The 2000's represented a time of change for professional wrestling. WWE had just gone public, the company's only major competition closed up shop, many of its major "Attitude Era" stars were either already gone or transitioning out, and the company launched its first-ever brand extension. Professional wrestling slowly became less about 90's crash TV-style shock-and-awe booking and more about building solid wrestling cards with hungry young upstarts (who were actually pretty talented between the ropes).
But July 22nd, 2008 saw the company evolve in a slightly different fashion - and many fans would argue in a slightly worse fashion.
WWE announced this change rather innocuously via its website:
WWE's family programming has been deemed a PG television rating by their network distributors. World Wrestling Entertainment has been engaging families across all generations with their family programming for more than two decades, and will continue to do so for years to come with all the action on Raw, SmackDown and ECW.
To that point, the company released this announcement on a TUESDAY just hours before airing ECW on SciFi. It was as if Vince McMahon hadn't stomped out enough of the ECW brand's spirit, and so to dig out whatever extreme remnants lingered in the show's lifeless husk, it had to be the first WWE show to wear that PG-TV badge.
And while many have dubbed the subsequent years as WWE's "PG Era," the company has kept churning out family-friendly content even after transitioning to the Reality Era in 2014, the New Era in 2016, and whatever Era we call this thing we're in right now (senseless booking era? The "give the fans what they want, actually j/k" era? The "a McMahon in every story line" era? Or maybe it's just the The "oh crap competition again!" era?).
(Wait, one more: The "Part-Time Champions, Full-Time Nonsense" era?)
So here's the thing: PG ratings make sense from a business-perspective. Just look at the countless corporate partnerships WWE has successfully negotiated since then - KFC, Cricket Wireless, and Snickers to name a few. The company has tightened its business relationships with feel-good companies like Special Olympics, the Boys and Girls Club of America, Susan G. Komen, and the Make-A-Wish foundation.
And WWE's stock is riding a near all-time high of ~$90 a share thanks in large part to these business relationships and the guaranteed cash-flow therein.
But on the other side, WWE is at a creative stalemate. And anytime something gets the slightest bit interesting (i.e. edgy and decidedly non-PG), Vince McMahon seems to pull on the reigns just a bit, and things quickly get back to status quo and un-fun.
It's like WWE wants that sweet money more than it wants to be... y'know, good.
Less Rowdy, More Rousey
This inner-struggle is perhaps best embodied by the recent Ronda Rousey/Becky Lynch exchanges. These two women have been going after each other on social media, and furthering their WrestleMania feud, with a bunch of unmistakably non-PG mud-slinging.
Complete and utter bulls--t.— The Man (@BeckyLynchWWE) February 12, 2019
That's right - Becky Lynch has been going all cable TV with her choice of Twitter slang, while Ronday Rousey literally said "F*** it" and took YouTube straight to HBO standards.
But most interesting is the way WWE has carefully navigated these non-PC social media waters while still using this more adult content to further its PG-TV storylines. For example, while Ronda Rousey didn't come out on RAW just days after her YouTube outburst and repeat her four-letter foul-mouthed diatribe, it was obvious she was building upon it.
Right, so she said "shove it" instead of "F*** You" which makes it family friendly. Got it.
(and can I just ask, why is "b-----s" thrown around on WWE television programming so much? It's VERY non-PC from a gender-norming perspective. I assume it's one of the few words with bite that the writers are allowed to use, but I'm not sure how calling your audience "bandwagon b-----s" can be considered PG or family-friendly).
The Beast with Two Backs
At least PG-TV has forced WWE to move away from using its women as sexual objects, per the norm back in 1999.
Nevermind how bad these above segments were from a storyline and production values/ logic perspective (so wait, can the superstars just not SEE the cameras in the room, or do they assume they wont get caught because their significant others are too busy to actually watch WWE TV each week?), these segments directly contradict WWE's mission to further women's place in wrestling.
And while they might not be as bad as, say, making a woman get on all fours and bark like a dog… nothing about the sexualized nature of these stories, and the affairs they imply, feels family friendly.
Keep in mind, sex on TV in the 90's felt revolutionary. Shock jocks, Jerry Springer, and Cable TV were all introducing people to new, slightly uncomfortable entertainment norms.
But here in 2019 the shock value is gone. People aren't watching TV shows just for sex, or secret curse words - they want engaging writing, dynamic characters, and great production values. Sex needs to be in service of the story.
A FOX in the Hen House
And then there's the billion-dollar FOX conundrum.
FOX reportedly wants SmackDown to take on more of a sports-like feel, and potentially be even edgier than it is right now, once it reaches the air in October 2019.
That's something USA/NBC Universal seemingly never pushed for - in fact, they offered top dollar for WWE's product as it is presented today.
But it make sense for FOX, who sees this as a piece of its broader move into more sports-oriented and thus DVR-proof programming, to want WWE's product to feel more like the programming that surrounds it.
The major difference is that sports broadcasts aren't content rated. And so WWE has to deal with advertisers in a different way than, say, the NFL or UFC (who fight public perception and brand management in more of a "what does this broadcast feel like" way rather than a specific TV rating that shows up in the corner.)
So should WWE move into TV-14 territory? Especially now that FOX has a say?
Here's the truth: actual TV rating is only a small, almost inconsequential piece of the equation for WWE. Creativity is the bigger issue - and while WWE has shown sparks of life in the last 11 years, it has failed to maintain this momentum consistently.
In spite of the PG rating we have seen great feuds between John Cena and The Rock, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, AJ Styles and John Cena, CM Punk and The Undertaker, Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens… and the list goes on.
All of these feuds felt bigger than life not because they cursed more, or because they made each other bleed. They felt big because the characters (and the wrestlers) made them that way. Also remember this: WWE is only rated on what shows up on actual television each week.
There's a middle ground here where WWE keeps its PG-rated RAW and SmackDown Live while amping up its characters across social (much like its done for Becky and Ronda and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte). Maybe the company makes NXT the "edgier" brand as it potentially moves to FOX Sports and it earns a TV-14 rating… or maybe NXT is already great and doesn't need tweaking.
Yes, AEW is shaping up to be real competition for WWE - and I'd be surprised if Cody, Jericho, The Bucks, and Kenny Omega settle for a TV-PG rating.
But that doesn't mean WWE needs to completely ditch its corporate strategy. TV-PG has done a lot of good for WWE (and for professional wrestling as a whole). It's earned a business formerly rife with controversy an actual spot at the pop culture table. It's made Vince McMahon and his fellow shareholders a whole bunch of extra money.
That TV-PG can't continue be used as an excuse for bad creative, however. It's up to WWE's writers and producers to make great television in spite of arbitrary ratings guidelines, and up to Vince McMahon to support them in that mission.