What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part Two)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know it. Tom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry:  As a writer of transmedia I want to think about the biggest, most creative ways you could use the WWE Network. But realistically there are a host of factors that limit what a producer is going to want to do. Budget is one of those factors. You can’t spend the money that the WWE Network will make when so far it hasn’t made a cent. It won’t start selling subscriptions until late next month. Man hours are also an issue. They’e already producing six hours of TV every week, and it’s going to be a massive undertaking just to get the infrastructure working and the archive available online. But here’s another recent story that would play on my mind if I were them.

The WWE has a reality show, Total Divas, on the E! Network. The writers weren’t finding enough time to flesh out the female wrestlers’ characters on their main shows, so they created Total Divas as a way to build relationship-driven, soap operatic stories around those characters. On the surface it was a brilliant move. Two of the main characters of Total Divas, identical twin wrestlers Brie and Nikki Bella, had come across poorly for years, but became genuinely likable stars on Total Divas. Just one or two episodes completely changed the way I felt about those characters. The show did good ratings. Online fans seemed to like it. So the WWE took the obvious next step: They pushed The Bella Twins to the forefront on their wrestling shows. They got crickets. Nobody cared.  It baffled me for a second, but then I think everyone realized what the problem was. Most of their fans still weren’t watching Total Divas.Only a subset of the WWE’s global following had been necessary to make Total Divas a success, and the people who were interested in watching the women’s wrestlers plan their weddings weren’t necessarily the ones going to the fights. The show was on a different network, at a different time. The people who hadn’t seen the Bellas in a likable light yet hadn’t changed their opinion. They booed the Bellas. So in a way, the show had only accomplished half its goal. It had given the divas more time to develop their characters, but hadn’t noticeably effected their popularity at the live events.

Total Divas was originally conceived of as a WWE Network program, and you can see the logic. The WWE has about 80 wrestlers on their active roster. They’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill. Better start utilizing everyone. They’re using the Network as a chance to showcase NXT – the minor leagues of pro wrestling. Commercials and online videos have explicitly reminded fans that the top stars they love began their careers in NXT, and told them to watch the next stars’ rise to glory from the very beginning. Another move that echoes real sports, where fans are often excited about their team’s young prospects. One could imagine a reality show that focused on following tag teams. Do they get along off stage? Do they have fights right before they have to team up on camera? Or do they love each other and have lots of fun together that we never get to see? With the WWE already airing six hours of programming on cable, and now posting thousands of hours on their archive, can they count on a significant percentage of their audience seeing any one show? And if not, then is producing more programming necessarily going to deepen the audiences’ understanding of the master narrative in any consistent, meaningful way? Can the narrative ever become so big it’s unwieldy? I don’t think the WWE has an answer for that yet, and until they do creating a lot of new programming risks spinning their wheels.

Sam Ford: Agreed, Henry, that the WWE has to be awfully careful about crafting its programming in a way that allows for various depths of viewing. They will have this always-on network of programming. They will continue to have their “big” monthly shows. They will continue to have their website that they update 24/7. And they will have their programming on other networks that will continue. No one fan can possibly watch everything they put out there…but that has always been the case with WWE. I can’t imagine there is already any one fan who has seen every tweet every wrestler has put out, every archived show available in their online and video-on-demand “WWE Classics” programming, watched every hour of first-run television they’ve created, and so on.

Instead, what WWE needs to create is a storyline that makes sense for fans who, say, only will watch Monday Night RAW and the PPVs and intermittently drop in on everything else.  But it needs to create almost two tracks of experiences with everything else:

  • deeper continuity and new meaning that can be gleaned from fans who want to view additional original programming that gives more depth to certain characters, or provides historical context to something currently happening on screen, etc.
  • supplemental experiences or pleasures, for fans who like WWE and don’t want to extend the narrative further but rather the experience of watching WWE. In this case, it might be more “features-like” programming that have no bearing at all on storyline, or it might be interactive programming of some sort, etc. In Spreadable Media, drawing on Alex Leavitt’s work, we look at how Glee does this to a degree—embracing and drawing on participatory programming (fans doing covers of songs from Glee, for instance) or inviting fans into the experience more deeply in a way that extends the feel of the story world rather than anything about the progression of the narrative in the story world.

