I had the pleasure, and I genuinely do mean pleasure of attending the recent Raw and Smackdown Live tapings in Manchester, and it’s led me to think about the WWE product from a different perspective. It’s fairly common knowledge within internet wrestling circles and what I’ll be referring to as ‘hardcore’ fans going forward, that WWE’s main target audiences are ‘casual’ fans, and children.
Now, by no means is this inherently a bad thing, and it’s not as if we, as adults and/or hardcore fans don’t have an absolute plethora of fantastic quality graps aimed directly at us, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy and get invested in WWE too.
NXT, and by particular extension NXT UK are arguably both made with hardcore fans in mind, along with the tournaments that WWE regularly run such as the Cruiserweight and Mae Young Classics. Of course, they’re still fairly user friendly, and help to introduce newer talent to audiences that may not be familiar with them – but on the whole act as a bridge between the two major audience groups, delivering a product that most everyone can enjoy.
WWE Live Events, or ‘house shows’ as they’re commonly known are a bit of a different beast. It’s really quite unlikely that you’re going to see any match of the year contenders here, and whilst sometimes you’ll get a title change or a run-in that will be referenced on TV afterwards, for the most part they’re fairly basic match ups with plenty of comedy spots, to appease children and families that might not get to see wrestling otherwise. They’re of course, a fantastic way to shift large amounts of merchandise, too.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with house shows, even if they tend to be inoffensive at best, but they’re really quite different to watching a five star match on an NXT Takeover. Think about it this way – Coca Cola and Fanta are both made by the same company, and they’re both sodas, but they have wildly different tastes and might appeal to different people. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy both, but most people will prefer one over another.
But then you’ve also got Oasis – still made by the same company, and still a drink, but it’s not fizzy, and is arguably pretty flat and uninteresting in comparison. This is where we come to discuss the live tapings of Raw and Smackdown Live, and the sort of experience you can expect if you were to attend one. Again, you’re going to have a vastly different time if you were to go to one of these than if you were to watch a house show, or even watch from home. There are of course both pros and cons to consider, and we’re going to talk about them both. Before that though, it’s worth mentioning that these tapings aren’t necessarily representative of PPVs and Network Specials, and that’s down to one major factor – advertising.
Unlike at an indy show, or a PPV, where for the most part everything happens uninterrupted, these tapings are for television, and as such have to factor in down time for ad breaks. Whilst yes, sometimes an ad break will occur in the middle of a match and the wrestling will just continue, most of the time these happen in-between promos and entrances. It’s admittedly quite jarring, as when an ad break takes place, all the lights will go off, the music will cut, and the wrestlers will just completely stop whatever they were doing and often just wander off to sit in a corner. It’s really quite strange to see, and for a form of entertainment that relies so heavily on suspension of disbelief, can be massively immersion breaking. What’s even stranger is that once the ad break is finished, the lights will come back up, the music will return, and the wrestlers will just carry on like absolutely nothing happened.
Tapings also aren’t always the most efficient way of seeing actual wrestling, believe it or not. A good portion, and at times, even a small majority of show time is used for video packages, the aforementioned ad breaks, and most notably – promo time. Although this time in Manchester we were fortunate enough to get a decent amount of matches, it’s not uncommon for there to only be a couple of bouts in an episode of Smackdown Live. Whilst the promo time doesn’t bother or bore me particularly, I can’t imagine younger fans who just want to see their idols go toe to toe in the ring would be hugely impressed. It’s also far from thrilling to see a wrestler that you’re excited for, say, Ronda Rousey, come out and cut a fairly generic promo to hard cam, and then leave as quickly as she arrived. It’s even more frustrating to know that she’s probably wrestling on all of the house shows, too.
It’s at this point we should probably address the strangest part of a live taping; the dreaded dark segment. I say segment, as you’re not always even lucky enough to get a match. I should mention that I have now been to two sets of WWE tapings, and I’ll briefly go over what happened each time. On both editions of Raw I’ve seen, the show ended with one wrestler giving their opponent their finisher three times in a row. These shows were a year and a half apart, but still had exactly the same ending. We saw Ambrose give The Miz three Dirty Deeds, and Strowman give Ziggler the Running Powerslam. It makes me wonder if Raw always has exactly the same dark segment, or if I’ve just been particularly unlucky.
Both Smackdown Live tapings I’ve attended had actual dark matches though. The first was a bout between Shinsuke Nakamura and Dolph Ziggler, shortly before Nakamura had made his main roster debut at Backlash. The match was decent, and it was exciting to see Nakamura wrestle for the first time. Disappointingly, they wrestled exactly the same match (more or less spot for spot) at my local house show a few days later. This time, we got the team of Randy Orton and The Miz taking on Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles. It’s hard to even call this a match, to be completely honest. There was a comedy spot to start off, with Orton and the Miz refusing to fight and trying to leave, and very little actual wrestling afterwards. Styles barely got any offence in, trading a couple of blows, with the majority of strikes being dealt out by Bryan.
It’s really strange, as this wasn’t even quite a house show quality match. If they’d brought this anywhere near an actual taping, they would have likely been throttled by the fan base. Again, yes, it clearly wasn’t meant for me as a fairly hardcore adult wrestling fan, but the rest of the show wasn’t necessarily going to please the younger part of the audience either. It’s as if by WWE trying to make everyone happy, they in turn make a large portion of their fanbase fairly unhappy – and everything just falls a little flat.
And speaking of falling flat – the lack of pyro on shows makes an absolute world of difference, and every single part of it negative. Forgoing pyro can save a lot of money, especially if you’re using it twice a week minimum, but can really detract from entrances. There’s plenty of discussion surrounding entrances in wrestling, and why they’re so important to a character – and yes, whilst smaller shows rarely have pyro of any sort, they’re also booking smaller, far more intimate venues and not large arenas. A bang and a colourful explosion timed with the music can do absolute wonders for a wrestler, and help to keep audience attention.
Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom however. If you’re interested in the production side of the industry, being at a taping in person is a legitimate treat. You get to see all the camera set ups and tech desks that you normally wouldn’t on television. It’s also worth going if you’re even remotely invested in current WWE storylines. You never quite know what’s going to happen, and you’re far more likely to see a debut, return or title change at a taping than anywhere else. I was lucky enough to see the Authors Of Pain defeat Seth Rollins for the Raw Tag Team Championships, and Nikki Cross debut on the main roster the night after. It’s also worth mentioning that the matches we did see were of a pretty high quality – especially when Rey Mysterio took on Andrade Cien Almas.
So, who are WWE tapings actually for? I’d be hesitant to say that they’re for any specific age range or demographic, but more for people who want to feel a part of the action. If you’re looking for a family trip out and value for money, this isn’t what you want to be spending your cash on. House shows are a far better bet, and you’ve always got the option of supporting your local independent promotion instead. If you can afford it, I’d recommend booking to see tapings alongside other shows, not instead of. Go in to the arena with an open mind, fairly restrained expectations, and you very well may be pleasantly surprised.