So Goes the Network
It’s 1 AM on a Thursday night. My wife has just gone to bed and left me to my own devices which, thanks to a sometimes overactive mind, often keep me up into the wee hours of the morning. Usually I’m sitting in front of a Word document on one screen with a video of some sort on the other. Frequently since March — when I was among the first wave of subscribers to the WWE Network — the video on that screen has been some sort of content from the wrestling giant’s fledgling internet venture. It’s the WWE’s bold shot-in-the-dark, or more astutely, their attempt to get out ahead of what they perceive as a PPV market near its death.
On this particular night it was Starrcade ’94, headlined by WCW Champion Hulk Hogan and, amazingly, Butcher (aka Brutus Beefcake), who thanks to Hogan has come to WCW with a new gimmick and a seemingly unthinkable (and inevitably brief) main event run. Butcher spent his entire introduction mean-mugging into the ringside camera while clawing his hand in the most comical, non-intimidating way possible. I cannot imagine even the most delicate mark having the slightest suspension of disbelief. I am not exactly overwhelmed with the show, but I am yet again impressed with WWE Network’s vast library and ease of access; this with the full knowledge that thousands of hours of TV and PPV still sit in the WWE archives, unused.
I live in a county of approximately 24,000 people — fewer than most tiny cities — spread out across the vast Central Texas landscape. We just moved here and it is profoundly rural and to my surprise I’ve met more wrestling fans here than in every urban oasis I’ve lived in combined. These are people with 60 foot Television antennas in their backyard because they didn’t realize it was just cheaper to buy a satellite dish. These are people who chock full high school gymnasiums if an indie show passes through because it might be the most exciting thing that happens that month. These are great people, many who have been left behind by time and the growing infrastructure of the far off cities. And so many of them are the type of wrestling fans I remember seeing on old tapes from the 70s and 80s. Ruckus. Rowdy. In the moment. Irony hasn’t entirely gotten here yet. Maybe it never will. These are probably the people WWE should want to be selling to, and, of course, the people it seems WWE has written off.
The fastest internet here that wouldn’t cost me thousands of dollars in my own construction is a 3Mbps down speed connection, which is actually just slightly slower than what the FCC considers “broadband” internet in 2014. And yet, the WWE’s Network, built on the award-winning MLB.TV platform, runs like a dream. Aside from a few streaming hiccups on PPV nights which seemed to effect other, faster internet connections the exact same, I haven’t a complaint.
But fresh of WWE’s subscription number release, which was at 700,000 at the end of June and actually fell to 690,000 by the end of July, it is clear there are profound problems. That number means a virtual gridlock since the service opened and a profound shortfall from their expectation of 1 million subscribers in 2014 and the now projected number of 1.4 million in order to break even. The number was so far off the pace that the WWE has conducted vast cost-cutting measures to try to get their break even number down to a third of its original requirement. The even bigger gamble, of course, is how many of the current subscribers will renew in September when their first six month commitments conclude.
The Network has a satisfaction rating that hovers around 90%, and rightfully so. But what does that mean about WWE’s ability to attract new subscribers? What does the WWE have to do different in its second attempt at the plate to grow its market? Or can they even grow it? Is it possible that WWE simply drastically overrated how much of its weekly free television viewership was willing to pay for access to more content?
It seems as likely that the WWE’s Network project will undergo drastic changes in the next 12 months out of necessity as it does that they will trudge on, stubborn, growing the viewership little-by-little. 50 million dollars in the red this year, with poor projections at their July 31st conference call and possibly no end in sight to those troubles should inhibit change rather quickly. But what could those changes be? What would make the Network better for its current viewership, and more importantly, more attractive to new potential subscribers?
