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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

WWE Network: Early Observations


Some e-mails exchanges between PWI reporters through the first 30 hours of the new WWE Network era:

Louie D: I went out and bought a Roku last night (we had been wanting one anyway) so I could get the Network. It took me three hours to actually be able to sign up, but I'm watching WrestleMania 3, so it was worth it.

Louie D: Looks like no blurring/grayscale/etc. of blood is true. Just watched Billy Jack Haynes get busted open by Hercules and there is, as Gorilla Monsoon says, blood "pouring out of the forehead" of Haynes.

Louie D: Hillbilly Jim's music is the random banjo music they used on the WM Anthology DVD and not "Don't Go Messin' With A Country Boy" so I guess music rights issues are still a problem. Takes away a little bit in some instances, but again, beggars can't be choosers there.

Gerry Strauss: Just curious … within PPVs, etc., can you select specific matches to watch or do you have to scan through the whole shows?

Louie D: I'm on my laptop right now … clicked on WM3 and it played from the beginning, but I can "fast forward" the clip to anywhere in the show.

Al Castle: It took forever to get signed up (For once, I wanted to give WWE my money, and they wouldn't take it.) Up and running now, and it's pretty great. You can search by a wrestler's name or a match stipulation. Right now they're showing the awesome Bret-Shawn rivalry DVD. I'm the proverbial kid in a candy store. On my Roku 3, the picture is amazing. Better than when I get through my cable provider.

Mike Bessler: I just signed up and went right to WrestleMania III. Billy Jack vs. Hercules is one of my favorite underappreciated WM matches ever. I mean … wow! I still have my doubts about whether or not the model will work in the long run (I think it's bound to drive pro wrestling into a much smaller niche market at the end of the day), but speaking just as a fan, this feels like a dream.

Stu Saks: Why do you say that, Mike? Won’t more people watch their big events now?

Mike Bessler: On the PPV side, there is really a loss of incentive for fans to come together to watch the shows, either at home or at sports bars, etc. So that's one area where WWE will likely lose the ability to win over the kind of potential fans who are invited to experience wrestling collectively with devotees of the genre. WWE also loses the motivation to introduce a lot of new programming via conventional markets like cable television, which—whether Vince likes it or not—is still a medium of choice for millions and millions of fans. And the DVD market will, in all likelihood, take a humongous hit and eventually wither away with the emphasis on the network, so there will be less collecting and gift-giving of media in its tangible form. More merchandising with less emphasis on the primary product seems like a very unbalanced approach to me. All in all, I think the network caters well to true believers but leads the business into to into a bottleneck of a limited, pay to play fan base that doesn't do much to bring new fans into the fold. Still … pretty cool. Moved on to KOTR '93. I was totally at that show.

Kevin McElvaney: For what it's worth, I'm still planning to have a WrestleMania party at my place this year. (Who's bringing spinach dip?) You can watch the Super Bowl alone, too, but a social event is a social event.

Louie D: Me too, but remember three things, Kev: Umpteen million watch the Super Bowl but 10 percent of that watch the NFL on any given week, but that number is much, much smaller during the season—and part of that is because a lot of people watch at a bar or in a huge group at home to be part of the atmosphere as much as the game; the key for wrestling is keeping those people interested and having them come back for an Extreme Rules or Payback party. Two, in the same vein, if I'm a guy who is a casual watcher but cares little about the classic or ancillary content and knows a good friend has the network and thus every PPV (and likely will be like “hey, c'mon over and watch”), what's my incentive to give WWE any of my money? And, three, I don't know if they still do this everywhere, but my local Buffalo Wild Wings would still order all WWE PPVs simply because even if only one party comes in to watch but spends $20-$30 per head over the course of a night, it's a win. Either way, that exposes new fans to WWE in the fact that other people in BWW could theoretically watch. But now, can/will those places still want to do that, when tech-savvy people can pay $10 a month instead of $45 (or $30-plus at a BWW-type place) and watch at home —and even if they do, what if they have DirecTV or Dish or a cable company that decides to say "screw WWE, we're not carrying their events"? All that said, one area where I think the Network may actually help bring "new" fans is by bringing back old ones. A good friend of mine hasn't watched current programming in probably five years or more, but is subscribing to the network simply for the classic content; he says that now, but isn't there a chance he'll watch NXT, or Raw postgame show, or any other "current" event and maybe get the itch to check out Raw or Smackdown because of it?

