Not since the day that Tony Schiavone, Eric Bischoff and Mick Foley conspired to put ‘butts in seats’ on 4th January 1999, have wrestling ratings been as important as they are today.
On that fateful night, Foley won the WWF Championship on Raw is War, whilst Bischoff, in his infinite wisdom, decided the ‘Fingerpoke of Doom’ was the way to swell the ranks of WCW viewers. Whilst the figures show that WCW ratings were actually on the slide before this, that night is seen by many as the beginning of the end of the Monday Night Wars and indeed WCW was to collapse and be subsumed by the almighty Vince-machine only two years later.
Since WCW went the way of the dodo, and despite some at times comically ludicrous efforts from good old TNA, WWE has ruled the wrestling roost, and the very thought of a proper ratings war seemed like a bygone era that would never be revisited.
But praise be to the grappling gods, ratings wars are back and our screens, phones and brains are yet again awash with numbers, demographics and a disturbing tribalism that often makes Wrestling Twitter feel like being in a 280 character version of Lord of the Flies.
So is this return to focusing on ratings a good thing or a mind-numbing exercise in maths-based futility? And how are, and should, wrestling fans be interacting with this glorious return to the days of graphs and pie-charts?
Firstly it is important to realise that, whatever your personal view is on ratings, they remain hugely important in the industry. Whether we like it or not, TNT and USA Network couldn’t give a fig whether Shotzi Blackheart has been pushed well or whether Brandon Cutler is slowly improving within the ropes. Should Johnny Gargano have turned heel? Should QT Marshall be shacking-up with that jezebel Allie? The networks simply do not care. What they do care about is how many people are sitting at home in their pants (or however other people choose to dress to watch wrestling) watching their show, and how old those people in their pants are.
Fortunately, as a 36 year old, I am considered a valued member of society by the networks because I am much more likely to buy Frosties if they tell me to during a wrestling show. Sadly, those below the age of 18 and above the age of 49 are deemed irrelevant as they are apparently either too young to have money, or too old to remember where their money is.
I’m being flippant in the face of this rampant commercialism, but we do need to acknowledge that it is the case, and if ratings fall then a show could be axed quicker than a Big Show heel turn, regardless of whether we think the show is superb or not. Fans of the superb Joss Whedon show Firefly will understand this pain…and no Serenity did not make up for it whatever anyone says.
Boring nod to capitalism out of the way however, I can never bring myself to just accept that the company with the highest ratings is ‘the best’ (and I say this as a self-confessed AEW ‘supporter’ who has watched them generally cruise to ‘victory’ in the Wednesday Night Wars so far).
Firstly there are flaws in only looking at the TV ratings when considering whether a show has been successful or not. In an age where the way in which us mindless zombies consume our television is forever changing, it seems very behind the times not to be discussing downloads, streaming, delayed viewings and perhaps most importantly viewers outside of the US (I know guys…I’m surprised there are other countries as well). I imagine, based on the general discourse around both NXT and AEW, that like me the majority of people actually watch both shows, and yet are likely only counted as being in favour of one. Taking all of these things into consideration would presumably give us a much better indication of the total number of people actually watching these shows.
There are also nuances to the figures that need to be taken into account. Wrestling shows are often, inexplicably in my very British opinion, shunted down the ratings when there’s a big HandEgg game on, meaning people are supporting the Minnesota Mudhumpers or the Colorado Cataracts rather than cheering on Keith Lee or Jon Moxley. The stats so far also seem to suggest that when one show has a bad week (as AEW did quite spectacularly before the recent Fyter-Fest shows) it largely doesn’t result in people switching over to the other show. It seems if people don’t like AEW, they’d generally rather watch something else entirely rather than watching NXT, and vice-versa.
Even keeping all of that in mind however, there is still a large wrestling elephant sitting in the room in a lucha mask wondering why he’s being asked to do yet another Canadian Destroyer. Ratings and quality do not go hand in hand. There…I’ve said it.
Higher numbers simply don’t equate to something actually being good. Examples:
- 2018 Oscar Best Picture winner the Shape of Water made $195.3m. The Meg, a film about a big fish, made $530.2m.
- The Vengaboys have had two number 1 singles in the UK.
- Piers Morgan, an arrogant, pompous, self-important proven liar has 7.6m followers on Twitter. I, a frankly delightful individual, have fewer than 5,000.
- Most tellingly, more people continue to watch Raw and Smackdown than NXT….baffling.
I also don’t buy into the narrative that the ratings war drives better quality shows. In fact at times it’s completely the opposite. On NXT for example, the recent match between Io Shirai and Sasha Banks, whilst very good, was clearly rushed to TV to try and get a snap-rating. It worked, but I think the match would have been considerably better if it had been given a proper build rather than a two minute interaction and a Twitter video. Similarly, AEW’s biggest ratings grab to date created arguably their worst moment on AEW Dynamite when they decided to try and bring in fans with convicted sex offender (and less importantly non-wrestler) Mike Tyson.
Ratings then can fittingly both be up and down.
They are, and will continue to be a hugely important part of wrestling. And when discussed sensibly and understanding some of the above caveats they can actually be really interesting. No this doesn’t mean I want to engage in a lengthy discussion over who has won the 18-49 demos, and I certainly don’t want wrestlers talking about it when trying to interact with fans (yes Chris Jericho…I’m looking at you).
But they are very much are not the be-all and end-all of the industry and certainly shouldn’t be waved in the face of anyone to prove that ‘your show’ is better. Ratings should not be weaponised at all as that way madness lies, but with a bit of a grown-up approach to the numbers we can all sit in a lovely venn diagram of wrestling and ratings in complete harmony.
P.S if this post gets lots of views then all of the above is officially wrong and numbers mean everything.
And if you want to read any more of my ramblings please visit www.wrestlingwithprocrastination.co.uk