Last week's episode of WWE Monday Night Raw was episode #1,052, which was significant because it was one year ago last week that WWE made the decision to make Raw a three hour television show every week.
In January of 1993 it was a one hour show. In February of 1997 it moved to two hours, which is where it was at for 15 years. Most would say that two hours was the perfect amount of time for a wrestling show, but there are always reasons for why WWE does things. As somebody that's watched nearly every episode of Raw ever (I'm sure I missed a few in the early days) and has reviewed every Raw in the last four years, I feel compelled to look into this further.
The announcement of three hour Raw became official in May 2012 when WWE issued a press release where they did what they do best: they bragged about how great they are. There's nothing wrong with that. They have earned the right to talk about how successful they are as a business because when most of the world thinks of "professional wrestling" (or sports entertainment) they think of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Raw has been the most watched show on cable television for much of its 21 year run. While the ratings are not at the level they were at during their peak run from 1998 to 2001, they are still doing well and are a very profitable company.
Looking back at the press release announcement, there was an interesting quote from WWE Chairman Vince McMahon in there that left me scratching my head a bit.
"Our new three-hour Raw represents the next generation in interactive television where our fans won’t just watch the show, they will help create it." - Vince McMahon
That's what WWE was promising when they moved to three hours full time, but as we've seen over the last year the "RawActive" segments have generally been underwhelming. Most of the time the polls lead to ridiculously obvious results and fans are usually only given a few minutes to vote on their choices. It's not even something WWE even does every week.
I find it odd that they spent so much time promoting how interactive Raw was going to be, yet they have neglected to do more of it as the last year has gone on.
Why is Three Hour Raw good for WWE and USA Network? Money!
It's pretty simple to understand why USA Network wanted WWE to expand Raw to three hours. It's because WWE makes money for USA Network. WWE is getting paid by USA Network to produce their shows. Going from two hours to three hours meant more money coming WWE's way. Obviously it costs WWE money to produce their shows, but it's obviously not a money loser for them. They are doing very well.
Last December, WWE CFO George Barrios said that USA Network is happy with Raw and ratings were up 35% over what previous programming did in that 8-9pmET hour. For all I know he could be fabricating that percentage, but I'll take his word for it.
Make no mistake about it, WWE is in the business of making money. They always have been. They always will be. It's a business first. The good thing about that is that the more money they make, the more wrestlers are able to stay employed. Notice how few WWE releases there have been in the last year? The roster is as big as it has ever been if you include the developmental system. I'm happy for the wrestlers more than anything. It's hard to make it to WWE in the first place and now because the company is doing so well they're able to employ more wrestlers.
If you look at it from USA Network's point of view, they have more people watching their station when Raw is on. More people means more advertising dollars although it's been written many times that advertisers may not pay as much to showcase their goods on a wrestling show. Still, it's better than showing a CSI rerun or whatever else might be in that time slot.
For WWE, logistically it's not a big deal to have another hour of Raw because the talent is already there, the building is already full (most of the time) and it's just a matter of writing another hour of television, which they have become better at as the year has gone on.
USA Network and WWE are partners. As long as that money keeps rolling in, both sides are going to be happy with this business relationship. After all, everybody has a price.
The Best Part of Three Hour Raw? Longer matches! Yeah! Wrestling!
I think it's fair to say that the last year of Raw has produced some of the best in-ring action in WWE TV history. I can remember my favorite WWE year ever in 2000 when they would routinely have great matches, but it didn't feel as often as this.
Since they have that extra hour to spare they can afford to put on two or three matches every week that get 15 minutes of in-ring time or more. Obviously not every match that gets that much time is going to be great, but when you consider how talented the WWE roster is the chances are very good that we'll get a memorable matchup.
What was the best WWE match this year? In my opinion it was John Cena vs. CM Punk from the February 25th edition of Raw. This is what I wrote about it that night: "The story of the match was about how Cena needed to win to prove to himself, as well as the doubters, that he's better than he's ever been on the road to WrestleMania. If they had a ten minute match that Cena won it would have been okay. Instead they had a nearly 30 minute match that was outstanding and made both guys look like the top guys in the business. That's what wrestling should be about."
Could that match still have received nearly 30 minutes of TV time if Raw was two hours? Of course. We've seen matches that long in the past (remember Cena vs. Michaels in 2007 nearly going one hour?), but having that third hour has made it more likely for these epic matchups to occur on television.
