The WWE Network sunsets in the United States on April 4, as it becomes part of NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service. Launched in 2014 (after an initial conceptualization as a television network that never came to fruition), the WWE Network is one of the the promotion’s signature achievements, forever altering the global wrestling marketplace in a way that’s beyond my ability to fully account.
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Essentially a museum displaying the spoils of Vince McMahon’s conquest of professional wrestling, the WWE Network’s $9.99 pricepoint offered up a buffet of (almost) everything a wrestling fan could want as a side dish to its true function as a subscription service for monthly pay-per-view offerings and an array of well-produced documentaries about current WWE stars. Ignoring all of the criticisms I’d make were this essay about the history of the WWE Network, it’s an incredible concept, one that’s been adapted by endless numbered wrestling promotions, making an impossible amount of professional wrestling immediately accessible to curious and hardcore fans alike.
That concept’s time has passed—whatever gets folded over from the Network to Peacock, WWE itself is now the value-add to a $4.99 monthly plan that unlocks live sports and next day access to American Ninja Warrior.
The WWE Network’s integration into Peacock has been slow and inelegant—when I was browsing around before Fastlane, there was a seemingly arbitrary collection of old content, and Peacock’s UI is frankly not up to the task of skipping segments in an individual show or searching the library for a specific wrestler.
Were I interested in the wellbeing of this marriage, I’d be concerned. I’m not, so I’ve mostly looked on in curiosity at an aspect of the merger I hadn’t considered until I saw a tweet about how the infamous match between Roddy Piper and Bad News Brown from WrestleMania VI—the one where Piper painted half of his body black (he’d previously painted half of his face black) and cut an absurdly racist babyface promo about transcending race—had been scrubbed from the Peacock version of the show.
Here, my thoughts splinter. I’m not particularly interested in covering “what the fans think,” as “who is sad about losing easy access to racist material” isn’t a question that deserves an answer. How Peacock decides what is and isn’t fit for their platform amongst thousands of hours of content strewn across seven or so decades is similarly disinteresting, though I do not envy the people digging through the WWE Network’s guts right now. This is a project that will satisfy nobody—if you cut the Piper match and a Vince McMahon/Booker T segment, do you also cut Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s racist commentary from your average Tito Santana match? Do you you just cut Tito Santana matches Bobby Heenan (or, for that matter, Jessie Ventura) called? What do you do with the career of a wrestler like Kamala?
Broadly, that line of questioning congeals itself to this: “What does Peacock scrubbing the WWE Network mean for wrestling history?” There are two ways one can ask this question. The first is disingenuously, like asking how we’re meant to remember history without statues valorizing the slaveholders. The second is earnestly, with an eye towards learning from wrestling’s sordid past. I think the answer in both instances is the same: Not much.
WrestleMania VI happened. Piper’s blackface act happened. It exists in countless permutations: On VHS, on DVD, in various file formats swapped endlessly through peer-to-peer networks, in professional and amateur photography, in bits and pieces on hundreds of YouTube videos, podcasts, recaps, and listicles about the shocking, strange, and shameful aspects of wrestling. That one of the most accessible versions of this is now gone as a consequence of a content liscensing deal can’t undo any of that, nor does it absolve WWE of its sins.
The idea of “erasing history” is pretty tiresome in its current American context—the idea that a hideous obelisk errected by a bunch of racist white women in the aftermath of the American Civil War is capable of teaching history is one of the odder beliefs that’s mapped itself onto this country’s ability to discuss its past. On a much smaller scale, this pattern of thought has crossed over into how we engage with filmed entertainment in the streaming era. Peacock’s decision to scrub the WWE Network’s racist content is one way of dealing with it—and is not without in-house precedent, as several episodes of 30 Rock were left off the service at launch. Another way of dealing with it is to take a page out of Disney and Warner Brothers’ books when it comes their back catalog of racist animation, which is to include a title card that gives context and serves as an apology before rolling the cartoon.
Neither is satisfactory, but when it comes to wrestling, at least when it comes to WWE, I prefer Peacock’s approach. Roddy Piper’s blackface bit has been kicking around for over 30 years as something fast forwarded through, skipped, or gawked at—until this week, it’s never been appointment viewing. For those 30 years to be worthwhile, a longer exploration of Roddy Piper’s use of racism and homophobia as a character trait is necessary. For those 30 years to be worthwhile, a study Bad News Brown’s role as an intimidating Black heel whose fate was to be emasculated by WWE’s top white babyfaces is necessary. For those 30 years to be worthwhile, the conversation about WWE’s history of racist content would have to move beyond “this is racist” to “this is why they’re racist,” which is a project that goes well beyond the real and perceived proclivities of the talent and executives responsible for its production.
