To answer hard questions, you think you need real data rather than dubious anecdotes and intuitions. But when you start collecting a lot of data you only discover there are preceding questions that need to be answered first, and that you need evermore data than you originally thought to get the whole answer, but then you discover there are even more primordial questions… and so on in an infinite regress of Google searches, spreadsheet tabs and page-by-page archive checking. Until you finally reach the end of the internet. Until you’re left asking questions there are no answers to, that can only be answered deep within the internal networks in Titan Towers or at NBC Universal.
I have scoured newsletter archives and the Ratings Tracking index. TV by the Numbers, Showbuzzdaily and Awful Announcing provided additional scraps to help me build the disorienting charts you will find below. In the last month (for this project and another you may be reading before the end of the year), I have manually entered thousands of rows of data with various columns. I have likely tipped into an irretrievable, gradual decline toward carpal tunnel syndrome not at all dissimilar to the rate of decline of pro wrestling’s television viewership in the United States.
This article will attempt to account for the performance of the eight most prominent pro wrestling television programs that aired in the US during the 2014-2015 TV season: WWE Raw, WWE SmackDown, Ring of Honor, TNA Impact, Lucha Underground, New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS, and WWE’s reality series Total Divas and Tough Enough. The 2014-2015 TV season will be defined as beginning on September 1, 2014 and ending on August 31, 2015.
When it comes to Raw and SmackDown, I will be looking at both TV ratings and viewership, since there are complete data sets in both metrics for those two programs. When looking at other programs and when comparing all, I will be looking primarily at viewership because that is the one metric we have data or reports on for all programs. This viewership data does not account for DVR viewership (which will be discussed separately) or any viewing WWE’s programs may get on Hulu (which is probably negligible). I will also not be able to consider the viewership of NXT, since it airs most prominently on the WWE Network, and little is known publicly about how many of the Network’s more than one million subscribers watch it regularly.
I also have little data on Lucha Underground’s performance on broadcast network Unimas. For Lucha Underground’s airings on the El Rey Network, I have at least partial data for 36 of the 39 episodes. I do not have any specific data on Ring of Honor’s performance in syndication or on New Japan Pro Wrestling’s performance on AXS. We do however have reports from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter estimating both ROH’s syndication and New Japan’s AXS viewership.
Complete viewership data will be referenced here from the recently-ended TV season for Raw, SmackDown, Impact and the ROH airings on Destination America.
Viewership for Raw, SmackDown, Impact and Ring of Honor on Destination America all declined as the TV season calendar wore on. Raw and SmackDown’s performances also declined slightly over the previous TV season.
Not surprisingly, Impact’s viewership declined dramatically this season versus the previous one due to its move from Spike (92 million homes) to the smaller network Destination America (56 million homes). With Destination America’s coverage being 39% smaller than Spike, you might think Impact’s viewership would have only fallen by a similar rate. Instead their viewership dropped 47%.
No such season-over-season comparison can be made here for ROH. They have only been on cable TV since June 3 of this year, and I do not have access to specific data for their syndicated airings.
The editions of WWE Raw the day after Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, and little else, have proven sure to draw a big audience. Fans clearly believe those are the two big events that will mean more than anything all year, and the rest is far less consequential. WWE shot a big angle after Survivor Series that apparently helped pull Raw viewership the following day, but they also had an angle-heavy SummerSlam that, for the second year in a row, failed to draw a remarkable number for Raw the next night.
About to enter its twenty-third season, obviously Raw is still by far the most widely-viewed pro wrestling program.
As it has most years since 2000, Raw’s performance declined compared to the previous year. It averaged 3,861,604 viewers and a 2.77 rating for the season. Both metrics are down 7% from 4,170,904 viewers and a 2.98 rating in the previous season.
Hour 2 was the most highly-viewed hour, averaging 3,945,868. Hour 3 was the least viewed hour, averaging 3,765,604 likely as viewers succumb to the weekly marathon. Hour 1 was in the middle with 3,890,774.
