This week sure looks likely to be one of the more momentous in recent wrestling history. Most of the focus is on the emergence of the “Wednesday Night War,” and rightly so. It’s been a long time since WWE had another promotion to pick a fight with, and NXT expanding to two hours on USA Network to battle startup All Elite Wrestling, which debuts with AEW Dynamite on TNT, is inarguably that. And AEW really is a huge wild card—a brand new company that hasn’t done weekly TV before. No one really knows what its television ceiling is, especially with counter-programming from WWE. (It’s ambitious counter-programming as well: NXT is going to be presented with “limited commercial interruption” this week, to boot.) But while the first shots of this new war are a big deal, this is not the week’s only gigantic story. Just two days after the start of the Wednesday Night War, WWE’s SmackDown Live will make its move from Tuesday nights on USA Network to Friday night, on broadcast television, when it fills out Fox’s entire network lineup for the evening.
This is the first time that WWE has ever had a weekly television show on one of the “big four” broadcast networks in the U.S. (The only thing close to an exception would be the two seasons of Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling on CBS in the mid-1980s, although that was a cartoon from WWE and DiC Entertainment, not a pro wrestling show.) The Saturday Night’s Main Event and Main Event specials on NBC from 1985 to 1991 were both major components in WWE’s success, but they were aired just every few months, mainly in the Saturday Night Live time slot. SmackDown launched as a network show in 1999, but on second-tier networks like UPN, The CW, and My Network TV before going to cable on Syfy and eventually USA Network. You get the idea: This is a major opportunity for SmackDown and WWE.
Of course, there are caveats. The show will air on Friday nights, traditionally a ratings dead zone in which SmackDown has always lost viewers and where Fox has historically been unwilling to give shows much of a chance. And 2019 is not necessarily a time when moving to a major broadcast network would inherently bring a major viewership spike. And yet this is still the biggest platform that WWE has ever had for a weekly television show, and that means something, especially since all available signs—the Monday Night Raw announcing team moving over, the upcoming roster draft, Brock Lesnar getting a title shot on the first episode—suggest that SmackDown is about to usurp Raw as the biggest priority of the week for WWE.
Quantifying what that might mean is easier said than done. To get granular for a minute: SmackDown has held steady as of late on USA Network, generally garnering slightly less than two-thirds of a percent of the key adults 18-49 demographic while pulling in an average of about 2.0 to 2.1 million viewers across all ages during its two hours. On Fox, meanwhile, at least last spring before summer reruns kicked in, the Tim Allen vehicle Last Man Standing would do about 0.9-1.0 percent in the demo, with an average audience anywhere from 4.5-5.5 million total viewers; fellow half-hour sitcom The Cool Kids would grab about 0.6-0.7 percent of the demo with an average audience of about 3.5-4.0 million viewers, and hour long drama Proven Innocent would do in the range of 0.4-0.5 percent of the demo and an average audience of about 1.6-2.0 million total viewers. SmackDown is going to displace all three of those shows, but it’s hard to know how many of those viewers it will replace.
It’s useful to look Raw, being that it’s the current flagship and SmackDown may start to assume many of its qualities, in trying to assess how this might work or not. Raw’s third hour loses viewers; WWE, perhaps for that reason, reports each hour of the show separately to Nielsen as WWE Entertainment. (SmackDown, though, is reported as a two-hour show.) On USA Network, Raw has recently pulled in consistent demo ratings in the 0.75 percent range for its best hour. One particularly strong recent episode, on September 2, opened with a 0.86 in the demo, with total viewers usually peaking around 2.4 million for the best hour, held steady in hour two at 0.84, and dropped less than usual in hour three, closing with a 0.79. (All ratings information from ShowBuzzDaily.com’s Monday, Tuesday, and Friday archives.)
The ratings aren’t all directly comparable, because cable ratings like USA’s assess everyone who gets the network, where broadcast ratings (like Fox’s) are a percentage of everyone in the country with a television. But while matching the total audience numbers of Last Man Standing seems like too much to ask, it’s not completely out of the question to think that, with the bigger platform, SmackDown could continue to pull in a comparable demo rating to most of Fox’s previous Friday night lineup. And in 2019, that’s what matters on the television side. It’s the measurement that matters to the networks and sponsors, and Fox led the charge in that direction a few years ago. (Though, again, WWE is unique because there is value to the whole audience in terms of the promotion attempting to convert them into paying fans as ticket/merchandise buyers and streaming network subscribers.)
For Fox, the calculation is clear. The network is betting that, for less than $4 million a week, year-round, WWE will deliver a respectable adult demo number across its entire two-hour Friday night prime time programming block. On top of all that, SmackDown will be live every week, which is extra-attractive to advertisers by virtue of making viewers at least theoretically less likely to DVR the show; that appeal is part of Fox’s larger plan to ask cable and satellite companies for higher retransmission fees, although that latter part isn’t going great for Fox so far.
It’s tough to predict just how the size of SmackDown’s audience will change with the move, if only because there’s no good precedent for WWE programming on a major network like Fox. But it does seem, just given the cost involved, that this should pay off for Fox barring a catastrophe. This Friday’s premiere, officially billed as SmackDown’s 20th anniversary celebration with a number of returning legends appearing and headlined by Brock Lesnar’s first regular television match in over 15 years, against reigning WWE Champion Kofi Kingston, seems like a hell of a way to try to kickstart this new era. Once everyone has recovered from Wednesday night, it should be interesting to watch.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.