A pro-wrestling world war seems to be brewing between a handful of sports entertainment mega-companies and WWE just escalated the situation: amidst declining ratings and as they prepare to shift to a new network, WWE has hired longtime wrestling personalities Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff as Executive Directors of their flagship television shows, according to Sports Illustrated. Within hours, the decision catalyzed massive speculation as to what their new positions say about the future of the company.
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Paul Heyman, whose career in the wrestling industry began in 1987, has filled a bevy of roles within the business. Although lately he’s best known as both the IRL and on-screen manager of former WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, Heyman has been employed in a bevy or roles within wrestling. Including his stint as President of ECW from 1993-2001, he’s acted as a producer, writer, marketer and manager throughout his decades-long career. His idiosyncratic gravelly-voiced announcing style has become his signature, as has his occasional off-color jokes about his Jewish heritage. Although his persona is purposefully loathsome, he’s become a fan favorite for his dedication to his character and his deep experience and knowledge of the art form.
Eric Bischoff, an established pro-wrestler in his own right who originally began his career as a backstage interviewer at the American Wrestling Association in 1989, brings an equal amount of experience to the new role. Bischoff had studied ratings analysis, which had allowed him to quickly move up the chain in the industry through presentations to Turner executives. Beyond his position as WCW president—during which the much smaller-scale company would miraculously beat WWE (then WWF) in ratings for over a year—Bischoff went on to serve as RAW general manager in the early 00’s. Bischoff was also the architect of the notorious and immensely popular New World Order storyline, which was inspired by his viewing of the kayfabe battle between New Japan Pro Wrestling and the Union of Wrestling Forces International in the early 1990s. Bischoff is familiar with both backstage and on-screen roles and also served as an executive producer on Impact Wrestling until 2014.
In his new WWE position, Heyman will be serving as Executive Director of Monday Night Raw; Bischoff will be the Executive Director of Smackdown! Live. The latter program especially is likely to be largely re-tooled when it moves from Tuesday nights on the USA Network to Friday nights on FOX.
The questions that arose immediately upon the announcement pertained to what these roles actually mean in the context of pro-wrestling, which has plenty of kayfabed positions of power that hold no actual authority beyond the fictional universe they exist in. Are these two being brought in as eccentric characters, actual employees with a real say in the direction of the shows, or both? Although at first it may have seemed that WWE CEO Vince McMahon was finally relinquishing some of his tyrannical power to respected individuals with provable records that he truly trusted, wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer has since confirmed that in no way does this change indicate that McMahon will have abdicated his role as the singular authority by which every decision in the company is made.
Along with the new Executive Directors, WWE may be preparing for the network switch with a flurry of seemingly incoherent decisions as of late, including the so-called “Wild Card Rule,” which allows superstars from the two brands to cross over during episodes, and this past week’s decree that no fights would be fought during commercials. The extent to which these latest McMahon mandates may or may not be setting the stage for Heyman and Bischoff to establish distinct brand identities for their respective shows remains a huge question—as does how “sports-like” the programs will actually be once 2020 rolls around, considering how both programs have increasingly resembled variety shows rather than actual athletic competitions as of late.
But thinking on a more macro scale, Heyman and Bischoff represent the heyday of pro-wrestling, when the sport was essentially ubiquitous and inextricable from the cultural zeitgeist—and when it was far more filled with racism, sexism and homophobia. The WWE’s newest and potentially biggest competitor, All Elite Wrestling, has already been working hard to establish itself as a more inclusive and politically progressive alternative to the ultra-conservative mega-corporation, which continues to make dubious international business deals while simultaneously being incapable of addressing criticism. Vince McMahon has lately taken drastic measures in attempts to win back audiences—he even went as far as offering promises of change to his programs on the air, but nothing was noticeably different afterward.
It could be that WWE is simply unable to envision a brighter future for pro-wrestling and will instead be relying on nostalgia as its main appeal—as they’ve been doing with their Saudi Arabian Pay-Per-Views for which they have enlisted and seemingly endless slew of aging and no-longer capable performers, much to the chagrin of critics and audiences alike. On the other hand, nostalgia works as a marketing tool: pro-wrestling simply hasn’t been able to produce breakout celebrities as it had during the Attitude Era, and inviting old fans back by way of even older mega-stars could be the only way to regain cultural relevance.