Like last year, the biggest show of the season was after WrestleMania, the only time Raw surpassed five million viewers in either season. But this year’s post-Mania Raw actually had slightly more viewers (5,350,000) than last year’s (5,146,000), although the rating was slightly lower (3.67 in 2015, 3.70 in 2014).
As mentioned, the other two most-viewed episodes were on the nights after Survivor Series and Royal Rumble. Sting, who appeared at Survivor Series, probably deserves credit for drawing curiosity to Raw the night after his WWE debut.
The post-Rumble show was actually a rare Raw with no first-run wrestling matches. Due to a snowstorm the arena event in Hartford, CT, was cancelled. WWE instead re-aired major matches from the pay-per-view the night before as well as studio interview segments featuring Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar.
The difference was small this season between how Raw did when it was airing against Monday Night Football versus when it was not. When Monday Night Football was on, Raw averaged 3,831,250 viewers and a 2.75 rating. When it was not, Raw averaged 3,874,730 and a 2.78. If you take the exceptionally high post-WrestleMania number out of the equation, it’s even closer. Viewers and rating numbers are almost identical at 3,833,750 viewers and a 2.76 average rating.
In the 2013-2014 season, the difference was much more significant. The average viewership against the NFL was 3,887,750 and a 2.80 rating. Not against NFL, average viewership was 4,296,750 and a 3.05 rating. Omitting post-Mania: 4,272,486 viewers and a 3.03 rating.
Why was the difference so much less this season? Monday Night Football ratings for the 2014 season were down only slightly from 2013, declining 3%, not a rate high enough to sufficiently explain Raw’s lack of usual recovery after the NFL season ended. It’s possible Raw’s popularity genuinely decreased in the latter part of the TV season, offsetting a stronger rebound.
Do we see indications of a similar decline in popularity in the SmackDown data? Arguably, yes.
All other factors being equal, due to Thursday being a better night for TV viewership, SmackDown’s performance should have improved after it moved from Friday to Thursday nights on January 15. Instead, ratings and viewership continued to decline after the program moved.
SmackDown averaged 2,515,755 viewers and a 1.81 rating for the season. Viewership was down 6% from last season (2,682,519). Ratings were also down 6% (1.92 last season).
SmackDown peaked with the November 28 episode, the day after Thanksgiving, the same week as the big post-Survivor Series rating for Raw. This was the only time this season the program reach over three million viewers. That show had a special appearance by the injured Daniel Bryan who ran the show in absence of “The Authority,” who were removed from power in story-line the previous Sunday.
The other outstanding episode was the January 29 edition, the first following Royal Rumble. The show featured Daniel Bryan vs. Kane in a casket match in the main event. This was the third week after returning to Thursdays, the peak of WWE briefly treating SmackDown like a relevant program again. Probably not a factor, while SmackDown is usually aired two days after it’s taped, the January 29 episode aired live from Hartford as a postponement for the aforementioned cancelled Raw.
The decline in at least traditional viewership continued just outside the time period researched for this article. The latest SmackDown on September 3 did a record non-holiday low rating. Viewership dipped below 2 million viewers as the show went against college football. The rating was 1.42.
WWE Financial Reports Discrepancy
There’s a discrepancy between the ratings data collected from independent sources like Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Pro Wrestling Torch compared to the ratings WWE reports in their financial documents such as their Trending Schedules. Unlike independent sources, from which we have data for each individual episode, WWE only provides the “average weekly household rating” for an entire quarter and the entire year. Nonetheless you would think the data, ultimately sourced from Nielsen, would be consistent.
Notice the differences between the two data sets grow over time, and continue to grow in the most recent quarters.
It seems likely WWE’s data include DVR viewership and the independent data does not. Such an explanation would at least be consistent with an increase in DVR subscriptions over time, as reported by TV by the Numbers. I attempted to contact WWE to confirm their data included DVR views, but they did not respond before this article was posted.
