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KELLER'S TAKE
KELLER: Here's how Vince McMahon's "State of WWE" address on Monday should begin - plus my cover story on three-hour Raw announcement

Oct 6, 2012 - 11:58:34 PM
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By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

It's no surprise Vince McMahon is returning to TV on Monday's Raw. Ratings have been getting worse and worse at an alarming rate over the last couple months since Raw expanded to three hours. I figured 2.5 would be the point that McMahon would feel the pressure to make changes.

While McMahon will be "in character" on Raw, playing into the idea that there is a Board he answers to and that A.J. has actual decision-making power, he is dealing with a real-life problem. His franchise program is sinking to the point that it will no longer be considered an elite cable program.

It's not a surprise ratings have plummeted. Three hours is just too long for a live weekly WWE program given the depth of ratings drawing stars on their roster. Heck, three hours is too long for a hot promotion with great depth.

When Nitro expanded to three hour at the start of 1998, the show was having its strongest ratings run to date, posting ratings of 4.4, 4.7, 4.9, and 4.6. Less than four months later, Raw began beating Nitro in the ratings. By fall of 1998, NItro sank below the 4.0 mark twice. By mid-1999, ratings had eroded to the low 3s.

I wrote at the time in the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter (subscribe here: http://www.pwtorch.com/govip):

"The Monday Night War has undergone an amazing transformation over the last three months. It has been eleven weeks since Nitro beat Raw. It was just four months ago that Bischoff said during an interview on TSN in Canada: 'Tuesdays used to be fun because we'd get the Nielson ratings at 4 o'clock. We used to look forward to that because it was competitive. You felt like you were in a race. It's not even a race anymore we're so far ahead.'"

What changed? How did Bischoff go from an arrogant proclamation that the ratings was wasn't even fun anymore because they were so far ahead to an 11 week losing streak? Nitro expanded to three hours and WCW added Thunder on TBS.

What has happened during Raw's ratings plummet? They expanded Raw to three hours. How much worse might it get now that WWE is spread even thinner by promoting WWE Main Even on ION, not to mention offering kids an alternative on Saturday Mornings with CW's "Saturday Morning Slam" program. (Bischoff told me in my 2009 five-hour Torch Talk with him that the top executive decision he would take back would be adding Thunder. I bet expanding Nitro to three hours, despite the short-term influx of added revenue, would be another decision he'd take back.)

So what Vince McMahon should say on Monday's Raw is simple:

"I created WrestleMania. I created Raw. I won the Monday Night War. I will not stand and watch anyone - not the WWE Board of Directors, not A.J., not anyone - do anything that is against the better interests of WWE as a company. The best way to secure the strength of WWE is to make serving the fans no. 1. Expanding Raw to three hours was done for the wrong reasons. The fans have spoken. Three hours is just too long. Starting next week, Raw will go back to two hours."

He can add whatever else he wants to add to that discussion, such as firing A.J., merging the brands, holding a Draft again, firing Matt Striker, or whatever. The primary decision he should make, the one that will make the biggest difference, is moving Raw back to three hours.

Here is what I wrote in the May 26, 2012 edition of the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter about the decision to expand Raw to three hours. The only thing I was wrong about was it took only 10 weeks, not 26 weeks, to reach the 2.5 ratings level.

===

COVER STORY
HEADLINE: Raw expands to three hours July 23
By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

If you follow an industry long enough, you’re bound to see some bad decisions being made. Some are worse than others, but it’s rare when you think you might be seeing the Worst Decision Ever.

Last week WWE announced they were expanding Raw from two to three hours permanently. It might be the McMahon family’s worst programming decision ever. It might go down as much worse than the WBF and XFL, because those were supplementary products. Yes, they took a toll on WWE because it took time and resources away from the core WWE product, but they didn’t cripple the actual centerpiece core product.

Of all of the decisions that destroyed WCW, expanding Nitro to three hours in tandem with the addition of two hours of Thunder later in the week is seen as perhaps the most self-destructive.

WWE and USA Network are now following the pattern of WCW and TNT, taking a highly rated cable show and expanding it. It’s a pattern that can create short-term advertising increases, but burn out the audience and overexpose the product (see: Law & Order, CSI, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Deal or No Deal). It’s not like WWE has a deep talent roster of big draws at this point. WCW had a deep talent roster at the time they expanded, yet the booking team just wasn’t able to keep the product compelling for three hours straight on a weekly basis. Viewers noticed. Top wrestlers were overexposed, the show contained obvious filler, and in general viewership fatigue (live in the arenas and on television) worked the opposite of the tried and true “leave them wanting more” mantra.

It’s not as if WWE shouldn’t have learned from their own past mistakes. Expanding to two PPVs per month, one for Raw and for Smackdown, failed. Expanding the sheer number of PPVs a year drove away hundreds of thousands of “completists” who - on a monthly basis - were willing to order every PPV, but once they couldn’t keep up because there were more often than not two per month, they just threw their hands up and began picking a choosing fewer and fewer to order than ever.

There are viewers who watch Raw as appointment television and always have. They sit through two hours (or so) of the good and bad. When the show is the bad, like last week’s - just days before this announcement - it’s only two hours, and usually there’s enough redeeming content to make it worth the investment. But three hours? Three hours of lousy content is enough that next time viewers might just tune in for a just an hour instead of the usual two and certainly not commit to all three. Or they might pick their segments, watching the predictably newsmaking segments at the start of each hour and at the very end. They can DVR the show and speed through it. Or they can watch highlights on WWE.com, YouTube, or elsewhere, or just read about it and wait for highlights the next week.

Let’s boil this down to what it is: It is corporate greed. It’s not creating or offering a product that there is demand for. It’s expanding a product that even at two hours sometimes seems to drag. The third hour is being added merely because it can give them more TV ad revenue. There aren’t wrestlers Vince McMahon wishes he could give TV time but runs out of time for each week. In fact, they’ve never been more reliant on one wrestler - John Cena - as evidenced by the quarter hour ratings decline two weeks ago when Cena wasn’t at the building and viewers were told that early in the show.

WWE is trying to make up for declining ratings and thus declining ad revenue by adding a third hour of Raw. It’d be akin to the NBA or NFL expanding from 30 teams to 45 teams next year or expanding the season’s number of games by 50 percent. It’d be too much even for hardcore fans of both sports.

WWE would counter by saying they are adding an interactive element to the show. That’s their hook for this - that viewers get to vote for a match or a stipulation every week. It comes across as patronizing that giving fans a chance to influence parts of the show will cause them to watch an extra hour, as if choosing to see Santino vs. Cody Rhodes will make it more entertaining than it just being presented to viewers without the voting gimmick. It’s also an attempt to make watching the show live seem more important since if you watch on delay, as more than 10 percent of viewers now do, you could lose out on your chance to vote. WWE might be grossly overestimating the value the majority of viewers place on putting decisions in the hands of fan. How many movie goers would want to spend three hours watching a movie better paced for two hours because ticket buyers in the theater got to vote on plot twists or character decisions?

On a detatched corporate level, it might seem like a no-brainer to increase ad revenue up to 50 percent overnight. But in six months, if ratings are routinely under 2.5, then what?


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