The draft is over. The smoke from a surprisingly compelling WWE Battleground 2016 event has cleared. WWE’s second attempt at a brand extension is officially underway. After months of endless speculation, bookended by varying doses of hopeful optimism and jaded cynicism, both RAW and SmackDown hit the proverbial reset button under the auspices of the New Era; bringing to life a concept WWE has been actively promoting since April of this year.
Of course, there is still much to learn; we’re a long way from taking an informed stance on the success or failure of this exercise. But after one week there is already much to digest. We were introduced to several new concepts while some familiar themes seemed to have survived – for better or worse. Some specific questions were answered and some remain a mystery. The creative direction of SummerSlam is starting to take shape, while the trajectory of specific characters on both brands appears as though they could shift in one of many different directions.
Monday Night RAW has received a makeover; new logo, new opening package and new theme song (as new as any RAW theme song can be apparently). Subtle changes to the show’s color pallet and set design expertly complimented the new look and feel of the program’s introductory visuals. RAW’s official soundtrack is also new; Michael Cole is now flanked by Byron Saxton and Corey Graves. The team hit the ground running with a chemistry obviously cultivated behind the scenes prior to their first broadcast together.
The complimentary trio was relocated from the familiar ringside area and placed deeper into the crowd, creating more of a modern sports presentation. The recessed broadcast station shot from a camera on a floating gig is technically not new, rather a return to the standard of WWE broadcasts up until 1993. But with over two decades of time between the two styles, it’s safe to assume a large portion of the viewing audience is experiencing it for the first time. In-ring interviews taking place both before and after matches were also introduced, further adding to the real sports environment. The audio/visual changes to RAW are as welcomed as they are long overdue. The look and feel of the show has been revitalized by the fresh production elements. RAW’s production value, while always strong, also benefits from easy but impactful changes like post-match promos inside the ring.
Speaking of things we haven’t seen since the 90s, squash matches are back on RAW. The use of enhancement talent has a way of, well enhancing characters that beat them. This is a good thing, especially within the context of RAW’s three-hour format. Both Braun Strowman and the debuting Nia Jax benefited from the tried but true device.
Like RAW, SmackDown Live also received a focused makeover; new logo, new opening package, new theme song and new set design. SmackDown’s three-man booth was also revised; JBL and David Otunga joined relative newcomer Mauro Ranallo. SmackDown is unquestionably the brand most associated with the peak of JBL’s career and so it makes sense that he would return. Otunga has already established himself as a strong on-screen presence (RAW Pre-Show on WWE Network) and is a solid addition. Unlike their RAW counterparts, however, the chemistry between the three was noticeably lacking. JBL and Otunga took turns stepping on each other early on as they jumped to make similar points, inadvertently drowning Ranallo out at times. As the show progressed the group did show signs of improvement and will likely settle into a groove sooner rather than later.
The most notable change to SmackDown was the manner in which the show was shot, specifically during matches. The show opened with Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan taking us from the backstage area out to the arena and into the ring; a clever stylistic metaphor signifying what was to come. A new camera angle floating over top the ring captured the action in such a way that placed the viewer directly inside the ring. Allowing viewers to feel as though they’re in the ring inherently adds to the drama of the action; a welcomed innovation after decades of stagnant photography practices.
Aside from the brief and necessary moment at the start of the show, SmackDown featured no backstage promos or interviews; all business was conducted in front of the curtain. Like RAW, post-match interviews were conducted in or around the ring. This comes as a welcomed change.
Despite the fresh aesthetics, RAW’s opening segment was all too familiar; a ten-minute promo designed to set the table for the entire show. That is not to say the segment wasn’t focused and well-designed, but it did immediately conflict with the New Era theme established by the updated introductory material.
Likewise, it is clear that RAW will continue to be shaped by the agenda of its authority figures. Stephanie McMahon showed favoritism towards Seth Rollins and disdain for Roman Reigns (despite agreeing to draft him). The presence of a heel authority figure was one of the loudest and most regular criticisms of RAW; criticism that will likely continue just as Stephanie’s heavy presence on the show will clearly continue.
Similar to RAW, SmackDown opened with an understandable but all too familiar in-ring promo to set the table for the show. Associating Daniel Bryan with the brand indicates (correctly) that he comes with a perceived cachet that can be exploited. The audience wants to see Bryan (and Shane) and they’re getting him. While the presence of SmackDown’s authority figures may be more of the same, the length in which Bryan and Shane will influence SmackDown’s stories appears to be far less invasive than what is taking place on RAW.
Stand-alone promos and familiar talking segments like Miz TV also don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. Ironically, the shorter of WWE’s two live programs was the one to maintain these segments, a curious decision given the pre-draft emphasis placed on competition and talent by Bryan and Shane.
While the broadcast team has changed, their ringside location has not; SmackDown is now your official home for the smashing through tables high-spot.
WHAT WE LEARNED
The WWE universe is getting its own championship. The Universal title will be exclusively defended on RAW and serve as the top title of the brand after Dean Ambrose walked out of Battleground having retained the WWE Heavyweight Championship. Seth Rollins and Finn Balor will square off at Summer Slam with the winner being crowned the inaugural champion.
Brock Lesnar will make his first RAW appearance of the New Era next week.
Dolph Ziggler is the Number One Contender to the WWE Heavyweight Championship after winning a six-pack challenge Tuesday night. He will face Dean Ambrose for the title at SummerSlam.
Shelton Benjamin and Ryno have been signed by SmackDown as free agents…Heath Slater has not.
WWE Backlash will serve as the first WWE Network event exclusively featuring SmackDown talent. The event will air on Sunday September 11 and take place in Richmond, Virginia.
WHAT WE STILL DON’T KNOW
The Cruiserweight division was promoted as ‘coming soon’ Monday night, but we already knew that based on Stephanie’s proclamation prior to the draft. We still don’t know who will be included in the division, what they will be fighting for or to what extent the new division will be able to interact with non-Cruiserweight talent.
The dynamic between Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley currently presents more questions than answers. We’ve yet to see any conflict between the two despite their obvious differences in approach. Will the relationship be the center of a storyline or directly influence other angles of the brand, and if so, how?
While the Universal title was introduced on RAW, there was no mention of additional titles being brought to SmackDown Tuesday night, this despite the fact that RAW owns both the Tag Team and Women’s titles respectively. With American Alpha’s debut teased for next week, the logistics of the tag team division are still unclear. Likewise, we were introduced to SmackDown’s entire Women’s Division Tuesday night with no mention of what they are competing for exactly.
Now that the reset button has been engaged and the landscape of WWE has been dramatically altered the real work begins. Both RAW and SmackDown came out of the gate strong but as history has repeatedly proven, producing a show designed to wipe the slate clean is far easier than actually sustaining desired change; old habits die hard, a number of influential variables can alter plans at a moment’s notice and, of course, nothing is set in stone when it comes to the creative vision of Vince McMahon.