Back in July of last year, the WWE went to an old strategy from a little less than 15 years ago when they drafted separate rosters for their two cable shows, Raw and Smackdown. This was a very exciting move for me, as I look back on that time in WWE, roughly 2003-2005ish, as my favorite era of WWE wrestling. Also, like the original “brand extension”, Raw and Smackdown, being exclusive from each other, competed in a semi kayfabe ratings war. Inevitably this leads to ranking one as better than the other, and it didn’t take long for the stronger show to take that top spot.
When looking back at the WWE during the time of the original brand extension, the initial showings of Raw and Smackdown were fairly even in terms of quality, as the WWE Champion was still cycling between each show, and, this not being long after the dissolving of WCW and ECW, the roster was very loaded. The shows began to split apart as, much like now, they each got their own “main” champion (World Heavyweight for Raw and WWE for Smackdown). The philosophical change, however, really came in the way the main event scene of Raw was handled in those earlier years. After being more or less handed the World Heavyweight Championship, Triple H, and his faction Evolution, dominated Raw for what seemed like an eternity. While there was quality within Evolution, and Raw at large, the story became bland, repetitive, and so skewed toward Triple H, it was more of a challenge to watch.
Meanwhile, the Smackdown product at the time might have been the best show WWE has ever put on cable, and I would state that against anything in the Attitude Era. With the main event scene taken by guys like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and Eddie Guerrero, you had a beautiful mix of in ring action and really strong characters. That said, the main event picture never rendered the undercard irrelevant, which is exactly what happened on Raw. The show was very balanced and well written.
For today’s brand extension, we are seeing a very similar situation occurring, but for somewhat different reasons. The positive first, in that Smackdown has taken the spot of the stronger show, even with Raw’s reputation of being the WWE “flagship”. With each passing week, this is becoming more apparent, as Smackdown has a consistency top to bottom that Raw has yet to achieve. Putting aside small knocks like the inexplicable 4-man announce team and the sometimes troubling lack of babyfaces, Smackdown is always well booked; evenly spaced out with main event angles getting more time, but never overshadowing any of the lower card feuds. To put it succinctly, it maintains your interest from start to finish significantly more than Raw, and the answer to why that is seems fairly obvious.
Unlike the original separate Raw brand, the downfall of the show doesn’t come from a faction taking control of the show for long periods of time, but a much more structural issue. Raw is 3 hours long, as oppose to the 2 of Smackdown. 3 hours of programming is incredibly long, so they’re already starting out on a fine line, but WWE has yet to master a weekly show of this length. The show is marred by segments that are 30% too long (look at the Shawn Michaels, who I love, angle this week that seemingly never ended), which really pulls me out as a viewer. The matches are strong, right on the same level as it’s competition show, but everything around the matches forces my eyes to glaze over. In addition to segments lasting longer than they should, a good chunk of the mid card feuds lack the weight that they have in Smackdown. This runs in direct conflict to logic, as with the extra hour, the whole roster should have more room to breath. This is less a problem of the main event highjacking the show, and more of filling large chunks of time with what seem like fluff video packages, which is a universal cue for me to tune out. It’s easy to see with these segments that WWE is just looking to fill time, and the flaws in the overall layout of the show become glaring.
Another issue that faces Raw, that Smackdown doesn’t have, is that the consistently exciting Women’s division, which was inexplicably split up with the brand extension, is dominated by two wrestlers. This is to no fault of Charlotte and Sasha Banks, the two women that fit this role. They had the feud of the year last year (mentioned here in my 2016 piece), and since the crowd was so invested in that, Raw did very little to build up any of the other women on the roster. And that’s a shame, as Bayley has proven in NXT that she’s capable of being a main eventer, and Nia Jax brings a fresh new angle to the woman’s division that we haven’t really seen done since Kharma. Jax also gives WWE a chance to do that monster wrestler gimmick much better than they did with Kharma. With the way that show was structured up until the last two weeks, they are way behind the ball on that women’s division midcard feud level, and it’s infuriating to see it done so well on Smackdown with wrestler’s like Nikki Bella, Carmella, and Natalya; yet completely whiffed on Raw (for more on the Nia Jax missed push, see this!). That said, this could change, but it’s a huge missed opportunity at the moment.
All in all, the issue Raw faces is much more structural rather than talent based. Raw still is known as the main show, so it has that going for it, but unless the writing staff steps it up, Smackdown can steal that role from it. As a fan, I want both shows to be at top quality, so everything I say here is from a place of love. With the Royal Rumble in a few weeks more then likely bringing changes to both shows, the future can be completely different; we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, let us know which show you think is stronger in the comments below.