It is happening again.
On Tuesday morning, WWE announced that NXT, the weekly TV show of their hardcore fan-oriented developmental circuit, would be expanding to two hours, going live every week, and moving to USA Network effective September 18. On WWE Network, where the show has run since the service’s launch in 2014, it will be available on a 24-hour delay, on Thursday nights. The move, which had been expected for some weeks, made official that WWE would willfully be going head to head with startup All Elite Wrestling’s new live two-hour weekly show on TNT, which launches October 2. Both will air in the 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. time slot. There are caveats and legalisms in play, but this is what it looks like. Welcome to the Wednesday Night War.
NXT has, for most of its brief existence, been formatted for hardcore fans who have grown disillusioned with the mainline WWE shows, which is to say that it’s similar to AEW but plays within the limitations that apply to a WWE product. Which means that this is arguably both more appropriate and more compelling than AEW going against the flagship Monday Night Raw or SmackDown Live shows would have been. WWE, albeit on terms it can spin as needed, has opted to meet AEW on its own turf.
Over the last month and change reports had suggested that NXT was earmarked for Fox Sports 1 in the same time slot. This turned out to be too intriguing to be true, as the Twitter account for the Voices of Wrestling website noted two weeks ago that FS1 had too many Big East basketball commitments to host NXT on Wednesday nights year-round. A week later, reports of an impending USA deal picked up steam, and after a false start about an announcement of the move coming on this week’s Monday Night Raw, WWE announced this latest move with less fanfare than anticipated.
If you’re familiar with ‘90s pro wrestling, you know what makes this particular situation so heated, fascinating, and delicious. From September 1995 through March 2001, WWE’s incumbent Raw, on USA, was counter-programmed by WCW Monday Nitro, a new live weekly show from Turner Broadcasting’s WCW; it aired on TNT, the “classier” of Turner’s cable networks. (Raw did move to TNN—now Paramount Network—for the last six months of the war and a few years beyond that.) Ted Turner may be long out of power at what’s now WarnerMedia, but it seems apropos that WWE now faces its biggest potential challenger since WCW folded, and that the rival promotion air on TNT. This time, though, WWE counter-programmed them by moving a streaming-only show to USA.
This absolutely could backfire on WWE, and in ways that it wouldn’t have had NXT ran on FS1. (The promotion’s reported $30 million/year in rights fees makes the deal an absolute win on paper, if nothing else.) Had AEW beaten NXT on Fox Sports 1, it could easily be framed as a defeat for a developmental brand that aired on a weaker network; if NXT bested AEW in the ratings, it would look bad for the new promotion for the same reasons. That argument goes out the window now that NXT will air on a network of equal stature.
To veer into the weeds for a minute, TNT and USA are generally grouped by cable and satellite providers into the same “general entertainment” category and as such are near each other on the cable dial. That means that NXT viewers will be much more likely to stumble onto AEW during NXT commercial breaks than if the WWE show was on FS1. With NXT staying at Full Sail University’s soundstage-grade event space for now, that means that WWE’s developmental circuit will look, well, minor league in comparison to AEW’s shows, which are slated for full-size arenas and have sold out quickly so far.
If you’re not intimately familiar with what’s long been dubbed the Monday Night War, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Vince McMahon cried foul about all this at the time. As described in this space two weeks ago, early in the Nitro era, McMahon made a very public spectacle that included accusing Turner—who had no day-to-day involvement with WCW—of pursuing a personal vendetta against him. This included everything from writing Turner disapproving letters about WCW content on which he CC’ed the media to making fun of Turner with weekly “Billionaire Ted” skits on Raw; it eventually escalated to include buying an ad in the business section of the New York Times warning stockholders about Turner money being wasted on the alleged vendetta. WWE was then the WWF, a division of the privately held Titan Sports; McMahon argued that his world-bestriding wrestling promotion was just a family-owned business being crushed by a carpetbagging billionaire. Given the money behind AEW—the promotion is bankrolled by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and his son Tony—you can see where this new feud is going, and how it might play out.
When asked about the reports suggesting the move was mainly to counter-program AEW, a WWE spokesman responded testily, telling Deadspin that “The premise to your story is wrong” and adding that “NXT has been on Wednesday nights since 2015 [sic] as I’m sure you know.” According to the spokesperson, “It isn’t called counter-programming if you continue to air a series on the same day/time as it has been on for nearly five years.” The email response closed with a suggestion that “Perhaps you’ll ask AEW about counter-programming NXT?” I did, and an AEW spokesperson declined to comment on those reports as well as the idea that it was in fact AEW that was counter-programming NXT.
