On Saturday, WWE posted an in-house production feed of the day’s TV tapings for its NXT UK series, including closed-door pre-show rehearsals, as an unlisted video on its official YouTube channel. While behind the scenes WWE footage of many varieties has surfaced over the years in a mix of official documentaries as well as all manners of leaked and intercepted videos, rehearsals have almost never been among them, and WWE keeps them close to the vest.
This production feed, then, is an unprecedented look at how the biggest company in the professional wrestling industry produces its television shows that was accidentally made available to the public via a YouTube or Roku glitch. More on that part of the story in a bit.
The eight-hour production feed featured:
- 35 minutes of rehearsals
- Almost 150 minutes of a black screen
- The entire taping of the event
- Announcers Tom Phillips and Nigel McGuinness’s off-air banter
- Phillips, McGuinness, and ring announcer Andy Shepherd re-recording lines
- Every word said into staffers’ headsets and earpieces by their producer
Contrary to once-popular belief, wrestling fans have long known that what they’re watching is strictly entertainment. Maybe they didn’t know exactly how matches are manipulated or how often the matches are not legitimate contests, but they knew that they are staged in some way.
WWE spokespeople, for their part, would give statements to news media that largely acknowledged the genre’s predetermined nature starting in 1985 at the latest, and explained that it was entertainment in order to avoid regulation under state athletic commissions. In 2019, outside of its main weekly shows, WWE freely discusses its product's manipulated nature, including in documentaries it produces in-house for its streaming network. This video, then, doesn't prove wrestling is staged—we already knew that. But it does show us how the sausage is made.
I was tipped off to the YouTube video in question by a friend, who had it mysteriously appear on his Roku Saturday night while he was watching wrestling videos on AutoPlay mode. Presumably, because it was unlisted, it was not something that should have come up in AutoPlay.
With Saturday’s NXT UK taping, there is plenty to unpack. Most tantalizing is the rehearsal. Some portions can be neat to see, like WWE Hall of Famer-turned NXT coach Shawn Michaels helping set up a brawl between the Gallus and Imperium wrestler factions. But parts of these aren't terribly informative or entertaining because Michaels and NXT head coach Matt Bloom are inaudible.
That said, the best part of the rehearsals is seeing the run-throughs of segments in an empty arena that would be repeated later in front of the crowd. Some feel overdone for a performance art form that is at its most organic when mostly improvised, especially things like telling wrestlers where to stand during introductions.
Most entertaining is each run-through of the wrestlers getting physical, if just because they look more like kids play fighting than adults in a wrestling match. That’s understandable: It’s a performance, but a very physically punishing and demanding one, so there’s no need to take unnecessary risks or waste energy when the main goal is lining up shots for later. But it’s also weirdly hilarious to watch.
We also get the chatter in everyone’s headsets and earpieces from a producer who the announcers address as “Jon.” He sounds like Jon Briley, one of the independent wrestling promoters brought on by WWE to run the NXT UK brand and produce its programming.
Though WWE CEO Vince McMahon is notorious for yelling at announcers through the headsets when producing them, Briley sounds significantly more laid-back. (Audio of Vince yelling at the announcers has never gone public, but when a production feed of SmackDown leaked in May 2014, Cole’s side of one such conversation was present.)
Take the banter between Phillips and Briley, where Phillips was relaxed enough to joke about McMahon’s infamous hatred of announcers using pronouns rather than being specific about who they're talking about. “Just help me out, Jon,” Phillips said at the 21:35:22 mark of the on-screen time code. “Please use pronouns as much as possible, like ‘he,’ ‘this,’ [inaudible], no idea what we’re talking about,” he continued, to which Briley responded with an enthusiastic “Copy!” Phillips then closed the loop with his own impression of McMahon, barking “Goddammit, pal! Who are we talking about?” (Impressions of McMahon usually include some form of “goddamn, pal.”)
Briley is jokey throughout, even when frustrated: At the end of the show, when wrestler Joe Coffey, on the house microphone, cut off his entrance music with “We’re not done yet!” and Briley immediately responded, laughing off a “Aww, yes you fuckin’ are!” and “[Can] anyone else spell ‘curfew?’” Overall, if this taping is anything to go by, he keeps a lighthearted mood throughout. Briley jokes around, cracks wise at certain mistakes, and even sings along with the pre-show D.J. set, but he’s not an especially intrusive voice.
Of course, the video is also just a really good document of this kind of TV production. All things considered, it really goes quite well. We don’t think about things like the wrestlers having to hit their cues. Or an announcer having to re-record a line where he got the verbiage/inflection wrong or missed his own cue. But Briley is on top of everything, and when something goes wrong, he’s quickly shuttling everyone into place with a fix. That’s cool to see, and it’s impressive to see him thriving when the weekly NXT UK series is just over a year old.
This is the first time that behind the scenes footage with this wide of a scope escaped straight from WWE. It’s not completely unprecedented, though: When “backyard” satellite dishes were more common, WWE “wildfeeds” were often recorded and circulated among videotape and DVD collectors. These recordings, though, were usually limited to the events in the arena during the actual show, like non-televised matches, mistakes edited off of shows not airing live, re-recordings of lines, and announcer banter.
Rehearsals were rare, and only a couple got out; even now, WWE keeps those close to the vest when producing documentaries. Truck/headset audio is even rarer, showing up once, in a warez “scene” release of a 2010 episode of the original NXT. Other unforced errors include an employee uploading numerous videos from the NXT “Presentation Skills” class to his personal YouTube account and linked in a public playlist, plus a freelancer uploading the abandoned NXT Kids pilot to his Vimeo portfolio.
By and large, though, this stuff doesn’t get out on its own anymore; most of what we see is what WWE wants us to see.
But how did we end up seeing it? An unlisted video like the NXT UK feed showing up in AutoPlay is so rare that there is seemingly just one documented case of it on the searchable internet, mentioned in an obscure Reddit post three years ago. The comment floats a theory, that the video was briefly public, indexed, and somehow not flushed out when it was switched to unlisted, but that’s not possible here. According to SocialBlade’s rankings, WWE’s channel is number four on YouTube for views and number 12 for subscribers. If this video was ever public, someone would have noticed it. Motherboard's emails to the public relations departments of YouTube and Roku looking for a technical answer have not been returned. WWE, meanwhile, made the NXT UK feed private approximately two hours after Motherboard asked about the video.
Video highlights edited by Tim Burke.