Kevin McElvaney: No doubt. If your friend already pays the $10 per month, and you simply want to catch the pay-per-views, you might opt not to subscribe yourself. I was only countering what Mike said about the cheap subscription fee being something that might discourage group viewing habits. I don't think that'll necessarily be the case, although I can't imagine groups getting together for a Payback party. The Rumble, though, would probably be a weird thing to watch by oneself, so I guess it depends. A compelling event is a compelling event.

As far as I know, the pay-per-view Blast Zones (like Buffalo Wild Wings) are going to stay operational. There's a communal aspect to those, as well. Whether or not they'll stay active long term is another question entirely.

Louie D: Watching Survivor Series 1990—Hogan just said WWF, so I guess that piece of litigation is also now in the past.

Al Castle: Yeah that's been the case for about a year now. They can also show the old scratch logo now too. A lot of the legal stuff seems so arbitrary. On the HBK Mr. WrestleMania DVD I just bought, all the Ventura commentary is erased. But they're showing ’Mania 1 right now with Ventura on it.

Kevin McElvaney: Has anyone else been running into access problems with the Network? I only attempted to use it for the first time last night, following Raw, but I had no luck playing any videos. My guess is that bandwidth issues are going to be a major thing in the early stages of the launch. I can only hope we won't see streaming inconsistencies during WrestleMania and other future events.

Al Castle: I've only been able to watch the live stream, and some of the on demand selection of original shows. I haven't been able to pull up any of the archived PPVs on my Rokus. I always get a timed out error message.

Mike Bessler: I've had decent luck. The buffering issues during the afternoon yesterday thwarted my efforts at watching KOTR '93, but I watched a lot of WM 17 last night. Some of the delays and skipping is frustrating, but I'm sure it will improve.

Louie D: I had the same problems as Al last night on my Roku … only the live stream would work. I also noticed that not all of the PPVs would show up, either. In addition, this may just be a settings thing, but I couldn't even watch the ECW Hardcore TV that was on the live stream because it kept telling me my parental controls wouldn't allow it.

Al Castle: I've also noticed at least one missing PPV: Great American Bash 1991. How am I supposed to get my Skywalkers 2 fix?

Louie D: I've been going through Ron Simmons vs. Oz withdrawal for 23 years now! I didn't have a handful of WrestleManias or SummerSlams, which was weird. And nothing from like 2002-08.

Stu Saks: The Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart documentary starts and stops on my iPad more than a Larry Zbyszko match. Very frustrating.


Friday, February 21, 2014

WWE Network: Point/Counterpoint

I WILL NOT SUBSCRIBE
By Dan Murphy
PWI Senior Writer

With countless hours of content from the WWE vault (including footage from WCW, ECW, the AWA, and dozens of major historical territories), as well as new content (such as the long-delayed reality show Legends House), the WWE Network seems like a dream-come-true for wrestling fans. Throw in every single pay-per-view, including WrestleMania, for just $10 per month, and it’s a no-brainer, right?

Sorry. I’m just not interested.

First of all, while it makes economic sense for WWE to offer the Network as a video streaming service, as opposed to a traditional television channel, that’s a turnoff to me. I already have Netflix and a Roku box with dozens of on-demand content at my disposal. I also have a premium cable TV package with hundreds of channels, where I can watch anything from Cheers re-runs to True Detective on HBO (maybe I’m more of a Woody Harrelson fan than I ever realized). I literally have thousands of options for content, and maybe an hour or two of viable TV time available per day.

If the WWE Network was airing vintage Mid-South footage or episodes of World Class Championship Wrestling, I might tune in and watch a bit before bedtime, instead of tuning into Comedy Central for a bit. I might set the DVR and watch a little on the weekend. But WWE isn’t offering that programming yet. It’s offering its library of pay-per-views from WWE, WCW, and ECW.

If I have a spare bit of time, I’m not going to choose to fill it by watching Goldberg and Lex Luger stink up the ring from Mayhem 2000. I’ve already seen most of those PPVs and have no interest in watching 90 percent of them again. And, if I did want to see any of those matches, I’m pretty sure I can find them on one of the many free video sharing sites out there. I know WWE’s legal team works hard to keep that content offline, but it’s not hard to find.

But you can get live WWE 12 PPVs for just $120 for the year. That’s roughly a $600 value right there, you might say.