You can imagine why WWE would not want to provide clarity. Not including DVR viewership in the ratings would give the appearance to shareholders that the ratings are declining at a much higher rate. But being open about including the DVR viewership in the ratings they report would reveal that an increasing portion of their audience is not watching live and is possibly fast-forwarding through the commercials. Obviously, this would begin to negate WWE championing its content as “DVR-proof” in the era of the TV rights fees boom.
The admittedly small sample I have of DVR+3 viewership data (viewers who watched within three days of the original airing) from recent Raw and SmackDown episodes compiled from the Torch and Observer shows both programs’ viewership increase an extra 10% when counting DVR+3 viewing. However this still doesn’t completely reconcile the roughly 15% discrepancy we find in the WWE data versus the independent data. To further reconcile, I suppose it’s possible WWE is including in the Raw rating the viewership of NBC Universo as well. That doesn’t explain the even larger SmackDown discrepancy, though. I think it’s most likely they are including all DVR viewership in their calculation, and not just the DVR+3 viewers.
The Observer reported in the December 29, 2014 issue that the USA Network claimed Raw averaged 4,680,000 viewers in 2014, and that that figure includes DVR viewership. According to the independent data I’ve found, which I believe does not include DVR viewership, Raw had an average of 4,120,0000 viewers in 2014. This implies that 13.6% of Raw’s viewership in 2014 was DVR, which almost exactly matches the “% difference” between WWE data and independent data for Raw’s ratings in 2014 in the chart above.
A Sample of DVR Viewership
“The big boom in rights fees for sports is because the vast majority of fans watch them live, meaning they are watching the commercials. The fear in television, and it’s a big one, is with more-and-more people watching regular shows at their convenience, they aren’t watching the commercials, and commercials to a large degree are what pays the freight.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter, June, 22, 2015
I was able to collect some data on DVR viewership. This is just a sample and obviously not complete data for the whole season.
It’s not surprising that Tough Enough’s DVR viewership percentage is higher than traditional live or live-to-tape wrestling programming. I don’t have similar samples for Total Divas, but as I will discuss later, there’s a suggestion that DVR viewership for that reality show is high as well.
Based on the sample, the portion of viewers watching Impact on DVR are almost as high as Tough Enough’s. So there’s likely truth to Dixie Carter’s claims that a significant portion of their viewers are watching on DVR. However, again, a higher DVR viewership only makes their product even less attractive to advertisers.
The Observer also reported a lone sample for Lucha Underground. Its 6/3 episode did a whopping 26.5% of its viewership on DVR.
“But what this shows is that for the other pro wrestling promotions on television, the immediacy aspect is not there. Part of that is likely because they are less important from a time frame and immediacy than WWE. Part is likely because they are taped so far in advance, although when TNA has gone almost live, there has been no increase in their live ratings.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter, June 22, 2015
For whatever reason Ring of Honor’s DVR numbers on Destination America, based on the small sample, were much lower than TNA or WWE programming. The first episode of ROH on cable on 6/3 however did 11% of its viewership on DVR. After the 7/8 episode, ROH fell out of the weekly cable rankings, so its DVR viewership hasn’t been reported lately.
Viewership of Total Divas has also declined slightly with each new season. Season 4 is still underway, so the above data accounts for the eight episodes that have aired as of August 25.
Like with Raw and SmackDown, it’s interesting to look at the ratings WWE reports on Total Divas versus the ratings reported by TV by the Numbers.
For 2013, WWE reported the average rating was 1.4; a calculation of ratings reported by TV by the Numbers shows the average rating is 0.65. That’s a massive 53% difference. For 2014, WWE reported the average was 1.3; TV by the Numbers shows it’s 0.53, a 59% difference. Does this mean over half of Total Divas’ viewership is via DVR?
Tough Enough showed a slight decline as the season wore on, as well as a dramatic drop from the last season in 2011, which averaged about 2,400,000 million viewers.