It’s important to keep in mind that WWE is contemplating the launch of this new network alongside another significant change. The company has set the contracts for its various first-run programming so that it all runs out at the same time: their weekly 3-hour Monday Night RAW on USA Network; their show Main Event on ION; their show Friday Night Smackdown on SyFy; and their show on E!, Total Divas. In addition, they had let the contract run out on their children’s show, Saturday Morning Slam, on CW Network. Their plan is to go to a family of networks and sell all of that programming in as a package deal, to try and command the sorts of prices that sports leagues do for packaged programming with a media conglomerate.

It remains to be seen if that approach will help them negotiate a better deal, but WWE would be in an interesting position if they have a really deep partnership with one centralized distribution company for its weekly first-run programming and then its own WWE Network for its monthly big shows and all its supplementary content. Should WWE get that sort of arrangement in place and have success using the launch of its network in the build-up to Wrestlemania this year as a way to get subscribers (who will sign up for an initial six-month subscription), it might allow them to think about the sorts of questions you pose here—how they craft a narrative that one can follow across watching only its most central of texts but find ways to provide depth and value across various experiences.

There’s another challenge we have to think about here, though. WWE fans both love and are often frustrated by the company’s creative direction. Of course, you can never satisfy all fans, and WWE certainly has very different fan bases to satisfy. But one frustration across the board by WWE fans who have moved from a casual to a more in-depth relationship with the brand is that there is often a lack of attention paid to detail and continuity with the company’s storytelling, as the ability WWE has—through its live programming—to overhaul and shift its creative direction quickly can be a double-edged sword….leading to shows getting rewritten often and a lot of second-guessing of creative directions.

For WWE to take full advantage of garnering the sort of in-depth loyalty from its fans to make the network idea work in the long term, it has to create a product that the fans feel confident in investing in. I would guess WWE’s hope is both to draw a greater number of its casual fans into a deeper relationship with the company and also to draw lapsed fans back in, in part by creating deeper connections between WWE’s current content and its content from yesteryear. That all makes sense, but fans have to develop a level of trust with the organization to deepen or renew that commitment. Many more casual fans may have not gotten more deeply involved with the WWE because of frustration with that lack of continuity, and many lapsed fans may be wary of re-committing due to those continuity concerns.

In short, WWE has a lot of business and creative potential with this network and its related packaging of all its cable network TV programming. But the quality of it will also come through the details, so they are better served to do all they can to deliver a great narrative experience for their primary narrative, and finding connective tissue between that primary story and all this supplementary material…than they are to develop too many supplementary shows, a la Total Diva, in the formative months of the network and dilute their focus.

From a storytelling standpoint, I’d love for WWE to use their network to:

  • help further build the story of their big events. More traditional “sports analysis” sorts of shows might help better tell the story of the history of certain rivalries, etc., that are leading to a match at an upcoming big event than can be accomplished on the live nature of a MondayNight RAW or a Friday Night Smackdown. History pieces about the ways two rivals have crossed paths in the past, featuring original studio interviews with them, etc., is something WWE could benefit from more of.
  • connect current WWE programming to events from the past. If one of the commentators makes reference to a wrestler from yesteryear or a match from the past during a show, WWE Network could feature those matches in its on-demand programming later in the week for fans who wanted to see more. For shows like Smackdown that aren’t aired live, they could even provide pop-ups during the programming to drive people to the WWE Network to check out what was just referenced.
  • provide more interest in what happens at WWE Live Events. One of the challenges WWE has is that its live arena shows that aren’t televised have little meaning around them. But the WWE Network might allow them to have something happen (an interview; a skirmish; etc.) at one of those live shows that has some impact on what happens on next week’s Monday Night RAW. The WWE Network might be the place where that can play out and that story could be told. These could be developments that don’t have deep narrative importance, in that you won’t be lost if you don’t watch it. But, for those who are more deeply immersed in the WWE narrative universe, it might provide greater interest in connecting the story.