True, if I planned to buy every single WWE PPV. I have no earthly intention of doing that. Does anyone remember the string of lousy PPVs at the tail end of 2013? WWE should be paying me to watch the 2013 Survivor Series.

The WWE Network is going to make WWE programming even more of a niche and take it out of the mainstream. I don’t see casual fans making the jump the way WWE expects them to. Ten bucks a month isn’t a lot, but entertainment dollars are hard to come by, and there are so many entertainment options out there that $120 a year to watch wrestling pay-per-views is a tough sell, especially when the market is flooded with so much WWE programming isvalready available on free TV. Skip the PPV and tune into Raw the next night; not only will you get a full rundown, but you’ll probably also see several rematches from the PPV, right there on free TV.

According to WWE’s estimates, it needs 2 million subscribers for the Network to be a major financial success. That’s twice as many people that buy WrestleMania. I don’t think that many people will be willing to sign up; remember, there are still a lot of people of who don’t have Internet access in this country, let alone a video streaming provider like Roku or X-Box. WWE is making a huge gamble. This time, I’m betting against them.

I WILL SUBSCRIBE
By Kevin McElvaney
PWI Contributing Writer

Given all WWE has invested in its brand, it must continue to find ways to innovate and attract new fans in order to stay viable. YouTube exclusive programming, endless references to the WWE app, and even all the talk of trending on Twitter and social media are all attempts by WWE to stay ahead of the curve. The WWE Network is a major and, in my mind, very shrewd step in that direction.

Streaming video and internet-only programming represent the wave of the future. What WWE will be doing now starting Monday—streamlining some of its products and making them available independent of cable providers—is nothing short of cutting edge. Mark my words: You will see the HBOs and ESPNs of the world doing the same thing within the next five years. Is there a chance that some fans won’t bite, given the need for a tablet, streaming device, or other ìsmartî technology to watch the Network? Sure. For that matter, the moving of WWE’s weekly programming to cable probably alienated some fans. It also undoubtedly inspired others to subscribe to a cable service so that they wouldn’t miss the programming they were used to catching with their rabbit ear antennas. WWE’s younger fans are and will continue to be tech savvy, and WWE is wise to jump on the streaming bandwagon sooner than later.

Sure, there is already plenty of WWE programming available, even without the exclusive new and archival content promised by the Network. There are also, as Mr. Murphy mentions, only so many hours in the day to watch television. And yet, has this done anything to impede the success of Netflix, Hulu, Redbox, and various other convenient, new outlets for getting entertainment? No. It has only hurt those companies that have been unable to adapt, or those that increasingly cost too much money (looking at you, cable providers). A streaming service specifically for pro wrestling fans makes up for the dearth of in-ring content served up by other providers, and there is absolutely a market for this sort of thing.

Let’s consider what WWE Network offers. True, as my colleague says, it will not initially include much of the classic, regional programming now part of the WWE library. The service is just starting, though, and we will almost certainly be seeing World Class Championship Wrestling, National Wrestling Alliance, and all the rest offered on the Network sometime soon. In the meantime, every WWE, WCW, and ECW pay-per-view is nothing to take lightly. If you can’t find something to enjoy in an archive of that caliber, then maybe pro wrestling isn’t for you.

Then, there is the inclusion of every pay-per-view in the subscription price. Sure, I will admit to not having any interest in some of WWE’s monthly events. But do the math. There is not a year goes by when I’m willing to miss The Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, or SummerSlam. That’s about $180 right there. So, even if I’m only watching three monthly pay-per-views—for some reason neglecting the service for the rest of the year while dutifully paying the bill for it—I’ve come out ahead of the $120 yearly tab. In practice, I have plenty of interest in the archival content, most of the other monthly pay-per-view events, and, yes, even programs like Legends House.

