It’s not official yet, as everyone involved is declining to comment, but the news broke on Monday that WWE’s SmackDown Live is moving to Friday nights on Fox—as in the broadcast network that’s currently the home of Empire—in October 2019. The move marks the first time that WWE has had a weekly presence on broadcast television since SmackDown moved to Syfy in 2010, and it’s the promotion’s first time on a broadcast network since 2009, when MyNetworkTV became a syndicated package. More to the point, it’s WWE’s first ever stint on one of the major broadcast networks. Sure, SmackDown premiered on UPN before being absorbed into The CW and moving to MNTV, but those were a step or two below ABC, CBS, NBC, and eventually Fox in the the over-the-air pecking order. Other than periodic specials like Saturday Night’s Main Event, The Main Event, Tribute to the Troops, and WrestleMania: The World Television Premiere on NBC and Fox, the only other WWE show on the major networks was DIC Entertainment’s Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling cartoon on CBS in the mid-1980s. All of which means that SmackDown’s move to Fox is simultaneously a return to past glory and and an achievement that stands apart from anything WWE has done before.
When SmackDown first launched as UPN’s lone Thursday night show back in 1999, it immediately attracted the ire of L. Brent Bozell’s conservative Parents Television Council. This was the height of WWE’s “Attitude Era,” and the promotion’s programming featured an excessive amount of sexual content and was more viscerally violent than before. Bozell was more disturbed by the former, and pounced on WWE’s presence on “the public airwaves.” With the FCC having no governance over the content of cable programming, SmackDown was an opening for Bozell—and it was mostly Bozell, as the PTC’s membership was greatly exaggerated— to try his luck. Advertisers received seething letters from Bozell’s organization, with Bozell himself telling the AP that, “We’re telling these companies you can no longer distinguish the values of the sponsor from the values of the show they sponsor.” Shortly thereafter, with both Coca-Cola and the U.S. military pulling their spots, SmackDown was toned down. WWE lowered its parental guideline rating from TV-14 to TV-PG, and has stayed there ever since.
Bozell pulled some of his more histrionic complaints seemingly out of thin air—for instance, claiming that a boy who killed a small girl and claimed they were “wrestling” used the Stone Cold Stunner to murder her, or that SmackDown contained uncensored “YOU GOT FUCKED!” chants. WWE sued him for it, and the defamation lawsuit was settled in 2002, long after WWE was toned down; the settlement resulted in an apology from Bozell and a $3.5 million payout. The PTC largely backed away from WWE criticism, though they did start targeting cable and even streaming shows; their latest effort is against Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Now that WWE has toned down its content—all their shows went TV-PG across the board back in 2007—an exact repeat of this problem seems unlikely.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t risks for WWE in its move back to over-the-air television. We have no clue what type of out clause Fox might or might not have, but everything, from content to ratings, will obviously be under greater internal and external scrutiny than ever before. According to TV By The Numbers, last week’s SmackDown Live on USA drew an average of 2,298,000 viewers across two hours on Tuesday, while Fox’s Masterchef Junior averaged 3,320,000 viewers across the same two-hour slot on Friday. The cooking competition won the night in terms of ratings in the key adults 18-49 demographic, although CBS’s Hawaii Five-O had the highest total audience at 6.62 million viewers. One would expect SmackDown to get something of a bump from the bigger universe of homes that have Fox, and WWE will inevitably load up the show with its biggest names to get it; I would bet everything I have, for instance, on Ronda Rousey moving over from Monday Night Raw.
But there is also the question of how moving to Fridays will hurt SmackDown’s numbers. Fox is notorious for having an itchy trigger finger when it comes to canceling shows, especially on Fridays, to the point that it’s the network most closely associated with the “Friday night death slot” moniker. This is a very different world from the one in which shows like Firefly got cancelled for underperforming against unrealistic expectations, though, and the WWE television package’s value lies in large part in Raw and SmackDown airing live. Acquiring WWE programming is as much about keeping DVR numbers low as anything else, which means that smaller viewership is fine if those viewers are watching live—both the matches and the commercials.
The biggest question mark in all of this is ad rates. Historically, it’s been taken as a given that pro wrestling would get about half the ad revenue that other programming with its ratings would normally receive, seemingly due to negative perceptions about the fanbase. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer reported on his podcast two years ago that the rates had dipped to one-seventh of those on UFC’s cable TV cards, which also have smaller audiences; he estimated that WWE earned about one-tenth of the “average” comparable show. Meltzer has reported before that USA was happy with WWE as a loss leader if it helped maintain the network’s status as, depending on the moment, either the or a top cable network in prime time. Fox is less likely to do that, but it also seems unlikely that SmackDown’s ad rates will be quite as low.
Stephanie McMahon has done excellent work repositioning the WWE brand in the business world, and watching the WWE’s programming alongside UFC’s suggests that the former has in some meaningful ways already passed the latter. UFC programming has a significantly larger quantity of noticeably lower-rent ads than WWE—direct-response products like testosterone boosters, mostly, and a lot of the elder-bait services that advertise on other cable news networks. WWE ad breaks, on the other hand, consist mostly of retail products—everything from candy bars to video games, and notably lighter on the Natural Male Enhancement products—and movies, with little in the way of direct response products. Hell, WWE recently even added Kay Jewelers as a sponsor, with both commercial spots and integrated in-show advertising. The slate of commercials—and the fact that WWE is netting bigger rights fees than the UFC for their respective 2019 contracts—suggest that the conventional wisdom may not hold. The numbers suggest this, too, as WWE’s direct sponsorship revenue quadrupled since 2010 and going up 29 percent year over year in 2017. WWE’s last Saturday Night’s Main Event specials on NBC did have noticeably sub-broadcast network quality ads, but those ended in 2008, early in the current TV-PG rebranding initiative. With WWE staring down a rich new contract and a prime-time spot on a major network, that all feels like a long time ago.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix