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WHAT THE TRUE CULPRIT IN THE RAW RATINGS DECLINE MAY BE....

By Josh Barnett on 2018-12-31 09:40:00

PWInsider.com is happy to welcome Josh Barnett as a contributor to PWInsider.com after a long run with USA Today and other outlets.  Enjoy!

Perhaps the most direct explanation for RAW’s substantial ratings decline in the last few months was explained in a single sentence by someone who no longer works for WWE.

“Writing a 3 hour wrestling TV show every single week is (expletive) hard,” Jimmy Jacobs tweeted in mid-December.

Well, he’s not wrong.

Some took that as an excuse for underperformance by WWE creative or as arrogance that minimized the perceived disconnect between WWE management and the audience. But these are challenging times for many entertainment platforms, and WWE is not immune.

The Hollywood Reporter noted last week that only 17 of 78 ad-supported cable entertainment channels equaled or increased prime time audience from 2017 to 2018. Cable is actually doing better than the traditional broadcast channels.  

The USA Network is down nine percent in total viewers year over year through Dec. 10, according to THR, and 12 percent in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic.  However,  USA Network also will end the year at No. 1 among average viewers for the 13th consecutive year -- an amazing run -- and among adults 18-49 for the second consecutive year.

The network’s average is 1.48 million viewers. A RAW episode that averages 2.5 million viewers is a substantial increase over the network’s overall average (and yes, WWE’s numbers help increase the average so it’s probably lower if you compare average WWE viewership to average USA ratings minus WWE). 

For those who wonder why USA doesn’t seem to be apoplectic over the ratings decline, that might be a good indication.

But if the ratings don’t go up in the next few months, especially when they traditionally rise with the end of competition from Monday Night Football and the build toward WrestleMania, expect concern to get ramped up. WWE’s new TV deals begin in October and with greater investment by the TV networks, there is greater expectations to deliver big ratings and higher ad rates.

But specific to WWE ratings, what changed this fall? Here’s one theory:   

After WrestleMania in 2018, WWE did away with each brand having its own monthly pay-per-view. It was a good decision at the time as too many of the shows felt like extensions of TV and not special enough to warrant the investment of time, or in some cases, the $9.99 per month to continue to attract new WWE Network subscribers.  

Where this got muddled, though, is WWE still had six pay-per-view events over the final four months of the year with the international specials. Hell in a Cell was Sept. 16, followed by Super Show-Down on Oct. 6, Evolution on Oct. 28, Crown Jewel on Nov. 2, Survivor Series on Nov. 18 and then TLC on Dec. 16.

In reality, that was five shows in 60 days. Even a worldwide company with extensive resources can be stretched too thin, especially with the final decisions on content being made by a relatively centralized management structure that is now simultaneously juggling four brands while also keeping an eye on expansion, talent development and the future overall.

As an aside, you can probably include the Mixed Match Challenge, among the muddle. It was too drawn out and hard to follow with the myriad substitutions. The best part about it was the talent seemed to have fun because it was less rigid in production.

The run of specials and competing priorities is where things got lost. The day after Hell in a Cell (Sept. 17) generated an average of 2.67 million. That was the highest average rating for the remainder of the year.

I know I found myself confused at times as to what matches were building to which PPV. One segment was promoting a match going to Crown Jewel and another to Survivor Series and then after Crown Jewel, WWE only had two weeks to put on the full-court press for Survivor Series.

Also, with only four to five matches per brand on each PPV, a lot of TV time needs to be filled that can’t be devoted to building to those shows, creating a Catch 22. A story line that is self-contained within RAW or Smackdown will instantly be seen as “less than” by viewers, because we have been conditioned that the big payoffs come on PPV.

Dave Scherer noted in the PWinsider Q&A on Sunday, that the pay-per-views aren’t the problem, but the difficulty of doing five hours of first-run TV every week is the issue.

The dramatic arc of an issue leads to characters engaging; build, build and build; and then payoff seems to no longer exist. Some of that is hotshot booking, sure, but a lot of it is, we have to fill these five hours.

For me, that’s led to a lot of matches that I feel like I can fast-forward through because I’m not invested in where they are going. Or, they actually are not going anywhere. Or, they are variations of what I’ve seen already.  

I feel less of this on Smackdown and that’s because of the extra hour that RAW has to fill for reasons that have been explained extensively elsewhere.

But here’s the takeaway and something WWE has to be counting on:

  • WWE’s track record says that they will course correct and things will get better, and enough of us believe that.
  • WWE has to hope its core talent, say the top 10 performers who are in their early 30s, can do enough to keep the viewers interested while it develops the next level of stars.
  • And, well, I’m still watching, and I bet you are, too.

Josh Barnett previously wrote about professional wrestling for USA TODAY Sports and For The Win.   He can be reached at joshabarnett13@gmail.com 

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