Chris Benoit's death: The birth of WWE's PG era
WWE today is completely family friendly. The most outrageous thing they can do is to let two superstars kiss in the ring. Not too long ago, during the Eric Bischoff regime on RAW, we had something called “HLA”, where the audience was treated to two scantily clad women making out.
We had outrageous storylines – The boss getting blown – up in his limousine, Gene Snitsky kicking what was insinuated to be a living, breathing baby into the crowd and Triple H pretending to be a necrophile! It is safe to say that the crazy world of the WWE has been mellowed down quite dramatically and is now exclusively catered to the children. Obviously, this transition didn’t happen overnight.
Back in ’07, the WWE programming wasn’t TV 14, but it still had edgy storylines and characters that were catered to different age groups. Although WWE, even back then had PG 13 programming, it wasn’t exclusively designed for the kids. It was a time when WWE had found its pot of gold – The right combination of edgy storylines combined with superstars who were solely catered to the 5 – 10-year-olds.
While you still had the Cenas, concentrating on a specific target audience, you also had the likes of Edge and Lita, who were being catered to the adult fanbase. WWE had balance in its product, but all that changed in June 2007.
WWE had just resurrected their own version of ECW, and Vince McMahon was trying to figure out how he could make money out of it without making it a tribute show for the ECW of the 90s. In hindsight, it was being developed to be today’s version of NXT, but Vince wanted some seasoned veterans on the show. When Kurt Angle was asked to jump shows, he walked away from the WWE, citing health issues.
Chris Benoit was then chosen as the guy who would nurture the young talents on the ECW roster, superstars who were seen as the future of the WWE, such as Elijah Burke, Johnny Nitro and CM Punk. Unfortunately before any of that could happen, WWE was dealt with the most severe blow since the drugs and steroids scandal back in the 90s.
What happened in June 2007 changed the entire landscape of the professional wrestling industry. Needless to say, its impact on the WWE was huge, as WWE had to take necessary precautions to prove themselves once again to the fans. It was a time when, like usual, WWE had a mixture of simple and controversial angles, and the biggest angle at that time was the murder of the Mr. McMahon character.
Couple of weeks before the fateful day, Mr. McMahon got into a limousine to drive away from the arena on RAW, but his vehicle blew up, and that resulted in an outpour of condolences and inquiries from the WWE fans. While no one was sure if the explosion was staged or if it was a reality, WWE tried its best to keep the fans in the dark.
The WWE management did everything possible to make it look like Vince McMahon had indeed passed away. The WWE Head Quarters in Stamford hoisted a black flag, in memory of Vince McMahon. Local authorities were contacted by concerned fans, and they had to assure them that they did not attend to any such explosion that evening.
On RAW, Smackdown! and ECW, Vince McMahon’s family appeared, and vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery. Everything was going according to the plan when one day, Chris Benoit didn’t show up at a PPV. While everybody thought it wasn’t anything major, the next day they received a call from the authorities in Atlanta, Georgia that Chris Benoit was found dead, along with his family.
The surge of disbelief soon disappeared, as the fans and the wrestling industry mourned the death of one of the greatest technical wrestlers in the history of the business. WWE abruptly ended the storyline about Mr. McMahon’s death, as Vince himself spoke about Chris Benoit on Monday Night RAW. What was supposed to be yet another week of controversial angles and outrageous storylines turned into a morose, somber evening.
WWE lost yet another legendary grappler, but what made it worse was the fact that even his family was found murdered. As it turned out, it was the least of WWE’s problems, as it was later alleged that Benoit had killed his wife and son, and then killed himself. WWE found itself in a quicksand, and they knew they would be at the receiving end of the most gruesome, grotesque period of self – reflection with the media backlash, and they were running out of time to make it out alive.
WWE immediately distanced itself from the name of Benoit, but they knew they had to do a lot more to win the affection of the fans. Ratings weren’t their top priority, as the image of the WWE had taken its worst beating. WWE went into damage control, and one of the results was WWE moving away from any controversial angles, thus effectively going from PG 13 to PG.
This meant that the older fans wouldn’t buy into the product as much as they used to – For example, WWE wouldn’t be doing anything similar to the “Extreme Expose” angle which they had done on ECW before they went PG.
Although it was expected at that time that the ratings would decline gradually, as most of the older fans would lose interest in the product, it was seen as a necessary step to gain back the affection from the general audience. WWE’s biggest fanbase is the kids, and they knew that unless they made their programming completely family friendly, they would lose their biggest target audience.
In the end, the Benoit tragedy effectively led to the company going completely PG. It was necessary for WWE to do so, considering the bad publicity around the Chris Benoit saga. This not only led to WWE suffering a major blow, but also cemented the direction that the company was heading in, something that most of the fans to this day do not agree with.