Everyone has different ideas to make the Network work. In a perfect world, we could all curate our own Network for ourselves. But the reality is we’ll all have to compromise on something less than our exact image. With that in mind, here’s a few of mine:
More Original Content
I’m not exactly a huge fan of Legend’s House. I could do without seeing 65 year old retirees selling rubber duckies to YouTube critics or whatever. Seeing Jim Duggan jiggle his flab for a Las Vegas stage show is not my idea of an entertaining or enlightening viewing experience. But short of the streaming PPVs, which are once-a-month, there seems to be no practical purpose for the “streaming” portion of the Network. The original content was supposed to be the answer to this question, providing a steady flow of non-stop new stuff, especially for those less internet inclined among us.
Besides just that, the one thing my wife is willing to watch on the Network is the Legend’s House, because it resembles the other noxious fart reality TV shows that are easy to pick up and eminently consumable by virtually anyone, especially those who want to turn their brains off for a half hour and chuckle a couple times.
The risk here, of course, is the cost. It is expensive to produce new content, while it is much cheaper to just continuously re-air WrestleManias and SummerSlams. But I can’t imagine that you couldn’t pull a few of those on-the-fence potential subscribers down by having a few more original shows worth a view.
Here’s a few I’d do: How about a “Pop-Up Video” style show, with some old Coliseum Video and other House Show stuff?
What about a trivia game show, or a “What’s My Line” re-make that features the wrestlers, you know, as characters, just like the WWE so desires? Maybe a consistent, in-depth interview show could do well? That couldn’t be that much to produce.
Don’t Insult Your Actual Customers
This is probably a no-brainer, but maybe the WWE could reward the people who are loyal to its brand — and thus more likely to try to bring in their network of friends — than coax people who haven’t demonstrated the slightest inclination toward subscribing, or allowing virtually limitless numbers of people to access the same subscription with the same login.
As an early adopter of the Network, I’ve sat by idly watching about a month’s worth of “free trial” weeks and $100 worth of free merchandise handed out for subscribing or getting others to subscribe and essentially my reward for buying into the company was watching WWE scramble to inflate their subscription numbers through bribes for investors. Even if the content is great, how could I feel well served if people are getting so much access for free, or just using their buddy’s login with no repercussions?
How about a Network-only WWE title match now and then? Maybe release a DVD or something on the Network a few days before it’s available through other distribution. Every streaming and/or video service that I know of has a one-time, upfront free trial. And every service seems to do a much better job of tracking who is using a login, where, and how. What they don’t have is endless, random free trials at arbitrary times which make me feel dumb for paying for the product in the first place, or 11 people logging in through the same account.
Sometimes – Maybe All the Time – Less is More
Revenue driven as they are, the WWE has broken one of the golden rules of promotion so often that it hardly even seems like a rule anymore. Instead of creating dockets of new stars, they just use the stars they have more. Instead of creating better television, they just contract with stations whenever possible for more mediocre quality TV. And on the Network, while I do want more DIVERSITY in programming, I don’t need more of the same stuff I can get for free.
I don’t need to see Golddust and Stardust vs. Rybaxel for the 1,713th time, but this time as a special attraction on the Network! I don’t need to have potential PPV match-ups blown-off as TV/Network main events because 8 hours of mediocre TV time is easier and more lucrative than 4 hours of good programming.
If you’re going to put something on the Network as a special attraction, make it, you know, special, without decapitating what you could do six months down the road.
Why is Brock Lesnar so over, seemingly all the time? Maybe part has to do with the fact that he isn’t on TV every week, being scripted to death, with countless opportunities to expose his flaws.
Some of this is self-evident, some of it is easier-said-than-done and some is probably just a pipe dream. What I do know, though, is the WWE has to do *something* to differentiate it’s subscription service both from what is available on free TV and what seems like it can never be whitewashed completely from YouTube. The WWE gambled that at the $9.99 price mark, a portion of its archives and the monthly PPVs would be those differentiating factors. At this point it looks like they lost that bet, even if they’re not yet ready to admit it.
All we know now is that they have to do something different to show potential customers that their service is worth paying for, for reasons other than what they’ve already delivered. Will it happen? We’ll see. And while it’s not exactly how you draw it up, when his back is against the wall, there might be nobody better than Vince McMahon.