AEW is having some trouble right now. Viewership is down, the booking has been inconsistent in spite of some quality matches and the promotion has been plagued by leaks to the media as well as infighting amongst talent.
This has included Thunder Rosa and Britt Baker publicly squabbling on Twitter, and Eddie Kingston punching Sammy Guevara, allegedly in response to a promo about him. While I was writing this article Andrade El Idolo and Sammy Guevara were involved in a public spat ending with a backstage fight, which some speculation suggests was an attempt by Andrade to get fired.
The flashpoint for all of this was of course the backstage brawl following the All Out media scrum, where CM Punk accused the AEW EVPs (Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks) of leaking information to the media and fuelling negative stories about Punk. Weeks since the incident, Punk, The Bucks, Omega and Ace Steel are still suspended pending an internal investigation and the hashing out of various reported legal issues.
While speculation about whether the abundance of ‘worked shoot’ storylines in AEW – those which blur the line between the fictional (a ‘work’) and reality (a ‘shoot’) – could be responsible, the problem goes much deeper than that.
This is not an issue of individual storylines or talent, but of the company’s use of narrative and its embrace of the always-online fan. For better or worse, AEW has made its product one with the social media zeitgeist To understand why this is significant, we need to go back to 2011 and look at AEW’s biggest competitor.
The ‘pipe bomb’ promo has become the stuff of legend, endlessly rehashed in YouTube videos/list articles and frequently held up as a turning point in the industry’s engagement with fans in the real world. After interfering in a match between Cena and R-Truth on a June 2011 episode of WWE Monday Night Raw, Punk sat before the audience and went on a tirade covering decades of backstage politics, his seemingly real grievances with WWE higher-ups like Vince McMahon and his threat to take the WWE Championship to other companies should he win it that Sunday at Money in the Bank.
The promo was significant, not for what it exposed about the business, but for what it asked the viewers to do. Punk was in essence asking that we think about him not as a character but as an individual, to consider his real thoughts and motivations and incorporate them into our viewing of the feud. At the time, especially for the average WWE viewer, it was a radical sentiment.
And yet, for all it has been held up to be, the promo was a flash in the pan.
While it may have galvanised the support of some hardcore wrestling fans and brought new eyes to the product, it was not the catalyst for a new era. Aside from the shocking violence of Cena versus a returning Brock Lesnar fresh from the UFC octagon in 2012, worked-shoot storylines were few and far between in the years following The Summer of Punk.
Ever eager to capitalise on a trend, WWE named the years between 2014 and 16 as the Reality Era, a reference to the appearance of the McMahon family as on-screen authority figures and the purported willingness of the company to listen to a growing army of clued-in, know-it-all fans. To most, it was little more than lip service, signalled by an unabated main event push for Roman Reigns in the face of persistent fan backlash.
In 2022, the WWE and its product are more detached from the real world than ever.
What the talent can say or do inside and outside of the ring is tightly restricted, and the response to recent PR fiascos like the misconduct allegations made against Vince McMahon, has been to smile through the pain. Only weeks after McMahon’s resignation, his successor Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque rewrote the entire history of the American professional wrestling industry on Logan Paul’s hit podcast ‘Impaulsive’ by suggesting that McMahon turned the sport from a ‘tiny, little thing happening in bars’ into a global phenomenon (a sentiment WWE has pushed for decades now).
Vince McMahon has long maligned that WWE is not on par with Hollywood, but the more insidious influence of the silver screen can be felt in the increasing willingness of the WWE to see their product as its own expanded universe. Only this month, WWE hired Marvel and Disney writer Rob Fee, whose most recent television work includes a multi-year stint on children’s show ‘Player Select,’ an insipid low-budget compilation of Let’s Play videos made by popular YouTubers like Jacksepticeye. As with the squeaky-clean technicolour escapism offered by Disney, WWE is content to try and bury fans under a sea of content targeted at an approximation of the average viewer.
Even as it makes use of the whole host of new options available for wrestling promoters in 2022: social media, news media and reporting, podcasts, web content, YouTube shows; WWE is still firmly wedded to a mindset from the 1980s and 1990s where segments and promos on TV are used to build PPV matches. This makes sense, however, given how much of their revenue is derived from TV deals.
By contrast, AEW makes full use of these mediums- arguably to the detriment of their programming – and does so in a way that strongly blurs the distinction between the fictional ‘AEW’ in television programming and the real ‘AEW’ with all of its behind-the-scenes goings on.
This is the real lasting legacy of the pipe bomb promo: a company that not only uses worked-shoot storylines, but has embedded them into the heart of what the promotion is. The result is also a product which, for better or worse, needs to be followed through a phone or computer screen as much as through a TV.
The approach makes sense both in terms of AEW marking itself out from the competition, and in terms of how much modern fandom skews towards hyper-personal engagement with the intimate details of celebrities’ lives. This trend is as true of wrestling (at least in the US context) with much of the modern pro wrestling ecosystem fuelled directly by the desire of fans to peek behind the curtain into the backstage area.
Backstage gossip, speculation and scoops – however credible they may be – sustain a significant volume of engagement and income for a plethora of different publications.
The problem with this approach is that while AEW is in control of its own programming, it is not in control of what journalists and other people say about it online. That the discourse about the show has a recursive feedback loop on programming provides an incentive both for leaking, and for talent to go off-script under the expectation that a maelstrom of social media attention will get them what they want.
It also ensures that come Thursday morning, the attention is inevitably pulled away from the storylines and the in-ring work and towards rumours and speculation. Some will say that any publicity is good publicity, but it will be fruitless if people are not being drawn to watch the product.
By passing off storylines as scoops to the wrestling media, the company has given legitimacy to leaking and reinforced to the fans a need to pay attention to these sources. More and more time then has to be dedicated to explaining or referencing real-world or backstage-events, to the detriment of actual storylines which build up matches and PPVs. There are countless examples of this: Punk’s press-conference tirade, MJF and the phantom plane ticket, Andrade and Guevara scuffle. So effective are these approaches that FTR directly addressed the crowd at NJPW’s Royal Quest II event to complain to Tony Khan about their booking, knowing that the story would be all over social media before the day was out.
As much as it would be easy to blame CM Punk for the situation in AEW, in reality, the problems go deeper. All it would ever take is a few talent with an axe to grind or a personal agenda. The fix for these problems is not to do less worked-shoot storylines. It could mean a fundamental change in what the promotion is about, how it engages with fans, viewers and media outlets, and how it conceptualises its own universe.
Whether or not Tony Khan et al are able to make these changes during a time of increased scrutiny is another question. They may just be surprised by how much most fans want to put down their phones and tablets and simply watch some good wrestling.