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One Change Could Make the WWE Network a Cord Cutter's Dream Come True

The addition of Raw and SmackDown would make the WWE Network even more attractive to fans without cable.

by Brandon Howard Thurston
May 6 2016, 1:11pm

WWE Superstar Triple H at WrestleMania XXXVIII in 2012. Image: Ed Webster/Flickr

WWE sent out a survey last week to former subscribers of its over-the-top streaming service, the WWE Network. The company asked lapsed customers whether they'd be interested in a $12.99 tier if it included next-day access to WWE's two most highly-viewed programs, RAW and SmackDown, which currently air weekly on the USA Network.

The WWE Network has been offered to U.S. consumers at one price point, $9.99, since its launch in February 2014.

"WWE regularly conducts consumer research on a variety of ideas and lines of business," a representative of the company told Motherboard regarding the survey, "and there are no immediate plans to change the WWE Network offering."

Even if there are no immediate plans for a second tier, it's important for WWE to understand the value of an offer that includes RAW and SmackDown episodes next-day.

WWE's next TV rights negotiations will probably happen sometime around 2018. CEO Vince McMahon admitted he was disappointed with the results of the last TV deal with NBCUniversal (USA Network's parent). That deal was negotiated around the same time the Network was launched in 2014.

"The reason [WWE] didn't get what they thought [they were going to get for TV rights] was because people didn't know what kind of cannibalization they were going to get," said Brandon Ross, who analyzes WWE's stock for research firm BTIG.

Image: Brandon Howard Thurston/Motherboard

Something else that could play into future TV rights negotiations: WWE's ratings have been gradually declining for years. Research I did earlier this year showed viewership on cable channels like the USA Network and the major broadcast networks are declining at a sharper rate than WWE's programming is, especially for those networks' scripted programs. However, live sports viewership for the most part isn't wavering.

The WWE Network's most valuable feature is the live broadcast of its monthly super events. Before the Network, those events were seen exclusively on pay-per-view for $44.99, each.

What's missing from the Network is convenient access to RAW and SmackDown episodes, where WWE storylines unfold weekly. Adding those episodes next-day would get the Network closer to being the ultimate single-purpose OTT service for the WWE fan.

Currently, editions of RAW and SmackDown aren't uploaded to the Network until 30 days after they air, but they're available the next day on Hulu, which NBCUniversal is part-owner of.

Quicker access to wrestling's most-watched programs could bring a WWE fan one step closer to dropping their cable subscription. It could even be the tipping point that causes someone who's already cut the cord to cancel Hulu.

However, news recently emerged that NBCUniversal is talking to Hulu about providing its package of channels as part of a new Hulu offering in 2017 that would include live TV. Possibly along with packages from Disney and Fox, Hulu could offer an attractive "skinny bundle" of live TV channels, alongside services like PlayStation Vue and Dish Network's Sling TV.

If I'm a cord-cutting WWE fan and Hulu offers me live and on-demand access to WWE's weekly programming, that certainly trumps the premium tier option of the WWE Network theorized in the survey -- that's provided I see enough value in the $40 per month price point Hulu is reportedly considering.

If a battle is looming for OTT space between traditional pay TV and the networks, content providers like WWE are in awkward position. It's not nearly clear yet whether it will be more profitable for companies like WWE to keep themselves more attractive to distributors or whether they should circumvent the adversaries and offer more value directly to their consumers.

For more on how to live life without cable be sure to follow the Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting.

Follow the author, Brandon Howard Thurston, on Twitter.