…or How Triple H Got His Groove Back (and Then Lost It)

Plans change.

I had a version of this article written. I’d done the analysis on both WWE RAW and AEW Dynamite’s TV ratings with a way I’d come up with to adjust for the ongoing audience move from television to streaming and the measurement problems that are cropping around that. The planned finish? AEW ratings are fine, and WWE ratings in the Paul Levesque Era were doing great.

The RAW data was showing clear signs of renewed fan interest.

WWE RAW was hot.

But then I fell down an inopportune rabbit hole. And like Alice? Those ratings fell down that hole, and I had to tear up my card a bit.

But that’s the lead, and we want to begin at the beginning: there is an ongoing collapse of cable ratings, as reported by Nielsen, as television shifts to streaming.

To illustrate, here’s the actual cable ratings data (again from  Showbuzz  Daily) since 2016. I’m showing the running average of Total Cable Viewers and viewers in the key demographic (P18-49 or Persons 18-49).

Since 2016, total cable viewers are down around 20%.

In the P18-49 demo, which is demo that the advertisers and broadcasters care about? It’s down 50% since 2016. Basically, this is driven by people moving to nontraditional methods of viewing their content (streaming). As of July this year? Streaming became the #1 way to consume television shows (see here ).

Nielsen's The Gauge: Nielsen's Total TV and Streaming Snapshot. July 2022.

Nielsen’s The Gauge: Nielsen’s Total TV and Streaming Snapshot. July 2022.

And this is not slowing down.

So does this mean that people are watching shows 20% less and 50% less for P18-49? Of course not. Talk to anyone you know and you’ll find that people are still viewing their shows but they now have a variety of methods to do so. To bring this back around to wrestling? I’ve talked to people that consume RAW/Dynamite on traditional set-top tv boxes, through Hulu or FITE, through the TBS or USA app just to mention the most common methods. The viewers are there. The problem lies in the people counting those viewers (Nielsen) having significant issues actually capturing who is watching what and when. Forbes wrote up a good outline of the issues facing Nielsen but the most relevant quote is this:

“To give this some context, George Ivie, who has been executive director of the MRC for more than two decades, recently gave an interview with Joe Mandese of MediaPost and explained the difficulties with measuring viewing audiences—the fact is nobody knows the exact number of people watching a show at any given moment.”

At the moment, then we can, at best, call the Nielsen TV ratings, as currently presented, an unreliable report of how many people are actually watching RAW and Dynamite and an even worse guide to how they compare year.

But we don’t actually have to consume these numbers the way they are presented because math exists. The Nielsen numbers have some actual very positive features we can take advantage of: it’s a large, regular and demographically representative sample of a traditional TV audience which is regularly reported. Despite the fact that the data being presented at the moment is incomplete? We can assume that the sample presented by Nielsen has some correlation to the viewers that are not consuming television thru methods they can measure. This approach isn’t perfect as we can only assume that the population of television viewers that Nielsen isn’t capturing in their polling is similar to those that they are but there is only about six years of drift so the approach should be somewhat informative.

To put it simply: I’m going to treat the Nielsen ratings as a poll on viewership and assume that the viewing habits of people that can’t be properly measured haven’t significantly change. Which given the lack of a better source of data is good enough.

Let’s get to the Wrestling data, shall we?

AEW Dynamite is up as the analysis is simpler and more straightforward. For this, I looked at the most recent six-week period for Dynamite (2 weeks prior to All Out to the week after Grand Slam) for 2021 and 2022 (Note that the comps for total viewers and demo viewers for the shows are the 90 days previous to the broadcast).

AEW Dynamite Ratings Analysis

AEW Dynamite Ratings Analysis

These two periods can actually be considered the two best periods in the company ratings-wise. Effectively it’s 12 weeks when they were at almost a million and about 3% of Viewers in the P18-49 Demo. Of note is that AEW actually grew in the % of the P18-49 demo year on year (about 2%) while falling 4% in the overall viewership (a portion of that is likely hurricane related). The data does suggest that AEW does a better job with the younger part of the demo than with older viewers.

AEW Dynamite Ratings Analysis

AEW has firmly held to the P18-34 Demo (Persons 18-34) in the measurement data year to year. It’s possible that this could be an effect of those older than 34 shifting faster to consuming the media in nontraditional ways but it does suggest that tweaking how they market to those older viewers is likely a good idea.

Let’s look at RAW’s new Era now.

Paul Levesque became head of WWE creative on July 25, but the booking for SummerSlam on July 30 was already in the can, so effectively, the first RAW I will count as wholly his is August 1. This also conveniently gives us a six-week pre-NFL window to compare for every year since 2016 (note that I am again using the 90 days previous to the broadcast for coming up with total viewers and p18-49 benchmarks for cable).

WWE RAW Ratings Analysis

First, the demo for that period and the news was great. WWE RAW in those first six weeks in the HHH era and pre-NFL put up the highest percentage of people watching in the demo in the data. That 4.75% of the demo was almost 15% higher than the next closest number. Fans in the demo looked to have come back.

WWE RAW Ratings Analysis

The picture with total viewers was good but not quite as rosy. With that 2.3% of total viewers, WWE got back to 2019 numbers. This isn’t quite as good as in the demo but it’s also an encouraging sign.

It’s easy to conclude from this ratings data (and tickets sales which have been reported elsewhere) that in that initial six-week period? WWE was hot and showing audience growth like they hadn’t in years. Fans came back and were willing to give the product a chance. There was genuine buzz and excitement in the product.

But WWE did nothing with this energy except push Dominik Mysterio and start chasing rabbits. And if you go chasing rabbits, there’s a song that says you’re going to fall. And thus, we get the last four weeks of RAW Ratings data:

WWE RAW Ratings Analysis

While that is still a higher P18-49 percentage than 2021 and 2022, it’s also the most significant drop in the first four weeks of the NFL season relative to the previous six weeks. It’s not quite a disaster yet, but it’s certainly trending in that direction.

WWE RAW Ratings Analysis

The total viewership drop is similarly the worst that we have data on for those first four NFL weeks. 20% plus of the people that came back in the demo and total are once again gone. WWE has not done much in these first ten weeks other than bring back acts they’d cut and push Dominik Mysterio and the Bayley faction Damage CTRL.

So what can we conclude from all of this? First, AEW is fine and growing but does need to figure out a way to better sell to the older part of the demo. I do think that this is reflected in some of their ticket at live venue issues. The older part of the demo is more likely to come to a show and bring their family along. I lack the data to back this up but they probably don’t. Perhaps marketing promos a bit more instead of the high flying action in their ad spots might be helpful here. As for WWE? Paul got a honeymoon period and fans definitely came back. But it was a missed opportunity. No major storylines or angles where pushed. They have no hook or hot angle to keep their fans there and they don’t have the goodwill to ask their fans to wait around and deliver nothing.

For WWE, it’ll be no use hoping you can go back to yesterday when you had the opportunity and goodwill to build something new and hot. That window is gone.