I’ve had this idea in my head for a while, but it really began to chime when I read Holzerman’s live account of Raw:
I think another thing that helped the experience was that the announcers were inaudible. Even if it were Jim Ross and a late-’90s Jerry Lawler calling it, I think the experience would have been more enriching watching the matches with only the crowd and the people around me as a soundtrack. The fact that it was Michael Cole and late-’00s “I ain’t care” Lawler at the desk made it even better. I didn’t have to watch that main event trying to drown out the cacophonous serenade of “NERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRD” cries from Cole. I was enraptured in the moment, watching my favorite wrestler in the whole wide world right now teaming with two of my other favorites against three more of my favorite guys.
I think WWE audio stinks. It’s one of the aspects of the show I really have no real respect for.
This is a multi-threaded argument, and I’m going to go into detail, but I want to provide the thesis up-front: I think people uninterested in hearing what Michael Cole or any announcer has to say should modify the audio when watching WWE television, and let WWE know why. Switch it to Spanish, turn the sound all the way down, or find some way to not hear the English commentators at all.
Isn’t the audio an integral part of the show?
Originally, audio in sports broadcasts existed because a large enough portion of people watching the game at home weren’t watching at all—they were listening. For a long time, the only way to get live coverage of a game was through radio. This was true for boxing, and true for wrestling, as wrestling was broadcast and treated like a real sport for a long time. The commentators were there to provide play-by-play analysis for those who literally couldn’t see a thing. The audience watching the game in the stands didn’t get that audio, and they still don’t. Audio commentary was and is, in many ways, a ‘hack’ to get more people involved.
Audio commentary also helps in sport because sometimes the camera is far away by necessity (like in soccer or hockey), so it’s the commentator’s job to tell you just who has the damn puck or ball or whatever. Audio commentary is very, very useful when there’s 22 guys on a playing field and they’re all wearing the same helmet and jersey. It’s not so helpful when a half-asleep child can figure out that Randy Orton is just going to win all the matches forever.
Audio as the show itself
Over time (during the 20th century, before everyone had more than 5 channels at home), radio broadcasts of sports events, audio plays, and the like became quite popular, and in many circles still are. There are still people out there who prefer their entertainment to be audio-only. Perhaps its just habit, but I like to think it’s because an audio broadcast sparks imagination in a similar way that reading does: by providing only part of a thing, your brain has to paint in the rest.
The best play-by-play commentators in the business work with this audience member in mind, and there is an entire industry (niche as it may be) that strives to make incredible radio for sport and fiction lovers alike. Though there isn’t a lot of documentation on this, I have no doubt that wrestling enjoyed the same kind of treatment: I bet wrestling announcers made some great radio in their day.
But have you listened to the audio of WWE television without watching the video? It’s downright schizophrenic. The announcers rarely talk about the events transpiring in front of them, and when they do, it’s with a vague broad stroke that would break the heart of any true broadcaster. Individual moves are named from time to time, but it’s such a rarity to hear a string of them, I almost can’t remember the last time that transpired. This is structurally inexcusable from an audio-only standpoint, unless the match in question is Kane vs Chavo from Wrestlemania XXIV.
The ratings problem
Audio schizophrenia in WWE programming has been a staple for a long, long time. Long before Michael Cole became the standard voice of WWE television, they have abandoned audio clarity for layered narration. I’m not saying there isn’t value in the way that works, and I understand the motivations behind it. By layering talking points between the action on-screen, the action that happened earlier in the show, the action that will happen later in the show, and the action that will happen at the next show, viewers are kept abreast of an overall short-term timeline of events.
The decision to make the audio this way had merit. Every moment of the show is at once a reflection on the past, present, and future of the product, and the viewer is never confused (in theory) about where they are in the narrative. This is something that doesn’t really work for scheduled sport (as games have a schedule independent of player interaction) or featured sport (marquee boxing events used to occur only due to player interaction). Due to the nature of sport, sticking with in-the-moment broadcasting makes the most sense.
