It has been nearly a year since WWE launched its streaming, on-demand network and even longer since the company originally announced it. First conceived as a standard television channel, the WWE Network would go missing for the duration of 2012 and 2013 despite teases prior to that of a nearing launch. When it finally did make it to consumers it was as the on-demand network present today. Consumers are able to access the network, for a monthly fee, through various external devices such as gaming consoles, Roku, and smart TVs much like other on-demand networks such as Netflix and Hulu. Priced at $9.99 per month, the cost is right around the same as other similar networks but with the obvious difference being this one appeals solely to fans of professional wrestling. Are there enough fans of professional wrestling, and specifically WWE, to sustain a pay-per-month service?
That question has largely gone on unanswered since the Network’s launch in February 2014. I posted back then about my initial impressions and have kept my subscription active ever since, despite some early problems and a lack of original content. I am happy to say that the WWE Network has improved immensely in less than a year, but subscription numbers are reportedly still not where the company needs them to be in order to insure the long-term viability of the WWE Network.
The overall strategy of the WWE Network seems to be something along the lines of giving wrestling fans everything they could possibly want at a low monthly price. The WWE Network is loaded with content ranging from old editions of forgotten television shows such as Saturday Night Main Event to original documentaries of wrestling’s biggest stars. Each month, the WWE airs a pay-per-view event that is free to subscribers of the Network and there’s also new wrestling shows such as Superstars, Main Event, and NXT; WWE’s developmental show. Current episodes of WWE’s main cable programs, Raw and Smackdown, do not air live on the Network but many older editions are present. Joining them are old episodes of WCW Nitro and ECW Hardcore Television. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also every single pay-per-view ever aired by the big three, along with lots of archival cards from the 70’s and 80’s before the wrestling television boom. Since there’s so much content to cover, I decided I would list out and elaborate on the biggest pros and cons of the service to give my own personal take on the WWE Network.
NXT used to air on cable but ever since the launch of the WWE Network it has become a network exclusive. When it was on television I never checked it out, but strong word-of-mouth and the ability to watch the programs whenever I want turned me on to the product and I couldn’t be more impressed with what I’ve seen. NXT is recorded in a small arena at Full Sail University in Florida. There’s a weekly, hour-long show as well as quarterly “event” shows that are structured like a typical WWE pay-per-view event. What makes NXT so special is its incredibly talented, focused, roster. The best workers in WWE right now are at NXT. Grapplers like Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, and Charlotte are supremely gifted, dedicated, in-ring workers who are honing their craft right in front of our eyes. The women’s division is so strong it’s stunning given the quality of the “Divas” matches that take place on Raw. And even though each show is only an hour long, there’s probably still more time devoted to actual wrestling than what takes place on Raw, where three-minute matches are common-place and long-winded Authority-led promos often dominate the show. NXT is simply a breath of fresh air and each one of the “pay-per-views” it’s put on have been better than every WWE pay-per-view that aired in 2014. The only bad thing I can say about NXT is that it makes the main roster look like crap making it even harder to tune into Raw on a weekly basis.
Beyond the Ring
Beyond the Ring is the section of the WWE Network devoted to biographical programs often focused on one wrestler. These should be familiar to WWE fans who have ever purchased a DVD set on one of their favorite wrestlers as these biographies are first released through that medium. Buying every DVD put of by WWE would be both costly and cumbersome, so it’s pretty cool to have them all here on the Network. There’s also wrestlers and personalities I was interested in learning more about, but I wasn’t quite willing to throw down cash on a set. There’s no set amount of time in place between release and when a biography will show up on the Network, but there’s already a healthy mix of new releases (the newest being the Paul Heyman feature which first hit retail shelves last summer) and older ones. Some of the wrestlers featured thus far have been Stone Cold, Rock, John Cena, Roddy Piper, Brett Hart, the Road Warriors, and many more. There’s also some “countdown” style features (not to be confused with the Network show called Countdown) that look at the best wrestlers of the 2000’s or top finishing moves. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed each of the features I’ve watched (the only one I really didn’t care for was Brock Lesnar’s) and often I learned something I didn’t know before.
