Over ten years ago, the WWE made a foray into network television with Thursday Night Smackdown, the first attempt at a regular televised show on the networks in the post-Monday Night Wars era by any major wrestling company at the time. The show obviously became a success and served as one of the deathblows to WCW in the aforementioned war between the two industry giants.
Over the years, it has undergone a few transformations, from secondary show to brand of its own. More often than not, it has been home to “the next big wrestler”, whether it be Brock Lesnar, John Cena or Jeff Hardy. It has also been home to the more wrestling-oriented show, and thus has been the favored brand among Internet wrestling fans like myself, especially in the face of RAW’s blatant pandering to the “entertainment” side of the sports entertainment coin.
However, no matter what role Smackdown served in the WWE’s grand machinations, it had always been the WWE’s greatest presence on over-the-air network television, that is, until this Friday when the show will air a rare live telecast for its official move from network to cable. No, it’s not like the WWE is leaving a network like NBC or even the CW to be exiled to cable. I
‘d venture to guess that more people watch the SyFy Network than they do MyNetwork Television, which isn’t so much a network as it’s a band of syndicated programs and “D” shows that had to fill the void on local stations that were losing a network thanks to the merger between UPN and the WB. I’d say that the bigger hit taken by the WWE was the move from the product of that merger, the CW, to MyNetwork in the first place. However, the fact that they are moving from network to cable is a big deal, although not for the reasons you think.
[adinserter block=”1″]In 2010, it’s becoming harder and harder to come across households that don’t at least have a basic cable package, and with license to be on basic cable, you can have a whole lot more creative freedom. A lot of the most buzzed-about shows can now be found off-network. Shows like Burn Notice, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Closer and Mad Men can be found just off the beaten path on basic cable, and if you subscribe up to premium packages, you can find True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter and several other highly-rated, critically-acclaimed faire. Why is cable drawing so much of the viewing audience with these shows? There are many reasons, but one big one in my view is that they can be racier, more risqué.
While the WWE is trying to cultivate a more family-oriented business, it’s clear that their heart isn’t totally in sterilizing the show for mass consumption. If so, then there wouldn’t be so many sexual innuendos or references to alcohol or drug use (even if the latter is rare). The half-assed cleansing of the product is being done so that Linda McMahon’s Senate bid can more easily go through, but make no mistake about it. At heart, Vince McMahon is a sophomoric teenager who loves dick jokes and the macabre. If and when this kid-friendly direction ends (if it does, it’ll be after Linda’s Senate campaign fails), you bet they’re going to enjoy having a bit more freedom to dance closer to the edge than they would have been able to on MyNetwork TV.
[adinserter block=”2″]Hopefully though, the change in networks won’t mean much of a change in philosophy. If you believe Kane, who said recently in an interview that with the network switch, Smackdown will change from a wrestling show into more of a “television” show, then you, like me, are probably a bit skeptical. The last thing the WWE needs right now is to have a clone of RAW airing on Friday nights. Making the two shows into almost the same show would be yet another example that defeats the purpose of the brand split.
But whether the show changes in focus or not doesn’t change that this is the end of an era. For a decade-plus, the WWE had a presence on over-the-air television, and now, that presence is ending, for better or worse. Whether it’s yet another sign of the WWE’s waning influence in pop culture or a symptom in the decline of network television on the whole, it’s still a notable event and truth be told, a major score for SyFy Network.
Tom Holzerman is a lifelong wrestling fan and connoisseur of all things Chikara Pro, among other feds. When he’s not writing for the Camel Clutch Blog, you can find him on his own blog, The Wrestling Blog.
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