Perhaps the most exhilarating potential idea for the last several years — not just the last year — was that of the WWE Network, in whatever form it was going to take. For a while, we heard rumors of the Network being a subscription based television network like HBO or Showtime, perhaps with an internet-only on demand feature. There were a lot of stops and starts, and eventually we found out the ‘Network’ was actually going to be an entirely internet only subscription service. The reason why depends on who you ask, but it mostly seems like both the WWE and television providers were not willing to gamble on the service as a television channel.
To much excitement, WWE finally released its intention to launch the WWE Network as an internet only service at the beginning of 2014, giving us all more details on how the service would take shape. The anticipation was palpable. The Pay Per Views would now become a part of your internet only subscription cost, as well as original content and thousands upon thousands of hours archived footage being available. It would be the one stop repository for all things WWE wrestling, past and present.
This was going to be great. For the life of a fan of American wrestling, it was going to be groundbreaking.
Except, it wasn’t.
Much like a lot of what the WWE does — still stuck in the carny mentality of promoting something without being able to deliver — the product we received was much different than the promotion. This is the way the WWE works and has worked, from the Gobbeldy Gooker to GTV and on and on, the McMahon vision of professional wrestling has been to sometimes promise you one thing and then “fool” you with a “clever” and “humorous” ruse; the less interesting and less dramatic thing being the work.
They’ve done this so much over the years that the idea of real drama or intrigue happening on the show has been deduced to the same sort of eye rolling that occurs when the loud man tells you to walk into the tent and see the cyclops.
Sure. Whatever you say.
But the WWE Network was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be the answer to investor’s criticisms about stalled creative, limited new stars and so on. It was supposed to be WWE jumping ahead of the curve and abandoning an archaic business model in favor of one that will in five or ten years be the only model any media company uses. It was supposed to be a lot of things.
But instead, the WWE presented another dancing turkey.
This was the biggest effort by the WWE to push forward its brand probably since the failed XFL attempt fifteen years ago, and certainly it’s most risky. After all, according to Dave Meltzer and WWE’s own financial reports, 2014 was the single worst financial year for a pro wrestling company outside of one year of a dying WCW. Most of those losses can be contributed to the network. Aside from just that, WWE virtually abandoned its Pay Per View revenue in favor of a cheaper model, which had not materialized the same sort of money.
It’s been a year now since the WWE Network launched. Where has it succeeded? Where has it failed?
- Improved streaming playback: While the Network had issues for the first several months it was live in terms of live streaming playback, its general streams lately have improved dramatically, and the complaints about stream quality have been reduced from the common to the anecdotal.
- Subscription cost: At $9.99 — a number that WWE now probably regrets but has stuck with stubbornly — the Network is still a tremendous value. Dropping the six month commitment for casual subscribers was probably a good idea long term, even if it proves to be financially dangerous.
- Special Content: There isn’t enough of it, frankly, but the WWE has at least paid some attention to producing more specialized content — particularly documentary style content — which previously did not have an easily accessible home. There is, in 2015, a large segment of the audience which is probably not an intense enough fan to routinely purchase wrestling DVDs but may be interested in watching something online. The only problem here is these things are too few and far between, and often too limited to the WWE “worldview” of pro wrestling.
So it’s cheap, and generally works. But considering WWE promised virtually limitless access to library content, and basically a redefinition to the way they produced and applied original content, there is a lot to be desired.
- Weird Relationship With Archived Content: WWE now insists that archived content is among the least viewed content on the Network, but their usage of the content is also kind of bizarre. There is no “appointment” viewing with archived content and WWE has not tried whatsoever to integrate the archived content into any new original programming. Interested in the great Owen Hart-Bret Hart feud in 1994? Unless you already know about it, you won’t really get much help finding it because WWE has applied no effort to re-telling it’s old, best stories. Combine this with an essentially useless search functionality and an absolutely useless scrolling functionality in videos (to fast forward and rewind sections) and you’ve got a lot of content which only certain people know about. I’ve had to curate for several friends matches and feuds they should watch because they are merely casual or newer fans and have no idea about where the best stuff from the past actually is.
