot of the time it's going to be because they want to win the championship, but personal feelings can carry fights as well when somebody feels like somebody else cost them their shot at the title, or maybe they felt disrespected by them. Long term planning is a necessity to focus on the entertainment aspect of WWE and having a clear plan of where storylines are leading and how to build a next story off there. It also allows them to write characters off for a while to give them breaks from wrestling for a bit and recover. Time away from the ring could also be used for WWE Network shows focusing on the life of wrestlers away from the ring. It also could allow for wrestlers to be written off to go work on WWE movies instead of them just disappearing for a couple of weeks without any notice.
Lucha Underground is the ideal in terms of telling a story outside of the wrestling as the wrestling and vignettes are filmed separately and edited together in post so the live crowd doesn't have to sit through any pre-taped stuff. Obviously WWE can't change their style that much, but they do air pre-tapes for the live audience so what they can take is the more cinematic direction and style that those vignettes use. The most obvious and present example of the lack of directorial style in WWE is the backstage shot of people watching a match on tv. Every time this shot is set up its a static shot with everybody lined up along the tv in a way that no human has ever actually watched tv. The way to make this shot look better is to have the camera move. The ideal way to do this would be to come in from behind and shoot the wrestlers from behind and see them watching the tv then swing around so the camera is behind the tv looking at the wrestler taking notes or talking to whoever they are watching with. The other big thing WWE does wrong is that they always put the backstage thing in the main screen while the match is in the picture in picture screen which is the wrong order of doing things. The viewer doesn't need to be focused on the people watching as long as they are seen. The match is still the key thing for fans to be watching.
I haven't been watching WWE consistently for a while, but the other day I was watching Smackdown and they had a backstage interview with Charlotte and the camera was just kind of wandering around the whole time. WWE is a gigantic company that should be able to afford a steady cam instead of trusting a camera man to hold still. And sometimes a still two shot is fine for a conversation that WWE likes to use a vignette, but the problem then becomes the set dressing. They are in different arenas every show, but every interview is in the same spot and you would never know it was a different place from week to week. It doesn't have to be a big change, but just utilizing the arena they are in to give interviews a different feel. Another option is putting more of these interviews in the locker rooms or give them more of a press conference feel from before the show instead of having them stand awkwardly in their wrestling gear while answering questions. I watched a Fashion Files vignette yesterday where its done in black and white and the performances are good especially given the fact that the New Day are there with Fandango and Breeze. Breeze and Fandango would talk to each other telepathically without the New Day hearing them and not getting it and that was a great segment with great writing, but the way it was shot was bad. It was one camera and it has no goddamn steady cam. The frame is moving all over the place. I know I talked about this before, but that's the kind of scene that can be improved by having multiple camera angles. The wide angle with everybody is fine if the camera is steady, but then you can intercut it with over the shoulder shots. Even when WWE comes up with a good angle they just don't know how to film it well.
There is obviously a middle ground between the urban fantasy world that Lucha Underground produces and the sterile simple sports stories that WWE tells. One of the things that sets them apart is that WWE seems to be okay with using a fine take for a story instead of trying to get everything done really well or even great. They are using taped segments, but not putting in the time to get something great out of the people in the scene. But that's a thing that comes down to the producers who aren't directors and don't understand how to get the best out of an actor. I talked about directors being important for knowing how to move the camera in scenes, but getting a great performance is another skill they're important for and WWE would be wise to try and gets somebody with television experience for that role and not just limit the television experience to the writers. When the director uses multiple angles it makes it so that the wrestlers don't have to nail the entire scene in one take and can cut between the best parts of each take, which is a big positive considering most WWE wrestlers aren't really actors and can do well, but aren't going to nail everything in one go.
The more likely approach WWE would take is a combination of these aspects and that's fine. Of the issues that WWE could mostly easily fix it is their production. Compared to other wrestling companies WWE spends a lot of money on production. They have awesome stages, great cameras, high quality sound, pyrotechnics, and great highlight videos, but the production flows are that they don't utilize those things that well. Lucha Underground will be my go to for this, but that's a company that doesn't have as much money in production, but they use it to maximum effect. The arena has a character, which is easier for them as everything is shot in the same place, but it's not just a giant stadium it's a place the fans like to see. WWE presents every stadium as the same except for the exterior establishing shots. They can make each stadium feel different and look different because they are. But the bigger thing is that they have gotten way better cameras, and they don't shoot RAW any differently than they did when the cameras had motion blurring and it was hard to follow what was happening. WWE rebranded themselves from wrestling to entertainment in the early 90s, but have never changed how they shot the product which is one of their biggest problems. The in ring product and the writing have evolved, the former more than the latter, but the direction is the same as it's always been and doesn't serve the product well. The fans know it's entertainment, WWE can shoot their show that way.
Personally I favor WWE going toward a more MMA approach with how they present the program, because they won't go far enough toward the Lucha Underground craziness if they go toward entertainment so I'm pretty sure my arguments in that section are stronger and have more conviction. The entertainment section is important and the lack of different directors for WWE is a big problem. All long running shows change their show runners over time, but WWE has only had three with Vince McMahon, Kevin Dunn, and Stephanie McMahon, and Vince has never really stepped down from that position even while giving Steph more influence. No matter what the writers are giving the talent its all being overseen by an out of touch 71 year old man. There's lots of writing influences WWE takes from Hollywood and the idea of rotating show runners would probably be the most beneficial for the show.