WWE will celebrate a milestone tonight that few TV shows ever reach: 1,000 episodes.
But as the company fetes the feat for its “Monday Night Raw” through big bouts, appearances by former stars, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and stunts like a wedding, WWE must now figure out how to keep auds interested 19 seasons later — especially as the series expands to three hours on USA Network.
Over the past year, WWE has aggressively turned to Twitter, Tout, Facebook and other social media platforms to engage with fans to ensure they tune into “Raw,” as well as “SmackDown,” on Syfy, and its pay-per-views.
Expanding “Raw” to a third hour, which it has experimented with in the past on special occasions, will enable the company to broaden out storylines but also give some of its lesser-known wrestlers more screen time to develop their characters.
At the same time, WWE plans to offer fans the chance to influence what occurs during the shows through online polls and hashtag voting during the first hour that then play out in the third. There are no plans yet to let them dictate the outcome of a match, however.
“We’re going to use social media in a more enhanced fashion,” besides just promotion, Stephanie McMahon Levesque, executive VP, creative for WWE, told Variety. “Our fans will affect some type of content in the show every week.”
Doing so “keeps your audience tuned into the broadcast for the entire three hours,” she believes. And if it works, the move could pave the way for other shows considering ways to keep distracted auds from changing channels.
McMahon credits listening to WWE’s audience as the key reason for the success of its shows, which are recorded before thousands of viewers in arenas. “We essentially have live focus groups every night at our 300 live events throughout the year,” she said. “Our audience tells us what they like and don’t like and don’t care about.”
With no breaks or seasons during the year, WWE has long been able to quickly change storylines, as opposed to scripted series. But the web also has made it “easier to listen to audiences,” McMahon said.
WWE on Friday announced it has more than 73 million Facebook fans and 30 million Twitter followers. It also is active on Instagram, Shazam and Pinterest, and launched a YouTube channel earlier this year. It also invested in Tout, a video-based Twitter-like platform that lets fans record and post 15-second videos.
Increasing WWE’s online presence already has paid off for some of the company’s stars, including Zack Ryder, who saw his onscreen time increase after his YouTube show “Z True Long Island Story” found a following.
As of last week, “Raw” ranked above WWE’s “SmackDown,” “Gunsmoke,” “Lassie,” “The Simpsons” and Law & Order” in terms of episode count. “Simpsons” has aired 510 episodes in its 23 seasons.
WWE isn’t alone in seeing its ratings suffer from the competition and other entertainment platforms.
“What our audience wants is great creative; it’s what any audience wants,” McMahon said. “We need to provide content across every different platform so that our fans can engage across any device they prefer. Every property is struggling with that. As long as you are everywhere, you keep and grow your audience as well.”