Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Quick Hits Volume X: Creating the Crossroads

It is time for your Wake-Up Call…

I have been a huge advocate for the direction TNA Wrestling has taken since last June, and I continue to be. Furthermore, I think they have continued to take baby steps in a higher quality direction—as they have made the move over to Destination America—from a creative standpoint. I am finding it more entertaining as it continues—though I hope they tread into more original directions with the very entertaining BDC storyline and other storylines. There is certainly an improvement with the logic and blandness of some of the minor stories TNA was suffering with toward the end of its run on Spike TV.

What I am enjoying most, though, is the feel and vibes TNA has been giving off since it moved to the new network. It gives off a fresher aura with the new slicker graphics, the throbbing theme music for Impact in the background, the new announcing style under Matthews and Taz (kudos!) focusing on matches, and a myriad of other updates to Impact’s production (despite some audio and editing snafus). With that, TNA is edging closer to how an actual sport presents itself. At some point, you delve closer to a crossroads of an actual sport and a scripted television show. I have an obvious opinion TNA should get ever closer to that crossroads. And how fitting is it that my Quick Hits series celebrates its 10th edition at a crossroads with my pet project Putting the Sport in Sports Entertainment series?

Complimenting Your Intelligence 

One phrase you hear a lot in fan reviews and analysis of wrestling shows is it might “insult your intelligence.” Whether it is WWE, TNA, or another televised wrestling product expecting you to forget obvious points in their history or leaving Swiss cheese levels of holes in their plots, there have been numerous times every major promotion in professional wrestling has expected you to overlook glaring issues in their story or presentation logic. And it truly can be an insult to your intelligence. We tend to forgive such issues because, after all, it is professional wrestling. However, I tend to have high expectations for the entertainment I watch (and other facets of my life for that matter), and I think wrestling can be much, much more. I think there is plenty of room for innovation and evolution for the medium. I think it can come off smarter for the average viewer and create more consistent stories and presentation, just as television has with great shows such as Breaking Bad (also my favorite show of all time), which is probably one of the most consistent shows ever created. This thought process is what has caused me to develop the PSSE concept.

The one thing I have seen leveraged against a sports-oriented presentation, and something I have briefly mentioned in previous write-ups, is the sport-oriented style is an insult to the viewers’ intelligence, as if they are trying to fool us into thinking the show is actually real. But as before, this could not be further from the truth. The cat is out of the bag already; professional wrestling companies already know we know shows are scripted. In fact, wrestling would pay a huge compliment to fans’ intelligence by presenting it in such a way, understanding we can tell the difference between a scripted show and an actual sport. And I contend it is the one direction professional wrestling companies have really not explored much and is the obvious direction the medium can truly evolve. If you want a taste of what I am really meaning by this, please check out the first three parts of my ongoing “Putting the Sport in Sports Entertainment” series, if you have not already done so. (I know I am pimping that out at every opportunity, but I am happy to admit I am quite proud of it thus far.) TNA certainly has changed some of its presentation aspects to reflect more of a sports feel, but they have barely scratched the surface of what is possible with it.

Go to the Light

One noticeable change TNA has done with its set is the lighting around the ring that focuses all attention to the ring and keeps all but the fans closest to ringside in darkness. There have been mixed reactions by fans about how this makes them feel about the presentation of the show. On one hand, it covers up issues when attendance is lacking or there is a bad crowd. On the other hand, when there is a great crowd we do not get to see them well. I have seen both the positive and the negative reactions on this issue. For me, I am a huge fan of the lighting.

This opinion comes from one place, and that is the theme of this specific Quick Hits. You have all the attention on that ring with this lighting choice. That is what matters. In my humble opinion, the crowd is an audio issue in effect for me, and the visual of a large or small crowd does not so much matter to me psychologically as much as the actual reaction I hear from them.

Furthermore, the visual the current lighting choice makes is significant. What it accomplishes is to further create a more sportive vibe. Moreover, the lighting is similar to how UFC and other mixed martial arts leagues light their events. All attention is focused on the central attraction. It further delves into the direction of emulating a real sport by developing the feel of the show further in that direction. So for me, in combination with the many other production changes to Impact, the show feels much fresher and legitimate.

