As a wrestling fan for over 24 years, I’m finding it hard to maintain interest in the current product. And from what I see here, the drastic change in ratings & buyrates over the past fifteen years and the reactions of those in the arena, I’m not the only one. The reason is pretty simple. WWE has become too predictable. We’re in an age where people would rather DVR it and skip through the bullshit. Or they’ll just change the channel and either read the results online or tune in next week because they don’t expect to miss anything. And more times than not, they don’t miss anything. And that’s bad.
In my younger days, RAW would go off the air leaving me excited, anticipating what would occur the following week. Now, I find myself struggling to remember what happened by Tuesday afternoon. I find myself struggling to suspend belief and buy into the story they’re promoting because, at time, Ray Charles can even see how it will play out. And that’s bad.
We know how good WWE can be. Excluding the past, the buzz they created after Brock Lesnar ended the streak was huge. Global news, sports channels, even hip hop blogs, the world was talking about the result of a pre-determined contest that few, if any, could have predicted in their dreams. In an era, pre-2012, where the MITB briefcase pretty much guaranteed we would see a new champion, John Cena failed to successfully cash in at RAW 1,000. Few, if any, could have predicted that in their dreams because “lol Cena wins”. But these surprises, swerves or unexpected occurrences are few and far between in this era. And that’s bad.
You see, the objective is to get from point A to point B, while producing a compelling program. And we don’t get that because the way the stories are presented, there are few doubts as to what could happen. Excluding the streak ending, the biggest moment in recent time was Daniel Bryan winning in the main event of Wrestlemania, which was somewhat predictable because of WWE running damage control and the way they had promoted Bryan for the eighteen months going into the event. And you follow that up by placing him in a feud with Kane, as if one should question if they’ll have him drop the belt to Kane, of all people.
I look back at Hogan in the 80s and in retrospect, some might say his run was predictable. But, WWE was able to place him in angles and situations where doubt was presented if he could prevail. It was done with Paul Orndorff turning on him. It was done with Andre, a guy touted as being “undefeated” for fifteen years, challenging him for the title. These were new challengers to Hogan and helped tell the story better, as well as strengthen his character even more. Today, we get a fresh champion vs. a guy that hasn’t had much main event success in his near seventeen years in the company. Or, you alternate that challenger for a guy who has a title to account for every year he’s been in the business.
It’s not the wrestling that’s predictable. No matter what people will claim, wrestling isn’t the draw in WWE. Angles and characters are. And they are becoming harder to buy into because of WWE having short term memory issues regarding certain characters, forgetting how to portray stories correctly or because, with the lack of direct competition, they can afford to be as predictable as they want. And that’s a bad thing.
It’s as if “lol Cena wins” is not really a jab at him at all but more so a jab at what WWE has become. Because it’s with just Cena. It was Batista at the Royal Rumble, it was Ryback losing in general, it was Rock winning the title at last year’s Royal Rumble. And the connection is all four are disliked by a portion (some more significant than others) of the audience. And that’s because the way they’re portrayed has become predictable.
It’s starting to become a chore. Many people hate doing chores. It’s not fun or exciting at all but it has to be done. And what WWE has to do is mix it up. Don’t freestyle it but present something consistently that’ll make fans question what they thought they knew. We need more jaw dropping moments. We need a reason to say fuck everything, RAW is coming on. We need a reason to believe because we’re not getting it. And that’s a bad thing.
To properly answer the question of whether predictability in wrestling is a good or bad thing, it is first important to understand that in either case, too much is a bad thing. Too much predictability or unpredictability can neuter a show or a company. The booking of WWE in the period of the late 80s and early 90s is an example of too much predictability, while the demise of WCW is the most commonly cited example of too much unpredictability. However, properly booked and with consistently good writing and characters, there needs to be an air of unpredictability – the feeling that “anything can happen”.
Take, for example, the most recent WrestleMania. The grandest show of the year for the WWE. Leading up to the event, Daniel Bryan was the most over talent on the roster with some of the strongest fan support in years. Engaged in a feud with The Authority, Bryan was booked in a match against Triple H with the stipulation that if Bryan wins the match, he will later enter the Main Event match between Randy Orton and Batista for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. This made the finish of the match very predictable – too predictable. So WWE changed the stipulation the next week on RAW when the stipulation was changed to whoever wins the match, either Bryan or HHH, would enter the Main Event title match. In this example, WWE used both the on-screen dominance of the Triple H character and the general smark opinion of Triple H burying talent to create an air of unpredictability going into the match, thus enhancing the appeal and quality of the match at WrestleMania.
