Monday 13 January 2014

The WWE Network

It was September 2011 when WWE first announced their plan to create the imaginatively named WWE Network. To put things in perspective that was the year that The Rock wrestled his first match since 2002, Michael Cole was wrestling’s most over heel, Miz went into WrestleMania as WWE champion to beat John Cena, and RAW was still only two hours long. Beyond the name nothing was known about the Network.

That changed the following month when WWE aired a trailer stating that the Network would launch on April 1st 2012, just in time for WrestleMania XXVIII. But that launch was quietly dropped, never to be acknowledged again by WWE. It can be explained either as WWE not appreciating how much work was involved in launching a television channel when they announced the date or as one of the most outlandish April Fools’ Day pranks in history. Probably the former.

Yes, television channel. That was WWE’s original plan. They looked at starting one from scratch to begin with but when they realised it would be too expensive and complex they started looking at buying existing stations to be rebranded. That didn’t come to anything either.

WWE didn’t seem to know quite how to go about following up on their bravado-laden announcement. They knew they wanted their own channel but they didn’t know how to get it. It was a logical goal for the company to have. In addition to owning nearly five decades’ of their own footage they’d also bought up the archive rights of the American Wrestling Association, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, a variety of National Wrestling Alliance territories, World Championship Wrestling, and Extreme Championship Wrestling. Having so much at their disposal and doing nothing with it was not, ahem, best for business. Releasing even the highlights from these promotions in a physical format would have been impractical. Creating their own broadcasting service was the most sensible approach WWE could take if it wanted to make use of the footage it had spent a lot of money acquiring.

By summer 2012 things had quietened down on the Network front. The rumour and news sites kept us posted on enquiries WWE made, the people appointed to various roles, and Vince McMahon’s wavering passion and mental stability regarding the endeavour but no news on what form the Network would actually take was released.

Took them long enough to organise a new logo
Obviously at some point between then and now WWE gave up on the idea of having it as a TV channel because it was announced on January 8th 2014 that the WWE Network would launch as a streaming service on WWE’s website. My personal opinion (and bear in mind that I am a wrestling fan with opinions, not an expert analyst on the television industry or video on demand services) is that a streaming service is a far better choice than a TV channel for WWE. Even if they owned the TV channel outright WWE would have had only twenty-four hours a day in which to broadcast. With thousands of hours of footage available to them how would they have concocted a schedule that appealed to everyone likely to buy a subscription as well as casual viewers who needed winning over? The streaming service allows people to watch what they want when they want at the same time as giving WWE the option of broadcasting live.

The live broadcasts are apparently something they want to do, which should come as a surprise to nobody. Vince’s product has always had a place for overblown interview segments. More significantly there are things like The Bobby Heenan Show and the recent pay-per-view pre-show series to look at. While TBHS was only ever fifteen minutes in length and slipped into an existing wrestling programme it indicates that Vince McMahon and WWE see value in studio-based talk segments and have done for decades.

A daily WWE show from a studio (likely in Greenwich, Connecticut or somewhere close by) could take one of several forms. It could be of the late night variety popular in the States or something more akin to The One Show that we get here. Either approach would provide a platform for presenting wrestlers as normal members of society (you know that’s WWE’s priority with this show, whenever and however it airs) and allow WWE to get a foot in the door of the talk show market. That’s something that could raise awareness of the company and its profile so it’s something that they’ll obviously want to pursue.

The service will launch in the USA on February 24th with over 1,500 hours of programming available. That will include replays of new WWE programming, all current pay-per-views as they air, a smattering of the classic footage  from the promotion’s library, and specially recorded documentary and reality series. The initial price is ten dollars for six months, which strikes me as a very good price. If the offer is similarly low when the Network launches here (which will apparently happen in late 2014 or early 2015, along with a number of other non-US territories) I’ll be signing up to it.

Launching in February is a move obviously designed to encourage people to sign up in order to access WrestleMania XXX essentially for ten dollars. While that will cause the show’s buys to take a dip it will give the Network as strong a start as possible. As it’s something WWE considers a huge part of their future success you can’t really fault them for doing it.

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