Why Heyman and Bischoff Can’t Save WWE From Declining Ratings (And The Real Reason For AEW’s Success)
Don't get your hopes up just because two titans from the Attitude Era are taking the reins of the faltering TV shows. Heyman and Bischoff can't save WWE.
It was recently announced that Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff were being appointed the new executive directors of Raw and Smackdown Live respectively. This move comes as ratings continue to drop, and the “possible new competitor” for Vince Mcmahon, All Elite Wrestling, continues to surge in popularity. Forbes reported the announcement caused an uptick in online interest for WWE – and let’s face it, that’s the only real reason WWE did it. It would be foolish to get your hopes up about a new day in WWE just because a couple titans from the Attitude Era are ostensibly taking the reins of faltering TV shows. The truth is, it won’t make a bit of difference.
The truth about WWE’s declining ratings
The problem with WWE’s product isn’t that they’ve had the wrong executive directors all this time. The multilayered, corporate bureaucracy that is WWE’s creative process has long moved beyond the stage where fiddling with one part of the machine will fix anything. Jon Moxley outlined the process in his post-WWE shoot interviews, but he’s only the most recent of many to open up about it. There are so many components to the WWE machine, so many moving parts, and only one really matters. That’s the one at the top. The head honcho, McMahon, has final say on everything. Everything trickles up to, and down from, him.
The multilayered, corporate bureaucracy that is WWE’s creative process has long moved beyond the stage where fiddling with one part of the machine will fix anything.
If wrestlers don’t like the script they’re handed, the smart ones go see McMahon personally. But if wrestlers don’t want to stand around in line, they have to pass their ideas up the chain of command for McMahon’s approval. Then they just hope their ideas don’t get diluted as they’re passed along word of mouth. If you’ve ever played that telephone game, though, you know by the time McMahon hears the idea, something of its essence will have been lost and he may not be sold. McMahon has his own particular scheme anyways, and sometimes wrestlers just don’t fit into it.
Say what you will of McMahon. Call him a genius. Call him an out of touch old man. Judge him by his works and you can certainly find reasons to call him both equally. He is a business genius, no doubt, and he is a cloistered, out of touch old man, to be sure. But he is the only piece of this puzzle that could conceivably change the picture we are looking at. Many people have answered to Vince over the years, with no change. Heyman and Bischoff aren’t newcomers, they’ve answered to Vince before too. But now suddenly they’re going to change the game?
Political correctness will taint the result, making it sterile and hollow, as it’s meant to. That alone is an obstacle which could constantly negate any creative freshness Heyman and Bischoff try and bring to their roles.
We’re not allowed to say that!
Even those wrestlers who wait to see McMahon personally still get stifled by politically correct constraints. Publicly traded companies like WWE have to follow certain rules and defer to mainstream sensitivities. In other words, no matter how much they deliberate over an idea, the product can only be so good once they’ve watered it down with all the PC rules of the day. Political correctness will taint the final result, making it sterile and hollow, as it’s meant to. That alone is an obstacle which could constantly negate any creative freshness Heyman and Bischoff try bringing to their roles.
We hired you because you’re a wrestler, but we actually want you to be an actor!
Another big issue is the writers themselves. Their very participation in the creation of a pro wrestling product is anathema. When a roomful of writers decides what the wrestlers will say, and wrestlers have to memorize scripted lines word for word, that’s not wrestling. WWE effectively killed wrestling when they took away wrestlers’ ability to explore their characters and cut their own promos.
One of the main aptitudes of being a pro wrestler was always the ability to think on their feet, explore character and improvise to create organic moments. It wasn’t a writer who created Austin 3:16.
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A group of writers can’t connect with a whole roster of individual characters as deeply as the wrestlers themselves can with their own characters. It’s wrestlers who will be able to deliver lines that ring true because they actually embody their characters a lot of the time. One of the main aptitudes of being a pro wrestler was always the ability to think on their feet, explore character and improvise to create organic moments. It wasn’t a writer who created Austin 3:16. CM Punk’s “Pipebomb” promo made an impact precisely because it wasn’t scripted. I think it’s much harder to come across legitimately classic moments that were scripted word for word backstage by a bunch of film students.