The Monday Night War
The Monday Night War is WWE’s anthology series focusing on the mid to late 90’s and the ratings battle that took place between WWF Raw is War and WCW Monday Nitro. Consisting of twenty one hour episodes, the series looked at the start of both shows, the key moments and players within the rivalry, and ultimately its conclusion. When the WWE Network was first unveiled, this show was one of the few mentioned and promoted and was a factor in my signing up. It didn’t arrive until the fall, but it has mostly proved worth the wait. Considering it’s rather tight focus, the show did repeat itself at times but as someone who experienced the phenomenon that was the Monday Night War in the 90’s I found it really entertaining to go back and re-examine it. One could potentially criticize the program for painting too flattering a picture of the WWE in comparison to WCW, but considering WCW really only competed for so long because of the nWo and Ted Turner’s checkbook, the show is probably fair. Narrated by Keith David, the presentation of the program is handled well despite having to rely on television footage from before the HD era. All of the major players one would expect receive their own featured episode including Bischoff, Austin, the nWo, Degeneration X, Rock, Mick Foley, and more. It’s just a shame the show had to end.
The Other Original Programs
NXT, the documentaries in the Beyond the Ring section, and The Monday Night War are all strong parts of the WWE Network. Unfortunately, the other original programming is somewhat lacking. The latest, and likely intended as a replacement for The Monday Night War, is WWE Rivalries which focuses on one historic rivalry in a documentary style program. The first episode focused on Austin and Vince McMahon and was extended to two-parts, each one being an hour. After already focusing on the rivalry in The Monday Night War, this one felt too familiar. Other rivalries, such as Edge and Christian vs The Hardys, just didn’t feel all that compelling. The show isn’t bad, but it needs to focus more on rivalries not already covered extensively elsewhere, which may be hard to pull off. “Reality” shows, like Total Divas and Legend’s House, are not my thing and have never been viewed by me. Countdown is an okay time-waster if you want to see current wrestlers list their favorite trash talkers, high-flyers, and so on. Legends of Wrestlemania is basically a one-hour show where a Wrestlemania match is highlighted and then shown. It’s not a bad way to pass the time, but considering every Wrestlemania is already included on the WWE Network it hardly feels necessary. The two other WWE roster programs, Main Event and Superstars, are just as bland as they were on cable. Nothing ever happens on these shows, but if you’re a big David Otunga fan, it’s probably the only place where you’ll see him compete.
The Pay-Per-Views and Current Television Product
Really, the WWE Network is actually pretty awesome. It has almost everything from wrestling’s past that a fan could possibly want as well as some pretty entertaining new shows to go along with it. And at ten bucks a month, with the original six-month required commitment now abolished, it’s pretty easy to talk yourself into subscribing, especially considering that the monthly pay-per-views are included. Unfortunately, it’s those events that are lacking the most, and in general, the current state of WWE programming. WWE Raw is a pretty bad show at this point. The storylines are stale, the main event talent too predictable, and the tone is just off. Which is frustrating, because the current roster, from an in-ring perspective, is quite possibly the most talented ever assembled by the WWE. It compares rather favorably to those early 90’s rosters that featured major up-and-comers like Shawn Michaels, Brett Hart, The Undertaker, and so many more. I love watching Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, and Bray Wyatt work a match, it’s just that they aren’t always allowed to work a compelling one. The Divas division and tag team division are bad, and there’s little importance placed on the mid-card belts. This has lead to pay-per-view cards that are just plain boring, and WWE’s reliance on The Authority angle, where a heel personality (in this case, Triple H and his wife Stephanie) are in control and make life miserable in an illogical way for the “good guys”, is just plain boring. Everything has a “been there, done that” feel to it, and I often can’t stomach more than a few minutes of Raw before I inevitably switch-over to whatever Simpsons marathon is airing on FXX. The only pay-per-view event from 2014 I truly enjoyed was Wrestlemania XXX. If I had spent the fifty bucks or whatever the cable rate is for any of the other pay-per-view events in 2014 I would have been furious.
The WWE is at an odd place right now with its network. The company is coming up on one of its biggest events of the year, The Royal Rumble, and also planning on airing its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony exclusively on the WWE Network. And there’s also Wrestlemania XXXI to think about in March. Right now, there’s enough content on the WWE Network that focuses on the past to keep me entertained, but I wonder how willing I’ll be to keep it once that content drys up. The Network does such a good job of high-lighting the glory days, specifically the Attitude Era, that it really harms the current PG Era by shining a light on just how bad it’s become. The Monday Night Wars program was very thorough in pointing out how silly and cartoony the WWF was in the mid-nineties before turning things around with a bold, new approach. Only the most ardent supporters of Vince McMahon would be unable to draw parallels between the WWF of the mid-nineties and the WWE of today. Sadly, McMahon had a sit-down with Stone Cold Steve Austin as part of a WWE Network exclusive in which he seemed to suggest that everything was great, and no one was worthy of a “promotion” to main event status(even singling out current superstar Cesaro, as being someone he was particularly down on despite most fans raving about him), demonstrating just how out of touch he is with the WWE audience. So long as he’s running the show, it’s hard to imagine things getting better.