One of my favorite thing about amateurs who write about pro wrestling online is how quick we all are to say we don’t want to get into fantasy booking, only to be followed with a paragraph on this one great idea we have for how a certain story should play out or what ought to be done with a given character. (My current contribution is hoping The Miz, currently on a noticeable slide, will bottom out, adjusts his priorities and once again ascend to the top the mountain, only this time with the fans in his corner).
In a similar vein, there has been much discussion of late regarding the WWE calendar (and yes, I have contributed). Specifically the issue has been both the right number of pay-per-view shows and the themes of those shows, but also the role of the promised WWE Network (and the current YouTube channel). A Wrestlespective Twitter conversation today about favorite “free” TV (network and cable) matches sparked lots of great feedback, including nostalgia for Saturday Night’s Main Event and the legendary Clash of Champions series.
Also informing my thoughts are the recent International Object podcast, which included a discussion on the relative value of wrestlers to their company, seating capacities of large arenas and a few awkward but informative comparisons to the NFL and NBA.
With all that in mind, I’m going to ask a question with an obvious answer, but it makes discussing the topic no less fun. Why doesn’t the WWE (no other company is relevant to this conversation) take its “lesser” pay-per-view events and shift them to “free” television? While WWE has the Saturday Night’s Main Event legacy, what I’m really talking about is reviving the Clash. SNME, after all, came from an era where weekly free TV amounted to squash matches and recorded interviews promoting either the next pay-per-view or the next house show at, in my case, the Rosemont Horizon.
SNME was a jobber-free environment, but title changes were rare. Viewed now in retrospect, they are an essential link in the story arcs of the era. Remember, this is a time when there was no big show between WrestleMania and SummerSlam. Even the months between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania were a huge gap compared to what we have now with Raw and Smackdown every week, not to mention Elimination Chamber.
The Clash series, on the other hand, were rife with cards similar to NWA/WCW pay-per-view shows. In fact, the event started as part of the pay-per-view war between Vince McMahon and Jim Crockett. Why couldn’t the WWE take a leap of faith on putting a lower-tier pay-per-view show, such as Extreme Rules, set for four weeks after WrestleMania, and air it Sunday night on USA? (That show, by the way, comes to you live from the building we used to call the Rosemont Horizon.) Take the same card, same three hours, and just sell commercials. (You know, more commercials than you see on a pay-per-view, formerly a commercial-free viewing experience.) The live gate, merchandise and concessions would presumably be identical.
As I wrote earlier, the answer is obvious. Someone at Titan Towers has done the math, and the buyrate for a show like Extreme Rules, while paling in comparison to WrestleMania, must bring in more revenue for the company than an ad-supported cable special. Though what kind of ratings such a show might generate can only be speculation, since the concept hasn’t been tried for years, it’s obvious the pay-per-view method remains more profitable. Think about it — when have you known a McMahon to take a pass on a money-making idea?
Now, will the advent of the WWE Network change the game? Will people not otherwise inclined to pay a subscriber fee for such a channel be tempted to do so if it gives access to six or seven shows that at present cost about $50 to order via PPV? WWE has been loath to offer anything that would jeopardize PPV buy rates. That’s why the web stream costs the same as the TV broadcast, why there is no audio-only option online and why the replays cost the same as the live show. Again, the current pay-per-view model (12 to 14 shows a year) must be profitable, because otherwise the company would shift directions. There is no direct competitor — not TNA, not UFC, nothing. WWE could consider these moves without losing any of its fan base market share. But presumably such shifts would come with a loss of revenue. That, as we all know, is the real bottom line, which is why we’re unlikely to see major changes unless entertainment industry evolution forces the issue.