For Your Consideration WWE’s Exploitation of the Internet

Welcome back to week 6. Not a hell of a lot going on in the world of wrestling in the past seven days with TNA in the can and WWE out of the country. I guess the “big” news story was Randy Orton allegedly being tossed out of his hotel room. Talk about exciting and newsworthy stuff.

I guess focusing in on the news coming out of wrestling is a lot easier than looking at the news going on in the “real world”, so in a way the WWE is living up to its billing as escape TV.

Today’s column is probably going to be a little shorter than normal, though it’s not due to my lack of enthusiasm for the topic. I think it’s one of those topics that probably doesn’t require a whole hell of a lot of exposition but is interesting nonetheless.

With that out of the way, I want to thank everyone for their feedback to last week’s column. A lot of people responded to my criticism of a 16-PPV cross brand calendar with a very logical response of, “Well look at the card for Backlash.” Now that seems like a hell of a good response since Backlash is pretty stacked. My reply is that Backlash is almost always stacked. It’s the post-Mania hangover show, and if the WWE can’t capitalize on some solid Mania rematches then maybe they shouldn’t bother coming back from Europe. I’ll have my full thoughts on the matches in the Roundtable, but as far as when you take the card as a whole, it’s clear that it’s a stacked show. The question remains as to whether or not they can keep this kind of momentum going when we hit June. I think that they can’t, but then again I hope they prove me wrong. (“Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong” – Principal Skinner).

Now, onto the thrust of today’s topic, the reason (I hope) that you’re all here. The advantage to today’s topic is that I know right off the bat that I’m dealing with the appropriate audience. Why? Because I’m going to be talking about the Internet, and short of you being Amish and having this column printed and sent to you via goat, you’re going to be reading this online.

I’m going to demonstrate the genius of the WWE in a way that most people don’t usually think about:

For Your Consideration WWE’s Exploitation of the Internet

The WWE has always been a leader in technology. Vince and Co. knew how to exploit every new medium that came their way. They revolutionized (well, stole from WCCW) how pro wrestling is recorded on television. They set in motion the idea of national syndication for a wrestling program. They tapped closed circuit and PPV to make a fortune. They have broken new ground in VOD and opened markets with over 130 countries. Most importantly, the WWE embraced and exploited the Internet.

When I was a young kid, my family had Prodigy. Prodigy and American Online were two of the big Internet companies back around the time when people were first learning the magic of the World Wide Web. I find it kind of funny that future generations won’t have the joy of hearing a modem screech and howl like an espresso machine or a beaten child, but then again future generations won’t have to know about getting kicked offline because a call was coming through. My first experiences on Prodigy were mainly to play rudimentary games and do research for school, because that’s what we all though the ‘Net was going to be for. Then, the WWE opened their site on Prodigy, and suddenly the Internet became another portal for Vince to make money.

Eventually, Vince made the WWE an exclusive AOL thing, so when I switched over to America Online, I was able to do all of the exciting things that this technology offered. I was able to go into chat rooms and post on message boards and even look at pictures and bios. Essentially, we as wrestling fans were reduced to being excited about things a 9 year old would probably blow off now.

Alright, enough of the half-assed history lesson. We’re in 2007. You can pretty much get an internet connection on an oil rig in Alaska, and with the lightning fast speeds that are out there you can download a movie in like 3 hours. The WWE was smart enough to grow with the expansion, offering video clips and interactive features on its web pages.

Unfortunately, the expansion of the internet hurt Vince in a way that he never expected. Suddenly, “dirt sheets” were popping up everywhere and getting lots of hits. Now, backstage feuds and planned surprises were available for public consumption weeks before anyone was supposed to know. The enjoyment of wrestling changed from simply watching the shows to going online to see who would jump ship and what happened at the 9 hour RAW tapings in Tacoma. Nobody likes a spoilsport, and the Net was turning into a big one for pro wrestling.

In 2007, Vince has the stranglehold on the wrestling scene. TNA’s a distant second and ROH is an even further third. There’s less news than ever to report on because all of the major stories can only come from one place, Stamford. We as wrestling fans are only given tiny drops of information, whereas we once were bathing in the cascading waterfall of news. Two major promotions with national recognition meant that there was no way to keep tabs on all the secrets that we weren’t supposed to know about.

Now, here’s where my contention comes in. This is one of those things that people would dismiss as conspiracy theories, but trust me (without divulging too much), I’ve done my homework. My point here is this, the WWE is working the Internet. We are getting played for fools by them and we’re pretty passive about the entire thing.

