WWE SmackDown Going Live Shows Cable TV's Desperation for DVR-Proof Content

Few things are more important to cable networks than live sports—including sports entertainment.

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May 25 2016, 7:42pm

WWE Superstar Randy Orton is excited for the move. Image: Harry Li/Flickr

All of WWE's key programming will be broadcast live, beginning July 19. After airing on tape delay since its debut in 1999, WWE's number-two program, SmackDown, is permanently going live on Tuesday nights on the USA Network. The show is currently airing on Thursdays on a two-day delay.

On Wednesday, Variety reported the upcoming move by the NBCUniversal-owned channel. USA will air the three-hour Raw on Mondays (from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), followed by the two-hour SmackDown (from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) the next night.

The joint press release from WWE and USA strongly suggests WWE will return to the "brand split" format it used from 2002 to 2011, "with each show featuring a distinct cast, unique storylines and a dedicated writing team."

The move reflects an increasing thirst in the TV industry for more live programming in an age where many viewers use DVRs to fast-forward through the ads that support their favorite programs. On top of that, viewership for most non-live programming on the USA Network is declining; likewise for most cable and broadcast networks. But live sports programming like that from the NFL, NBA, MLB and UFC, having been holding up more steadily.

WWE has a long tradition of airing at least some of their most-watched programming on tape delay. Episodes of WWF Superstars were taped weeks in advance at marathon tapings in the 1980s and 1990s. Every other episode of WWF Raw was taped six days before it aired until well into 1999. And SmackDown has always been the show you can find spoilers for online. That tradition is about to end.

Theoretically, with no spoilers available, putting SmackDown live on Tuesday nights could lead to more viewers watching live and fewer watching later via DVR and skipping the ads. Oddly enough, though, tape-delayed SmackDown already has a lower DVR viewership percentage than live Raw.

Based on WWE viewership data from January 4 to May 19 of this year, reported by James Caldwell of the Pro Wrestling Torch, I calculated Raw's DVR viewership percentage at 9.5 percent, and SmackDown's at 8.2 percent. That difference, though, could be due to the perception that what happens on SmackDown is of less consequence than what's seen on the flagship Raw program. So maybe viewers feel less compelled to catch up on the show if they miss it.

The lone SmackDown that aired live this year did provide the program with the second-lowest percentage of DVR viewership for the show so far this year. It was also the highest-rated episode of the year so far, as it was the hyped debut for the program on the USA Network, after its move from Syfy.

USA clearly sees the move as valuable. The press release suggests it expects exceptional viewership for the first live airing of SmackDown on July 19. USA is using the broadcast of that event as the lead-in for the premier of its new drama series Shooter.

Is WWE getting an increase in TV rights fees in exchange for provided more live content? "I would think so," said Chris Harrington who analyzes WWE for sites like Seeking Alpha as well as his own blog. "It seems too complicated to just say 'SmackDown is live but all is the same.'"

PAA Research analyst Bradley Safalow agrees:

On top of that, Syfy (which is also owned by NBCUniversal) last week started airing a condensed two-hour version of Raw that airs on Friday nights at 8 p.m.

When asked for clarification about any changes to their TV rights fees, WWE responded, "We don't disclose specific details of our partnership." NBCUniversal also declined to comment.

For more information on cord cutting and living your life after cable be sure to read the Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting.