Saturday 29 October 2011

The Wrestling Channel

As you’ll likely have gathered from Michael Cole’s obnoxious bleating during the last few weeks of RAW and SmackDown there are plans for WWE to launch its own television channel. It will likely be called The WWE Network. This is far from a good investment for the company.

Setting up and running a television station costs far more than WWE can realistically afford. Worryingly Vince McMahon has stated he feels comfortable taking out loans using WWE as collateral in order to fund the scheme. That means if the channel fails Vince could lose control of the promotion he made famous. Whatever your thoughts are on the current sports entertainment product that would be a very bad thing: Vince is still very much the driving force behind the company. There is nobody yet ready to take on all of his many duties.

Instead of taking out a loan WWE should try to purchase an existing channel and rebrand it. They have reportedly looked into this and been unable to strike a satisfactory deal. The best course of action would be to wait, but instead the decision has been made to spend vast sums of money creating a channel from scratch.

Even overlooking the cost of the project it’s a bad idea. WWE intends to fill the broadcasting hours with a mixture of its current television shows (RAW, SmackDown, Superstars, etc.), the extensive wrestling backlist that’s been acquired over the years (WCW, ECW, the AWA, etc.), and new “non-wrestling wrestling-themed” programming. The backlist availability may sound appealing but how likely do you think it is WWE will actually utilise it properly? It’s had the rights to ECW and WCW footage for over ten years now and has only released a handful of DVDs. That’s not the action of a company keen to make use of its video tape library.

RAW and SmackDown being aired on the channel isn’t a bad idea either, but as both shows are available on other US channels it’s not a particularly great one either. There are plans to offer select pay-per-views too. Originally the plan was that subscribers would get to watch The Big Four shows free on the WWE Network, but this plan quickly changed when WWE realised giving away the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania for free would be a catastrophic hit on their profits.

The plan as it currently stands is that subscribers will get all or some of the promotion’s B-level pay-per-views (such as Extreme Rules and Vengeance) as part of the package. If WWE runs the same number of pay-per-views next year as this year that will be nine free supershows for subscribers. Buy rates for these shows are low as it is, giving them away free to anyone who has WWE’s own channel will only cause them to shrink further. That will have a knock-on detrimental effect with the pay-per-view providers WWE relies on for its more successful pay-per-view events.

Easily the least appealing thing about the channel is the new “non-wrestling wrestling-themed programming”. Already announced are two reality shows, one following WWE’s Divas as they tour around the current in a bus and the other focusing on “WWE Legends” living in a Big Brother style house. Watching Sergeant Slaughter make a cup of tea while Hillbilly Jim does the hovering may have a novelty appeal at first but it won’t last long.

The channel is going to appeal almost exclusively to diehard fans. That’s not a negative, but it means WWE are going to need to be prepared to offer a lot of wrestling, something they’ve tried to disassociate themselves form in recent years. The most hardcore of fans will happily watch a Santino Marella sitcom (believe me, that will happen if the channel comes to fruition – they’ll have dozens of hours to fill a week), but only if there’s some wrestling on offer as well.

Vince has tried several times to prove he can succeed away from wrestling. He can’t. The World Bodybuilding Federation proved that in the early 90s. The XFL proved it again a decade later. More recently the lamentable offerings from WWE Studios (which Vince hopes will prove his wrestler employees can act as well as sports entertain) have shown that Vince is best suited to the role of wrestling promoter.

Let's just hope they avoid dipping into the XFL and WBF video libraries...

The WWE Network, being heavily linked to wrestling, has a better chance of succeeding than any of Vince’s previous projects: he knows wrestling and how to succeed promoting it while he was essentially just a fan with a lot of money when it came to the WBF and XFL. It’s still a poor idea though. WWE risking going into severe debt just so it can air shows about Divas riding around in a bus and some old AWA matches that could just as easily be released on DVD is not the direction the company should be heading in. They should be putting their money back into their one successful product instead.

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