- Original Programming Woes: At some point early in the sign-up process, WWE determined that they’d vastly overestimated their early subscription numbers and needed to cut back on expenditures for the Network. Okay, again, fair enough. But in doing this, they cut out a lot of the original programming and drew back or delayed other programs. This has left the “Network” portion of the Network to be virtually useless. There is absolutely no appointment viewing on the Network outside of the PPVs because the Network does not really produce that much original television content, at least in the original vision. Talk shows, game shows, reality shows, and so on that were supposed to differentiate the Network from its previous incarnations (WWE 24/7, WWE classics, DVDs and so on) don’t really exist. This is akin to paying for a Ferrari and then deciding not to put on wheels. If the point of the Network was to drive the so-called “Universe” to a single place, which WWE could entirely control, then they have failed spectacularly by cutting the legs out from underneath their very own project.
- More Time Wasting: WWE in 2014-15 has become a place that, outside of about a half dozen shows a year, purely exists to fill time, drag people along and keep enough casuals buying tickets and consuming ads. Raw is mostly just to fill time, as evidenced by the bizarre delay in the Orton-Rollins feud presently, or installation of Dean Ambrose into the main event picture for a few months just to get through the late fall. There is so much television product and internet product for which WWE has to fill time these days that they basically can’t, and the creative process has become so retarded by the WWE’s idiotic creative structure that entire weeks of pro wrestling in America exist now with literally nothing of consequence happening. Sometimes they ignore or erase storylines all together if they no longer suit their circumstances. WWE outwardly does not care about its hardcore fan base. And with the PPV model being essentially eliminated in favor of the subscription model, there is now often no reason to even produce quality PPVs (particularly the secondary shows), because WWE steadfastly believes now that this is not the driving force behind subscriptions and there is little consequence. As VoW colleague Seth Partnow noted in a Twitter discussion, it makes very little sense for WWE to constantly criticize and then ignore the internet contingent of its fan base while simultaneously restructuring its business model to rely heavily on income from the internet.
- Loyalty is Not Rewarded: As I’ve mentioned several times in my writing here at VoW, including in this post, loyalty is not really rewarded by WWE. The most hardcore fans are mostly ignored and sometimes trolled, but moreover and maybe most damaging to the Network, there is very little incentive for hardcore fans to continue to pay subscription fees in the “down” months of the year, since the Network model now includes no subscription terms and several free “trial” months throughout the year for new subscribers (new subscribers constituting just being able to sign-up for a new e-mail address). WWE has for many months of the first year been so desperate to grow its subscription base that it has, at times, decided to ignore the people already subscribing. This has resulted in astounding attrition rates compared to other internet based subscription models like Netflix. The lesson is clear here, though one WWE seems resistant to learn, which is that insulting your current customers is probably a really bad idea.
When MLB.TV first started many years ago, it was rife with problems. Today, it is considered maybe the best sports streaming service on the planet. The streams are reliable and constant and the quality of the product is fantastic. For this reason they’ve been able to lease out their technology to companies like WWE, based on that reputation. And maybe because of it, we’ve decided that WWE Network, as a new streaming service, needs to be up to that standard much sooner. The reality is, it was a long road from the early days of the MLB.TV product to the fantastic product they present today. Technology and understanding has allowed these things to progress quicker, and WWE’s reaction to its first-year problems was often not helpful and sometimes strange.
But we can only expect WWE Network to improve as they stick with it. The question is, will WWE continue to have to cutback in order to produce a profit with the Network, or will they have to crawl back to the PPV model, begging for a fraction of their previous deal? We probably won’t know for 3-5 years. If WWE continues to insult its most hardcore fans and go forward with the Network on a week-to-week basis with no long term direction, they’re doomed to fail. The differentiating factor for other subscription based services is that even when they did things which insulted their customers, they did so with a purpose. When Netflix split its streaming and rent-by-mail services for twice the price, they did so with a clear plan of what would happen in the next 24 months, and though the first few months were rocky, they eventually rebounded. The WWE is now just desperately flailing and attempting to keep its head above water by cutting expenses and reacting to every metric as if it is a TV rating in 1998. There seems to be very little looking forward.
