(CBS New York/CBS Local) -- With television ratings and attendance slumping and competition ramping up dramatically, World Wrestling Entertainment is planning to take its content in an edgier direction, while still not abandoning its family-friendly persona.
Compared to last year, viewership of RAW and SmackDown has fallen by 14 and 11 percent, respectively and many blame the steep declines on poor scripting and vanilla storylines. For that, many place the blame squarely on Vince McMahon, the same man who turned WWE into one of the most recognizable brands in the world. But critics fear the entertainment legend has lost touch with the modern fan.
Ratings for both shows have rebounded slightly since the recent hiring of Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff as executive directors to oversee their production. In a conference call with investors Thursday morning, McMahon said their addition allows him to "get out of the weeds" and that both will have wide latitude for crafting long-term storylines at a time when more than a handful of feuds are on a week-to-week basis.
McMahon calls the changes a "relaunch" and believes WWE has already turned a corner creatively. But don't expect the promotion to revert to the overly sexualized and provocative content that drove its popularity to an all-time high during the late 1990's and early 2000s.
"We're going to be a bit edgier, but remain in the PG environment," McMahon said, while promising more on-air controversy. "At the same time, we're not going to go back to the 'Attitude Era.' We're not going to do blood and guts and things of that nature such [as] is being done on, perhaps, a new competitor. We're just not going to go back to that gory crap that we've graduated from. It's a more sophisticated product."
That new competitor is All Elite Wrestling, whose owner has pockets far deeper than Vince McMahon and feels the market is right for a takeover. On Wednesday, AEW announced a weekly television show that will begin Wednesday, October 2. Like WWE's long-running staples RAW and SmackDown , AEW aims to pack major arenas for the broadcasts, beginning with the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
McMahon says that competition is a good thing and there is no doubt that he is a fierce competitor. When WWE was in a somewhat similar situation against World Championship Wrestling more than two decades ago, he adjusted content to fit viewer demand, and WWE ultimately won the battle known as the Monday Night Wars. Interestingly enough, WCW was helmed by Bischoff for much of that stretch.
McMahon thinks that WWE is already off to a good start in their new battle against AEW by taking a higher road in terms of racier content.
"We're hoping to the extent that they are competition that they don't continue on with blood and guts and gore and things that they have been doing. That would be bad," he said. "I can't speak for TNT, but I can't imagine they would put up with that."
Although WWE believes they've already turned the corner creatively, they are still faced with repairing the damage that has already been done. The crown jewel of the sports entertainment industry is on the cusp of falling onto hard times in many ways, though not financially, thanks to extremely favorable broadcast rights agreements. But the networks which recently agreed to fork over more than a billion dollars each for the rights to broadcast RAW and SmackDown for the next five years are reportedly concerned with steep declines in ratings.
On the flip side, consumption of digital media is up 22 percent. So, some of erosion of traditional television viewership could be due to fans turning to new media to get their fix.
Industry insiders have reported that executives at FOX are keeping a close eye on the product, which begins airing on their broadcast network two nights after AEW will make its premier this fall. Meanwhile, executives at USA are said to have proposed the creation of the 24/7 Title in an effort to stop the ratings skid.
To their credit, WWE notched the highest ratings for RAW in recent history with Monday's reunion special that featured a slew of popular Superstars from the past, including Hulk Hogan and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who gave a beer toast to close the show. Ratings for SmackDown the following night were also up from last week. But whether the one-time nostalgia kick can shore things up in the weeks to come remains to be seen. The hope is that the lapsed fans who tuned in will stick around.
A weekly studio show, reportedly to be hosted by current RAW commentator Renee Young, is also being planned for FOX Sports 1 once SmackDown changes networks. It wouldn't be surprising if the show winds up airing on Wednesday nights to counter AEW. WWE is also reportedly exploring the idea of putting its popular developmental brand, NXT, on television. The weekly NXT show is routinely among the most-watched programs on the streaming platform, WWE Network. However, company executives only state that a lot of factors are weighed before making such a determination.
The company is also retooling the five-year-old WWE Network in an effort to improve the user experience and provide a sleeker design. The changes are being rolled out incrementally beginning this week.
Meanwhile, a tiered pricing plan, with various levels of programming options, is expected to replace the current flat $9.99 monthly fee in the coming months, including a free ad-supported version.
The revamp comes at a time when WWE is struggling to attract new subscribers and had been offering three-month subscriptions for 99 cents. The hope is to recapture lapsed fans who had grown frustrated by problematic storylines. The company also continues to offer the first month free to new subscribers. Despite the promotion, the company is projecting subscriptions will erode significantly during the third quarter.
Overall revenue is also down five percent year-over-year, which the company blames on the dwindling subscriptions to its streaming service as well as sluggish ticket and merchandise sales. The average attendance of live events now stands at 5,800, which is a two percent drop from 2018. Internationally, average attendance fell by an alarming 14 percent.
The usual surge of new subscriptions surrounding this year's WrestleMania was much smaller than in previous years. The company reports an increase of roughly 100,000 paid subscribers from the first quarter to second quarter this year, bringing the total number of subscriptions to 1.69 million. Last year, interest surrounding the company's largest pay-per-view led to a bump of 240,000 new subscriptions and 1.8 million total paid subscribers.
But here's the thing with all that doom and gloom. Despite the drop in attendance, revenue, subscriptions, merchandise, and despite the fact the company's stock has fallen more than 30 percent since trading near $100 earlier this year, investors saw all of this coming and shares actually traded up by nearly 10 percent after earnings were released Thursday morning.
For WWE, the sky may not be falling after all. And one thing is certain; the next year is going to be a wild ride for wrestling fans.
News & Notes
Universal Champion Brock Lesnar is being advertised locally for next Monday's RAW in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is also being advertised for the following Monday in Pittsburgh which is the final show before SummerSlam where he will defend his title against Seth Rollins.
Seven-time WWE Women's Champion Trish Stratus appears to ready to temporarily come out of retirement. The 43-year-old is penciled in to face Charlotte Flair at SummerSlam in her hometown of Toronto, according to multiple reports. The match would be her first since teaming with Lita to defeat Mickie James and Alicia Fox at the all-women's pay-per-view Evolution last October.
The Wrestling National Wrestling Hall of Fame (not to be confused with the WWE Hall of Fame) will be inducting the class of 2019 this weekend. Honorees include Beth Phoenix, Sgt. Slaughter, Daniel Cormier, and writer Brian Shields, who becomes the first author of an official WWE book to be enshrined. Shields, who most recently co-authored Second Nature: Legacy of Ric Flair and Rise of Charlotte Flair, has been working with WWE for the past 21 years. "I never imagined any of this," he told me. "I cannot believe that I'm being mentioned in the same breath with people who are truly legends of wrestling and have dedicated their lives to the industry. They have all, in their own way, set new standards and created new pathways for men and women in the wrestling industry. To think that I'm going to be a part of that is something I'm having difficulty describing… I'm beyond grateful."
Ticket information for AEW's first television show will be announced on July 29 at noon eastern.
Ring of Honor and the National Wrestling Alliance have parted ways. The two promotions had been working together in recent months, with the NWA Champion Nick Aldis routinely appearing on ROH shows. The promotions also worked together to resurrect The Crocket Cup this year. Mike Johnson of PWInsider reports the separation was amicable and it is possible they will work together again in the future.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.
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