One of the few great ideas to come from WWE in this current era was WWE Backstage. Unfortunately, it was hampered by its own creators. The idea was pretty sound on paper: A sports-related talk show that plays much like shows such as First Take on ESPN and The NFL Today on CBS, giving diehard wrestling fans a look behind the curtain with candid interviews and segments featuring WWE talent. Hosted by people in the industry who know what they're talking about and have years of experience to play off of being both journalistic in the form of Renee Paquette (formerly Renee Young) and those who wrestled such as Paige, Booker T, and CM Punk. How could it go wrong? Well… WWE found a way, primarily by meshing reality with fiction in a way that confused casual fans and made a complete mess out of anything it was trying to accomplish.
Ironically enough, the show was born from WWE having one of the best promos anyone has cut in the last five years. And much like Backstage, it was something good that didn't even take place on Raw or Smackdown. It was the night that, depending on who you believe and how much you trust kayfabe, things got a little too real on the post-Smackdown talk show, Talking Smack. Daniel Bryan, who at the time was still unable to perform for WWE due to his health, criticized The Miz about the way he performs in the ring by calling him a coward. What follows, as you can see below, is a passionate promo you just don't see in scripted programming these days, and is 5,000% better than everything the company has done in 2020.
So they realized they had something good, and while they didn't capitalize on it right away (and even canceled the show it happened on once), they eventually made something cool happen. Part of the new deal that came with moving Smackdown to FOX on Friday nights was that Fox Sports 1 would get its own talk show related to the brand, which is what WWE Backstage became. Over the next several weeks we saw what was an attempt at having real discussions about working in WWE and being a superstar on the roster from people like Roman Reigns, Alexa Bliss, Baron Corbin, Becky Lynch, and more. Every episode has some really great chunks of reality that make these people far more appealing to watch on TV than their terribly written promos. However, the show also forced them to switch between the person and the character as they then had to get into their personality and try to promote a PPV event. If you keep switching between Big Bird the character and the actor who plays Big Bird in an interview while they're in costume, you're going to confuse a lot of people as to what you are and what you're trying to get across.
Both WWE and FOX tried their best to promote the show and give it some life, which included the addition of CM Punk, skits that were designed to help get to know people better, show off a little of what it's like to try and be a WWE superstar… But a lot of this failed or didn't get over as well as it could have. A combination of declining ratings and a show having what appeared to be little to no direction or fully committed identity, and it was over within a few months like some of us predicted it would be. Because anything these days that's even remotely good gets spoiled by interference from the people in charge. Talking Smack and Raw Talk eventually made their returns to both TV shows after the cameras go off as WWE Network exclusives, but both shows still come off as heavily-produced content that doesn't capture any of the realism of a talk show with credibility as it's still trying to tell a story on camera. Being seen only be Network subscribers.
Now while a lot of this just sounds like we're dumping on WWE, the reality here is that the show was actually a brilliant idea that has worked in the past for different companies. WCW Live was an hour-long live show that appeared on their website, and in many ways was the predecessor to WWE's eventual program Byte This. Both tackled the real-life aspect of talking to people working for the company with a little promo content that didn't feel forced. There's a lot of things that worked for WWE Backstage, but the biggest thing holding it back was that the company had a say in the programming. This show can work and could do big numbers for FOX if they want to try again (like they did this weekend with the one-episode return for the 2021 Royal Rumble). But the approach needs to be completely different.
First off, it can't be a WWE-themed program. You have to create a weekly pro-wrestling talk show that covered all the bases. If you focus on one company you limit your source material and you essentially pigeonholed your performers to only talk about where they currently work. Everything has to be on the table: WWE, AEW, Impact, ROH, NWA, MLW, NJPW, AJPW, Stardom, PW Noah, AAA, CMLL, and all Indy points in between. Second, you need competent hosts. Renee Paquette is absolutely a perfect fit, especially if you've been listening/watching her Oral Sessions podcast. She knows how to interview and talk about everything from all points. CM Punk and Paige would make great additions as well, but you need people who fit the mold of journalists who follow all things wrestling and can hold their own on TV. This brings us to the third point that would help make the show: You have to hire credible people from the dirt sheets and the internet wrestling community.
The big reason to this day they're still called dirt sheets is that while they do get a lot of things right, there's still stuff that gets in that's complete garbage, speculative, and is made up. However, there are a number of people out there currently doing the work who are credible journalists and talking heads who would be able to bring anything that came across the table to life in a way that others tied to the business can't. They would bring something to a show like this that a WWE-run product doesn't have: Perspective. It's rare to see any company talk about others when they believe they're number one and everyone else is lesser-than. Put people in there who watch it all and can evaluate it without any sugar-coating, and you'll have a show with genuine interest. What's more, they can talk about the storylines and the performers and it won't sound out-of-place or hokey. Plus, the interviews they could conduct without some weird overlord telling them to get their catchphrases in, or avoiding certain words the company doesn't like, or constantly promoting an event every three sentences would be golden.
It is totally possible for an independent version of WWE Backstage to work and draw in ratings, but it would take some actual work to create it and make it work as a real sports talk show rather than just a promotional tool. If FOX ever wants to get on that, we'd be happy to have a chat on how to approach it.