January 9, 2008
Tying Live Events into a Transmedia Narrative

As many of you who follow our blog or our other writings or conferences regularly know, the Consortium has always been interested in transmedia storytelling, and I have often posited that professional wrestling is a narrative that has always been ripe for crossing multiple media formats. World Wrestling Entertainment has built a model around it.

At first, television and other revenue streams were meant as ancillary content and even more as a way to build for the real meat of the business, which was the touring live event show. Over time, however, the television show, pay-per-views, DVDs, and other media products have become the primary focus, while live events that aren't televised have fallen low on the list of priorities.

The question for a long time now has been what to do about that, how to make coming to a non-televised WWE event worthwhile. After all, very little usually happens at them, and the idea is more of a touring show that you only get to see live on occasion. A lot of fans otherwise engaged in the product, though, are happy to stay home when WWE comes to town, as they know nothing important in the narrative will happen if the cameras aren't rolling.

I've brainstormed ideas for how WWE could fix this problem in the past, in my analysis of the WWE product. I've thought, for instance, that the Web site or mobile service could feature footage from these non-televised "house shows" from time to time, a bonus match here or there, or an interview that in some way reacted to the main show. You could imagine, for instance, someone making an impromptu challenge in the ring for a match on the next week's edition of Monday Night Raw, with that incident airing online and then building up the match for the next week's television show.

WWE's head of digital content, Brian Kalinowski, has said from his start in the job last summer that his goal is to make digital and mobile the place that fills in the gap in the story between television shows, and my take is that the house show could provide an important piece of that puzzle. Simultaneously, the proposition that something of narrative importance actually could happen at the house show might cause people to want to turn out after all.

The WWE seems to be toying around with just this idea in the build-up for its next pay-per-view event, The Royal Rumble. Every year, the signature match of this PPV is a 30-man "battle royal," which is a match in which a wrestler has to be thrown over the top rope to the floor to be eliminated. The match starts with two wrestlers, the wrestlers who drew numbers one and two, and then every two minutes or so, another wrestler joins the match, until the wrestler who drew number 30.

Fans speculate every year about which 30 wrestlers will be involved in the match, and some years the WWE has merely announced many of the the names in very anti-climactic fashion a few days before the event.

This year, though, the WWE has tried something new. They are having matches at non-televised "house shows" that are announced as Royal Rumble qualifiers, and then announcing on the Web site the winners of those matches, which actually gives the "house show" narrative relevance. The problem is, there are still some wrestlers who are just automatically entered into the Royal Rumble match, without "qualifying," and with no clear explanation given as to what makes some people have to qualify and others not. If there were a rule in place, like prior winners can automatically have a slot in the Rumble if they want it, it would make more sense. For fans to get engrossed in the narrative in the way WWE wants to capitalize on, these details matter.

Otherwise, I applaud the idea, and I think it's a great way to give the touring live event more relevance. I wish they would include picture stills or handheld video, something to make the event seem even more interesting, but they are on the right track. Except for one thing. If you create a situation where you want to teach fans that non-televised events do matter for the overall narrative, you have to stick to it.

That's where the mistake from the WWE comes in. At a show Saturday, Jan. 5, in Canton, Ohio, the tag team of Jimmy Wang Yang and Shannon Moore defeated the tag team of The Miz and John Morrison in a match announced as a "Royal Rumble Qualifier." Several wrestling Web sites immediately reported that Moore and Yang had qualified for the Rumble match. Then, the next day in Johnstown, Penn., The Miz and John Morrison defeated Yang and Moore in a match also announced as a "Royal Rumble Qualifier." Fan sites were then reporting both (look here).

In the narrative, of course, this makes no sense. If the characters of Yang and Moore had already qualified the day before, why would they be in a qualifying match? This time around, Miz and Morrison won. Turns out, WWE just didn't acknowledge the Canton match, as Moore and Yang are not listed as among those who have qualified for the Rumble after all, and now fans are left trying to make sense of this narrative gap (look here).

Not acknowledging something from a house show has a long history in wrestling. In the days before digital communication proliferated, titles would often change hands in each town in a promotion's territory, so that each group of fans would see the momentous occasion. WWE has often had a title change hands and then change hands back during non-televised events, only to never mention or recognize the switch on television.

In this case, however, when fans are encouraged to think of the non-televised events as fitting directly into the narrative from television, these logical lapses in the narrative are frustrating to fans. In their commentary, most fans already demonstrate that they have little faith WWE will rectify the situation, feeling that WWE will just choose not to acknowledge what happened to the fans in Canton.

In a previous era, those mistakes could go unnoticed. But when you are trying to create a transmedia narrative, the details really start to matter. Constructing an immersive story world means fans want a world in which there is some sort of internal continuity, consistency, and logic.

In short, WWE's heading in the right direction with finding new ways to incorporate the house shows into the rest of their transmedia narrative. I just hope they can pay more attention to detail if they want the fans to come along.