The Writers’ Room: Can WWE’s TV ratings be fixed?

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The Writers’ Room takes you into the Cageside Seats staff Slack channel for a look at our answers to interesting, pressing or weird wrestling questions.

Today, we’re getting in over our heads and discussing TV ratings.

Brent Brookhouse: Is there any fix to WWE’s middling TV ratings? It has always been hard to find “draws” in pro wrestling and that certainly seems to be a big problem for them currently. Like, Becky Lynch is OVER. But she’s not really proven to be a DRAW (at least yet). So…can they right the ship on the TV end?

Tommy Messano: Damn that’s a good question lol.

First instinct would be to say no because everything, besides the NFL, are seeing their ratings plummet.

Brent: And not to derail my own question, but as we’re talking about this, we’re also seeing that the business isn’t suffering.

Of course, business will suffer if the TV deals that make up so much of their revenue are eventually affected.

Also, Vince is talking about this right this very second.

Henry T. Casey: My first idea is that I’d constantly change which hour has the most important content, because for a while it’s seemed like the third hour is meaningless.

Tommy: I feel like baseball, UFC, and NASCAR are asking these same questions. For baseball and UFC there’s still rolling in money despite TV ratings sinking lower each of the past five years.

Henry: WWE at least can control its narratives to a certain degree.

Tommy: True, I wonder if WWE Network being widely available has hurt WWE’s tv ratings. Product is available 24/7, so fans don’t have to wait until Raw or SmackDown to get their fix.

Sean Rueter: For one thing, I’d call bullshit on Vince’s argument there. Who is hurt? Roman and… everyone else is a part-timer whose schedule won’t really change going forward, except they’ll show up less.

I don’t necessarily think “make the brand the star” is a bad model. It’s got us diehards hooked, and we’re the ones driving that record revenue. And I think they’re looking to create more diehards globally, rather than invest in making Raw, SmackDown, etc better products… or in other words, treating the brand like a star.

Henry: Do they think Bray drives ratings?

Sean: He’s not hurt though! They’re just choosing not to use him (allegedly).

Henry: I mean, this brings up a question. Does Vince mean shoot hurt or kayfabe hurt?

Because I swear he’s working the investors.

Sean: That’s an interesting question… with a possibly charge-able answer.

Henry: The amount of content drives burnout, to a degree. At least for those covering this stuff.

Kyle Decker: I honestly have no idea how they can improve ratings in an era where there are so many damn options for all entertainment that “flavor of the month “ is the highest to aim for.

They don’t have time off. So fans get burned out and stay that way.

Henry: I mean, “make Raw more fun” is a thing.

It’s a constantly shouted idea.

I don’t have concrete advice for how you do that, outside of making it feel not-stale.

Kyle: Yeah we don’t know what they’d look like with a consistently good product. Because Raw is hit or miss always.

Sean: It wouldn’t be a quick ratings fix like the McMahons seem to prefer, but the way to stave off ratings decline and get more viewers (as opposed to getting existing ones to invest/spend more) is to create a better product. Hire different directors, try different things creatively, etc.

Make Raw and SmackDown a show I would tell my wrestling-hating or agnostic friends who love action movies and sci-fi/fantasy/superhero fiction, “hey, you need to check this out” instead of “uh, yeah, I still kind of dig it, but, you know…”

Kyle: But I bet if it were consistently good it wouldn’t shoot up the ratings because it’s 5 hours every week always.

Sean has a good point with consistently trying something new. They may tell us they are but Raw is so stale in its presentation.

Sean: This is true… that’s WWE’s preaching to choir problem. The only people who will make that will even consider making that kind of time commitment are already watching.

But again, that’s why they have to try different things… themed hours, or a different kind of over-arching plot other than “evil authority figure keeps scrappy anti-hero down”, or… something, like Henry said, that’s not stale.

With that much content, I don’t know that “create new stars” would even work… would anyone watch five hours a week of Stone Cold or Hogan? I don’t think so, not without other changes

Kyle: I love NXT partially because it’s 1 hour a week. I’m left wanting more. It’s hard not to get burned out with even 5 hours a week of good product. I don’t want more after that. I want a break.

And for the casuals how must see is that program? 30% on a good week? There’s no risk of skipping it.

