Last week’s episode of WWE SmackDown marks the 27th week straight that we’ve had an ex-member of the Shield in the main event of SmackDown*.
For your records: the only SmackDown main event without either Reigns, Ambrose, or Rollins, in the entirety of 2015 so far was April 16 where John Cena and Daniel Bryan teamed up to defeat Cesaro and Tyson Kidd, then Tag Team Champions. This was also the last time John Cena was on SmackDown.
Is it telling that when I skimmed match cards looking for this information, I often had to double-check that I hadn’t counted one episode twice, because the matches looked so similar? Surely it’s undeniable that this repetitious booking is harming the show? After combing through SmackDown with a fine-tooth comb week after week, I find bright spots of personality in almost every episode; but to take a broader view, it’s been broadly missable since January. Matches are recycled, plot is minimal, and the quality of wrestling rarely peaks above low to average. Although SmackDown went through a big change as recently as January; with the move to Thursday nights, it already feels desperately stale. SmackDown is stuck in a purgatory, disconnected to everything, already anticipating its next big shake-up.
Back in April, WWE announced that SmackDown would be moving to the USA network in the first quarter of 2016. In the announcement, Vince McMahon described SmackDown and RAW as “two ratings juggernauts.”
As is stands, TV ratings for SmackDown since the Thursday move have never been lower.
A significant proportion of the readers of my SmackDown column say that they don’t even watch the show.
So if the move to USA signals a rebranding of SmackDown, how could it be improved?
Important or Unusual Matches
SmackDown delivers when it dares to do something unique or interesting: and briefly, after the Thursday move, it looked like it would be delivering on that front. Several plotlines revolving around Daniel Bryan took centre stage on Thursdays; including a match that would determine his entry into the Royal Rumble; and a nigh-on hour-long tag-team turmoil match with Roman Reigns in early February. Sadly, when Daniel Bryan disappeared, the energy and inventiveness in the booking seemed to extinguish too.
We have had championship matches, with sporadic frequency:
Of the above matches, 40% of the SmackDown title matches ended with DQ or count-out, compared to 38% of the RAW title matches. A comparable figure, but when the last title match with a clean finish was back in early June (Kevin Owens vs Zack Ryder for the NXT Championship), it’s very easy to assume that the rest of everything is padding: inconsequential trivia.
Which ties nicely into….
Clean Finishes and Real Consequences
The main reason that I suspected made SmackDown unpopular; the omnipresent dirty/interference finishes, didn’t factor so highly from people I asked, although it was mentioned.
@doctordala Make it a real B-show, and not A-lite. I'd rather see midcarders have real feuds, than main eventers have guaranteed DQ finishes
— モーテンVH (@mortenvh) October 15, 2015
It currently rates as my number one source of frustration with SmackDown; that wins and losses are purposefully manufactured to mean less than nothing. That previously unconquerable goliaths are beaten without fanfare, or any nod to the significance of this occurance. Nothing that happens on SmackDown ever changes the world; even the tightly-controlled, manufactured kayfabe world of the WWE Universe. DQ/interference finishes are symptomatic of the larger problem that the creative team don’t want to progress a story or feud from RAW; but they don’t want to abandon it either, because they don’t have anything better to put in its place.
Main events under-deliver when the finish means nothing; usually motivated wrestlers give lackluster performances; like Dean Ambrose, my “canary in the coal mine” for dirty finishes. It’s deflating when we’re presented with a gift of a match-up in the main event, and it’s treated as disposable. We’re left feeling frustrated at the lost potential.
“The Wrestling Show”
A recurring theme regarding SmackDown is fans’ desire for longer, more engaging matches; the return of SmackDown as the wrestling show.
As it stands, most episodes of SmackDown have four or five matches, and they rarely run over 10 minutes each. Most are closer to three or four minutes. If it’s unavoidable that nothing on SmackDown has consequences or meaning, then they could deliver a product for people who just enjoy wrestling; who get a thrill out of witnessing a match with skilled competitors working their craft.
Midcard favorites are having solid bouts and occasional flashes of brilliance on Z-shows Main Event and Superstars, but the same old tired collection of SmackDown wrestlers are rarely reaching 2 star matches, and often RAW mainstays will appear to wrestle worse.
Not just a rehash of RAW
The enduring, overwhelming feeling is that SmackDown tries to be a rehash of RAW; to imitate rather than complement.
@doctordala if I felt it advanced stories probably, rather than act as Raw.5
— Matt: PM for Graps (@Matt_MYano) October 15, 2015
Even more glaringly, when SmackDown isn’t doing RAW rematches, it’s doing RAW pre-matches, where an idea or a match-up is tested on SmackDown and then repeated a few weeks later on RAW without so much as a whisper that it had happened before. Once again, WWE fans are being insulted and patronised for paying more attention to their programming, rather than rewarded. Most recently; SmackDown was main-evented by a Lumberjack match between Ryback and Rollins; then within the month, RAW had a similar Lumberjack match.
Consistency within the Product
With the switch to Thursday nights in January this year, many speculated this would usher in an era of more consistency between SmackDown and Raw. In furtive whispers, wrestling fans deigned to suggest that perhaps a storyline could be set-up on Monday, with a blow-off on Thursday, prompting enthusiasts to tune in to the blue brand for plot development and twists. On the contrary, the most notable instance of consistency between the two shows that I’ve spotted in my six months as Voices of Wrestling SmackDown reviewer was the one week that Seth Rollins’ crushed cadillac from RAW was present on the following Thursday.
A scheduling decision hasn’t yet been made as to whether SmackDown will remain pre-taped after the network change; although Jerry Lawler recently implied that we could see live SmackDown sooner rather than later. As more and more wrestling events are becoming available to stream live over the internet, or available to download merely hours afterward; the modern wrestling fan craves immediacy. Could a move to live shows have more of a significant impact on fan investment in the events of SmackDown than the channel they appear on?
To pinpoint the issue; maybe it’s not necessarily the fact that SmackDown is pre-taped which is the problem alone—after all, fans adored Lucha Underground, taped months before broadcast in some instances. Perhaps it’s the contrast to RAW and Special Events being live, and the psychological effect on viewers to perceive those as being more significant and important. The contrast makes SmackDown seem inferior in comparison.
Any of these factors; or a combination of them; would make massive improvements to the quality of SmackDown, and its fan perception. Either make SmackDown have a proper, formalized role in the WWE programming, a link to RAW and a place for storylines to develop; or make it its own world, with consistent kayfabe hierarchy, roster stalwarts, its own callbacks, and plot development.
What SmackDown and RAW being neatly consolidated on the same channel will actually mean for viewers and ratings remains to be seen. Wholly, though, wrestling fans will watch things that they feel matter, that feel important, or that engage with them on any level. It’s becoming more and more difficult to defend the current state of the blue brand as mattering at all. Will the USA network move rehabilitate SmackDown into something people care about? Or is the current booking doing irreparable damage?
Until the move—at the very least—SmackDown is spinning its wheels, never progressing, never innovating, and never providing a meaningful link with the other WWE programming. A word I use often on kinder weeks in the SmackDown review is “watchable.” A word I don’t ever feel compelled to use, apart from with the driest irony, is “unmissable”.