Here’s a little something I started writing up Sunday night. No fancy graphics or much proofreading. Just some honest thoughts on the future of television, as influenced by pro-wrestling.
I’ve made no secret that I love pro-wrestling. When I was a child, I was strictly forbidden to watch pro-wrestling. So of course, as soon as I was left alone with a television the first thing I sought out was the exploits of The Million Dollar and Rowdy Roddy Piper. Now don’t mistake this for me saying I still watch wrestling. I occasionally tune into RAW or TNA to see what’s going on, but typically I can’t last a whole episode. Modern wrestling is a little flat and childish for my taste. Kind of like the Hulkamania era of the WWF without all the magic and energy of the times.
That’s why I’m so surprised that I’m about ready to drop $60 on a subscription to WWE’s new online service: WWE Network. Now to be fair, I am only interested in the literal thousands of hours of footage from the WWE library that is being offered on demand; including all the WCW and ECW pay-per-views. But none of this may matter to you, and I said in the title that this matters to you. And trust me, this new endeavor by the WWE does matter.
Whether you know it or like it, the WWE/WWF has been a pioneer in television broadcasting. They almost single handedly developed the pay-per-view special event market, they’ve pushed production values at live events, and the technology they’ve helped innovate has changed the way live television works. Twice a week, 13+ semi-trucks roll into a new city and put on a television production that makes most network broadcasters get wet in the pants. Their shows RAW and Smackdown are cutting edge. The WWE now continues their trend of pushing the limit with the WWE Network.
Here’s the nuts and bolts, then I’ll get to why it matters. Viewers will now be able to pay $10 a month, with a six month upfront commitment, to get nearly unlimited access to classic and original content from the WWE. Most importantly for current fans of the WWE, it includes live access to the monthly pay-per-views which typically run $50 or more. This content can be watched on the Xbox, the Playstation, Apple iOS devices, Android, *takes a breath*, Roku devices version 2 and higher, the Kindle Fire, and directly from your computer. So basically, for the price of a single PPV a wrestling fan can watch six events and then consider all the other stuff a bonus. Because on top of the typical wrestling content, the WWE plans to produce a ton of original content that ranges from reality shows where legendary wrestlers live in a house together to documentaries that chart the events of the ’90s Monday Night War between WCW and WWE. So basically… the WWE network is going to be just that, a television network specifically themed for pro-wrestling related content.
Now we get to the point where this is important. The WWE’s contract with NBC/Universal is coming up, and there has been a lot of talk that WWE’s flagship show RAW might move on. One of these rumors is that it might head to WWE Network. That would mean that one of the consistently best performing cable shows, and longest running episodic cable show, could be moving to direct distribution. If that’s the case, one of the largest independent television entertainment brands, could be completely bypassing cable. Offering their product directly to fans at a drastically discounted price. In response, Dish Network and DirecTV threatened to drop the WWE’s most recent PPV event. In this age of smartphones and streaming entertainment, television leader World Wrestling Entertainment was the first to realize “Hey… we might not need cable providers as much as they need us.”
This could lead us to a very slippery slope people. Now there are a portion of channels that are owned by cable and service providers simply to keep the illusion of value up, but the largest portion of the channels you likely watch are owned by one of five companies:
Disney – Disney Channel, ESPN, anything with ABC in the name, and A&E (which includes History and Lifetime).
Time Warner – (Despite the name, no longer affiliated with Time Warner Cable) HBO and the Turner channels (TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, CNN, TMC, etc)
Viacom – MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Spike
New Corp – Anything with the word FOX in the name, FX, MyNetwork
AMC Networks – AMC, IFC, Sundance, We TV
AMC and Viacom have especially had a rocky relationship with service providers, with the former going almost a year without being on Dish Network in 2012 during their most recent dispute. Imagine if one of these companies realizes that they can offer you their channels at the price they sell them to cable company. I know many people would pay $10 a month for an HBO GO only subscription. I know plenty of people that would pay $5 a month to get the AMC networks. Timer Warner? I would pay $10 personally to have access to the Turner channels, especially Cartoon Network and its library of classic and original programing on demand via my computer or streaming device.
I think the most important question is “who will be the next to take the plunge.” If the WWE’s gambit pays off, it could pay off in a BIG way. I predict that AMC would be most likely to do it. Unlike the other companies, they have a smaller selection of channels and some flagship programs that are really defining this generation of television. With a library that contains shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, and more, they could easily package an attractive service that would warrant a monthly subscription. They wouldn’t have to share that money with a service provider, and could then reinvest that into even more quality programing. They could also bypass FCC restrictions on content, something they have been on the fringe of for awhile now.
The prospect of “cutting the cable,” as people like to say, is becoming more of a reality every day for a majority of people. Everyone should be watching the performance of WWE Network. As the first major entertainment outlet to embrace digital distribution this fully, WWE may just change television again. Its success or failure could influence the future of television for decades to come.
If WWE Network succeeds, I predict that within ten years we will be paying less to stream the content we want directly to our homes. We will have greater control over the content that we receive, with an ability to bypass things we no longer want to see. Scheduling will slowly become a thing of the past. New episodes will no longer “premiere” at a set day and time, but rather be released on a set day to be viewed at the consumer’s leisure or entire blocks of a season will be released to enable “binge” watching which has become so popular among Netflix users. Syndication will become a thing of the past, and companies will focus more on building their on demand libraries. Channels as we know them will be gone, but replaced with familiar branding that will breakdown content into genres and tone related groups.
THE FUTURE IS NIGH! Prepare your streams, for television as we know it is dying!