That takes effort, and isn’t something that can or should be handled in-house. WWE may be obsessive archivists of their past, but when confronted with the worst elements of itself (the Eugene character, for instance), they’ve largely put that archive to work to prove why their various critics are wrong, regardless of how black-and-white the situation appears. They save their Criterion Collection style assemblages of footnotes and extra features for things they’re not embarrassed about, or to show how they’re doing a better job on race, gender, and sexuality now than in the past.
One doesn’t need footage of Roddy Piper in blackface to confirm the basic truth of how much WWE has changed. That content has existed, largely uncensored, for public consumption since 2014, and never really underwent the sort of popular critical analysis that begins to justify its continued accessibility. In removing this content from it’s platform—something that WWE isn’t standing in the way of—Peacock is inadvertently creating an inroads to discussing, through its artificially-induced absence, just how much racism guided the creative direction of one of the cornerstones of American popular culture, similar to how the removal of four episodes of 30 Rock recrystallized the ongoing discussion of that element of show creator Tina Fey’s career.
Besides which, the WWE Network was never a functional archive.
The WWE Network is a brand, a means of packaging thousands of hours of unsalable content (due to quality and the Network making WWE’s retrospective DVDs largely obsolete) together to provide the illusion of a deep, rich catalog of material. That the Network actually has a deep, rich catalog is immaterial—the way it was presented for public consumption did not reward deep dives into the past. Want to get a sense of what WCW was like in 1998? Of the five television shows the company produced at the time, two are on the Network. To watch Nitro, Thunder, and pay-per-view offerings in order, you have to scroll from 2001 to 1998 in Nitro, then scroll all the way back to January, then go to Thunder, scroll from 2001 to 1998, then scroll to January, and repeat that process when you’re ready for week two of Nitro.
The WWE Network is made possible by archival work, but that archive, WWE Libraries, is an entirely different subsidiary of the company—the 17,000 hours of content under Peacock’s scrutiny is somewhere around 10% of what WWE actually owns; really the most marketable, easily accessible footage the company has on hand. In 2013, WWE’s official website explored the work of their video archivists, who are tasked with untangling and resequencing tens of thousands of oft-neglected master tapes so they can be digitally preserved before they decay beyond use.
What sucks is that WWE Libraries is privately owned—while the work done there is important, it’s not like I can pop in and ask an archivist to pull something specific from the stacks to satisfy my academic curiosity like I theoretically can with the effects of wrestling promoter Jack Pfefer at the University of Notre Dame. WWE’s archive is always going to be at the mercy of WWE, meaning that its public contextualization will largely be in service of capital, as opposed to an entity like the Chicago Film Archive’s extensive collection of wrestling footage shot in the 1950s under the auspices of the IWF, much of which has been digitized and uploaded to YouTube.
Right now, the demands of capital are that a plainly terrible moment of Roddy Piper’s career joins your average episode of WCW Worldwide in the stacks, that “preserving” it in a way that’s accessible becomes, like video game preservation, a task performed by fans who are willing to live in the grey areas of keeping illegally duplicated copyright protected intellectual property—a practice that’s run parallel to professional wrestling for longer than I’ve been alive and was, until the advent of YouTube and other Network-like sites, how wrestling beyond the bounds of the United States gained a foothold here.
So yeah, I’m not particularly concerned that Peacock is taking a chainsaw to WWE’s “history.” As poorly stewarded and haphazardly explored as that history was on its own terms, as a $4.99 addition to a platform seeking to remonetize Friends and Battlestar Galactica, that history has never seemed like more of a backburner concern than it does now. The conversation about segments like Piper’s WrestleMania VI appearance was never going to happen under WWE’s roof anyhow, so why pretend that the Network had more utility than it actually had in that regard.
As presented by the Network, those moments were monuments, not conversations. The hideous obelisk dedicated to the Confederate dead local to me was removed from its place of prominence in downtown Athens, Georgia last summer after a loophole was found in a state law that would have otherwise prevented its relocation. Downtown Athens does not hurt for its removal, nor is the city’s history in tatters. WrestleMania VI doesn’t suffer without Roddy Piper—if anything, it’s a better show. A show that’s headlined by one wrestler whose racism temporarily got him tossed out of the WWE Hall of Fame before the company began a largely derided rehabilitation campaign and another whose racism has been actively whitewashed by the company since his death, but like I said, removing content doesn’t absolve WWE of its sins, it just remonetizes its quieter ones in a way that’s harder to quantify than a sudden lack. In other words, you get what you pay for.