“Monday Night Raw,” the flagship series of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this week with a look back at its storied past, but there are some big questions lingering about the company’s future.
The milestone episode of the show WWE and USA Network tout as the longest-running weekly episodic television program in history is set to air Monday, Jan. 22 amid speculation that WWE will pick up stakes and move to another network — or even to one of the streaming services said to be kicking its tires — when the company’s contract with NBCUniversal comes up at the end of next year.
“It’s an exciting time,” says Paul Levesque (aka Triple H), WWE executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, when asked about the company’s many suitors. Those suitors are also said to include Fox, which never came to terms with Ultimate Fighting Championship on a new television rights deal last year, leaving the mixed martial arts promotion free to negotiate elsewhere. Fox currently airs UFC programming across multiple stations including Fox, Fox Sports 1 and FXX.
In the wake of Disney’s landmark majority purchase of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets, New Fox will be a company centered on its broadcast stations, cable news and sports, making it a perfect potential home for WWE.
“We are incredibly happy with our partnership with USA,” says Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s chief brand officer. “In terms of what the future might hold, I guess we’ll see, but we’ve been very, very happy and I hope NBC is happy as well.”
WWE content — which also includes “SmackDown Live” on Tuesdays in addition to “Monday Night Raw” — reportedly represents more than a third of prime time viewership for USA, making it a key ingredient for the network.
“Certainly having a live, 52-week-a-year franchise is important,” says Chris McCumber, president of Entertainment Networks for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Live viewing, especially these days with a lot of time-shifting going on, allows you to have a pretty big platform, which has a halo effect across the entire network.”
He points to series like “Chrisley Knows Best” and “Shooter” as successful launches following WWE programming. “WWE’s audience is a real microcosm of all of America, and it really does a great job of bringing that audience into USA,” McCumber says. “It’s important to be able to have that symbiotic relationship between the audience and the rest of the schedule.”
WWE is currently partnering with Facebook on “Mixed Match Challenge,” a co-ed tag-team wrestling tournament that airs Tuesdays after “SmackDown Live” exclusively on Facebook Watch. That could be seen as a trial balloon on another distribution option for WWE’s weekly content, not to mention the company’s own WWE Network, launched in 2014. But Stephanie McMahon views that as unlikely for the time being.
“We leverage a content ecosystem, so at the moment, it is absolutely relevant and necessary to have [our content] on linear platforms,” she says. “It is still reaching a broad audience and it’s still our most profitable line of business. One piece doesn’t work without the other. Ultimately, would ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’ go to the WWE Network? Maybe. But that’s certainly not where we are now.”
According to sources, both Amazon and Facebook have signaled interest in bidding for “Raw” and “SmackDown” media rights.
Levesque stresses the importance of leveraging in a range of media, noting how professional wrestling and sports entertainment have always been in the mix during transitional times. “Wrestling has been on television since day one,” he says. “Moving forward into the cable industry, one of the biggest things cable brought in as a ratings winner, globally, was professional wrestling. Vince turned it into a one-brand, global product and pioneered the pay-per-view industry, the OTT industry — it’s at the forefront of all those things.”
Indeed, WWE’s rise from humble northeast wrestling promotion to worldwide media force is an epic worthy of Hollywood. The company is even developing a Vince McMahon biopic called “Pandemonium.” Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper was reportedly offered the role of the sports entertainment mogul last year. (There has been little movement on the project as of late, but WWE superstar John Cena threw his name into the hat on a recent episode of Variety‘s “Playback” podcast. “I would love to [play Vince McMahon],” he said. “Whoever does that, they have a wonderfully crafted challenge in front of them, because he is one of a kind.”)
Beginning as the National Wrestling Alliance-affiliated Capitol Wrestling Corp. in the 1950s, headed by Vince McMahon’s grandfather, Jess, the company has been a family heirloom ever since. WWE — formerly the World Wrestling Federation — exploded onto the pop-cultural landscape in the 1980s when Vince McMahon took the reins and transformed it into a global spectacle highlighted by celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T, while forging his own homegrown megastar, Hulk Hogan. WWE continues to be a ratings juggernaut, helping USA to be the number-one cable entertainment network for 12-straight years. The company’s programming can now be seen in more than 800 million homes across 180 countries and in 20 different languages.
“We want to revolutionize the way content is consumed,” Stephanie McMahon says.
Nevertheless, there has been speculation that Fox or another company could buy WWE outright. In light of the $4 billion UFC netted from a group fronted by talent agency WME-IMG in 2016, rumors swirl that the 72-year-old Vince McMahon is more open to the prospect of unloading the company he purchased from his father, Vince Sr., 36 years ago. He also sold off $100 million worth of WWE shares in December to help fund his own Alpha Entertainment, which analysts speculate was part of a bid to revive the defunct XFL football league, an ill-fated venture originally launched in 1999. McMahon and Alpha filed for new XFL trademarks last year, fueling the speculation.
“It’s an exciting time.”
— Paul Levesque (aka Triple H)
Come what may, it’s clear WWE will be celebrating the “Monday Night Raw” milestone at, as Levesque says, an exciting time. And the event will come with the expected nostalgic flourishes. One hour will emanate from the Manhattan Center in New York, the site of the program’s inaugural episode, right around the corner from Penn Station. The other two hours will be filmed at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. A crew will also be shooting footage throughout the day to document the historic occasion for an episode of the WWE Network’s behind-the-scenes series “WWE 24.”
That first episode of “Raw” aired on Jan. 11, 1993 and featured superstars like Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, both of whom are among the WWE legends slotted for appearances on the anniversary episode. Where will the company be in another quarter century?
“If you had that crystal ball that tells you where TV, digital, social and all that will end up in 20 years, invest in it, because you’ve got the answer that nobody has,” Levesque says. “But that’s why leveraging in all those areas and platforms is the best place to be. We’re covered everywhere.”