June 25, 2007
WWE Fans, Transmedia Storytelling, and The Death of Mr. McMahon

One thing that I haven't written about yet but which certainly has gotten my attention, and a lot of correspondence, is WWE's big storyline over the past couple of weeks of the death of real-life owner Vince McMahon's on-air character, Mr. McMahon.

On a Monday Night Raw two weeks ago, McMahon stepped into his limousine, only to have it blow up on him, on a three-hour special that had been intended to be "Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night," but which primarily consisted of wrestlers and WWE personalities ripping on Vince. McMahon had been having premonitions of his own demise previous to the explosion, and television for the past two weeks has focused on getting to the bottom of Vince's death.

Reaction has been interesting and split. On the one hand, there has been a great amount of fan interests. Previous posts on this site which mention the name Vince McMahon have gotten a lot of extra hits, for instance.

Further, when I was visiting WWE headquarters last Tuesday for a series of meetings, I was amazed at a fair amount of wreaths and memorabilia that had been left in front of the main entrance to the building, presumably by interested fans. There were tributes and posters to the memory of the Mr. McMahon character, and the company left them all in place and on display. From the accounts I got, everyone went home last Friday with a clear front entrance and then fans started leaving things over the weekend.

The negative fan backlash has focused on a feeling that, because WWE exists in an interesting neitherworld that is not really either completely reality or completely fiction, that played up a fictional death as if it were legitimate was too over the top. Some journalists have complained that the company sent out a press release about McMahon's death, but WWE contends that there are no stockholders who were legitimately confused about whether it was the character or the portrayer who had died.

Some--including Dave Meltzer--have followed the fallout on the negative end, featuring letters from stockholders who felt that the angle was in poor taste and claiming WWE was wrong in its claims that no stockholders complained. In actuality, WWE was saying that no stockholders had complained about being duped into thinking Vince is actually dead, which is true, but it's been confusing nonetheless.

I know WWE has gotten some calls from fans and others legitimately thinking Vince is dead, but they are in the minority. The taste questions that others have focused on deal with the fact that there are often wrestling personalities who pass away and get tributes on the show, or at least graphics (Sensational Sherri has died since the death of the Mr. McMahon character), and some fans feel that the mourning for Vince McMahon mocks the real mourning of those wrestlers who have passed on.

While this debate about what is or is not acceptable for a wrestling storyline when it comes to death fascinates me, I'm interested here in pointing out HOW WWE told the story. Mr. McMahon's limo blew up at the end of the night on RAW. Even though the footage had been taped earlier, WWE actually had a flaming limo at the arena that fans stopped and watched when they were headed home, as Henry Jenkins IV reported to me.

Not only that, but WWE also featured frequent updates on their site, reporting on the fictional world, including updates from the federal prosecutor. There was a statement from EVP Ed Kaufman on behalf of the McMahon family, as well as various announcements from Federal Investigator Daniel Beck, a fictional character first introduced on the Web site.

I met with Brian Kalinowski, the new head of WWE's digital media, while I was in Stamford, and I think a lot of creative emphasis will continue to be put on the Web site moving forward to make it a daily stop for fans interested in daily advancements in the WWE's plot.

Regardless of what fans think of the content of the death of Mr. McMahon, I think the potential of daily news from the fictional world of the WWE through the WWE's Web site to help supplement the one-week gap in the shows for each of their three brands could be quite fun, especially for an immersive story world like that of pro wrestling. It will be worth following.

UPDATE: Tonight was supposed to be a special focusing on the demise of the Mr. McMahon character, but instead WWE star Chris Benoit and his wife and son were found dead this afternoon, and WWE transformed the show into a tribute to Benoit, sending the fans home and letting the wrestlers go to grieve. Obviously, while WWE plays between reality and fiction, this was not a time for playing, and the company began the show with Vince McMahon explaining that this show was supposed to focus on the death of his character but rather would be a tribute to the very real death of one of their top stars...


On June 26, 2007 at 6:23 AM, aaron said: