What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part One)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know itTom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry: World Wrestling Entertainment recently announced the launch of the WWE Network – a 24 hour programming track, and an online archive, that audiences will access through their computers, smart phones, video game systems and DVRs. Many of you may not be wrestling fans, but read on, because this case study has big implications on the future of television and fandom. I’m excited not only as a lifelong fan but as a Hollywood transmedia writer who grew up as the son of Professor Henry Jenkins. I immediately reached out to my longtime friend and colleague, Sam Ford, who I consider to be the world’s foremost professional wrestling scholar, and I asked him if he wanted to write a public dialogue with me about why this is such a game changer in and outside of the wrestling world.

If you can’t quite picture what the WWE Network will be like, that’s because there’s never been anything like it before. The closest comparison would be to Netflix, which can be accessed through many digital devices, but does not show their content over the air. The WWE is likewise putting their entire archive of 100,000 hours of shows on the server for fans to play with. But unlike Netflix, they’re also going to be airing content 24/7 on a cable-style channel,  with a slate of original reality shows and sports desk shows, which you access through your iPhone, Android, Playstation, XBOX, Roku, Apple TV, etc.

This isn’t the first time that the WWE has driven a new TV format. In 1982, Vince McMahon acquired the WWF from his father. The company had been a popular regional promotion in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states since 1963, and his dad intended for it to stay grassroots. His son had visions of national fame, so in 1985 Vince essentially spent the company’s entire fortune putting on a one night show, Wrestlemania. But in a bigger gamble, he relied on audiences to use a relatively untested technology – closed circuit television – in order to watch. The technology was so new that in many cases the WWF had to buy the equipment for the theaters. The gamble paid off. Cinemas coast-to-coast sold out showings of the event; just two years later, closed-circuit theater broadcasts were overtaken by pay-per-view in homes; and now the WWE charges fans $55 a showing to watch 12 pay-per-view events a year. They built their company, but they also created a demand for a new way to watch sports.

The biggest headline for many fans now is the change in price structure. Buying 12 pay-per-views at $55 each costs $660 a year. There are also a limited number of people willing to do it. The WWE Network costs $10 a month – or just $120 a year – and expects to attract six or seven times as many viewers. Cash-strapped families and young fans who cannot spend $660 have been left out, while many adults have turned to illegal downloads. But those same people have been blown away by the possibility of spending $10 a month to get the same content. A weird analogy: The economics of it sound like Obamacare. If millions of people who are currently paying nothing now start paying $10 a month the WWE can afford to charge the average customer less.

Although many sports fans don’t know it, Major League Baseball already has a digital channel. It is not hard to believe that if the WWE Network is successful, other brands will follow suit. Just like movie studios made pay-per-view a part of their business model – releasing films there after theater runs but before DVDs and TV debuts in order to milk additional revenue – it is easy to imagine Warner Bros. putting their entire film and television catalogue on a subscription-based digital archive. Well, the WWE is now removing most of their offerings from Netflix and making them exclusive to their service. What would happen if a company like Warner Brothers did the same? Sam?

Sam: Thanks for inviting me to take part in this dialogue, Henry. Like you, I’ve been a long-time viewer of pro wresting and—while there are a long list of reasons I would hardly call the pro wrestling industry as a whole a progressive one—it certainly has been transformative in the way it deals with storytelling. For those who don’t watch WWE, let me back up for a moment and explain exactly why a 24/7 storytelling model makes particular sense for the WWE and why I think it behooves both those working in the media industries and media scholars to pay especially close attention.