Creating that air of unpredictability is essential for the product. Wrestling is at it's core a stage play telling a story, and the very best stories do not tell you the ending before it arrives. A master storyteller, in or out of the ring, in print or acting, build stories in a progression of events culminating to the climax of the tale. If the climax of the story is known going in, the story thus far now becomes boring. It now becomes unessential, tedious and an exercise in patience as the fan, or the person following along with the story, waits for the end they know is coming.
One might argue in the favor of predictability that when a fan sees the ending coming, that ending is still enjoyable even though it was evident because the ending that came was the one the fan wanted all along. This however does not outweigh the benefits of creating illusion of chance and does not address the problem arising when the ending is expected and is not an ending that the fan agrees with or enjoys. A dull, predictable story with a climax that everyone can see coming is bad for any show, wrestling included. It is impossible to tell a story with an ending that will please everyone watching. The best way to make sure, then, that everyone continues to watch is to convince them that the ending they see coming, that the direction they see the story going, is possible. This increases viewership and PPV buys, and can't occur if the show is predictable.
Professional wrestling, while ultimately a stage show and performance art, does emulate the workings of a sport. In sports, the outcome of a game or match is never predetermined, no matter the difference in skill between teams or players. In order to emulate this ideal and maintain that illusion, the kayfabe reality of the production, that same unpredictability is necessary. If people knew going in to the 2013 NFL football season that the Seattle Seahawks would go on to win the Super Bowl, the majority of fans would tune out and have no desire to watch the season. The same is true for wrestling. The very best formula for a wrestling show is to be unpredictable, but not to an extreme degree.
Predictability is often thought of as a bad thing, you can always find numerous people bitching on forums and various social media "OMG IT'S SOOO PREDICTABLE. Why is the Undertaker fighting Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 30?! It's so obvious Undertaker will win, Brock is filler!" Then suddenly…..
MY CLIENT BROCK LESNAR CONQUERED THE STREAK
and nobody saw it coming. It was truly shocking. This turn of events wouldn't have gathered the reaction it did without WWE making the fans believe Undertaker would never lose. For these moments to really get the reaction there needs to be a predictable booking pattern that makes the audience not expect the swerve.
I feel for us to truly understand the appeal of the streak we need to go back in time. Ever since Wrestlemania 21 the streak has been the building point of the Undertaker's feuds, he's had huge matches with big names such as: Batista, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, CM Punk and Brock Lesnar. Every single year even if you weren't looking forward to the Wrestlemania card you could always rely on the streak match delivering even when the matches were predictable. The entire build up for Brock Lesnar vs The Undertaker was built with Taker looking strong and everybody expected Taker to come out victorious. Every year the match would conclude with several false counts ultimately ending in Taker winning. Wrestlemania 30 comes around and everybody expected the same and that's why this truly succeeded. WWE taught their audience each year that the streak would never end and they did this through a cycle of predictable booking, they controlled us to think this would never happen, they told us the streak would never end and thanks to this predictable cycle it really was an unparalleled moment of unpredictability.
Another example of this was the Ric Flair vs Shawn Michaels storyline at Wrestlemania 24. The storyline had Ric Flair going through numerous opponents until Wrestlemania and this journey helped us appreciate the love of wrestling Ric Flair had, this made us grow emotionally attached to Flair, like if you were in his shoes would you want to give up or go down swinging? His final moments at Wrestlemania were predictable, everybody knew that if Ric Flair was going to go out he was going out at Wrestlemania. However with the storyline that WWE managed to create, how Ric Flair was able to sell the angle, it really got the crowd emotionally attached and that's what made the payoff that much more special. In the end nobody cared about the match being predictable, everybody just cared about seeing the best possible send off for Flair. It didn't matter that everybody knew that his retirement was coming, WWE's writing department made you care about this journey through good writing and really let you know this was the final chapter for a legend in the business. They didn't want to see a massive swerve where Ric would win and then retire the following night, they wanted the expected outcome.
In the same way this can be compared to the Daniel Bryan win at Wrestlemania XXX. As soon as the final Wrestlemania card was decided the whole event was built about Daniel Bryan, he was the main attraction and the writing made you invested in the payoff to his journey to the top. In this instance you could even say the predictable outcome was what the fans wanted, they anticipated the Bryan win, they didn't want to be swerved, they didn't want Triple H beating Bryan and taking the belts, they wanted to see their hero finally win the big one. It was the most satisfying end and with good writing and the fans' love of the Daniel Bryan character they created one of the biggest celebrations in Wrestlemania history.
