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August 29, 2006

WWE 24/7 On Demand

While I've alluded to this product before, I want to examine the WWE 24/7 On Demand feature in a little bit more detail, since it alludes to another important aspect of Long Tail programming and the ability of convergence culture to supply niche products to various audiences.

Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment is the largest pro wrestling operation in the country these days. Vince was known in his youth for expanding his New York-based territory nationally and competing with various other promoters in their own regional spaces to create one wrestling company that toured from coast to coast, rather than there being a territory based in Memphis, another in Nashville, another in St. Louis, another in Indiana, another in Minneapolis/St. Paul, etc.

Now, however, since Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling has gone out of business, there are no immediate serious challenges to WWE's rule over the wrestling industry, with the TNA wrestling program that airs on Spike TV being considered a clear second company behind WWE's three major brands: RAW, Smackdown, and ECW.

At this point, Vince has remembered pro wrestling's history, a history the company often used to strategically ignore unless it was their own because they were in the process of building a WWE mythology, one that made its characters and its history seem larger than those of other companies.

When the WWE became the only big company left, however, they began to realize and utilize other wrestling histories. Vince had inherited the WCW/NWA tape library from Ted Turner when he purchased WCW in 2001. And, when ECW folded, he purchased not only the rights to its names but also its archive.

Since that time, Vince has purchased the rights to Tennessee-based Smoky Mountain Wrestling and then has contacted promoters or the family of old promoters across the country that may have extant video libraries from the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of those promoters and families didn't keep their footage, since video tape was so expensive in those days, and instead elected to record over one week's shows with the next.

WWE has been utilizing the video archives of its own company (which was formerly called WWWF and WWF), the NWA/WCW footage, and the ECW library for DVD releases featuring historical matches. However, over the past couple of years, the company has amassed quite a large wrestling archive, purchasing the rights to the American Wrestling Association programming from Verne Gagne and featuring what used to be the third major competitor on a national stage in WWE 24/7 programming, as well as the tape libraries of World Class Championship Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Florida's wrestling archive, and others.

The WWE 24/7 program, which has gotten fairly widespread cable television distribution at this point, is unique in that it is a subscription on-demand service. Users pay around $8 or $9 a month and can then sign on to the WWE 24/7 section of their digital service, where they have a listing of programs made available that week, from which they can watch any show at any time. These cannot be watched individually, so the subscription is the only way to gain access.

WWE airs old episodes from the RAW vs. Nitro Monday Night Wars, when WCW aired Nitro on TNT and WWE aired RAW on USA. The service offers two of these head-to-head battles a month, in chronological order. The site does the same with old WWE Primetime and Tuesday Night Titans programs from USA in the 1980s as well, in addition to ECW weekly shows from 1994.

24/7 also includes old PPV events, old house show cards that matches were recorded from to be aired on television, and old home videos.

The company heavily featured programs from its own past at first, primarily because the video archives purchased from other promoters had not yet been organized nor digitized. Since that time, the WWE has gone through and mapped out many of those acquired libraries, however, and are beginning to air expanded 24/7 content, which features extant weekly shows from some of the territories that have been purchased as well.

The point of all this? WWE has been able to draw on nostalgia in a way that appeals to a very concentrated group of fans, those who care enough about professional wrestling to throw down a few bucks a month to watch old pro wrestling programming, tape archives that were otherwise just sitting in a closet somewhere. It's an example of Chris Anderson's Long Tail, in that products like these can be profitable just by finding a fan base. Although the initial costs of digitizing and mapping out these tape libraries may put the product in the red, the long-term sustainability of this niche product should eventually turn a profit, especially considering that the footage can also be used for DVD releases, etc. (The company has found this out, especially with releasing multiple-disc sets of various wrestling personalities.)

And, the WWE has been able to pull in some fans who don't even watch the current product regularly but who love to see the wrestling of yesteryear. In fact, there are some people who are hostile against the company, who do not like Vince McMahon, but are willing to pay him for this archive, to remember wrestling from the regional era before what they see as his corrupting influence came through and changed pro wrestling.

Although this is only a very broad explanation of WWE's move to collect wrestling history and its implications, the 24/7 service and the restoration movement behind it is worth looking at in further detail as a potential guide for similar projects of exploiting video archives for other niche products. Basically, there is a fan base out there who want to see a lot of content not currently being aired anywhere, and as channels become available to distribute that content while keeping the costs low, the Long Tail theory becomes increasingly prevalent.

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