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Fox Bets WWE Sports Entertainment Can Transform Its Friday Nights

October 30th, 2019   ||    by David Bloom

Fox is betting big with Friday Night SmackDown. It’s hoping that WWE’s devoted audience of sports entertainment fans will help it grapple with the transforming TV business and its own radical restructuring.

The WWE deal was a pricey but smart move for Fox. But just because Fox wrestled WWE away from its long-time perch at the USA Network doesn’t guarantee it can automatically pin down a programming success.

Fresh Blood and New Foes

Among other challenges, it may be difficult to get some wrestling fans to make the hop from Tuesday to Friday, and from basic cable to broadcast. WWE fans are famously ardent, and Fox certainly expects them to tag along to the new address. But along the way, those fans will find plenty of competition for their attention.

For one, Newsweek reported that a new company, All Elite Wrestling, signed with TNT, whose sports-heavy programming strategy partly echoes Fox’s. The new company also evokes wrestling on a former Ted Turner network. Back in the 1990s, Turner aired World Championship Wrestling, Bleacher Report detailed, which actually beat the WWE’s predecessor in ratings for several years before missteps led to its closure. WWE competitors like All Elite Wrestling could set up the sort of head-to-head battles for fan attention that characterized 1990s professional wrestling.

A Strategic Move

Despite potential challenges, Fox’s bet on WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown could solve several problems for the network, according to Bloomberg. Fox has ranked last among the four largest broadcasters, and the show brings a reliable audience that could help boost the network’s ratings.

More strategically, the deal fills a hole in Fox’s wall of Thursday-through-Sunday sports entertainment coverage. Fox already has the NFL on Thursdays and Sundays and college football on Saturdays, so Friday Night SmackDown will fill the gap.

It’s locked up the WWE show for five years at a cost of $1 billion. That may seem expensive, but as more outlets bid for scarce sports rights, it may look like a deal by the time the contract expires.

Transforming to New Fox

The Murdoch clan cashed out big when they sold most of 21st Century Fox to Disney last year for $71.3 billion, according to CNN. After the sale, the Murdochs still control the Fox broadcast network, Fox News, and the Fox Sports national cable channels. In turn, Fox is focused on live news, live sports, and reality competitions like The Masked Singer that, like sports, are appointment viewing.

Fox and broadcasters in general are betting that, in concert with local affiliates’ programming, they can differentiate from the panoply of online streaming services launched by Apple, Disney, HBO, Comcast, and others. Simply put, live news and sports are different from on-demand content and attract a different crowd.

Even better for Fox, live attracts audiences that advertisers covet. There’s no time-shifting, and audiences are far less likely to skip through their messages.

And WWE is a strong bet to grab a good-sized audience even on a Friday night. It has built a sturdy connection with its fan base that stretches from traditional TV into live events, merchandise, and social media.

Unleashing a Torrent of Ads

Fox is taking no chances on success. Ahead of SmackDown‘s launch, the network unleashed a torrent of ads on its other outlets, including Fox News, the NFL, baseball, golf, and even the Emmy Awards telecast, according to Bloomberg.

“We really have gone crazy with promotion,” Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks told Bloomberg. The company’s WWE investments even outstripped what it spent for the Super Bowl, the biggest attraction in US TV, and the World Cup, the biggest TV attraction everywhere else in the world. All told, Fox executives estimated the company generated more than 1.4 billion impressions.

SmackDown may be just the move Fox needs to pin down profits in its new era, regardless of what its new competitors are able to build.

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