So, in summary is predictability a bad thing? No. Predictability is the basic platform in creating some of the biggest moments in wrestling history. Predictability helps make those shocking moments that everybody will remember for years. Predictability helps those impactful moments really have that little bit more and that little more can be the difference between something memorable and something forgettable. Entertaining writing can help create those special storylines and interesting characters that the fans love and want to see succeed even when the this outcome would be the more predictable one. You need predictability to exist so that it's more impactful when you stray from the usual booking path. Without predictability we'd have none of these moments and we'd be stuck in a world filled with twists and turns where the fans would become desensitised to these swerves and nothing would truly shock the audience and nothing would create such an impact compared to what predictable booking can create.
It only takes a brief consideration of what predictability can offer in wrestling to vehemently DISAGREE
that it is a bad thing.
A form of predictability is essential in wrestling, as without it, truly ‘shocking’ and ‘unpredictable’ twists struggle to have the same impact and influence. As my partner alluded to, Lesnar ending The Streak was a truly historic and memorable twist, which succeeded due to WWE continually conditioning its audience to believe The Streak would never end.
Predictability establishes familiarity, or a status quo with regard to what an audience can expect. Without its existence, the moments which deviate from the norm in what the audience is trained to expect can never hope to achieve the desired impact in profoundly startling the audience.
Don’t believe me? Then consider Punk’s memorable promo on June 27th 2011. There’s a reason that promo had such impact and was influential in making Punk a commodity that he never was before the promo. Think it was merely his delivery? You’re wrong. In 1998/1999 it’s a fine promo, but the content is none too dissimilar from the shoot orientated style at the time. Context is crucial. By 2011, WWE’s audience were conditioned in what to expect from a standard promo, and it was only by establishing this protocol, that Punk breaking from convention succeeded in being instantly distinguishable and generating immediate interest.
It’s difficult to be revolutionary and transcendent when an audience has heard your act before. By virtue of training their audience to not anticipate a promo in this era which fused reality with kayfabe, Punk’s promo was truly un-anticipated and consequently memorable. It COULD NOT
have achieved such success had WWE not established a predictable environment in which Punk’s promo differentiated from the norm.
Still doubting that a predictable context is necessary for ‘unpredictable’ moments to have their greatest impact? Then consider April 27th 1987, when Jerry Lawler lost his hair for the first time. By convention, Lawler never lost Hair matches. They were the culmination of any feud and the Memphis fans were trained to expect Lawler to always triumph over his adversary.
Lawler’s historic defeat therefore, is truly one of the most definitive and historical moments in Memphis history. Idol, Rich and Heyman have all shared tales of the frightening and hostile atmosphere that engulfed the arena when Lawler’s head was shaved. It broke tradition. It wasn’t what the fans were trained to expect. And like Taker’s Streak ending, and Punk’s ground-breaking promo, it was Lawler’s first Hair loss. The hostility, visceral hatred and intrigue in what existed next for Lawler was palpable, and it couldn’t have been generated had the Memphis fans not been convinced Lawler would prevail. Only when you do away from the norm, do you create the truly iconic twist that unpredictable moments in wrestling are designed for.
Originally Posted by Russo Apologist
But the Attitude Era succeeded with week to week unpredictability!
Again, context is crucial here. The week to week unpredictability of the Attitude Era was initially successful in establishing continual interest, but this was a by-product of the time. WWF and WCW needed to entice viewers and weekly twists succeeded in establishing consistent viewership to be kept in suspense, but this was never a sustainable long-term model.
The Attitude Era in principle succeeded because WWF deviated from their established programming in favour of risqué content in-keeping with the tastes of its audience. Continual twists and swerves were popular initially when they too were fresh and innovative, but a close inspection at TNA’s continual woes as well as WCW’s capitulation and failure to recapture their past glory should demonstrate the problem when audiences are conditioned to expect recurring twists and swerves.
Constant ‘unpredictable’ moments in wrestling effectively devalue and diminish the effect these moments are designed to have. Russo’s twist orientated booking gradually diminished in impact when fans grew to expect said twists, rather than creating a foundation upon which audiences could be legitimately surprised by a swerve. It’s why Hogan joining the NWO had considerable more impact and emotion than any of TNA’s ‘swerves’. In wrestling you need to first create a status quo which fans grow accustomed to, otherwise departing from the norm has no impact when your audience anticipates it.
So is predictability a bad thing? Quite evidently it isn’t. For the unpredictable and shocking moments in wrestling to truly succeed, you need to create a predictable precedent which creates familiarity so as to legitimately surprise the viewer when you deviate from what they anticipate. The events I alluded to in this debate could not have emotionally moved and hooked their audience if said audience didn’t invest in a predictable booking pattern which when departed from had substantially more impact than a climate where no status quo or predictability existed.