The impending launch of the WWE Network is a big gamble. It’s untested, and it needs a whole heap of subscribers to be a success. My bet is that they’ll get halfway there pretty quickly, and then Dan Murphy and the many more holdouts will come to their senses.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why TNA Still Matters

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve written quite a few items in support of TNA (hey, here’s one from almost four years ago from this very blog). Throughout its various and sundry phases of expansion, contraction, innovation, and stagnancy, I’ve tried to stay optimistic for the sake of the business itself because, in my mind, the more wrestling that’s out there, the better it is, whether you’re a wrestler, a fan, a concession vendor, or a writer for the world’s most respected wrestling magazine. That’s not to say that people should settle for a substandard product either. And these days, TNA is anything but substandard. In fact, as hesitant as I am to once again publicly get behind TNA’s new direction, I’m going to do it again because TNA still matters. And it’s the efforts of some of their brightest stars that give me more enthusiasm than ever that something positive is going on with the company. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Magnus: He’s the perfect face for the new incarnation of TNA and Impact Wrestling. A solid performer not just with regard to his in-ring skills and appearance, but also with an ability to tell a story with what he says and what he doesn’t say. Throughout the Bound For Glory tournament and his break from the Main Event Mafia, it was the omnipresent feeling that Magnus was holding back his emotions and sentiments that put him in a great position for a credible turn to the dark side. Now that he has the brass ring, there’s still a sense that Magnus isn’t really happy with the idea that he’s at the beck and call of the Carter clan. How he chooses to resolve his inner conflicts remains to be seen.

MVP: It’s true that just about anybody without a tremendous amount of baggage in the business (Hogan, Bischoff, Russo, et al) could’ve stepped into the “secret investor” role and brought some intrigue to the mix, but MVP really offers a lot in his new gig with TNA. I admit that I was skeptical at first, but it didn’t take long for me to change my tune. He’s a gifted talker, a seasoned grappler, and he has the kind of charisma that grabs fans’ interest and sustains it. It’s especially encouraging that just a couple of weeks into this stint, MVP has worked every angle of his new character to perfection.

Rockstar Spud and Ethan Carter: Early on, I just couldn’t stand these guys. Every time either dude was on the screen, I had to fight the urge to punch my TV screen. Then it hit me: I was seeing them through the eyes of a fan. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what the realization meant to me is that they were doing their job extremely well. They were putting everything they had into making the audience hate them, and it was absolutely working. Spud and EC3 are excellent buttresses to Dixie’s credibility as a bad guy, because where her credibility as a performer often falters, they can step in without hesitation and draw the ire of fans on her behalf. That’s how you know they’re real professionals.

Willow: It’s nice to see that Jeff Hardy wasn’t in the exodus of those leaving TNA in pursuit of greener pastures (and some old glory). When the new “Willow” promo aired during last week’s show, social media bubbled over with folks complaining that Hardy’s character was a ripoff of The Wyatt Family, Back Reign, and Spider-Man foe Electro. A 1.82 second search on Google will educate even the snarkiest fans, revealing that Willow has been around for a while, though. Maybe Hardy’s dusting off this persona off provide a change of scenery for his longtime fans. Either way, it’s something different for TNA. Three cheers for that.

Ken Anderson and Bully Ray: According to the official line from Impact Wrestling, their feud ended last week with the casket match. But I wouldn’t mind if it went a few more months. The dramatic side of the rivalry went a little too far when Bully threatened Anderson’s newborn twins. That was just a little too gratuitous for my liking. But their in-ring meetings were classic throwdowns, and I wouldn't mind seeing them mix it up a few more times.

There’s a lot more stuff to crow about with TNA right now. The BroMans are on fire, the company has added Alpha Female and Santana Garrett to the Knockouts roster, and guys like Chris Sabin and Bobby Roode are giving us some of the best “must watch” backstage moments from week to week. I’d like to see some more indy folks brought in, even just for short-term spots on television. Midwest brawler “Farmer” Billy Hills or southerner Barry Wolf, the latter of whom was gunning for a TNA spot in last year's Gut Check Challenge, are the kind of guys that I’d love to see on TV mixing it up with TNA’s mainstays. The fact is, it’s a big world out there and TNA doesn’t have to hand out a big ol’ buttload of long-term contracts to keep its talent pool and storylines fresh.

None of my enthusiasm is meant to say that TNA is over the hump with regard to finances, ratings, and any anything else that’s going on backstage and in their front office. It is worth noting, however, that I’ve heard from a number of TNA’s top-tier guys that, by and large, they’re very happy with how things are going in the company and that the nonstop reports of TNA’s imminent demise are largely fictional. This doesn’t mean that TNA is close to being or will ever be a credible competitor to WWE’s spot as the industry leader. But as long as they’re alive, accessible, and entertaining, it’s worth the time and attention of wrestling fans to hang in there and enjoy what they’re bringing to the table.

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor