Dobrow Gets Into the Ring With 'Raw'

Media Reviews for Media People: World Wrestling Entertainment

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About nine years ago, I was dispatched to World Wrestling Entertainment (nee World Wrestling Federation) headquarters to write a story about the company's marketing efforts. It was at a time when wrestling was hot -- both the WWF and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling were luring millions of viewers per week -- and I was psyched.
WWE Raw: HBK (top) vs. Mr. Kennedy.
WWE Raw: HBK (top) vs. Mr. Kennedy. Credit: WWE

Seriously, I was. While I hadn't watched wrestling in years, I retained a respect for the performers and a fondness of the sport/ entertainment/ whatever from my teenage days. After all, I'm a member of the generation that counts the Ricky Steamboat/Randy "Macho Man" Savage match from WrestleMania III (which was far more thrilling than the NFC-mauls-AFC Super Bowls of that era) as one of the defining athletic events of its collective youth. So I put on my nostalgia fedora and headed up Connecticut way.

The WWE's corporate offices were a massive disappointment. Oh, sure, everybody was friendly, forthcoming and sharp as the tacks that occasionally dot the ring during matches. But the building's halls resembled those of any other faceless corporate park, with the exception of posters from past pay-per-view specials. Staffers settled their differences with reasoned discourse rather than steel chairs. At no point did the lights dim and a gong peal ominously, prompting WWE announcer Jim Ross to yell, with a tremble in his Oklahoma twang, "Good God! That's the Undertaker's ... I mean, the FedEx Guy's entrance music!"

Just once I'd like this treatment myself. You'd hear the opening strains of "Walking on Sunshine," then Ross would shout, "Good God! That's Larry Dobrow's music!" Then I'd stride into the ring, magnificently bedecked in my usual uniform of tattered T-shirt and jeans, and get my face stomped purple.

Sorry, bad tangent. Anyway, I wrote my story, and that was that.

I was prompted to revisit the WWE and its flagship Monday night "Raw" broadcast on USA Network by, among other things, this Wired blog post. It struck me as the worst kind of know-nothing snobbery, especially given that the accompanying YouTube clip comes from a circa-1999 broadcast (I done did research!).

"Who needs Emmy Award-winning efforts like 'ER,' 'West Wing' or 'Law & Order' when you can enjoy this?" the writer asks. Never mind the silly assumption that the Emmy folks are a rational arbiter of artistic worth. But "Law & Order"? The same show that rarely bothers to create its own plots anymore? "Ripped from the headlines" my ass. Where I come from, that's called "copying." At least the similarly linear "C.S.I." franchise serves some public purpose, in that slow-blinking viewers/potential jury-pool members will acknowledge the credibility of DNA evidence the next time O.J. Simpson "allegedly" cuts off somebody's head.

Wow, I'm on a tangent parade today. Anyway anyway anyway, I now find myself in the unexpected position of wanting to defend "Raw" against detractors who clearly haven't bothered to watch it. So I borrowed a few recent episodes from a torrent site of dubious legality and went to work. What I found was an offering louder, brighter and just plain bigger than the syndicated WWF "Superstars" show I used to watch on Saturday mornings. That show proceeded thusly: match, interview, match, interview, match, interview. Rarely did it attempt to do much besides drive attendance at local shows.

The circa-late-2007 "Raw," on the other hand, does not lack for color. The show airs live just about every week, 52 weeks a year, usually ending a few minutes after its scheduled 11 p.m. ET bedtime. The story angles are more out there, often venturing into R-rated territory. Televised matches rarely last longer than five or six minutes -- I'm not sure how harder-core wrestling fans feel about this, but it keeps the show moving briskly -- and in-ring and backstage interview segments occupy a solid 40% of the airtime.

The performers are considerably bigger (let's not speculate how they got that way) and come to the ring to the strains of custom-written songs, theatrical lights and pyro displays. Too, the role of women in WWE has changed drastically. They used to be arm candy; now, they're half-athletic arm candy and are asked to wrestle on a regular basis. A great majority don't appear to be proficient at this.

I don't know how to assess the show's creative choices, other than to say that WWE overlord Vince McMahon gets too much camera time and that relative newcomer Mr. Kennedy -- whose recurring bit of screaming his name very, very loudly just kills me -- gets too little. It's not for me. At the same time, I find it easy to understand why the WWE enjoys such a rabid following. "Raw" knows exactly what it is. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it has no greater ambition than providing escapist entertainment for two hours and change every Monday night. That's all. All programming should be quite so clear and self-aware in its mission.

On the marketing side of things, "Raw" boasts mostly movie, DVD and video-game ads, with the occasional car (Ford's Edge) and insurance (Geico) spot thrown into the mix. Still, in the show's frequent crowd shots, the audience seems more diverse than what we've been conditioned to expect (i.e., only dudes between the ages of 18 and 24). Not wanting to sound like our Wired friend, I called up Dave Meltzer, the Peter Gammons of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts, for a "Raw" state of the union.

According to Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, kids and teenagers have returned to WWE programming and events in droves. "It was really uncool for several years there, but they've come back," he says. Two of the three performers to whom he attributes the revived interest, Batista and Rey Mysterio, appear on "Smackdown," which airs Friday nights on the CW. A third WWE show, based around the Extreme Championship Wrestling brand, airs Tuesday nights on Sci-Fi Channel.

"Raw" likely will never again generate the massive numbers it did back in 1998, when, as Meltzer notes, "Raw" and WCW's "Nitro" together lured about 11 million viewers every Monday. Too, he adds that the adult audience is down a bit from last year's levels. That said, "Raw" still averages about 4.5 million to 5 million enormously loyal viewers per week. "'Raw' is an institution for its audience. It's like 'Monday Night Football' for them," Meltzer says. A there-every-week audience of 4.5 million young viewers ... anyone interested?

~ ~ ~

I don't review programming on non-ad-supported networks such as HBO because, well, it's not supported by ads and thus runs contrary to the purpose of this column. Nonetheless, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to watch "The Wire" when it returns Sunday night, Jan. 6, on HBO.

The show's last season, which explored the state of inner-city education via the microcosm of a Baltimore middle school, was the single best season in the history of episodic TV. As much as I hate simple declarative statements, that isn't an exaggeration. It was smart, infuriating, funny, shocking, heartbreaking, suspenseful, surprising, upsetting ... I could go on like this for several days. I remain in awe of the producers and writers who gestated it and the actors who so vividly brought it to life.

Thanks to the good folks at HBO, I've gotten my hands on the first seven episodes of the new season. Without giving anything away, I'll say that they're a must-watch for anybody in the media business. We've all read 7,276,346 articles on the death of newspapers, but "The Wire" does a superior job dramatizing the factors contributing to their demise. Not surprisingly, the show suggests that the answer may be a bit more complicated than "Craigslist is cutting into everybody's classified-ad revenue."

In conclusion, please watch "The Wire" and please do not prejudge "Raw" without checking it out once every few years. OK?
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