The number of WWE PPVs has slowly increased each year. The first WrestleMania in 1985 was industry-defining. By 1987, WWE had four regular PPVs: Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble, Survivor Series, and Summerslam. In 1993, WWE added King of the Ring, for a total of five regular PPVs. It wasn't until 1995 that the company added the In Your House PPVs, which resulted in one PPV event per month. Originally, WWE planned these PPVs as minor events: they would last only two hours, and they would cost less for fans to purchase them. But in the end, they too ran three hours in length.
Now, fast forward to today. How many hours of content does a WWE fan consume in an average year?
WWE hosted 20 PPVs in 2017, not including special tournaments like the Mae Young Classic and the United Kingdom Tournament. WWE scheduled 19 PPVs for 2018.
These shows average three hours in length, not including the pre-show which has up to three "dark" matches. There are single-branded PPVs that are exclusively Raw or exclusively SmackDown (though they may soon become cross-brand, if the rumors are true), in addition to the "big" events like WrestleMania, which feature both rosters. Including their overlapped, joint events, Raw will host ten PPVs in 2018. SmackDown will host nine PPVs.
Then, there's the weekly shows: Raw (three hours), SmackDown (two hours), NXT (one hour), 205 Live (one hour), NXT (one hour), and Main Event (one hour). That's eight hours of in-ring content per week–over 30 hours of new content in an average month. Perhaps–and I'm only half-joking–this is the reason why WWE fans are so loyal. They simply don't have the time to follow anything else.
Usually, when critics discuss the sheer volume of WWE content, they focus on fan burnout and fatigue. That's valid: entire matches can take on a rehearsed sameness. There's only so many times you can watch two competitors do their run the ropes / shoulder tackle / dropdown / leapfrog / hip toss spot before it becomes tiresome. The matches become less about who wins and who loses, and more about how well the wrestlers execute their movies and sell their opponents'.
But there's another, greater concern with having this many PPVs in a year. The wrestlers cannot tell effective stories–nevermind narrative arcs–in such narrow time frames.
Let's use a practical example to illustrate this point. WWE Payback, a Smackdown exclusive PPV, is on May 27. WWE Money in the Bank, a joint PPV, is on June 17. SmackDown has three weeks between these two PPVs–six hours of weekly television, with commercials–to advance its storylines and sell Money in the Bank to potential subscribers. Meanwhile, SummerSlam is in August.
Imagine you're on WWE Creative, and there are four weeks until Payback. It's more pressing to book and sell the minor, tangible PPV in less than a month than worry about the major, intangible PPV that's three months away. But when Payback is over, what do the writers do for a follow-up act–especially if they already booked their must-see match at Payback, and they only have three weeks to create something new? They could use the SummerSlam storylines to bolster Money in the Bank; but if they do that, then what happens at SummerSlam? Do they cannibalize the WrestleMania 35 storylines to bolster that?
The end result is that everything feels rushed because the feuds gets scrunched together like an accordion. WWE is valuing expediency over narrative build. In the old days, a feud could take months to percolate to a boil. Today, the entirety of that feud is crammed into a short, two-month window. And after that feud's over, what's next for both wrestlers? There's only so many permutations that WWE Creative can book. That's how staleness sets in–when fans have already seen it all, and the company has conditioned them to expect immediate gratification.
Sometimes, allowing conflicts to simmer is the better option. There's a great backstage story about Jim Cornette and Vince Russo, two of the main creative forces in WWE during the late '90s. Kane had just debuted at Badd Blood, where he Tombstoned the Undertaker after ripping the door off Hell in a Cell.
According to Cornette, Russo wanted to follow up immediately by having Kane put the Undertaker through a table on Raw. But Cornette pointed out that they had half a year until WrestleMania; if Kane put his brother through the announcer's table, what could they do to raise the stakes further over the next six months? So instead, WWE de-escalated the feud for the time being. Undertaker refused to fight his brother; it was only after Kane tried to burn him to death at the Royal Rumble that he acquiesced.
This was back in 1997-1998, when there were 12 PPVs per year and no split roster. Would WWE be this patient, and let a feud build for this long, in 2018? It's highly unlikely. Every week, the WWE superstars do the figurative equivalent of putting the Undertaker through the table. No plot point ever gets saved for later. And although it's easy to criticize WWE's short-term, hotshot booking, the PPV schedule leaves the writers with few other options if they want to keep their jobs.
It's too late for 2018, which has already been scheduled and set in stone. But for 2019, 15 PPV events, rather than 19 or 20, would be a marked improvement. With fewer major events each year, the remaining ones will have more prestige and importance. The writers can then focus on the bigger picture rather than hitting a series of plot points.
Sometimes–even in the pageantry-driven, excessive melodrama that is professional wrestling–less can be more.