I was an employee of Turner in the winter of 1993 when the first USA Network telecast of WWE RAW premiered. While WWE (then WWF) had a much larger following, Turner’s World Championship Wrestling was a staple of the cable TV landscape. Its Saturday evening broadcasts on TBS regularly were among the leaders in total audience that consistently found its way to the spectrum, sometimes even outdrawing the omnipresent reruns of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Ted considered that an accomplishment.
But when the first Monday night ratings of RAW, cleverly scheduled immediately following the end of the MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL season where viewing alternatives for sports and entertainment enthusiasts had been established for decades of prior falls, but which would annually send them in search of something else as the calendar changed, were released, the news in the hallways of CNN Center was anything but upbeat. Ted knew that he had competition, and from a fully distributed arch-rival to boot.
His eventual response, in true Ted fashion, was to attack head-on and with the rapid growth of TNT, with NFL football as an accelerant, he launched MONDAY NITRO as a direct head-to-head competitor. Wrestling fans (and I know many of you readers know this in far greater detail than moi) fondly remember this period; fortunately for me, so does Wikipedia:
In 1995, WCW debuted their live flagship television program Monday Nitro, and subsequently developed a ratings competition against the flagship program of the WWF, Monday Night Raw, in a period now known as the Monday Night Wars. From 1996 to 1998, WCW surpassed their rival program in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks.
Beginning in 1999, WCW endured significant losses in ratings and revenue due to creative missteps and suffered from the fallout from the 2001 merger of America Online (AOL) and Turner Broadcasting parent Time Warner (later WarnerMedia, now known as Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD)). Soon thereafter, WCW was shut down.
And for most of the 21st century, even as RAW’s raw audience eroded like most of television, its relative position as a staple and leader in linear TV remained unfettered. The breadth of its audience allowed USA Network to successfully launch both scripted dramas and spin-off wrestling content, and spurred an allance with parent NBCU to provide WWE with its first streaming home. But Peacock is still a domestic platform, and as you matheads know all to well, wrestling is a global phenomenon.
Which is why the news that came out this morning, while its timing was a shock, was in hindsight an inevitability. As DEADLINE’s Dade Hayes breathelessly reported:
Starting in January 2025, Netflix will now be the exclusive home of Raw in the U.S., Canada, UK and Latin America. Additional territories from Netflix’s footprint of more than 190 are to be added over time.
The deal is for 10 years and more than $5 billion, a person familiar with the terms told Deadline.
Along with the main Raw program, Netflix will become the home for all WWE shows and specials outside the U.S., including other weekly shows SmackDown and NXT. It will also stream the company’s roster of live events like WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Royal Rumble and also make WWE documentaries, original series and forthcoming projects available on demand outside the U.S.
The rights transaction comes just a few months after the close of the WWE’s merger with Endeavor’s UFC in the new public entity TKO Group Holdings.
“This deal is transformative,” said Mark Shapiro, TKO President and COO. “It marries the can’t-miss WWE product with Netflix’s extraordinary global reach and locks in significant and predictable economics for many years. Our partnership fundamentally alters and strengthens the media landscape, dramatically expands the reach of WWE, and brings weekly live appointment viewing to Netflix.”
This news also comes less than 24 hours after the head of Netflix’s movie division, Scott Stuber, announced he was ankling the platform to become a full-time producer. Coincidence?
To be fair to what’s left of USA, as well as linear television as a whole, they’re not being completely abandoned, as Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiari reminds:
WWE previously struck a deal to take SmackDown from Fox to USA Network, and it also reached an agreement to move NXT from USA to The CW. That means WWE will have a weekly show on broadcast television, cable television and streaming beginning in 2025.
But the Big Kahuna is once again moving to a new domain, much as it did when WWF eschewed traditional syndication 31 winters ago. And for Netflix, which has been called out by investors for its struggles to build an ad-supported base of consequence with Prime Video’s retrofit of the majority of its reach to be ad-receivable by the end of this week, this is an asset that has both the regularity and the passion base to actually move those needles. An audience that is more likely not be a Netflix subscriber, or at least a regular viewer. And with streaming, as we know, location doesn’t matter, so it’s no longer limited to a specific Monday night time slot for live events.
And even at this price tag, it’s likely over the life of this contract to produce more cost-efficient and bulk content than any movie division of any studio or platform can.
And in case there is still an appetite for a movie or two, the accompanying salvo which Chiari reported on this morning adds some additional intrigue:
WWE’s Netflix announcement came shortly after another huge announcement Tuesday in the form of WWE legend and Hollywood megastar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joining the TKO board of directors.
What, you thought he would merely settle for spring football?
So take that, ye who may have doubted Netflix’s ability to claw back at its detractors (hand sheepishly raised). Call it entertainment if you will, but it’s SPORTS entertainment, and it has a real following. So what if the outcome is pre-ordained? Unless you’ve a script in your hands, it unfolds just like any other live sports event.
Fancy moves, Netflix. For once, you’re throwing your competitors out of the ring.