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Wrestling with Ratings
Ratings; the building block of a long, sustained life on television, the tool that reminds us that NCIS is a popular show for some awful, inexplicable reason. Yes, for the longest time, TV ratings (namely the Nielson Ratings system) have long been the component of what works on television and what doesn’t. If a show were to get good ratings, it would all but guarantee survival for at least some period of time. If a show were to get bad ratings, it would be sent packing quicker than the Browns demoting Johnny Manziel (also note that the Browns demoting Manziel for Josh McCown is the equivalent of bumping Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Joey. Who is in charge of that team?!). In short, ratings are kind of a big deal. And to that effect, they’ve been a big deal for wrestling too. Since WCW Monday Nitro first debuted in 1995, thus giving us two wrestling major promotions, ratings have been perhaps one of the most important factors to wrestling’s success aside from live gates. Look no further than the Monday Night War, a battle driven due to ratings, for proof of that. Even after WCW’s death, ratings have come to be a signal for just how things are going in WWE. Good ratings mean a stable product, happy fans and most importantly a happy Vince McMahon. Bad ratings have come to mean reported panic, numerous rewrites and a whole lot of talk on whether bringing old time wrestlers back is a good idea (the answer; it is and it isn’t. Who knew?!).
Today, we’re witnessing the latter scenario. WWE’s ratings for Monday Night RAW and Thursday Night Smackdown have been, shall we say, Sam Shaw levels of dreadful (apologies to Sam Shaw’s family and his one fan). This is generally a given with Smackdown, but RAW’s numbers have become even more frightening by the day; in fact, the last three weeks of RAW have drawn the lowest non holiday ratings since Alberto Del Rio ran over Santa Claus in 2012. The easy argument to make is the return of the NFL (and the fall primetime TV schedule) has led to the RAW ratings cratering, but it doesn’t appear to be that simple. For one, RAW ratings have been declining throughout the year, first with an unexpectedly low viewer count for the Road to Wrestlemania, followed by declining ratings for everything except the Brock Lesnar-Undertaker brawl. Perhaps more importantly is the yearly decline; since drawing an average (rounded up) of 3.9 million viewers from 2012-2014, RAW this month has drawn 3.4 million for this month, a decline of almost 15% in viewership. That’s harrowing stuff, and it doesn’t get better when you go outside the scope of the wrestling empire. TNA, arguably still the #2 promotion in America despite their baggage, has had such ratings problems that they’ll be looking to find a new TV home for the second time in a year. Ring of Honor has gone from an 8 p.m. timeslot on Destination America to a death slot all the way at 11. And as much as I love Lucha Underground, ratings for their show aren’t lighting the world on fire either.
As a wrestling fan, looking at those numbers is, in a way, horrifying; like, “they’re really remaking Scarface with Leo as Tony Montana?” horrifying. And yet, should it be? You see, there are two discussions you could have here in regards to wrestling and ratings; why are ratings for all these major promotions on the down swing and, perhaps most importantly, do ratings for wrestling actually matter in this day and age? Not only do I absolutely love these two questions, I think it’s important to try and give answers to them. And yes, there is definitely more than one answer for each question, and frankly, each answer is in its own way a very arguable point. So why not break them down? Let’s start with question one; why are ratings down? I find it could easily be one of these three answers.
1. With the rise of streaming services and people cutting cable, wrestling fans have taken to alternate means to watching the wrestling shows they love. You could perhaps label this answer as the sort of thing an apologist would say to defend wrestling, but it’s a valid point. A lot has changed in regards of how we watch TV since the Monday Night War. The presence of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Sling TV, Amazon Prime and the WWE Network has given people a whole new way to watch shows (like RAW, which has a condensed version on Hulu Plus, and Lucha Underground), while simultaneously cutting the chord with cable. Furthermore, I know many people who either don’t have the means to watch on cable or on a streaming service that still watch wrestling regularly. What’s the point; all these people’s viewership doesn’t count on a ratings system. Thus, you could theoretically argue that the terrible ratings trend isn’t telling the full story and that there are more viewers than we believe there to be. It’s still not entirely a good thing, but it’s better than just disinterest in general. Hey, speaking of disinterest.
2. Fans hate the product wrestling promotions are putting out. This would seem to fit the mold of WWE and TNA the most, as ROH and Lucha Underground are both generally warmly received and also don’t have nearly the notoriety as the other two (meaning a vast opinion of the show’s quality would be hard to come by). I’m sure many of the WWE fans I know will groan here, but it’s hard for me to deny that the general consensus towards WWE right now is at best mixed (and considering some of the stuff I’ve read, that might be kind). And despite seeming to be on the right track according to several people, TNA has burnt so many bridges with fans over the years that the perception they suck completely overshadows whatever good they may or may not be doing. Again, you may be asking what my point is. It’s simple; people don’t watch something they consider to be below average (unless it’s NCIS, but whatever). Thus, the largely lukewarm critical reception to the recent WWE product and the disdain for TNA’s makes it easy to consider that people just aren’t tuning in for something they think is a waste of their time.
3. Interest in wrestling has declined across the board. This is perhaps the most frightening answer to the question and the one wrestling fans in general seem the most reluctant to accept. In fact, it was just a few weeks ago where famed wrestling writer David Shoemaker (aka The Masked Man) wrote an article for Grantland declaring that wrestling was as popular as ever. Far be it for me to correct Mr. Shoemaker, but his premise was off. If he were to argue that wrestling is more accepted than ever, he’d be right; the amount of people writing about it (myself included) and stuff like coverage from ESPN and Rolling Stone have definitely shown wrestling is no longer considered a carnival joke it long has been. At the same time, if wrestling was so popular, why did it take Lucha Underground two months to reach a deal with El Rey, Unimas and whoever else may have been involved? Why is TNA being kicked off another network for low ratings? Why is ROH seemingly going to be the next in line? Wrestling may be more accepted than ever, but the interest level for it outside of WWE (and even with WWE) appears to be lower than ever. And I don’t know about you, but in my experience, a lack of interest generally means a lack of eyeballs.
Which leads us to the grand finale and the last question; do ratings for wrestling matter? It’s pretty heavy, especially in the wake of the last question which produced three potential answers. To be honest, in a way, asking if ratings matter is the wrong question to me. The better question would be should they matter so much? And to that, I say no. The fact of the matter is that wrestling has long survived without ratings being the number one key to success. Live gates, to me, are still more important than ratings. Merchandise sales are just as important (if not more), especially from the perspective of talent (who make a lot of cash off sales of their gear). For WWE, the success of the WWE Network is more important. There are several factors that are just as good, or better, at measuring the popularity of a wrestling product than ratings. So no, they shouldn’t matter the most or as much as some seem to think they do.
But they do matter. Even if they aren’t the be all end all, ratings do matter for wrestling, and not in a tiny way. You know how I know they matter; because I’m writing this column right now on the topic, because so many people right now are wondering what the decline in ratings for WWE (and across the board) means and, perhaps most importantly, the top wrestling promotion in the world (WWE) sure as hell seems to care about how the ratings do. It’s that cold, last truth that makes it hard to ignore that ratings are still, at least to some degree, an important part of wrestling, a statistic that makes all promotions (and us to an extent) slaves to the numbers. And ratings mattering bring us all the way back to the first question; why are they going down? Is it other means to watch? Disgust? A lack of interest? Something else? All three? It’s a question without an easy answer. It’s also a question that, at some point, is going to need one.
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