At one point during the year, the Network pulled it’s 1995 Monday Nitros from the service in order to, according to the Network twitter, “open up space for other stuff”, leading to questions about WWE’s video capacity. Shortly after that and quietly, the 1995 Nitros returned. This happened for no apparent reason and was either a network error with a lie or a Network error with a truth. And while throughout the year WWE Network has tried to time its major content dumps with major subscription renewals, it has done a very bad job of consistently releasing more archived or original content, compared to services like Netflix and Hulu which do so on a consistent, monthly basis. That is concerning.
The big hurdle for WWE right now is the thing that has continuously happened to WWE projects over the years. It feels small-time and WWE reaction to all criticisms of its product is small-time. They over-promote, under-produce, ignore the smart money in favor of the casual money on the Network just as they have in other endeavors. They insist they are never wrong and when they admit to themselves, finally, that they are wrong they don’t admit it in public. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I suspect in five years, if the Network is still here, they will have finally learned from their mistakes long after anyone is left with the energy to criticize them for those mistakes, and long after the Network really could be ground-breaking or whatsoever relevant.
For me, I will probably be taking a break from the Network after WrestleMania. I subscribed day one — well, as soon at least as the WWE’s overloaded servers let me — and have faithfully paid my $9.99 every month since, even in the months when I was left behind in favor of pushing toward new customers with a free month. I’ve watched a lot of archived content, some of the specials and every PPV.
But for a while now, it’s time to be done.
A few months ago, there was the “CancelWWENetwork” hash tag on Twitter in reaction to Reigns winning the Royal Rumble. It was lampooned and criticized by people whom suggested that canceling a product because you don’t like the outcome of the story is dumb.
I don’t know.
I am a consumer, and with that comes certain decisions about how I should spend my money. Knowing what WWE is and does, knowing what they think about what the months after WrestleMania will be (filler), I really see no reason to support them with more money until they can fix the obvious things which are wrong with their Network product or (and this is a real dream) fix the things which are wrong with the way they view producing content in “down” months.
Do I need to see Reigns vs. Rollins or Big Show in months-long schmozz’s that are designed specifically to get through the night and “continue” the “story” for another month?
The essence of being a fan is also the idea that you can control when you stop. Otherwise you are actually an addict. If a TV show or a book sucks, you change the channel or put down that book. If you don’t like what a product is giving you, you stop paying for the product. This seems simple to me, but is strangely controversial in the Internet Wrestling Community because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that having absolutely no control over what we consume is the preferable, favorable and honorable position. That is a really bad idea, guys.
Thing is I think I’ll be back. Maybe around Summerslam when WWE starts caring for a few months again, or maybe in a few years when they’ve decided to admit their Network mistakes.
A year in, the Network is a weird Frankenstein’s monster version of a streaming service, concocted in the head of Vince and Stephanie McMahon, two people who know absolutely nothing outside their own wrestling bubble. One has lived in this wrestling world for the better part of forty years, failed in other ventures and become more bizarre and stubborn with age. The other, his daughter, is a person with fleeting demonstrable business acumen who has wedged herself into the starring role of a years-long television program despite being a devastatingly tired character, and who, if she looked more like Vickie Guerrero than a model, would be so profoundly detested by every critical corner of the wrestling world for her failures that the very idea of it creates tremors. These are the captains of the ship and the providers of our Network. It works — and pretty good — but it doesn’t deliver on its promises.
For now, it is what it is: a slightly better WWE 24/7, with a slightly more forward-thinking business model, that fails to deliver on its promises and does not seem to know where it’s going or how to fix its problems.
And much like The Gobbeldy Gooker, GTV or the cyclops at the carnival, right now it can only work so much. I’ll pay you for a little while because I’m curious of how you’re trying to pull off the con. But I won’t — can’t — pay you for how good a job you’ve done.