First, pro wrestling has the opportunity to conduct storytelling on multiple levels simultaneously:
  • The pro wrestling match is a narrative into itself—the fictional depiction of an athletic competition with a beginning, middle, and end—governed by rules that have remained fairly consistent across the history of this “sports entertainment” performance genre. So, as opposed to any other sort of fictional programming, almost any individual segment of any pro wrestling show is, in itself, a discrete chapter that could be watched on its own as a “mini-episode.”
  • Then, there is a narrative that spans the course of an individual show. An episode of WWE RAW or WWE Friday Night Smackdown or a PPV event all takes place, typically, in one arena, in front of one live crowd…like an individual sporting event…and there is a script that connects all of the matches and “segments” taking place in any one night together into a discrete whole, as an episode of television.
  • At the next level, there is the ongoing story arc of the WWE, which is typically built in one-month increments and which leads to a climax with the pay-per-view event. In other words, the month of programming leading up to a “big show” basically is designed to set up the rivalries, the tensions, and the background story to get people to tune into the major show that resolves all the questions that the programming has built up to. In the days before there was closed circuit and PPV, this is the same model wrestling promoters like Vince’s father used to drive people to go to Madison Square Garden or the other big arenas in his regional circuit—Boston, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, etc.—to see the big rivalries taking place at the moment. The TV programming plays a promotional element to drive people to the most important shows, where typically the best matches take place, where the championships are most likely to change hands, and where, traditionally, the biggest moments would take place.
  • But, at the next level, of course the storylines coming out of one PPV event typically role right into the next, so WWE maintains a “TV season” that runs all year long—that means there are 6 hours of WWE TV shows on network/cable every week, along with a range of internet, DVD, and on-demand shows—with no “re-run season.” For WWE, the climax of each “season” is Wrestlemania, so the typical flow is that the new WWE season in a way begins the night after Wrestlemania, dealing with the aftermath of the biggest show of the year, and everything from that point forward slowly starts to build to the next Wrestlemania.
  • Finally, since WWE’s season never really ends, there are “meta” narratives that spans the course of time. Since WWE has the advantage of both having a deep well of serialized stories that go back for decades—with at least most of the previous decades’ archives saved—as well as the fact that most of those individual units—matches, interviews, etc.—can be treated as their own discrete segment—they have a way of drawing from their archive that few can. They can tell the story of the evolution of a particular character through the course of that history…and, since they have bought the archives of many of their competitors now out of business, that story can be told by even looking at their history as they’ve jumped from one part of the “pro wrestling” narrative universe to another. They can also tell the history of particular time periods in wrestling, of particular promotions, of particular types of matches, of particular rivalries…there are a wide range of ways they can slice and dice—and move through—their history.
Second, WWE has a unique ability among entertainment franchises in terms of creating an “immersive storyworld.” Elsewhere, I’ve defined “immersive storyworlds” as narratives which include the following attributes:
  1. expansive backstories which can’t be neatly summarized
  2. a vast set of ensemble characters, including a few who may front burner at the moment but with a wide variety who may only show up from time to time
  3. tying current storylines to the extensive history of the narrative world
  4. managed by multiple creative forces, often both at any one time and also through generations of storytellers who have controlled the property at one point or another
  5. a hyper-serialization
  6. a sense of permanence to the narrative world
For WWE, this is conducted by mimicking the sports world. Elsewhere, I’ve called WWE “the world’s biggest alternate reality game,” because they are a fictional story that uses all of the tropes of a real sports league to basically turn our “real world” into the story world for a fictional narrative. Often, wrestlers compete under their real names or draw on a range of elements from their real lives, blurring the line between fiction and reality. The core and longest-lasting part of the pro wrestling business model is the live event, which means stories are told about these wrestlers as they travel from arena to arena—and they are telling stories about themselves through social media accounts that the performers themselves run—as they carry out in real time, in the same world the WWE’s audience lives in. And, if you purchase a ticket, you can even go and watch the next installment of the story live.
This means the potential WWE has for being the true masters of “transmedia storytelling” is unmatched. However, the issue WWE has faced until now is that they have spent much of the past two decades distancing themselves from the sports background—emphasizing the “entertainment” over the “sport.” Now, they are trying to shift that pendulum back and to think through what the unique advantages are of being a fictional property purporting to be a sports league. As they see MLB, NFL, NASCAR, and others negotiate massive TV and sponsorship deals, they realize that they could forge a path between “sports” and “entertainment” that might take advantage of both in a way no other storytelling company could.
Through that lens, I’d say that every other media/entertainment company—and sports company—should watch what WWE is doing because they could perhaps learn a lot from it. However, on the other hand, the potential WWE has here is unique to them, because no other narrative out there is better suited to move to this sort of model. No other narrative has the potential to both take advantage of its video archive in the way WWE does, nor to tell ongoing stories through this sort of model.
But these observations speak primarily to how WWE is uniquely suited to draw on its archive and to move its current way of storytelling to a unique online video distribution model…and why the rest of the entertainment world…as well as media scholars…ought to pay attention to what’s happening here. The question remains…for those of us who care about pro wrestling narratives themselves…what are the narrative potentials this new model affords? What are the narrative challenges? And what will be WWE’s mentality of making the most use of those potentials? As someone now working in the entertainment and storytelling business, Henry, I’d be curious your take on what this might mean for WWE in particular.

 MORE TO COME

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.