Heyman and Bischoff Can’t Save WWE From Itself
This ties in to one of the points pundits make about Paul Heyman. Heyman has been renowned as having an eye for talent. He brought an injured Steve Austin in to ECW in ’95 to cut promos and explore character. Austin had just been fired “over the phone” by WCW and was red hot. Heyman turned that angry Austin loose as the camera rolled and those promos became the seed bed for what would evolve into the iconic Stone Cold character in WWE.
CM Punk was also a “Paul Heyman guy” and he didn’t break out until he was finally given a live mic to say what he wanted during the Pipebomb. In both these cases Heyman noticed their talent, but it was Austin and Punk themselves who needed to be uncuffed to achieve their potential. It wasn’t Heyman, or anyone else, telling them what to say. Heyman saw what they could do but the magic wasn’t made until the wrestler was freed.
Put a muzzle on those Paul Heyman guys!
So he may have all the eye for talent in the world, but if wrestlers still aren’t allowed to let loose, then problems with WWE’s product won’t be fixed by appointing Heyman executive director. No matter what title he’s given, he still has to do the job within a restrictive WWE corporate framework. Ditto Eric Bischoff. Bischoff is credited with some key contributions to the birth of the Attitude Era, most notably the New World Order faction. There’s no doubt something special happened in ’96, and Bischoff was right at the center of it. But so were Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan. Those who know the history know that Hall, Nash, and Hogan especially, had almost complete creative control over their own characters. The success of NWO undeniably involved a lot of wrestler input, and it could be argued that Bischoff was actually the least influential person in that creative process.
Again, the success really came down to the wrestlers being able to do their own thing. Wrestlers are supposed to be wrestlers. They get called “sports entertainers” now in WWE, which I suppose is a euphemism for “mediocre stage actor with athletic flourishes”. Wrestlers were never strictly actors but that’s how they’re treated in WWE. Promos that are memorized from scripts almost invariably come across as unnatural.
Heyman noticed their talent, but it was Austin and Punk themselves who needed to be uncuffed to achieve their potential. It wasn’t Heyman, or anyone else, telling them what to say. Heyman saw what they could do but the magic wasn’t made until the wrestler was freed.
When wrestlers are allowed to cut their own promos and come up with words in the moment – (the way people really talk) – it connects far more effectively and seems more organic. WWE superstars aren’t Daniel Day-Lewises going out there to deliver gold as an actor. So unless they are free to speak naturally, the delivery most often falls flat. Austin 3:16 and Punk’s Pipebomb are only two of many examples where real magic was made because the wrestler had a bit of creative license. These moments happened because wrestlers were allowed to be wrestlers.
We were the best pro wrestling company in the game. Then we gained a monopoly and decided to take pro wrestling away from everyone!
The real reason AEW has become so successful so quickly is because pro wrestling fans have had nothing to watch for a long time. Sports entertainment fans have been over-saturated with content, but people who want pro wrestling had nothing to watch except old stuff. These displaced fans rushed to express their passion when the chance finally presented itself, with AEW selling out big shows in mere minutes. The audience was there, sleeping, waiting; waiting for something to come along and wake it.
This significant audience is one that WWE has been neglecting all this time. Real pro wrestling hasn’t had a worthy stage for well-over a decade. What we’ve been forced to stomach from WWE has been more like a bad stage show, albeit with an impressive athletic foundation. WWE wasn’t always this way, though. They didn’t always micromanage to this degree and wrestlers had more creative freedom for much of its existence.
Vince used that true art of pro wrestling to create the best product and win the ratings war. He combined that with superior business savvy to then conquer the entire industry. Vince wrested away full control of the industry from a business standpoint by buying out all his defeated competitors and gaining a monopoly. He then eliminated some fundamental aspects in the art of wrestling and secured full control from a creative standpoint as well. Once Vince and WWE had total possession of the game, they started producing something that is a perversion of wrestling. It looks similar but has some very crucial differences.
Say exactly what we tell you to say and let’s just pray it works!
