Monday Night Raw is the WWE’s flagship show. It has been for a long time and will be for as long as it makes them money. There’s no reason to try to make another WWE product bigger than that.
That said, there’s no reason to not allow other brands within the company umbrella to grow to large and profitable sizes. So, here’s looking at you, SmackDown.
SmackDown hasn’t always been as unimportant as it is now. Once the counter-programming measure to WCW’s Thursday Night Thunder, and as good a product as Raw, WWE SmackDown was a vital part of the company’s growth, success and storytelling process. The latter aspect being a portion of SmackDown which has been nonexistent for years now. While previous years saw viewers needing to watch SmackDown to follow a story’s episodic nature, consumers of the WWE product could have not watched an episode over the last five years and there would be no missing moments, angles or important aspects of happenings within the WWE universe.
That has been the brand of SmackDown over the last handful of years. Gone is the brand which featured its own World Heavyweight Title, talent which wrestled exclusively under the SmackDown banner, and any sense of relevance…. Well, except maybe not all the way gone.
SmackDown is famously switching networks in only a few short weeks. It will leave its current, odd-fitting home that has been the SyFy channel, and it will join Monday Night Raw on the USA Network — which has been a longstanding network which does a great job promoting wrestling products.
The WWE brand will make its debut on the USA network on Jan. 7, 2016. Using my calendar, I can inform you that is on a Thursday. Meaning, unless the WWE drastically alters how it produce its products, SmackDown will mostly be a taped-program.
That is an issue onto itself. The reason for sports being such a highly sought after product by networks is because it is one of the few things consumers have to (mostly) view live. It is why broadcasting rights for football, basketball and baseball are so high. They can pitch it to advertisers in a way, which normal TV programs can’t, that viewers have to sit through commercials — as opposed to someone who DVRs Cake Boss, and can fast-forward through all the advertisements.
SmackDown being on a delay is stinky. Not only for the ad-people, either. Generally speaking, the wrestling product is simply better consumed when aired live. Piped-in noises are annoying, missing that feelings of anything can happen is a downer, and being able to read “spoilers” on a Tuesday for a Thursday-aired show makes it less of a must-see situation.
That certainly doesn’t mean all hope is lost merely because it looks as if SmackDown will continue to be taped. While it will obviously be a huge detractor for some, it will be the actual product of the show which will make its value relative to the worth of our eyeballs.
The largest issue the brand faces now is that it doesn’t matter. Not a single thing which happens on the show alters WWE angles. It is merely a soft landing sport for some pre-Raw rework. Essentially, what SmackDown has been to Raw is similar as to what cuddling is after making love — it isn’t a necessity, and we know when the important stuff happens, though it is nice sometimes.
Finding a way to work stories into SmackDown, ones which impact the following Raw or Network Special, isn’t all that hard to do. It would take a leap of faith on behalf of the WWE, though, as many won’t turn on the program until “they know” it matters. Meaning, there might be a month or two viewers will be confused as to what is happening on Raw because they didn’t watch SmackDown. Then again, that only makes SmackDown more appealing.
There are issues doing this, however. The WWE has a hard enough time booking a three-hour Raw. Despite easy fixes being more in-ring wrestling, allowing more talent to shine instead of the redundancy of the same people popping over multiple times in on show, and making each episode feel special. All of that will be compounded by having a second legitimate brand. If we think the WWE’s stories are tired now, merely imagine them trying to book four weeks of a Network Special’s stories into two shows a week.
A brand split makes sense to fix this. Not that it is something they should do. Whether they would prefer to make SmackDown the home of the U.S. and IC titles — a midcard heaven, if you will — or Raw-lite would be up to them. Watering down its product, as they don’t know how to book the incredibly deep talent pool they have as is, would only hurt them and infuriate us as viewers.
Either way, the WWE should try to make SmackDown a program of relevance again. It makes no sense it has gone so unattended to as it has anyway. It is a brand which should help them make more money. It also (should) gives them a chance to give more talent some time to shine. Really, as NXT is the wrestling-heavy alternative WWE gave to its own audience, SmackDown can be another sort of wrestling alternative as well. The WWE could, theoretically, own all potential wrestling markets or niches of the sport die-hards claim they want — while also having a brand, Raw, to do what they normally do.
What will likely happen, however, is that the WWE will make an initial push to make SmackDown a thing again. It might last as long as six months or even a year. But if history has taught us anything, eventually the WWE will ignore it and SmackDown will become a glorified version of Superstars or Main Event again.
But, honestly, no one — not even the WWE — should want or plan for that.