The ten-episode reality series averaged 1,043,800 viewers, less than half of what the 2011 season averaged. However ,the 2011 season had the benefit of featuring Steve Austin, being right before Raw at 8:00pm on Mondays, and premiering the day after WrestleMania.
Ring of Honor
Ring of Honor started the year only in syndication throughout the country, largely via their parent Sinclair Broadcasting’s numerous local television stations. According to the TV listings on their website, their program is currently syndicated in 85 local markets as of August 6. Dave Meltzer estimated the average weekly syndicated viewership to be between 420,000 and 520,000:
“ROH is viewed right now in about 350,000 homes per week that are measured with all the new clearances, but there are some markets they don’t get all the numbers in. We don’t know viewers per home, but total audience would probably be 420,000 to 520,000 that we’re aware of and the real number is probably slightly above that.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter, May 25, 2015
Since their program started airing on Destination America on June 3, ROH has averaged an additional 220,923 viewers per week. That number includes combined viewership for the eight weeks that the show had both a first-run and a replay on the same night. Since they were cut to just one airing starting on July 29, the program has averaged 152,800 viewers.
If we take the low end of Meltzer’s estimate on syndication and combine it with the ROH’s Destination America average since July 29, Ring of Honor is seen by at least 572,800 viewers weekly, edging out TNA’s average on Destination America this season (469,618 viewers).
It will be interesting to see whether Destination America sticks with ROH either, as their deal is reportedly up in December.
To determine Impact’s viewership, I have combined the first-run airing and the same-night replay. These numbers do not include DVR viewership, which as mentioned above, would increase viewership by about 15% on average according to the sample.
It’s been a troubling TV season for TNA. If the report from the Observer from May holds true, TNA’s stint at Destination America will be coming to an end in the next few weeks.
It appears Impact was hurt significantly by the June 3 move from Fridays to Wednesdays where they were joined by Ring of Honor on the same night on Destination America. Impact frequently broke 500,000 viewers more often than not from January through May, including the final week it was the only wrestling program on Destination America. After June 3, it never hit 500,000 again. Its highest performance since then was on July 8 with 453,000 viewers.
For eight weeks ROH and Impact both had a first-run and a same-night replay on Destination America, so we can make a close comparison of their performances for that time period. In every one of those weeks Impact’s viewership exceeded ROH’s. On July 15 and July 29, Impact doubled ROH’s viewership.
It might seem odd that Impact, the wrestling program with higher viewership on the network, is expected to be cancelled and not Ring of Honor. But Impact is almost certainly far more expensive to Destination America than ROH. The network is likely paying ROH far less, if anything at all, for the rights to air their show. TNA is believed to have gotten a relatively lucrative TV rights deal that has helped them stay afloat to the extent they still are.
Lucha Underground debuted this season on October 29. They aired 39 episodes. The two-hour special season finale, “Ultima Lucha,” aired on August 5 to some strong reviews.
I have only partial data on Lucha Underground’s viewership. Most of the numbers I found are from their airings on cable channel El Rey. The above line graph shows the El Rey viewership for the last 26 episodes, sourced from Awful Announcing, which apparently did not start reporting viewership for the show until the February 11 episode.
However, the majority of the program’s viewership happens on Spanish-language broadcast network Unimas. Between looking at Observer and Torch archives, I found only six data points for Lucha Underground on Unimas. They are:
- Nov. 1, 2014 : 186,000 viewers (premier episode)
- Nov. 8, 2014: 170,000 viewers
- Nov. 15, 2014: 192,000 viewers
- Jan. 10, 2015: 250,000 viewers
- Jan. 17, 2015: 123,000 viewers
- Jan. 24, 2015: 210,000 viewers
Again, we don’t have all the data, but what we do have suggests that out of all the national wrestling programs this year, Lucha Underground is the only one that we have direct evidence to support the audience actually grew during their TV season. Piecing together data from Awful Announcing and from the Observer, I found viewership data for 36 of the 39 first-run airings (not including viewership for the same-night replay). I am missing data for viewership on November 26, December 3 and December 17, but we can use this data to consider how the program’s viewership developed over the season.
