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Bodyslammed!: The WWE And Second Screen Storytelling

There's been a lot of talk of late about social TV, "second screen" experiences, and the impact it's having on people's relationship with content, and with one another. The concept is hardly new, of course: ardent fans have long been gathering on message boards to talk about their favorite shows in real time, and various media companies have experimented with how to connect viewers with one another, and with the show, for some time.

One of the companies I've been most fascinated to watch on this front is World Wrestling Entertainment. Since the WWE's world of stories is built atop our own non-scripted world and its characters interact with the fans through social media, in-arena experiences, and elsewhere, the WWE provides a petrie dish for storytelling innovation from which the rest of the entertainment industry can learn. The wrestling guys in Stamford, CT, have been given a unique narrative opportunity that no other entertainment company enjoys, so there's much to learn from their experiments.

Case in point: the WWE's handling of its recent "Big Show" blunder. Let me set the stage. WWE had built up an epic battle between its bureaucratic, much maligned general manager, retired pro wrestler, and head of talent relations John Laurinaitis, and lead WWE star John Cena. The two would enter a match at the Over the Limit pay-per-view event with the stipulation from the corporate office that, if anyone interfered on Laurinaitis' behalf, they would have their contract terminated. And, if Laurinaitis didn't win, he'd lose his job running the WWE. It was the promised chance for WWE fans to finally see the hated "Big Johnny" get his comeuppance.

Meanwhile, WWE had a "B" storyline running in which former world champion "The Big Show" Paul Wight had offended Mr. Laurinaitis and, after being forced to grovel for his job, had been fired. The stage was set, dedicated fans who closely followed the storylines could see, for "The Big Show" to appear at the Over the Limit event to interfere on Laurinaitis' behalf in return for getting the chance after the fact to get his job back. After all, since he had already been fired, he would be immune from the edict that any wrestler who interfered would be fired.

Things unfolded just as dedicated fans thought they might. That is, until the Monday Night RAW TV show the next night. As Laurinaitis came out to celebrate, he made an announcement that boggled fans' minds: that he had hired The Big Show back on Saturday night, before the PPV event.

Online, wrestling fans immediately balked. After all, as Adam Testa wrote at The Baltimore Sun, "If the World's Largest Athlete was, in fact, re-signed on Saturday, wouldn't he fall victim to that stipulation and termination at the hands of the WWE Board of Directors?" Fans took to Twitter to protest in volume.

In response, WWE called an audible change and, as the show bore on, had the commentators explain and clarify Mr. Laurinaitis' comments. It turns out, they explained, that The Big Show had gotten an unofficial verbal offer on Saturday, but he didn't actually sign a new contract until after the PPV event on Sunday evening.

Sure, the explanation was a little weak. Sure, John Cena and other WWE characters should probably have lobbied to protest such a flimsy excuse. But, on the other hand, let's give WWE credit for having the mechanism in place not only to catch fans' reaction to their mistake in real-time but to actually correct course of a scripted show during the course of the very same episode. Then, after the episode, they posted a WWE.com exclusive video where Laurianitis defended himself to fans.

There are several lessons to be learned from WWE's response to their fans' real-time tweets:

  1. Paying attention to audience feedback in real-time can help you mitigate a controversy before it gets out of hand.
  2. Listening to audience reaction requires not just monitoring and recording what audiences say but actually thinking about and understanding it, and doing something about it.
  3. Sometimes, negative audience feedback can be a good thing, if it helps you improve the quality of your product.
  4. Fans are likely to be more forgiving if they realize that you listen to their feedback, and incorporate it.
  5. Fan engagement should not be seen as a useless metric or bragging point. It can serve real business functions that matter, when it's treated seriously and used effectively.

The WWE has only scratched the surface of the gift that's been handed to them. If they prioritized it, my guess is that it could become the blue ribbon entity when it comes to immersive, transmedia storytelling across multiple platforms that engage their fans not in idle chatter but in ways that bring them meaningfully into the narrative world. The jury is still out on whether WWE will claim the mantle of what it could be (and here's hoping there's some introspection as to the lack of continuity control that led to last month's blunder). But, nevertheless, you'll likely find some key innovations and lessons learned from the superstars of the "squared circle" in the meantime.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program inComparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: Flickr user Amanda Lockwood]

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