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Free per View: A Cautionary Tale
September 19, 2003

by Erin Anderson
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I'm willing to bet that last night's Smackdown! gave us a better show than Unforgiven will on Sunday. Sometimes you won't even see two major title changes on a pay-per-view, much less on the regular, free Thursday night show. Smackdown! was huge: not only did we get a new WWE champion in Brock Lesnar in an unprecedented Iron Man Match on free television, but we also saw Los Guerreros walk away with the tag titles. Toss in the opening tag contest and we've got three great matches __ the same number we got from Vengeance a few months ago.

It's every smark's dream, and something we've all been screaming about for quite a while: the WWE product would be far more exciting if we get to see matches with high stakes and title changes on free TV. And last night, Smackdown! delivered on that, obviously to compete with RAW's Unforgiven.

If there's any truth to the Internet news, this will be a recurring theme in WWE; we'll see each brand put on one "big" show during their off-months to maintain fan interest while the other brand gears up for its pay-per-view. For the fans, this is nothing but good news: we're getting back an air of unpredictability in the shows. We might actually believe that a challenger has a chance in a free-TV title match __ if it happened twice in one night on Smackdown!, why can't it happen again? The previously-dead "Anything can happen" atmosphere is brought back for the fans, and we don't feel like we have to plunk down the cash every month just to see an important match.

I spoke to a couple of my wrestling buddies after the show last night, and they were suitably shocked at the title changes. Sure, they were furious that Brock won the title, but thrilled to see Los Guerreros walk away with the tag straps. And to quote one of my friends: "I couldn't fucking believe it. They never do stuff like that on TV." If I didn't already think that last night's show was a brilliant promotional move, those two sentences would have convinced me.

But something about this new plan for "big" shows on off-months has bothered me, and going back and looking at what I just wrote, I see what it is.

We don't feel like we have to plunk down the cash every month just to see an important match.

It looks great on the surface, sure. But in the long run, making shows like last night's a habit on free TV probably isn't the smartest idea if WWE isn't extremely careful.

Just stay with me on this one: if WWE gets too overzealous with using the "big" shows to alter the fans' perception of what can and can't happen on free television, then the pay-per-views and titles will lose their magic, and ultimately, their worth. It simply isn't smart from a business perspective.

I don't plan on ordering Unforgiven; the card isn't one that I would pay 35 bucks to see. And why should I, when I got a pay-per-view caliber Smackdown! in the very same week? The weak card is a big factor in me not wanting to order the show, but WWE has also already fulfilled my big-match quota for the month. I don't think that Unforgiven can top what I saw last night, so why should I even bother seeing it? I don't even know if I'll make the trip to my local Hooters to view it for free.

I can almost hear the fans who never order pay-per-views (and those whose pocketbooks are hurting from ordering them regularly) screaming at me for saying this. "Who cares? We're the ones getting the better end of the deal, so why are you complaining?" Rest assured, I am not complaining about what I saw last night, just a little worried. A change in pace like this to regular WWE programming will ultimately affect its quality.

A major title change on RAW or Smackdown! is a very welcome surprise for the fans, but it is one that should be used sparingly. A title change means nothing if it can happen anywhere, at any time. A pay-per-view-caliber show on free television every month makes the pay-per-views themselves meaningless. If WWE makes this a habit in an effort to say, "See? We can be unpredictable!", then WWE does become predictable.

If we constantly see title changes on free television, then we are no longer shocked by them; a Holy Shit Moment becomes Just Another Title Change if we see it too often. Gimmick matches are no longer special if we see them every week. Angle and Lesnar got away clean last night because of the extraordinarily rare nature of the Iron Man match, their own talents as sports entertainers, and the intensity of their months-long feud; other competitors may not be so lucky.

But the biggest losers of all would be the pay-per-views. In the past, their rarity was part of what made them so special: first, there was only Wrestlemania. Survivor Series, Summerslam, and Royal Rumble followed and are still referred to as the biggest pay-per-views of the year. Now we have Bad Blood, Vengeance, No Mercy, King of the Ring, Unforgiven, Judgment Day, No Way Out, and Backlash. Pay-per-views have already lost some of their magic because they have become so common. Having one per month has diminished their importance enough already, but what happens when we essentially get two of them? Rarity and novelty go hand-in-hand __ a pay-per-view becomes meaningless if it doesn't give us something that we can't see on regular TV.

It's overkill. Not only does it make the fans less likely to pay for a show, but it rushes the build-ups for the matches in order to prepare for the monthly free-per-views. In some cases, like Los Guerreros v. Haas/Benjamin, we get none at all. Those teams are both over and talented enough to get away with it, but who's going to give two shits about a Hurricane/Rosey v. La Resistance title match with no build-up on one of RAW's "big" shows? One of the biggest advantages to brand-specific pay-per-views is that each brand would have eight episodes to build for its big finale. Adding free-per-views throws a wrench into all that planning.

Perhaps I'm wrong on all of this, and last night's show was a rare treat given to the fans for the Smackdown! season premiere. If it sets the standard for what's to come on WWE programming, then the company is in trouble. These free-per-views could be used as a tool to build for the pay-per-views: give the fans a great show, but make the matches the middle chapters leading into next month's finale. More importantly, major title changes on free TV should occur only once or twice a year; the product is still unpredictable, but the titles and pay-per-views won't lose any credibility in the process. But if Smackdown! was any indication, the shows are going to be shooting their wads prematurely every month.

Beware, WWE. Your plan to give the fans more could ultimately be giving them less.


Erin Anderson is an Atlanta native and a student at Georgia State University. Since writing about wrestling didn't go over too well with her English professors, she vents here at Online Onslaught.

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