There was also a list on WWE.com (aka the site that loves list columns) where they mentioned the top Raw matches of the last year. In that list you can see the names of the best in-ring performers in the company like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro and a few six man tag matches featuring The Shield too. They actually put The Shield's six man tag against Bryan, Kane & Kofi Kingston from May 20th in the top spot. I gave it a lot of praise, but better than Punk vs. Cena from February 25? No. I don't think so.
That's the beauty of Raw in the last year, though. You can make arguments for dozens of matches as the best because there have been so many outstanding ones. After the Daniel Bryan vs. Antonio Cesaro match on Raw last week people were calling that the best Raw match of the year. It seems like every week there are one or two matches that I rate at three stars or above, which is another way of saying a match was very good.
That's why I think the best part about three hour Raw has been the increase in quality matches on the show week after week.
The Worst Part of Three Hour Raw? The show is too damn long!
It's a lot of work to put on a three hour television show that's live nearly every week (Raw is taped a few times in the year). From the creative team to the production crew to the wrestlers themselves, a lot of things have to take place to run a television that long. It's not just any television show. It's the "longest running weekly episodic television show in history" after all!
I'm not sure how many times during the last year I've sat there while writing and thinking "is it over yet?" Then I look at the clock to realize there's still an hour left. That doesn't happen too often now that shows have improved, but I can remember during the boring fall season that it happened a lot.
I remember when the three hour Raw idea was first announced and a lot of us thought that the extra time would lead to more people being on the show and further character development. I'm not sure if that's really happened. There's no way to really prove if it has or hasn't. Obviously the character development of a guy like Daniel Bryan has been a huge thing in the last year of WWE TV, but you could argue that it would have happened without the third hour of Raw because he's been featured on television so much.
What it feels like to me is that we've seen far too many squash matches as ways to fill time. I still have nightmares of writing about all those boring Sheamus vs. 3MB matches that we got far too often when they had no storyline direction for Sheamus. If it wasn't Sheamus then it was somebody else like Ryback squashing 3MB. It's not just that, but I can remember some weeks where there were five or six matches that got four minutes or less. I'm fine with them once in a while. Seeing it all show is too much.
The other point worth mentioning is that there just aren't that many television shows that are three hours long, so it's difficult to hold the attention of the audience for that long. I'm a huge fan of the National Football League and those games run three hours or more, but it's only for five months in the year. The same goes for college football. Baseball games are about three hours too. Most other sporting events are under three hours; NBA games typically go 2.5 hours for example as well as NHL games. WWE is quick to point out that they are entertainment rather than sport (except when talking about DVD sales!), though, so let's focus on that.
How many regular TV shows run three hours long? None. It makes Raw unique, but it also puts them in a difficult spot because they're the only ones asking their viewers to watch their show that is just over three hours long every Monday night. Most entertainment shows, especially episodic ones like Raw, are either thirty minutes or an hour long. Some types of TV shows are two hours long although that's not a common occurrence. Three hours of Raw makes it unique and unlike anything else that regularly airs on television.
If you look at things from a rating perspective, there hasn't been a notable rise or dip since moving to three hours. Raw gets between a 2.8 to 3.1 rating most weeks. The run up to WrestleMania saw a bit of a boost with the presence of guys like The Rock, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker on there, but for the most part it was consistent. The days of Raw getting 5.0 ratings as an average are long gone and may never return again. It's a different world now.
Did I mention the WWE App yet? They really plug that thing like crazy. At least they've given up on Tout, which seems to be disappearing. Sometimes I feel like I'm watching the WWE App show that is sponsored by Monday Night Raw with how much they mention it. We get it. You have an App. You could be a bit more discreet about it.
As I go back to the original question in the title of the column, is three hour Raw better for WWE? I'm leaning towards saying yes just because the last three months have been a lot of fun and it leads me to think that WWE has figured out how to make their flagship show better. Writing 5,000+ words every week does make me miss the days when I could write 3,000 words for a two hour show, but I've gotten used to the three hour format now.
If I wrote this in December I would have said no. In March I would have said no as well. Not now. I think Raw is an above average show nearly every week for the past three months and I'm excited to see where things are headed leading into SummerSlam. Once September comes and they face NFL competition on Monday nights that will be a test for WWE, but it's something they have dealt with for 21 years. They should be fine.
The other thing I realized from writing this column is that I really don't think the end of three hour Raw is going to happen any time soon.
If USA Network is happy and WWE can produce an entertaining television show week after week then they have no reason to change things. Both companies make money from the deal.
It's good business to keep it going especially when the numbers show that fans continue to tune in week after week. If ratings went down that's one thing, but like the old saying goes if it ain't broke why fix it?
Let me know your thoughts. My contact info is below.
John Canton - firstname.lastname@example.org