How failure led to the WWE's latest attempt at a brand split

As anyone who has listened to Wrestling Observer Live can tell, the excitement amongst the hardcore fanbase has been palpable after Tuesday’s WWE announcement about Smackdown moving to a live Tuesday night format and splitting up the rosters between that show and Raw. 

Amid all the excitement, it is worth remembering this is WWE’s third attempt at relaunching Smackdown in an attempt to improve the show’s failing ratings in just over eighteen months. Last year, the show was moved from Fridays to Thursdays, and this year, it moved SyFy to USA Network. These moves were truly TNA-esque, looking to tackle plausible, but fundamentally misguided, explanations for the show’s poor viewership numbers.

While Fridays may not be an ideal night for the young male audience they want to attract, moving nights was foolhardy considering the risks posed by abandoning an audience they had spent ten years building on that night. They also ignored the danger posed by the increased competition on Thursday for their key demographics. While USA Network may be a stronger station than SyFy, it’s been proven time after that simply moving onto a stronger station does not magically create new viewers (RAW’s 2005 ‘homecoming’ to the station would be a very good example of this).

The consequences of all this fiddling while Gaul burned are quite staggering. Last week’s Smackdown was watched by 2.2 million people. The same show two years ago, on a weaker station and on a worse night, was watched by 2.45 million people. And everyone knew that with even more NFL Thursday night games on network television, Smackdown viewing figures would get much worse throughout the fall. More worryingly for the WWE is that whereas bobbling along at two million viewers was perfectly acceptable for SyFy, it’s nothing short of disastrous for USA.

To be fair, WWE has taken suitably drastic action. Simply getting Smackdown out of the NFL’s line of fire would have been a welcome move but for once, they’ve actually tried to address the programme’s real problem. Over the years, Smackdown has devolved into a more professionally produced version of WCW Thunder. The individual shows may be entertaining but the big stars rarely appear and whatever happens doesn’t mean anything. In short, it’s become can-miss television.

A new brand extension immediately ends this unhappy state of affairs. Making superstars and championships exclusive to Smackdown means that viewers who care about them will have to watch the programme to get their weekly fix.

But this is the crucial point that much of the more excitable commentary has missed – the brand extension/split is a move made out of weakness. Unlike when they first divided the roster in 2002 due to the belief that such differentiation may help attract different audiences, the WWE already has NXT to appease the hardcore audience. Instead, this is simply about better organising the current product to maximise the amount of programming current WWE fans will watch.

The best proof of that is the news in this week’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter that John Cena will be the face of whichever brand does not have Roman Reigns, likely to stay on Raw. If we were to assume that the WWE’s objective is to create a ‘sports entertainment’ and a ‘wrestling’ brand, this is the worst possible thing they could do as both men anger and annoy the same young male/hardcore fan demographic they want to increase. It would be next to impossible to claim that a Smackdown led by Cena has a different philosophy to pro wrestling than a RAW show led by Reigns.

But Smackdown as the exclusive home of Cena would immediately elevate the show to the same level as Raw. It would convince many Raw viewers (even those who don’t like Cena) that Smackdown is once again an important show. This would be reflected in better viewing figures and greater success at the live event box office.

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That we are having a renewed brand split does offer some exciting opportunities for the whole WWE product to be revitalised with new performers being focused on and storylines being given more room to breathe. But this potential shouldn’t blind us to how we got here: WWE’s constant refusal to invest the time and resources needed to bring Smackdown up to the level of Raw. The brand extension is a clear statement of intent that this time will be different.

Should they fail again, it’s hard to see how Smackdown can survive on USA.

Will Cooling is a freelance writer who writes on combat sports for Fighting Spirit Magazine, pop culture for Geeky Monkey and politics at It Could Be Said! In the latest FSM, he looks at the rise of Ronda Rousey, and argues that intergender matches ruined Chyna’s career. FSM is available in all good British newsagents and internationally.

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