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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 5.1 ~ Discovering the WWE Network
By Samuel 'Plan
Jul 14, 2017 - 1:59:02 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 5.1 ~ Discovering the WWE Network

My book, which spawned this mini-series, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, explores the premise of WWE’s version of pro wrestling as performance art. It was an idea that stemmed originally from how I believe the internet has changed the world in which pro wrestling exists and thus, by extension, has changed pro wrestling itself. Musing over how the WWE Network has come to totally redefine the manner in which most fans consume WWE’s product is a succinct but extremely telling indicator of this, and is the issue to which I now turn.

When we think about how the inception and growth of the Network has come to inform the changes in WWE since Summerslam 2014, we might be tempted to immediately begin discussing how it has provided so much more accessibility to fans across the globe, with pay-per-view in particular now being so much easier, so much cheaper to view than ever before; a move that has only served to further erode the importance of providing good weekly television in WWE’s eyes, it seems.

It is not in providing greater access where we find the true influence of the Network, though, nor how it has so irrevocably altered the fabric of WWE’s modus operandi over the last two and a half years. The real impact of the Network can be found in something a little more obscure, and perhaps slightly less apparent: it’s positioning as a platform for talents. The introduction of Network-exclusive programming can become misleading. It is not on the show we must focus, but rather on those making up those shows. Indeed, utilising the Network to afford greater opportunities for talents can be seen even in one of the earliest examples of a piece of Network-exclusive programming, in the form of a title bout aired after the close of the 03/11/14 edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR).

Sheamus vs. Rusev for the United States Championship was unavailable to those not plugged in to the streaming service. Effectively, by traditionalist definitions, it was a glorified house show match that featured a championship switching hands, but more importantly it was designed as a platform to continually strengthen the aura being built around the then still ascending talent of Rusev. The tired crowd might mean it doesn’t watch back as a classic, and indeed few still talk of it in the wake of much larger Network-oriented events from the years that followed, but it watches nonetheless as a match paced and structured quite self-consciously as a main event bout. It was an opportunity for Rusev to make a mark on a presentation created specifically to set apart his first championship win from the rest of everything else that went on that week on Raw. This was his platform, that wouldn’t have been possible without the Network.

A middling example, I grant, and not the most convincing. Rusev’s run as US Champion wasn’t especially impacted all that heavily by his Network-exclusive championship victory; but the important fact isn’t what followed, as much as it is that it simply happened in the first place. For what would follow in 2015 would continue the trend of the Network being deployed as a platform for talents.

2015 saw WWE’s ongoing discovery of what they could do with the Network begin to snowball with the introduction of no less than four shows created specifically because the Network existed: King of the Ring; Elimination Chamber; The Beast in the East; and Live from Madison Square Garden. In each instance, we once again see platforms for stars that, without the Network, would not have been feasible. The successes can be debated of course. Nobody will be in a rush to relive either the Tag Team or Intercontinental Championship Elimination Chamber Matches, for example, nor the forgettable and rushed King of the Ring that year. But again, focus not on how good they were when they happened as much as on the fact they happened in the first place.

After all, for all the misfires there have been notable successes in this method of creating what we might call “peripheral product” – shows that take place largely outside the traditional structure of a WWE calendar year. Two such successes occurred among those four shows in 2015, in fact.

Consider Brock Lesnar; a man who is meeting with increasing criticism thanks to his lack of desire to stray from the established, now aging Suplex City style of match. That style was birthed at Summerslam 2014, of course, and, excepting a pair of riveting bouts opposite the Undertaker, has continued to be the Beast Incarnate’s go-to story between the ropes; often, at this stage, for the worse. Yet in 2015, on a Network-exclusive show, we got perhaps the very best example of a Suplex City match (discounting the non-traditional WrestleMania 31 main event). I refer to Brock Lesnar vs. Big Show at Live from Madison Square Garden specifically.

In what might be described as a pinnacle for the Brock Lesnar singles match, this brief and largely forgotten encounter is presented not unlike a Big Four main event clash, with an epic hype package beforehand that highlights, comprehensively, the history between the two characters that stretches back as far as Survivor Series 2002. Following on from that is the familiar big fight atmosphere of a Madison Square Garden crowd providing the backdrop for a series of shock and awe exchanges and dramatic visuals in a short but highly impactful match – in both the literal and philosophical sense. Never before has the Suplex City formula been applied so effectively or so efficiently, post-Summerslam 2014.

Could you imagine such a committal detour occurring in the midst of a major programme – that featured The Undertaker no less - without the opportunities offered up by WWE’s peripheral product? Beyond anything else, it would be one less fantastic match we, as fans, would have been able to enjoy, precisely because such mid-programme detours are prohibited by WWE’s rigidly compartmentalised creative output, which so often fails to focus on more than one idea at a time.

Of course, we can’t really champion it as the must see representation of the issue of the impact of the Network when very few people are liable to recall it off the top of their heads. Nor is it the most expansive example of how the Network has come to develop WWE’s overall product on the back of affording individual talents new platforms they might otherwise have been denied. There is, however, a match that meets this criterion and that occurred only a couple of months before that climactic Lesnar / Show clash: Kevin Owens vs. Finn Bálor for the NXT Championship at The Beast in the East.

This is a match that many people remember, and a match that promoted Kevin Owens and Finn Bálor, specifically the latter, to WWE fans who might not regularly check out NXT; because it was an NXT Championship clash centred at the heart of a peripheral show promoted primarily as a main roster product - the event was named after Brock Lesnar; the main event featured John Cena; and the opener featured a returning Chris Jericho. We know for a certainty that such an opportunity, such a platform for Bálor and Owens, would not have been possible were it not for the Network and the peripheral product that followed it, because we know that such an occurrence has never happened on a regular pay-per-view. No Network special; no NXT Championship highlight.

What’s more, not unlike the aforementioned Rusev platform in November the year before, in this match you find a major championship change on a card that plays out not entirely unlike a standardised house show; further proof of how the way WWE thinks about the functionality of their product was shifting, and in no small manner, thanks to the opportunities presented by the Network.

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is the fact that the match represents not just the opportunities offered by peripheral product, but the growing popularity of a show synonymous with the Network’s potential: NXT.

Though the revamped NXT came into existence long before the Network did, there’s no denying the Network played a large part in developing NXT into a highlight of WWE, and the first stop for many IWC fans specifically. The bout at Beast in the East therefore represents multiple levels of the same issue. In and of itself, it provided a platform for Owens and Bálor that otherwise would not have existed. In its result, it evidenced a continued change of mindset on WWE’s part as to which unspoken rules they no longer needed to follow thanks to the Network. Finally, most prominently, in occurring on a predominantly main roster event, it represented just how much NXT had developed into a popular third main show that serves in its entirety as one giant platform for talents that otherwise may never have had a shot in the so-called “land of the giants.” Lest we forget that once we got to Beast in the East, NXT had already made a habit out of Takeovers.

Indeed, providing platforms for individuals was what Network-exclusive programming was about from the beginning. What none of us could have anticipated was just how expansive that approach would become once WWE got past its formative stage of discovering what the Network could do and reached the stage of maximising what they felt the Network should do; an idea set to go under the microscope in this series’ next instalment.

Until that time, please do share any thoughts with me in the comments below or over on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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