By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
A PG television rating apparently means never having to start a difficult conversation.
While representatives of sports leagues, concert venues, restaurants, and other entertainment entities are offering candid reasons for closures and postponements, WWE is treating the most massive upheaval to its product as a fun little diversion that isn’t really affecting its performers or major events like WrestleMania.
So far, WWE has held one episode of Smackdown and one episode of Raw live from an otherwise empty Performance Center in Orlando, with many more to come. On both shows, announcers have called those episodes “the most unique in history,” which does nothing to capture the gravity of coronavirus or answer the questions many must have about how WWE is protecting its talent.
By calling those individual episodes the most unique, it also implies that WWE won’t be broadcasting shows from the Performance Center for the long haul, which we know is not the case. In a passing moment on Monday’s Raw, Michael Cole announced that WrestleMania will also be held from WWE’s training facility, but he didn’t say why.
The best guess as to why WWE is avoiding talking about the reasons for the permanent-for-now move to Orlando is that Raw and Smackdown are aimed at kids, and WWE doesn’t see itself as responsible for sharing such serious information with impressionable viewers. WWE also surely sees itself as an escape from the reality of a surrounding global pandemic, so no serious discussion or honesty with its fans is needed. Better to fill that time with canned pay-per-view matches.
Except that approach severely damages the credibility of announcers Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler, Tom Phillips and Byron Saxton who, through no fault of their own are being sent out to deliver the same tired catchphrases, fake laughter, and over exaggerated cadence when announcing the arrival of “The Big Dog.” Since those announcers are just doing as they’re told, the person whose credibility is most damaged is WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, who is calling all of these misguided shots.
WWE immediately struck the wrong tone by using the opening moments of Friday’s Smackdown for Triple H to offer some kind of a strange advertisement for the Performance Center, which is every bit the state-of-the-art facility he described. But who cares?
A better message to begin the next few months of shows with no live audience would have been to have a wrestler, probably Daniel Bryan, talk about how WWE’s stars love performing in front of its fans, but it won’t be able to for the foreseeable future because of coronavirus and the company’s desire to keep those fans and its talent safe.
But WWE can’t really promote safety when it’s still holding shows, even without fans in attendance. It can’t, or won’t, tell us what happens when one of its wrestlers inevitably tests positive for coronavirus. WWE won’t tell us why it is potentially risking the health of top star Roman Reigns, whose immune system has likely been affected by two bouts with leukemia.
Speaking of Reigns, his in-ring interview with Cole on Smackdown was bungled pretty badly, too. Reigns’ best moments have come when he was addressing the audience – the TV audience in this case – from the heart, like when he announced his leukemia diagnosis 17 months ago or his recovery several months later.
Writing some boring scripted lines for him about how he’s going to kick Goldberg’s ass at WrestleMania, in the backdrop of a worldwide crisis, is sort of gross and no way to increase his popularity among a cynical audience. Reigns’s best role now is to help reassure the young fans who admire him by starting the aforementioned difficult conversation.
Having that conversation, though, would be almost an inherent admission that WWE is being unsafe by holding shows at all. We know bodily contact, like that which will be exhibited in a dozen or so WrestleMania matches in three weeks, is a good way to spread a potentially fatal virus – a virus that will likely be spreading more quickly by April 5. Sidestepping the elephant in the room is … well, it’s a strategy.
WWE can theoretically draw its widest television audience in months or years with no sports happening at the same time. Acting as if it’s interested in keeping some new or returning fans might be a worthwhile plan. Losing portions of your audience because of bad booking is one thing. Losing them because you can’t tell the truth is quite another – and it’s much worse.