The Exploitation of Fame

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The Exploitation of FameNo Gimmick Required

The Exploitation of Fame

WWE will have no future if it can’t stop eating the present.

by Raywat Deonandan
October 8, 2002

This column is a regular feature on 411wrestling.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

“Raywhat Deonadrano (like I keep track of these names) is bigger than… umm…. He’s bigger than Wade Keller! ” -Flea

Yeah, baby!

I do apologize, gentle readers, for my prolonged absence. Yes, sometimes my life involves distractions, activities, proclivities and priorities which have nothing to do with wrestling. Sad, but true. (In the distance, my ex-girlfriend sighs audibly.)

Everyone has heard the news by now, I think. This website is presently the Undisputed Champion of wrestling websites, having overtaken 1bob in the rankings. As a result of our rapid expansion, the bosses are asking all the writers to do our own HTML mark-up. This means that I can now include important things like this:

Okay, now that my requisite Alyson Hannigan worship is completed, let’s move on to today’s topic. I think that out of all the wrestling writers on the web, I have the finest group of regular readers. (Insert cheap Mick Foley thumbs-up here.) They always impress me with their literacy and curiosity. One such reader is Ana M., who wrote me a thought-provoking letter about something WWE rarely gets criticized for: unrestrained exploitation of its employees’ fame.

Ana writes:

“As much as I agree with what you say about the 3 things that are wrong with wrestling, I still think their biggest problem is exploitation. Once someone gets famous, the WWE immediately puts them on TV for about 60% of every broadcast, which makes the stars get old quickly. Examples are Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Sable, the nWo and worst of all, the Rock. The WWE and all wrestling shows need to learn moderation…”

No one will disagree that, as a going business, WWE is justified in viewing its employees as commodities (to a reasonable extent; I’m no corporate apologist). To seek to benefit from the successes of its own engineered products is, in many ways, no different from reaping the rewards of a smart investment. The problem that I, and I think Ana, have with it is the extent to which this reaping is performed, and the short-sightedness and wastefulness of its execution. Mainstream fame, like that acquired by Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, Steve Austin and The Rock, is often the result of the WWE marketing machine, and is therefore a primary product which need not be squandered.

One of the facets of wrestling I find so fascinating is its separation of hype from substance, honing its marketing arm to become the true product, replacing actual athleticism in situ. (Hulk Hogan’s wrestling is pitiful, but his persona is the true marketable product.) You see, I don’t watch real sports, except for the occasional boxing or MMA fight. Playing sports is a lot of fun, but I don’t see the point in watching others do it… except for the drama and spectacle that is often implicit in professional sports.

The magic of professional wrestling is that, in the absence of actual competition, wrestling has learned to celebrate the spectacle of its faux competition. That’s why fancy tights, weird names and gimmicks and –above all else– flashy entrances make up the lion’s share of any wrestling programme. Each wrestling show is supposed to be a mini Rocky, rightly focusing on the character and story, with the fake fight with Apollo Creed thrown in only at the climax. In the modern world of wrestling, it’s more important for performers to convincingly carry the former roles –the acting, the gimmickry, the setup– and less important to be able to adequately wrestle in the climactic latter physical sequence. I don’t agree with this mentality, but I acknowledge that it is the current mindset of the WWE oligarchy.

Building the characters, growing the product, cultivating the merchandise and shaping saleable wrestlers — these are the bread-and-butter tasks of a modern national wrestling company, from a corporate perspective. (From the fan’s perspective, of course, the core product is simply a good show.)

Having said that, once such cultivation reaches ripeness, as in the case of The Rock, there is a temptation to devour the fruit right on the vine, instead of savouring its goodness for a good long time. When The Rock became a movie star, he was everywhere on the mainstream media. For the first time since Hogan’s heyday, WWE had a wrestler with a positive image who was a palatable ambassador to the mainstream. Simply a suggestion that he might appear on Raw or Smackdown! caused ratings to go up. But instead of teasing his return from Hollywood with vignettes or sly backstage segments, he was thrown right into the main event with, of course, a ridiculous “main event interview.”

In their defense, at the time of The Rock’s return from Hollywood, WWE (then ‘F’) was languishing in the failed Invasion angle, and was badly in need of an infusion of vitality. (Little did they know that it was the beginning of a long, slow slide.) Even so, I hoped they would do the smart thing and sustain their investment’s drawing power. I visualized artistic vignettes with subtle, brief non-speaking showdowns between Rock and (then WCW champion) Booker T. But, indicative of the short-span booking of the era, the WCW belt was quickly thrown around Rock’s waist in a free television match (which wasn’t even the main event), sucking away both the mystique of the belt and the larger-than-life appeal of the man.

When Hulk Hogan returned late last year, do you recall the electricity of seeing his legendary figure step into the ring to confront current superstars, like Rock and Austin? Surreal didn’t begin to describe it. The crowd response to Hogan at Wrestlemania was simply humbling. So what did WWE do? They put Hogan in every possible match-up on every free TV show they could, even giving him the Undisputed Title for a short, implausible run. The nWo and its related main event angles were sacrificed for this little exercise in short-term exploitation.

Contract issues aside, was this the best way to harness Hogan’s popularity? That kind of mystique and audience reverence could have been sustained for some time longer:

  1. with conservative booking,
  2. by holding off on the Red-and-Gold transformation,
  3. by keeping Hogan in the nWo and easing him out in such a way to maintain the credibility of the stable,
  4. by saving the big Hogan match-ups and team-ups for pay-per-views, and
  5. by keeping him off camera while teasing his upcoming appearances.

In cases like this, less is definitely more. Ana put it well:

“They singlehandedly destroyed the nWo that day because they thought it would be a better idea to make Hogan a good guy since people popped for him really loudly at the pay-per-view. Now look at Hogan. No one really cares about him…”

WWE has been guilty of this kind of throw-away booking for some time now. I would not be surprised to discover that this philosophy became cemented shortly after the company went public. The demands of a publicly traded corporate entity are different than those of a privately owned business. Share-holders demand financial results on a quarterly basis. Unfortunately, angles are difficult to book to climax during a quarterly closing, and the vicissitudes of audience heat cannot be constrained to fit an accountant’s schedule.

The result is that investments in character development, wrestler charisma and storyline progression, which were made in better times, are being consumed with abandon to satisfy a demand to show regular success, while new investments are not being made for maturation in the next business cycle. How will the next Rock or Hogan arise? I don’t think one can, at least not while the seeds for future success are being furiously consumed today.

Until next time, I’m supposedly Raywhat Deonandrano. Visit me at www.deonandan.com.