With each passing year, fewer people watch live television. Traditional Nielsen ratings go down, on-demand and streaming consumption go up.
Despite this, the television industry remains committed to the idea of liveness, as evidenced by the lucrative deals handed out for live sports rights. Beyond the multi-billion-dollar agreements for the major professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB), the allure of live sports has enabled the creation of channels for collegiate athletic conferences and expansions in regional sports coverage. Media conglomerates don’t care that these niche sports channels experience carriage disputes and coverage blackouts. Nor does it matter that the live audience for many sports (including the NFL) continues to erode.
No programming better represents the allure of liveness than pro wrestling. This week, Fox will air the first episode of WWE’s Friday Night Smackdown as part of a five-year deal worth nearly $1 billion. Fox and WWE have attracted “presenting sponsors” like Progressive Insurance and will support the live Friday show with others on cable’s Fox Sports 1.
WWE’s move to Fox is part of a mini wrestling resurgence on American television. Friday Night Smackdown will be WWE’s first show to consistently air in primetime on broadcast TV. WWE also convinced longtime cable partner USA Network to air live episodes of its “developmental” brand NXT, keeping five hours of WWE on USA’s schedule. Meanwhile, TNT has recommitted to primetime live wrestling with start-up All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
The wrinkle is that WWE’s live ratings have seen a sharp decline over the last few years, even relative to dipping cable viewership. Recently WWE has cut the number of clips it posts to YouTube as a way to convince fans to watch on live TV. It hasn’t worked. There’s no guarantee that a jump to a bigger potential audience will result in a bigger audience.
If the recent past is any indication, few will care. Live programming now functions as much as a branding tool as it does a real characteristic of the medium. It’s a shared delusion that viewers want a collective, ephemeral experience that can be sold and re-sold to studios, sponsors, and sports leagues—but not to the audience.