Henry: I totally agree. My sense is that the larger the canvas, the more the WWE needs to discipline their story from the top down. Conventionally in the industry they would plan narrative arcs in advance, draw a flow chart of some sort showing how each storyline will play out across all of the different media channels, and find a fresh and interesting part of the story for each one to tell. WWE RAW and Smackdown would drive the narrative week-to-week. They would function like the weekly episodes of any other dramatic serial, furthering the storylines and ending with cliffhangers. Much as series like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who seasons are sometimes split into two half-season arcs, the WWE season would be split into 12 monthly mini arcs. The pay-per-views would be 12 mid-season finales. Can’t-miss special episodes. You’d have to watch them to see the storylines resolved.

With the WWE Network’s current price point they should be affordable and available to working families and young individuals. Even kids should be able to afford it with their allowance. That’s important from the perspective of serving the public, but it’s also important from the perspective of retaining viewers. Everyone will have more reason to emotionally invest in RAW and Smackdown if they know they’ll be able to see the payoff. WWE.com would do for pro wrestling what ESPN.comdoes for traditional sports. It would post small news bulletins as often as possible, and provide expert analysis and commentary on everything that’s going on.

That sounds like a complete circuit right there, but it’s not. I actually think WWE Network and social media have the coolest roles to play, and they really go hand-in-hand. That’s where everything takes on a third dimension – depth. At its worst, pro wrestling has cardboard cutout characters. At its best, it has real human beings that you can follow over their entire careers. At it’s worst, it has paint-by-numbers stories. At its best, it’s one epic story that has spanned over 50 years continuously.

WWE Network lets you watch a documentary like CM Punk: Best in the World and find out his whole life story. Twitter lets you continue following the story through Punk’s day-to-day experiences in real time. WWE Network should let you see Punk’s greatest matches. Twitter should let you know how he did tonight in Poughkeepsie. Although there was recently a History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment DVD set, it’s the WWE Network that’s the living history.If they can manage to keep all the balls bouncing, the WWE can also use the network to go two important steps further.

`1) The WWE needs to use their original programming like Total Divas and NXT to target certain demographics, but they can’t count on them to change the overall audiences’ perception of a character. For example, my guess would be that Bella Twins have more Twitter followers and better merchandise sales than ever, particularly among women, because fans who have seen Total Divas are identifying more personally with those characters. Even though the Bellas aren’t getting huge crowd reactions at live shows, they’ve got more devoted fans now, and that’s good enough. If the global mainstream audience starts cheering for them too because they’ve heard the Bellas are cool, that’s the icing on the cake.

2) Original dramatic series that star the wrestlers could also give audiences a new way to enjoy the WWE’s talent. The company has been trying to make movies for years, and they haven’t been box office leaders. I think TV is a better medium because it demands a somewhat smaller audience, and asks them to come back week after week. That’s what WWE fans are good at.

The WWE already has more or less the infrastructure I just described. They should keep sharpening their process. What’s holding them back right now are the stories. Under the hood the infrastructure could be as fine-tuned as an Aston Martin. The graphics and set design can be as beautiful as that car’s body too. But if the stories suck, the car is going to be running on fumes.

Last week the WWE brought back Batista. I dislike him, but RAW got the highest ratings in 10 months. I’m not excited for it, but that tells me they should be pushing him. By the same token, Daniel Bryan is getting the loudest crowd reactions of anyone on the roster, including John Cena. If he main evented Wrestlemania the WWE wouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle by going against the fans’ wishes. They’d be driving downhill, with the full momentum of the crowd propelling them.