To Kayfabe or Not to Kayfabe 

Another issue from the presentation side of things is the location of the announcers as they do their thing. It has been a popular subject of discussion among TNA fans about how Josh and Taz are commentating away from the ring in the “announcer’s booth.” We know in reality they are actually doing their thing in Nashville, either in post production or during a live stream of the video. I have seen much commentary on how TNA seems to be coming clean, if you will, and acknowledging the kayfabe-scripted nature of the show. In particular, since they are not on location with the show, it is implied the post production application of the announcing further removes the kayfabe elements. Furthermore, they are being quite ironic by still playing along with the events of the show instead of simply saying up front they are doing it after it happens.

However, I do not think this is the intention of announcing from the booth. In fact, they did “give it away” when Josh did the introductions of Impact from TNA headquarters on the debut episode, but that was sort of an informative introduction of the new production applications more than giving it away, so to speak, in my mind. If you think about it, the new announcing booth is probably intended to further the sports feel of the show. It separates the action from the commentating as are done in most actual sports. In other sports, whether the announce table is by the action or set aside (like baseball, soccer, football, and a lot of other sports too, perhaps including MMA), the action itself does not involve the announcers themselves ever like wrestling likes to do for stunts and story purposes. At first, I thought the same things as I had been seeing in comments and analysis, but upon reflection, it really is pushing the sports feel more. It serves that purpose in addition to saving TNA money.

Birth of a Salesman

Being a scripted medium, everything is about the sell in professional wrestling. Is this guy a believable or desirable champion? Will this storyline put butts in the seats? Do we do higher quality matches or maybe have more non-wrestling segments? So the hypothetical in this case is: How do you complete the sale for a sports-oriented professional wrestling show? What elements are required to evolve wrestling in that direction fully? And how close is TNA to that goal (In my mind, it is the goal at least.)?

In part, the PSSE series attempts to answer these questions. The very first thing is the show must be competition-centric. As it sits, TNA has been pushing the competition aspect to a much higher level. The main stories have revolved around the belt and importance of holding the title (It has done okay with the Knockouts and Tag Team belts too but is neglecting the X-Division title again. Major fail.). There are also wrestlers earning shots for the belt with number one contender matches. This is a great change in emphasis since last year.

The second thing is it should operate closer to how an actual sports league operates. Of course, there is a top prize, which becomes the ultimate goal to achieve for the competitors. TNA is doing a great job of centering competition on its top title. (*cough* X-Division) However, the competition does not really operate anywhere close to a sports league or fighting sport. The shows have some number one contender matches and have several sport-like features, but it is not at a point to sell at our goal of a sports-esque presentation.

For one, matches mainly revolve around feuds, which involve a lot of repeated match-ups with the same pairings from the roster. This does not happen in real sports; matches are either scheduled or randomized based on record. You would have to more closely emulate this reality for the sell. Additionally, title shots are not achieved by claims or by the choice of the participants. That simply would not fly in an actual competition, as it screams nepotism, lacking merit, or being too personal. An independent organizing entity would have to be involved somehow. TNA would have to go much further to get to this point, if it were ever to attempt the sell.

And lastly, we have to hit the beef of the matter. Professional wrestling is and always will be scripted and, therefore, involve stories. So how would stories be told in a documented sports league? One would think it would be told around the sport itself. As illustrated in the presentation portion of the PSSE series, that thought leads to the reality television styles or a documentary style of filming. Further, you have to talk about the content of stories themselves. As TNA sits currently in its story emphasis, I see a lot of competition-centric stories with personal feuds taking precedence. I think this would have to change to make our sell.

With our goal, the personal feuds do not necessarily go away, though. In fact, I would think it would stay central in some ways. What I picture with the current story construction or creative process is it starts with characters and everything formulates based on how they want the characters to develop. Conversely, if you are selling a closer replica of a sport in a scripted medium, I see it flipping a bit. The creative process starts with the foundations of the sports league and maintaining a sense of believability behind it, and the characters and story events revolve around that and evolve from that pivot point. You do not have to have a good guy versus the bad guy all the time. You do not necessarily have everyone involved in a feud all of the time. But it becomes about how real sports tell stories. And I will have to leave it there.

That last point is highly interpretable and will mean different things to different people, as I think wrestling itself does to fans too. However, I think the central question you would maintain in the sell is: How do you implement the stories of sports of the real world into a fake sport? This serves as a bit of a teaser for Parts 4 and 5, perhaps 6 (I’m still feeling it out.), and what direction it will take. It is a work in progress and will take awhile, considering I have a life to live (Shocker, I know.). But that question demands details and will take up more space than a Quick Hits allows for. But as wrestling and TNA specifically sits, there are definitely some changes that would need to take place to get to the ultimate sell of this particular goal. The sell is to be continued…. 

Think with Purpose....