The main difference, I think, is the lack of creative freedom wrestlers always had to cut their own promos. This essential aspect of the art allowed the wrestler’s natural charisma to shine through more in their delivery. Once that was taken away, getting things over with the crowd became all about theory. Things written backstage on pieces of paper are simply theoretical ideas to be tested out in the arena. If it fails to get over, then it fails. The wrestler doesn’t have the freedom anymore to adjust and find something that gets the audience back onside. If the written theory of McMahon and his people doesn’t play in reality, we are left cringing and feeling awkward. The wrestlers are left with no recourse, just a futile hope the writers might do better next time. And they must resist with all their might that urge to go off-script, not wanting to risk their career being buried in retribution.
Fact is, real pro wrestling hasn’t had a worthy stage for well-over a decade. What we’ve been forced to stomach from WWE has been more like a bad stage show, albeit with an impressive athletic foundation.
Wrestlers shouldn’t be punished for trying to find what works to entertain an audience. Wrestling should be about these performers going out and doing what they do and putting on a show for the crowd. That’s why we watch wrestling. We like wrestlers and want to be entertained by them. Their skill is a unique one in entertainment and we want to watch people who do it well. We don’t want to be entertained by second or third-rate actors, performing the written works of second or third-rate writers. We’re wrestling fans! If I start to cringe, and if the crowd starts to chant “This is boring”, the wrestlers shouldn’t have to hopelessly continue failing and be shuffled off in disgrace. I want to see if a talented, charismatic individual (like AEW’s Maxwell Jacob Freedom for instance) can pick up on the energy of the crowd and shift course to find what works.
That’s what defines the unique skill of the pro wrestler. I don’t want a bunch of writers backstage hoping their written ideas get over in the arena. I want a pro wrestler who will read the energy of the arena in that moment and feel out their delivery to build a genuine connection with the audience. How is a wrestler supposed to work a crowd when they are expected to strictly deliver the words of a script? Isn’t a big part of wrestling the interplay with crowds? The shows need direction of course, and storylines need to be established, but character development and promos should largely be the domain of the wrestler. That’s how it always was when wrestling was objectively at its best. That’s what made wrestling, and that’s what will make it again. AEW is already experiencing the type of success that I believe is largely related to this.
We like wrestlers and want to be entertained by them. Their skill is a unique one in entertainment and we want to watch people who do it well. We don’t want to be entertained by second or third rate actors, performing the written works of second or third rate writers.
Our intelligence is being insulted, quite frankly…
So when WWE tells you they’re bringing in a couple Attitude Era legends like Heyman and Bischoff to direct their shows, remember those two legends’ success was reliant on their wrestlers having freedom. Without that freedom in place, WWE is playing us for fools by hyping up this executive director change. This move is the equivalent of WWE trying to distract us with something shiny, while no true remedy is being administered. They think we’re all a bunch of rubes and marks who will sway to sleight of hand. In no way do they intend to give up their control by returning wrestling to its natural state. They will continue to abuse their position by forcing us to watch wrestling their way.
Heyman and Bischoff will not be the heralds of a new creative boom in WWE. It will be business as usual. We might see a few RELATIVELY edgier moments here and there just to insult our intelligence, but the main problems will remain.
We’re not going back to that gory crap we graduated from!
WWE was never going to give us back the thing we loved, which has nothing to do with simply blood, violence or bad language. Such an assumption fails to take into account the nuances of what makes wrestling work. AEW is far from perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. I just want wrestling back and what they’re doing is wrestling. It won’t always be gold, but the potential for gold to be produced is far greater. Though McMahon might call it simply “gory crap”, AEW has already created powerful moments. Moments like those during the Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes match at Double or Nothing are what wrestling is all about. The emotional investment from the fans wasn’t just because there was blood. It’s because they were telling an emotional story. People in the crowd actually wept at the end. That match and post-match were pure wrestling psychology and storytelling and was all delivered authentically in the moment. WWE hasn’t come close to creating something like that in a tremendously long time.
A bad taste in your mouth…
And just to leave you with something that exemplifies the decadent character of current WWE, here is Seth Rollins impersonating Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar, embarrassing himself almost beyond redemption. Enjoy.
Follow @DavidJDengis on Twitter.