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Once A Juggernaut, WWE Sees Its Ratings Tank


Ratings for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, are down. Down, crash, smash, oof (ph). Hit me over the head with a folding chair. The performance venue of stars that include Brock Lesnar, Becky Lynch, Velveteen Dream and Alexa Bliss has fewer viewers and fans than it did a few years ago. WWE meets with its shareholders on Monday.

Alfred Konuwa writes about pro wrestling for Forbes. He joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALFRED KONUWA: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Is this just, like, the general decline in mass audience - you know, fewer people watching the evening news or even the Super Bowl?

KONUWA: It is something like that, but it is very aggressive with WWE, especially when you consider how popular they once were. Even if you take the last five years - which was outside of their boom period from 2001 and the late '90s - the last five years, WWE ratings, year over year, have been down about 50%, which is pretty alarming.

Now, I will say that relatively speaking, WWE's audience now, which is about, you know, 2.5 to 3 million people a week - that's something that a lot of TV shows would be envious of. But it is definitely a concern within the industry that WWE's ratings have been so down and have no signs of turning around within the last few years.

SIMON: Why do you think fans are not watching like they used to?

KONUWA: There are a million reasons, Scott, one of them being that WWE has become this huge, full-scale production where there are, like, 26 writers. And there's so much content in its 52 weeks of live television every single week. So when you're depending on that type of format to have a coherent storyline, a lot of times, that gets muddled up. And it all goes through a 73-year-old man in Vince McMahon.

SIMON: You know, it will be a revelation to some people that there are writers. There's some people who think this is real.

KONUWA: Absolutely. And...

SIMON: And that's...

KONUWA: ...That's the eternal struggle.

SIMON: They depend on that. Yeah.

KONUWA: Yeah. And listen. I will say this about the whole wrestling being real discussion. There are people - I will give you that - that do think wrestling is real, but the vast majority of people who watch it know that it's an act. They know that it's this ridiculous over - I found out when I was, like, 4 years old that it wasn't real, and it didn't deter me.

People don't watch it because they think it's real. They watch it because it's entertaining, and it gives them theater. And it's an escape, and there's a lot of drama. And yes, it's ridiculous, but when it's good, it's very good. It is a hybrid between a television show and a live sports product where there is a writers room. They come up with the storylines. And then when it's executed, it's done in the form of live sport. So it is very jarring from that standpoint.

SIMON: What have fans told you they think is missing or what they want?

KONUWA: A lot of wrestling fans have complained about what's called a scripted promo. So back to the point about writers - a lot of the writers fail to grasp the essence of a wrestler or a person. So when they're talking on TV, it just - you can tell immediately that they're reciting a line that they have to say that some writer cooked up for them. And when wrestling was in its peak, it was just - every wrestling character was an extension of who they really were. And so when they were talking on television, you got the sense that you're getting a glimpse into that real person's persona.

But with this generation, it's so hard to get emotionally invested in these characters because there's so much writing and there's so much scripting that that's pretty much the No. 1 thing that a lot of fans are complaining about - that and the fact that Vince McMahon still has so much power. It's not too different from what the New York Knicks are going through with James Dolan who - I don't think Vince McMahon is that bad of an owner to compare him to James Dolan, but, you know, Knicks fans are frustrated. They're this historic franchise that has all this money and all this prestige, and no free agent wants to come over there. That's kind of what WWE is going through in terms of, there is one man who's at the top who a lot of people are blaming for their central problems.

SIMON: Mr. Konuwa, you cover wrestling for Forbes.


SIMON: That's an actual beat? I mean, that's what it says on your business card?

KONUWA: That is an actual - I'm a WWE blogger for Forbes - it's like being a professor at Harvard University, but you teach finger painting. But I love it all the same, Mr. Simon. It is very intricate type of sports entertainment in terms of what goes on and how you enjoy it when it's really good. And it's no different from "Game Of Thrones" in terms of, there's dragons, you know? There's not real dragons in wrestling, but there's all kinds of over-the-top, crazy stuff on "Game Of Thrones." But it's one of the best shows in television.

And WWE has the ability to do that when it's good. As crazy and over-the-top as it is, if you are able to get into a character and his storyline and his plight, it relates to your everyday life, and you're able to emotionally connect to it. That's just where WWE has a disconnect in terms of not being on the beat of pop culture, not having any of its characters come across as somebody who you can relate to and coming across as very, you know, two-dimensional and ruled in a very old-school light in terms of how pro wrestling is presented.

SIMON: Do they have an aging demographic?

KONUWA: They have a very aging demographic. No audience is getting older faster than the professional wrestling audience. You know, they're up there with NASCAR and all these different sports. So this product is just - it - WWE has a stench of MySpace about it to where, like, no matter what happens with MySpace - you can have Justin Timberlake go on there - no matter what happens with MySpace, it's still MySpace. Like, it's still the thing that used to be cool that people don't attract to anymore.

And that's the - my fear with WWE - is that I don't know how it's going to turn around to be a cool product to teens and to young people. I don't know what it can do in order to reimagine itself as a mainstream property. And hopefully, maybe the deal with Fox where they signed a billion-dollar deal to go on Fox Broadcasting - maybe how they're presented on that platform is going to change.

SIMON: Alfred Konuwa writes about pro wrestling for Forbes. Thanks so much for being with us.

KONUWA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.