Vince, about 2 years ago, ramped up WWE.com. The question is, why? Why take a site that became a watered down children’s attraction thanks to dirt sheets and try to make it something more? Because, it dawned on Vince that when you control the Internet that you control the message. Suddenly, WWE was scooping the Net. How could they do this? Because they make the news. They are the ones who can first report on signings and firings. They can first report on legit or worked injuries. They can spill the beans about suspensions and get the first interview with the superstar in question. And once it became established that the WWE was going to be breaking its own news, the internet dwellers began flocking back to the corporate page looking for the scoop. Now, with people beginning to revisit the site, Vince can slip in other messages. He can post more free video clips. He can post Diva photos. Anything to keep the viewer there longer. Keep those eyeballs.

Randy Orton gets kicked out of a hotel. Is this really news? It might be more than you think. When Orton was suspended under mysterious circumstances in 2005, no one knew why he was being kept off TV. Was it drugs? Disrespecting women? No one knew. And why didn’t we know? Because it was a work. The WWE came up with a story and picked a guy and worked the smart fans. When we think of Orton, we think of a punk kid who isn’t paying his dues and is disrespectful. Why do we think that? Because of how he plays his character on TV? No. Because we “know the story behind the scenes”. Like hell we do. They go to Orton, they tell him the story idea and boom, instant heat. Now he’s a hated guy by the marks and the smart fans. They built a character without having to put much effort. Blend real life and fiction. Then, when he comes back from his “suspension”, he’s main eventing Wrestlemania.

The bigger question is why do this at all? What is there to be made besides getting more clicks on their site and more searches for “WWE” on Yahoo? In television, there’s a theory called tuning inertia. NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox all want you to stay where you are when you click on their network. That’s how NBC used to dominate Thursday nights. That’s how ABC now dominates Thursday nights. Take that philosophy and push it to WWE.com. You go to WWE.com and there are tons of things for people to do. You can watch Heat, you can download pictures, you can buy a shirt and you can subscribe to 24/7 Online all from what you see on the main page. Regardless of whether you do any of this or not, you’re being preconditioned to go to their site. It’ll become habit for people again. They’ll add it to the list of sites that they visit when the boss isn’t watching. Eventually, it’s just something that people do.

The Internet is the wave of the future for television viewing. People (not me, per se) seem to think that in a few years you will just watch your favorite shows online. Hell, people right now can go to any major network’s web site and watch entire episodes of their favorite shows. Yes, that benefits a network, but how does that benefit the WWE?

When Vince moved RAW back from Spike to USA, he learned a valuable lesson. He learned that dealing with networks is a bitch. How do you overcome that? He can’t start his own network. Yes, he does have VOD, but the lead time to load programming onto a Video on Demand service is 3 months. That means if I wanted to get a show on VOD, I would need to send it now and it would be up in 3 months. That’s the only way to keep costs down. Vince can’t create a real cable network because then you have to worry about getting carried by cable and satellite providers, which-without getting too technical-is a hassle because you need to offer your station to providers at a low rate but still make a profit. It’s a high-wire act, plus it would burn bridges with CW, SCI-FI and USA. No, the answer to Vince’s potential future problems with negotiations was in front of him the entire time. He could just air RAW and Smackdown online.

For 2 years he’s been training fans to come back to WWE.com, and while there they are beginning to learn about watching programming online. Heat does decent numbers with matches involving Eugene. WWE 24/7 Online has shown that people will pay subscription fees to watch Judy Bagwell on a pole. Now, if they air RAW and Smackdown streaming online, they could keep all of their ad revenue. With the current USA deal, Vince makes less on advertisements than he did with Spike. If the WWE goes purely online, they might lose viewers, but they would make more money with ads. Since most wrestling fans already know how to use the internet and tend to grasp cutting-edge technology, there’s a small learning curve.

You could watch RAW live for free and then download it for $1.99. You could put episodes on your iPod. Hell, go to any torrent site and you’ll see thousands of people downloading RAW even though they could watch it on TV. This is a huge bargaining chip for Vince when his deals with NBC Universal and CW are up. If they don’t give him what he wants, he can take his ball and go home to the Internet.

The next contract negotiation isn’t for a few years, but in that time Vince could have conditioned enough people that the move to the Internet is a legitimate threat to the networks. I’m not saying its going to happen tomorrow or ever, but the possibility is there. Internet TV is the wave of the future and Vince might be the man leading the charge.

This has been for your consideration.

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