Lucha Underground started out their TV season as an unknown product, so it seems only natural they started out with a smaller audience. But the fact that the audience grew significantly from the early episodes indicates the program succeeded, to some degree, at gaining a following.
That said the program’s viewership is still well below the audiences of Impact, Ring of Honor or any WWE program. My conservative estimate is the show was viewed weekly on average by about 159,667 viewers on Unimas and about 82,617 on El Rey, for an estimated total weekly average of 242,284 viewers.
NJPW on AXS
“The shows have become a strong success story, as they are averaging 200,000 viewers” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter, July, 27, 2015
New Japan Pro Wrestling premiered on AXS on January 16 this year. Since then 29 episodes have aired, showing some of the most acclaimed matches of the last few years. The show provides English language commentary and subtitled interviews, making arguably the best pro wrestling promotion in the world more accessible to English-speaking fans.
Not much more is known publicly about the viewership beyond the above note from the Observer. AXS, with a universe of 43 million homes, is not rated by Nielsen. We were unable to confirm, but we were given the indication the Observer report wasn’t wrong.
AXS must be quite satisfied with how the show is doing considering in July the network signed a multi-year deal with TV Asahi (which airs New Japan in Japan) to continue airing episodes.
Final analysis: Is Wrestling Viewership Declining or Fragmenting?
If it’s true that WWE’s self-reported ratings are accounting for DVR views, then while traditional viewership may be in a decline, WWE’s TV ratings are actually somewhat stable.
But if DVR viewership is accounting for an increasing portion of WWE’s viewership, that’s a cause for concern. Again, if a growing section of the audience is avoiding commercials, then, in theory, that audience becomes less valuable. Perhaps when it comes to WWE programming, though, audiences feel more compelled to watch live than the average TV show as DVR adoption increases at-large. Certainly that’s a selling point WWE makes, and one that their TV distribution partners are convinced by. And thus their TV rights fees have boomed even in an era of stagnant ratings.
TV ratings (as opposed to viewership) considers the number of homes the show’s channel is available in, so any declines or increases in ratings should not be due to cord-cutting, though actual viewership could certainly be affected.
But it’s not as if real growth isn’t possible in the current media environment. Paul Fontaine made a compelling argument that UFC’s TV viewership has grown substantially in the last year.
Meanwhile there’s probably never been a greater variety of wrestling products available for mass consumption throughout the country. Four non-WWE brands managed to get on cable this past season. Although with uncertainty surrounding the future of TNA and Lucha Underground, things could be very different going forward.
Viewership of wrestling isn’t in a sharp decline, but a slow gradual one. I’m very fascinated by and uncertain of what the future will hold for wrestling on TV, and the wrestling business in general, particularly in a “TV rights boom” era where rights fees — at least for WWE — are at once so crucial to their business model, meanwhile increasing so rapidly even though traditional viewership recedes. It will interesting to watch for years to come whether that’s sustainable.
^ Here’s an explanation of the difference between those two metrics: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/demystifying-the-s/
^ Raw from London on April 6 aired on same-day tape delay. Viewership (3,960,000) and the rating (2.81) were slightly above the average for the season.
^ That conservative estimate is based on adding these two numbers together:
- Unimas: the average of the three lowest Unimas numbers, to be conservative. 159,667 viewers.
- El Rey: the average of the sum of
- the combined first-run and replay viewership for the weeks we have complete data and a predicted combined viewership number for the weeks we only have first-run data, and
- the predicted combined viewership is based on the fact that among the complete data, the first-run viewership accounts for an average of 70% of the total combined viewership. To predict, I assumed the first-run viewership was 30% short of what the combined viewership would have been. This entire component equals 82,617 viewers.
Therefore my estimate is calculated: 159,667 (Unimas) + 82,617 (El Rey) = 242,284 viewers.