The WWE spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up email asking if there’s a distinction between the counter-programming they accused AEW of doing and what AEW was actually doing, which is scheduling their show for the only weeknight without either WWE competition or NBA On TNT conflicts. When the former WWE referee Jim Korderas took up a similar argument to that of WWE’s on Wednesday, Fightful.com’s Sean Ross Sapp noted on Twitter that “[T]here were people backstage outright told ‘we’re going up against AEW, whatever night they air.’” (We’ll update if and when WWE responds to the follow-ups.)
In fairness to WWE and the McMahons, the decision to run WCW Monday Nitro opposite Raw was, by all accounts, Ted Turner’s own idea. It was an exceedingly rare occasion in which he got involved personally with WCW, much less in the wrestling war. It’s also worth noting that the McMahon response to all this hasn’t always been complaining that it was somehow inherently unfair to launch Nitro against Raw.
In 2000, when USA sued WWE over a dispute about whether the network properly matched the TNN offer, the promotion’s then-CEO Linda McMahon seemed less bothered by the decision in her testimony than either she and her husband had let on previously. “Mr. Turner and his group had elected to go head-to-head against us on Monday night, which would have been fine, except that he also decided to take the top stars that we had spent years creating through Vince’s creativity and character development,” she said when asked about Raw’s ratings declining in 1996. “He was able to come in and cherry pick that talent, and weave them into a story line which he concocted, which was actually false,” she added, also noting that they sued WCW as a result and that had recently resulted in a favorable settlement. “So he was able to capitalize not only on Vince’s creativity, but also in using the characters in a format which duped the public into thinking they were really watching the WWF. So that wasn’t allowed.”
McMahon was referring to the early stages of what became known as the nWo, an invading faction that launched when Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall and Kevin “Diesel” Nash, each just a few weeks removed from their final WWF appearances, showed up in WCW in mid-’96. Thanks to constant sly references and nobody mentioning the invaders’ names for close to two months, WCW really did imply that the nWo wrestlers were leading a WWF invasion of WCW. That past TBS executives in charge of WCW had repeatedly proposed the two companies uniting for a “Super Bowl of Wrestling” event made the gambit seem like part of an ongoing pattern of behavior, at least to the McMahons.
“It’s so unfair,” McMahon told Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller in the newsletter’s February 16, 1996 issue, a few months before the start of the nWo storyline. “We’ll fight the good fight, but our competition isn’t WCW. I consider TBS our competition. We’d be glad to fight on an even playing field with WCW. But when Ted Turner was finally convinced I wasn’t interested in working with him or selling out to him, then he got nasty and the predatory practices began.” Those “predatory practices,” according to McMahon, included not just launching Nitro on Mondays but Turner Program Services requiring stations to pick up WCW WorldWide in order to carry the syndicated version of CNN Headline News, undercutting the WWF’s ad rates, and “giv[ing] away pay-per-view matches every week on [Nitro] because he doesn’t have to make money on pay-per-view.” Keller was able to confirm the bit about advertising rates independently, although WCW disputed it.
What this leaves out is that WCW was in many cases simply using the same playbook as the WWF. Jim Crockett Promotions, the company that TBS bought and eventually renamed WCW, fell off a cliff financially in part because their first pay-per-view event, Starrcade ‘87, was effectively counter-programmed by the WWF, which aired its first annual Survivor Series pay-per-view that same night; in that era, cable companies generally had just one PPV channel.
Crockett agreed to move Starrcade to the afternoon and the conflict seemed averted. “Cable companies were thrilled at first, thinking it would be a windfall, as they could put on two events as a package deal,” wrote Dave Meltzer in a history feature in the April 21, 2003 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. But McMahon wanted conflict and Meltzer reported that the WWF promoter “stated that any company that aired Crockett’s show could not only not get his show that night, but he wouldn’t allow them to carry the next WrestleMania.” Just five cable companies called the bluff, which was indeed a bluff, and carried Starrcade. Two months later, Crockett’s next PPV effort, the Bunkhouse Stampede, was again countered when McMahon aired the first annual Royal Rumble, live and for free, on USA Network.
Cable companies were mostly able to put a stop to this sort of counter-programming on pay-per-views, but the WWF still found a way to find confrontations. In May 1989, WWF somehow got a date at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville the night before WCW’s Wrestle War PPV event, which was held the next afternoon in the same building. The WWF show featured 11 matches, which was more than the seven that most similar shows, and the May 15 Observer noted that the promotion chartered a flight to bring in additional big names. According to historian Graham Cawthon’s TheHistoryOfWWE.com, WWF’s overstuffed show ran until about 11:30 p.m., severely delaying the setup for WCW’s Wrestle War.
In other words, none of this is new. The WWE side was already hypocritical when it complained about counter-programming almost a quarter century ago, and their conduct before and after that suggests that things can always get pettier. If this promotional war is like earlier ones, there’s going to be a lot more where the NXT move came from.
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.