Will Streaming Video Be Wrestling's Killer Move?

It’s easy to forget that the idea of really superb original drama on basic cable is pretty much a 21st century development.  For most of the 1990s, the No. 1 show on commercially-supported cable, week in and week out, was WWE (formerly WWF) wrestling on the USA cable network, followed invariably by “Rugrats.”

Wrestling truly pioneered the “reality programming” concept—phony controversies, invented conflicts, cosmetically-altered stars, the whole fetid package. It's presented as the real deal, even though followers understand it's pretty much plotted out ahead of time.

Hulk Hogan and the “Real Housewives” have a lot in common.  

Wrestling has also been an oiled-up cash cow for cable’s PPV efforts. Through the years, whenever I’ve called to complain about a ridiculously high bill or hidden charge, I’ve just taken it for granted that before venting, I would have to opt out of paying for some upcoming version of Wrestlemania.



Without all that historical backdrop, a really smart piece published by research analyst Bola Awoniyi, lauds WWE for taking the digital revolution to the next level when it used the CES show to launch its online streaming service.

Essentially, WWE is cashing in its cable pay-per-view business—its bread and butter—for online.  And if wrestling can do it, Awoniyi says, we should look for more “freeform” sports franchises—you know, ones where the outcomes aren’t scripted—to follow suit.  In fact, depending on how this goes, any content packager may want to reconsider how it is structuring its distribution model.

Awoniyi  says,: “Revenue from PPV buys equated to 17% of net revenues for the company in 2012 and had been growing incrementally over the past few years. However, on the whole, PPV buy rates are down amid a generation of consumers that would prefer to stream content cheaply (or illegally), than pay a premium for a show.”

He says WWE got about $83 million from PPV in 2012. It will charge $9.99 a month for the streaming service. If it can entice 2 million fans to pay that -- and the online service gives an overflowing bucket of events and archival material for the price tag -- he says it will reap $240 million a year. Its two live, regularly scheduled cable wrestling shows continue. Streaming subscribers get to see them too, after their cable window. 

The move to streaming sounds like a no-brainer, but of course, there’s a risk. The WWE is messing with its whole distribution premise, essentially. Says Awoniyi: “Consumers that would have traditionally bought Wrestlemania for $60 can now spend the same amount and have the WWE Network for six months, view six PPVs, plus have access to the WWE’s vault of content.”

Now, all WWE has to do is convince millions it’s worth the trip into the still somewhat foreign turf that streaming video -- and paying for it -- represents. That could become the WWE’s most real drama ever. But history shows, it's hard to defense against a good wrestling move.

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