Sean: That gets back to Brandon Howard tweet and Brent’s point about it though – the company relies on those five hours of Raw and SmackDown to make the money to produce the content on the Network. Doesn’t seem like shortening shows is even a possibility.

Kyle: Which is why I not only don’t have an answer but I’m not sure there is one.

Tommy: Imagine 5 hours a week of your favorite TV show and then once a month it shoots up to 9 hours a week? Plus no off season. Eek.

Kyle: That’s entertainment now. More content. Is anything flourishing in the ratings?

Sean: Yeah, I keep circling back to “find new ways to make and showcase” stars which… no shit. I don’t know how you do that, but that’s why WWE makes the big bucks.

The difference between WWE and, say, Disney when it comes to the content creation game is that Disney seems to have more flexibility in the kinds of stories they tell. Sometimes Raw feels like they do this (this feud’s a revenge thriller, this program is a comedy, etc), but maybe they need to commit to it more.

Wrestling should be this broad canvas, but WWE seems to always revert back to painting the same two or three pictures.

Tommy: McMahon authority figure versus wrestler!!!

Brent: To jump back in. I keep wondering if the media landscape — and not cord cutting necessarily — makes it so much harder to find consistency in ratings for a year-round, 5 hours a week (6 if you also want NXT, 7 if you also want 205, 11ish if it’s a PPV week) impossible. People aren’t really “stuck” looking for something to watch anymore. For like $40 a month you can have Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix and never actually run out of things to watch. There’s not really any more being the “best available option” for people. Like…does anyone (except my fiance) “channel surf” looking for something to watch anymore?

Even the nebulous idea of “make Raw better” kind of fails when Smackdown IS better and their ratings aren’t exactly thriving.

Henry: Would changing the time format make it better?

Like, would people be more likely to tune into … hour-by-hour blocks? Or is predicability bad?

Brent: I think there’s some merit there. But there’s also the thinking of “WWE programming used to be unpredictable!” I’m genuinely wondering if the honest answer is “these ratings are just what WWE ratings look like in the current world and they may move up or down a bit at times, but this is the baseline so accept it.”

Sean: The cord-cutting argument (which I think is valid, and having spent the last week at my folks where they have cable but no streaming services, the shift back to channel surfing is a STRUGGLE) makes me wonder if that’s not it. There are people, from Meltzer to fans, who think the ratings have to change or Fox and NBCUniversal are going to be pissed. But the networks also look at the overall landscape and see what’s going on. Why do we think they expect more than what they’re getting now? Would Vince & team be arrogant/crazy enough to promise them they would suddenly buck the trend of the last decade?

If Raw and SmackDown, on their worst weeks, top the ratings and float around two million viewers all year round… what else is giving them those kinds of returns? Maybe this is a fan and wrestling media-created crisis? I don’t know.

Brent: I also think the “if ratings don’t improve, they’ll be pissed” thing doesn’t hold a ton of water. It’s not like this started after the deals, those deals were made by companies that would have done no end of research into trends before offering that level of money.

Sean: Exactly. I’ve seen people (I think attributed to Dave) claim that Fox is expecting 3 million viewers for SmackDown, which seems ludicrous to me that they would demand that or WWE would promise it.

Brent: I guess we could just look at this last Friday on Fox. 8pm was Last Man Standing (5.93 million viewers), 8:30 The Cool Kids (4.65 million), 9 Hell’s Kitchen (3.08 million).

Sean: Well, damn. Maybe they will expect 3 million.

Henry: Could they convince Brock to be on SmackDown Live every week?

Brent: But it’s also an easier channel to get 3 million on. I think it’s fair to think there will be some bump. If I cord cut with Xfinity, I still get local stations through them if I have their internet. Also, most streaming plans have some degree of local. So…maybe it’s fair?

And the age demo is valuable in itself. It’s going to skew younger than most things competing for Friday night ratings.

Sean: Yeah, I could see that argument – I still don’t think they’re gonna get it though. Would a two hour block of Tim Allen get three million?

But isn’t the WWE/wrestling audience aging?

Brent: Every audience is aging. The planet is dying and we’re all just here to witness the end. But at least Lesnar will be holding the belt when the bombs go off.

Kyle: Eat Arby’s.

Sean: … nihilists.

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