While most of the attention has been focused on how WWE and AEW have bent, skirted, and avoided protocols and rules to still run live programming during the pandemic, it doesn’t appear to be netting them results that make it seem worth it. Once again, when Monday Night Raw’s ratings for Monday came in, they looked similar to when Wile E. Coyote found himself overrunning the cliff.
The latest episode of Raw saw it draw its second-lowest audience in the show’s history. It had an average of 1.76 million viewers across the three hours, or a rating of 0.51 Which continues a trend that’s been seen since WWE has had to run without an audience. Most of its lowest marks have come during this period. For comparison’s sake, the last Raw to be in front of a live audience drew a 0.71 rating, or just about 30% higher.
It’s not WWE-exclusive, however. AEW’s last rating for a normal show was 0.56. Last week, it was 0.41, the show’s lowest mark since debuting in October. WWE’s network show, Friday Night Smackdown dropped from a 1.71 rating the week before the shutdown to 1.33 last week, though obviously being on Fox boosts its viewership well above the cable shows.
While Vince McMahon contended to his shareholders a couple weeks ago that people would be desperate to see muscled guys running around in their underwear, that hasn’t really come to pass. Why?
Certainly the times have something to do with it. Cable news networks have seen huge increases in their viewership this spring. MSNBC is up 23% over this time last year, CNN is up a staggering 153%, and Fox News up 54% in just the latest sign of this being the 8th level of hell. That would have to have taken at least some of wrestling’s ratings, though perhaps isn’t a total explanation. However, all three of those cable news networks have seen a dip in May as “fatigue” sets in. And yet wrestling hasn’t seen a reverse of that in May as people seek a distraction or just anything else other than news.
WWE would tell you that some missing stars have kept people from tuning in, but that seems a stretch. The only one of note is Roman Reigns, and he alone wouldn’t account for a drop. Becky Lynch’s prolonged absence won’t help, and she wasn’t on TV for the month before announcing her pregnancy either, but the ratings problem began before that. Are Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn really keeping other viewers away? AEW’s slip would have more to do with who’s not there, as most of the women’s and tag divisions weren’t on TV during their pre-taped shows, which would have shaved off some of the audience. Perhaps being pre-taped ruined it for some as well, especially if spoilers had gotten out. But going back live as both AEW and WWE have done the past couple weeks hasn’t seen an uptick in ratings.
Vince was right in that people are clamoring for new programming, which might explain why FS1’s broadcast of Borussia Dortmund-Schalke on Saturday morning drew its highest ever rating for a Bundesliga game on the channel. The 0.33 rating was at or slightly above what NBCSN gets for its lower profile Premier League games, so it could be argued that it was just soccer fans who would normally be watching the Premier League on Saturday morning flocking to any top-flight soccer that was on.
But it’s not like wrestling fans have alternatives, and they haven’t flocked to or back to the programming that’s been consistently on their screens throughout the time.
Perhaps it’s just that fans realize they’re not watching the same thing without a live audience. And they’re not, in a sense, as the live audience is a major portion of the experience, as it is with all sports. We’ll see if the Bundesliga’s ratings continue at that rate after the novelty wears off.
The only other show-type to compare pro wrestling to is late night talk shows. Wrestling isn’t really sports, it’s really not straight television either, but if you’re trying to find something that is usually done in front of a live audience that has changed dramatically without it, it’s Kimmel, Colbert, and Fallon. Both Colbert and Fallon have seen drops from this time last year, 15% for Colbert and and 19% for Fallon, though Kimmel actually has better ratings this past week than he did at this time last year. However, last week saw both Fallon and Colbert at or near where they were in ratings the previous year. The week before that saw similar declines as this past week.
The similarities in what wrestling and late-night talk shows can and can’t do are maybe more than you might think. The essential part of it is still there. A performer doing what they normally do on your screen. But there isn’t a reaction, the limits in the type of sketches/segment variety you can do are much more severe, and there’s quite simply less energy to the whole thing. It would appear a good portion of fans have noticed, and aren’t interested.