The unpredictable Attitude Era represented WWE's highest heights of popularity, but a return to a TV-14 rating will not lead to that style of programming's return. In late 1997, when the seeds of the Attitude Era first began to blossom, WWE was in a bad place. After the formation and rise of the extremely popular nWo stable, rival company WCW had taken the lead spot in pro wrestling away from Vince McMahon's empire for the first time since Hulkamania began running wild in the mid-1980s.
WCW Nitro was beating WWE's flagship program Raw in the ratings every Monday night. The nWo was a merchandise cash cow, and WCW's talent roster was one of the best ever. Under the leadership of executive Eric Bischoff and bolstered by ex-WWE stars like Scott Hall, WCW was the cool place to go for wrestling and seemed hip and edgy. Thankfully, a new set of stars was beginning their ascendance in WWE and a new adult-oriented creative product was taking shape behind the scenes.
It may have initially been born out of desperation, but WWE's wild and crazy Attitude Era - driven by characters like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X - carried the company to heights it has not seen before or since. WWE eventually bought WCW and the world of wrestling was forever changed. After nearly 15 years of more family friendly TV-PG rated content, reports say that WWE is on the verge of changing Raw and SmackDown back to the TV-14 rating they carried during the Attitude Era. This has naturally excited some lapsed fans, but for several reasons, the Attitude Era truly coming back is unlikely.
WWE's Attitude Era Content Would Earn Social Media Backlash
Aside from being wildly unpredictable from week to week, WWE's Attitude Era was primarily known for three aspects. The first was foul language. While the F-bomb was still largely banned from TV, plenty of other curse words were used on the regular, especially by Austin and DX. Then there was the violent, bloody, hardcore brawls that defined the main event scene during this time, such as Austin's matches with The Undertaker or Rock's matches with Mick Foley.
What's most likely to cause controversy today was the Attitude Era's treatment of WWE's female performers. While women's wrestling is now taken about as seriously as the men's side in WWE, the Attitude Era was famous - and now infamous looking back - for focusing on the women as strictly eye candy. People like Trish Stratus and Lita eventually began to buck that trend, putting on good matches as well, but they were still also often seen in their underpants or having thong contests. A little sex appeal in entertainment is certainly not inappropriate in and of itself, but if WWE ever tried to bring back evening gown matches or bikini contests, there would be social media cancellation campaigns going on before the show even finished airing. Not to mention things like Stratus being forced to bark like a dog by the now scandal-ridden Vince McMahon or characters like a wrestling pimp that enters the ring with "hoes" by his side.
WWE's Sponsors Wouldn't Accept An Attitude Era Return
Many might be inclined to say that if WWE really wanted to resurrect the Attitude Era, the threat of social media backlash would not be enough to stop them. That might be true for those within WWE, but that does not mean those who pay big money to advertise on WWE programming or its TV network partners would agree. While USA is said to be onboard with Raw's potential change to TV-14, it is hard to imagine FOX being okay with SmackDown going that route, especially since SmackDown starts in the 8pm EST "family hour." Then there is the fact that WWE - led by John Cena - has purposefully spent the last decade-plus cultivating a family-friendly image and marketing itself to kids. The sponsors WWE counts on a for big part of its revenue will likely have a lot to say about any changes WWE makes to the adult nature of its content.
While it is true that WWE pre-Attitude Era had also been kid-friendly, WWE was in financial jeopardy in 1997 and were thus willing to take the risk of targeting an older audience and possibly alienating the remaining fans it did have. For all that the diehard wrestling fanbase criticizes the lackluster product WWE often puts on in 2022 and longs for the days of unpredictability, the company is doing extremely well financially thanks to its high-dollar TV deals, its licensing of the WWE Network to Peacock, and its merchandise sales to younger fans. That is a boat WWE's executive team will likely be very wary of rocking too much.
WWE's Current Creative Rules Would Have Ruined The Attitude Era
This may be the one factor that could change going forward, after WWE boss Vince McMahon's recent retirement announcement. Still, Vince's daughter Stephanie and close confidant Nick Khan are now co-CEOs and for now the current creative team remains intact, so it remains to be seen if anything drastically changes about how WWE runs. It would have to for any kind of Attitude Era revival to work, as it is no secret that under Vince's leadership WWE has become a product that is scripted to the letter, with no performers outside of top talent like Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton really allowed to deviate from that.
Why this overly scripted nature matters is that as WWE itself has routinely pointed out in retrospective documentaries, the Attitude Era's best characters were defined by them being exaggerated extensions of the wrestler's real persona, with the talent being allowed the freedom to improvise and behave more organically. This is especially true of people like Steve Austin and The Rock, who routinely invented their own catchphrases, had input into their merchandise designs, and would sometimes call audibles in the moment that ended up working out big time. Currently, WWE's performers are scolded for going off script and sometimes even buried onscreen or released by WWE if they do something to get themselves over with the crowd instead of waiting for creative to have plans to push them. If this had been the WWE way back then, the sparks of the Attitude Era may have never grown into the flame that defined the Monday Night War.