February 9, 2008
WWE's Departure from The CW a Situation Worth Watching

Significant news broke this week for the CW Network and World Wrestling Entertainment, as the WWE announced on its Web site Friday that, at the end of the current television season, Friday Night Smackdown will no longer air on the CW Network.

The move raises significant questions for what will happen to one of the two major WWE wrestling brands, but it also gives us a chance to consider what programming with a strong base like the WWE's might be able to seek out as alternatives. The WWE has proven in the past few years to be willing to experiment and change the nature of its programming, from its launch of defunct brand ECW as its "C-show" on Sci Fi (a move that was controversial in itself, especially due to tensions between wrestling fans and sci fi fans over its placement on the network) to its use of the Internet for distribution of shows in the past when they were moved off the network (see here).

One thing that networks have discovered in the past: wrestling fans, for the most part, move with their program. WWE often does fairly well with ratings when it switches nights or even channels. Wrestling fans are notorious for seeking out their favorite shows, but they are just as well-known in the television industry for tuning in when that show starts and then tuning out as soon as that show is over. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why moving to Sci Fi wasn't as controversial for wrestling fans as it was for sci fi fans, because wrestling fans care little about networks.

Several of us in and around the Consortium are interested in the place of network branding in the current age, including C3 Consulting Researcher Kevin Sandler (who has written on the issue in the past in academic publications) and C3 Research Manager Joshua Green (see his November 2007 Flow TV piece, for instance). Seems that WWE is particularly well-poised to pursue a life outside of traditional network or cable programming. Already, WWE has its VOD channel in place with a subscription model, and the company has made available not only archival footage but several original programs as well, including a series called WWE Legends that I see popping up on YouTube form time-to-time. In theory, WWE could create a boom for its VOD and online business by making its shows exclusively available there, thus bypassing a need for the network at all.

But the reason that only works in theory is the realization that, despite television becoming the centerpiece of the WWE in the current era, one of the primary focuses of the television show remains selling merchandise, selling tickets, and--most importantly--selling pay-per-view events. And it's of course hard to reach and recruit new pro wrestling fans without a publicly available television shows. Thus, if the Smackdown show--and its roster--were all moved from the CW to non-traditional channels, those wrestlers' merchandising value and marquee value in popular culture could suffer tremendously, as they would no longer have exposure to casual fans who either might not have broadband Internet service or who weren't already paying the subscription cost to join the WWE's VOD offering.

Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter points out that WWE's deal with NBC Universal means that only NBCU cable channels can air WWE content, so there is not room for an open bidding war there, and one would think that--because of its perceived cultural status--WWE is not going to be sought out by the other major networks. That leaves pay cable (which again suffers the same problem for WWE for not being able to reach casual fans and draw them into all of the WWE's major products), NBCU cable channels, and My Network TV.

The problem WWE has with perhaps all but My Network TV is that they need TV more than stations need them, especially now that they've lost all bargaining power with the news going public that they are leaving The CW. And, while it excites me to think that WWE might have made itself well-poised to eventually build a business model that bypasses a reliance on networks, there's still no way the Smackdown brand wouldn't suffer tremendously if it doesn't find a home on regular cable or a network.

In My Network TV's case, the network desperately needs programming to establish itself as a brand, and perhaps WWE can serve for it as it did for UPN and The CW for almost a decade--as staple programming that brings in a core audience to boost numbers, even if that audience will likely show no allegiance to any of the other programming.

The other major question is what this will mean for WWE's high-definition offering, as--after months of waiting and speculation, the WWE just recently launched in HD on The CW.

Whether you are interested in the world of pro wrestling or not, it's a story worth keeping your eye on...