On a more general level, though, if the WWE wants to be respected in the same way as other mainstream shows, their stories need to be as intricate and well-structured as those shows.  Because they’re trying to do so much more than those shows it’s going to be really, really hard for them to pay the same attention to the craft of each script. There are a lot of people working on all of the WWE divisions who need to be on the same page, and a lot of important production people who are understandably going to want a say. I don’t envy the McMahons in having to organize that labor. But the fact remains that if the scripts aren’t well-written, the entire operation is going to be spinning its wheels.I think there is fan energy behind this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, but the storylines are frankly terrible. Batista is the only person who’s been written in such a way they could credibly win the Rumble match. John Cena and Randy Orton have just had a TLC Match, so putting them in a standard match without a brilliant new wrinkle in the story is anticlimactic. Brock Lesnar had a five star match against CM Punk at SummerSlam in which he was victorious, and fans wanted a rematch, but instead they’re getting Lesnar/Big Show. It just isn’t a good story. The WWE Network is a powerful tool. Everyone is excited about it. It can transform the landscape. But if the stories don’t get better, it’s not going to achieve the effect it could.

Sam: I think you’re right, Henry, that—in the end—it all comes down to story quality. The WWE, when it’s at its best, tells compelling stories that gets its fan base talking, that gets people excited, and that builds a narrative over time. Sometimes, that means doing a “variation on a theme” of a classic pro wrestling storyline: the slow build toward getting the title, while overcoming all the odds; the breakup of longtime partners, which leads to a heated grudge match; the brutal attack and injury, which leads to the triumphant return of a hero after the performer gets a much-needed vacation to rest his body.

One of the problems, though, is that the WWE has struck on a model these past several years where it is driven by a few major stories, with most of the other people being “programmed” into a series of matches with the same opponent but without much story driving it. Compare this to other periods in WWE’s history, for instance in the late 1990s, where it seemed there was significant thought being put into the stories of people, even at a mid-card level. If WWE wants to see fans engage more deeply, there has to be more story to find there. It’s true that people may decide to buy a PPV only on the merits of its top couple of matches, but to sustain long-term fan interest and to take advantage of this subscription model, I think those fans are going to hope to find depth in what they get in return.

Since WWE doesn’t have to worry so much about trying to get people to buy each show as one-off, I hope that frees up their creative resources to focus on finding stories and putting thought into people throughout the roster. That doesn’t mean everyone has to get pushed equally; but it does means that fans of the Bella Twins or fans of Kofi Kingston can watch that character’s journey and part of the story in particular and find deep narrative pleasure in that.

Here’s where WWE can learn a lot from the soap opera world where soaps, when they are at their best, have characters that cycle from front-burner to back-burner status in the story over time, but who always play a crucial role and aren’t just on the screen as filler between two important TV segments.

I often argue that WWE is a property that serial narrative storytellers or people who champion “transmedia storytelling” should be taking a close look at because of the depth of its storytelling potential. But I must admit that prompt is hobbled by the lack of quality in WWE’s storytelling. The WWE waffles between taking its own stories seriously, on the one hand, while drawing great attention to its artifice, on the other. The creative team often sours on an idea part of the way through and drops it, in ways that trains fans to be hesitant to invest that deeply and to believe that tracking the nuances of a story will actually have any sort of payoff.

In short, WWE has a narrative world that could be the stuff of truly great storytelling that would put any entertainment franchise in awe. But it has to put a deep commitment to quality storytelling at the forefront to take full advantage of that opportunity. I’d love to see WWE ranking as a serious contender for creative awards and to see the TV critics and others start paying attention to what WWE is doing. The WWE has barely scratched the surface of the depth of the immersive stories they could tell. And the way they can draw the audience into that story, and take advantage of being a story told in real time and in the real world…just as they have even more they can do with the depth of live fan engagement on social media. See my Fast Company piece about how WWE has used listening via social media to correct storyline continuity errors within the course of a single episode. I’d love to see even more of this from them.

From my perspective, WWE in 2014 sets in front of a boundless storytelling potential. I don’t know if “the world is watching,” to steal a former WWE marketing phrase, but I know the wrestling fan base is. And I think anyone interested in entertainment and storytelling should be as well.

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.