But with wrestling, context is hyper-important. What is happening is often because of what happened, and will affect what later happens, and these things need to be explained. In the case of WWE, the general practice is to over-explain and dumb down to the lowest common denominator. Instant replays don’t help, either, as WWE will often take the opportunity to simply play the whole scene again, with the commentators adding yet another layer of context over something they just talked about. WWE wants to make sure that even if you’re only barely paying attention, you didn’t miss anything.
But ultimately, WWE’s audio choices are built out of ratings; specifically, ratings in the Monday Night Wars. Much like the monthly PPV format, WWE’s audio choices are weapons from a war that doesn’t exist anymore. Older WWE programming wasn’t like this. Up until about 1994, the broadcast journalists in the WWE booth were much looser and allowed far more chances to improvise. Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan, and even Vince McMahon were far more palatable to listen to, because they weren’t at all concerned about you changing the channel on them. You were watching wrestling, and there was nothing else on quite like it. They may not have made the best audio-only experiences, but they were at least fun to listen to (and we should be all about breaking rules if the result is fun, which says a lot about wrestling fans and our expectations).
“Don’t go away,” is a mantra lots of TV shows utilize, and many networks are annoying about it. I’m not going to go into a much larger argument about TV’s attempts to stop you from getting off the couch or changing the channel (“If you could just sit there and stare forever, that’d be good”, says the TV exec, who doesn’t quite understand that you sometimes have to go out and buy the things you learned about in commercials), but needless to say, the Monday night wars escalated the use of this particular instrument by an insane factor. It wasn’t unprecedented to have two similar shows compete directly against one another, but no two competitors were more cut-throat than WWE and WCW (Letterman and Leno may not have liked one another, but Leno never came out and told everyone that Letterman “was going to win with the superkick, so don’t bother watching”).
The “Shawn wins with the superkick” jab was only one of many shots between the shows, and it’s important to note that these particular weapons were often dealt by the commentators. Because commentators had always existed a little outside the show, it was somewhat natural for them to sometimes comment on the larger world around them. In the case of the MNW, the larger world included their competitors. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t (“Mick Foley is going to win their world title. Huh, that’ll put butts in seats”), but both companies believed it to be important.
The live experience
Holzerman’s Raw account illustrated something about the live experience of wrestling that few have managed to really capture: not only is it refreshing to watch a WWE show without the audio commentary, but it might just be better. If the audio is only there to get you to keep watching, and you’re going to keep watching anyway, what’s the point? They aren’t teaching you anything about pro wrestling that you don’t already know (a wasted opportunity), they aren’t telling you anything the wrestlers don’t already say in their monologues (which they shouldn’t talk over), and they aren’t enhancing the visual product in any tangible way, why do we need them?
Or, think about this: what if you only watched WWE wrestling live? What if you followed the show around, and the only thing you knew about the show was what they presented in the ring? Would you really be any worse off? According to Thomas Holzerman, and according to the hundreds of thousands of screaming fans that buy tickets every year, the answer is that you would in fact be better off.
Back in the summer, WWE began allowing live customers to buy earpieces that let them hear the commentators. I haven’t heard anything else about this, and I don’t think it’s proven very popular (this is conjecture, but silence in this case is telling). I think given the choice between audio and no audio, live customers don’t want Cole yelling in their ear.
Switching the audio
As of next week, all my WWE viewing will be done by listening to the Spanish audio. I don’t speak or understand Spanish, so really all I’m going to understand is crowd noise and wrestlers speaking. To understand what’s happening, I’ll have to pay attention. I think I’m going to enjoy the show a lot more.
Of course, that’s not ideal. But what would be? It’s simple: a live experience option. There is absolutely no technological reason why WWE can’t give us an audio feed of the arena, so we hear everything the live audience hears. No more, no less. It would be like watching ballet or Cirque du Soliel on television: you hear the creak of the stage and the accompanying music, but some idiot isn’t telling you that the white swan just got corrupted. You figure it out yourself, because you’re a bright fella. Wrestling commentators exist because people in the wrestling business never took that into consideration.