The world of streaming television experienced a seismic shift early Monday morning when it was announced that, in the middle of March, The WWE Network’s United States streaming service will be absorbed by NBC/Universal’s Peacock streamer. The WWE Network will still be a stand-alone streaming service internationally.
To be honest, this wasn’t exactly a seismic shift, maybe more like John “Earthquake” Tenta coming off the top rope (if he ever did such a thing). It’s still a big deal, reportedly worth a BILLION dollars over the course of five years. However, this was absolutely not a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention.
For subscribers to WWE Network, it’s a pretty sweet deal. They will automatically be enrolled in the Premium version of Peacock for $4.99, five bucks less than what they’re paying now, or they can pay the same amount and get Peacock Premium Plus, which is ad-free and has more bells and at least one extra whistle.
If those WWE Network subscribers are customers of Comcast or Cox Cable, they already get Peacock Premium for free, so they’re essentially getting The WWE Network, including all of their PPV events, for free, saving their $9.99 each month to spend on another streaming service, or perhaps the occasional small assortment of exotic cheeses.
It’s a great deal for WWE, too. Some estimates are that they will make double, if not triple the amount of money that they’d make running the network themselves. Their reach will increase dramatically. Currently they have 1.6 million subscribers, with maybe three-fourths of them paying $9.99 a month. A lot of folks sign up for free trials or promo deals, then quit. This is what streaming services call “churn.”
Going forward, once they make the jump, WWE will be part of Peacock, a service just launched a few months ago, that already has more than 26 million subscribers. It’s not clear how many of those are paid subscribers because of the deals with Comcast and Cox, plus the existence of the free version, but that still means that this year’s live broadcast of Wrestlemania has the potential to be the most-watched ever, by a factor of ten or more.
With this deal, all of WWE’s former pay-per-view events are included, live and at no extra cost.
Let me pause for a moment and explain the proliferation of Peacocks: There are three versions of Peacock, NBC/Universal’s streaming service.
There is a free version, Peacock Free, which offers a small sampling of their library, with advertising. If I have this correctly, you can watch the first season of some of their shows, but you have to upgrade to watch them all. This is really more of a promotional tool, hooking viewers who subscribe because it’s free, but like what they see.
The next tier is Peacock Premium. This is the $4.99 per month service, still with advertising, but you’ll have access to the entire library of programs, and starting in March, you’ll get The WWE Network.
If you want to cough up $9.99 a month, you can get Peacock Premium Plus, which has everything Peacock Premium offers, but is ad-free, for those of us who have been spoiled by ad-free TV.
Now that we have our cocks sorted out, let’s look at what the advantages are for NBC/Universal.
A Billion dollars is a lot of money, but this is a long-term investment. Just last week Comcast, the giant conglomerate that owns NBC/Universal, announced that they will shut down their very profitable NBC Sports Channel, and move their Hockey, NASCAR and EPL Soccer broadcasts to The USA Network and Peacock.
This is a channel that was still pulling in profits of 90 million bucks a year, but since NBC/Universal is owned by Comcast, and as a cable company, Comcast can see the writing on the wall in terms of the future of cable vs. the future of streaming, they decided to make a bold move to position Peacock as a real player in a post-cable world dominated by Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max and other streamers.
It’s about assembling a winning collection of programming that will attract a wide array of subscribers, and hopefully appeal to so many members of a family that Peacock will become a “must-have” streaming service.
If you look at what the newer streamers, the ones owned by huge media conglomerates, offer, you get an idea of this strategy. Disney+ offers Disney and Pixar movies, plus Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic in addition to cutting edge drama on HULU and sports on ESPN+. HBO Max offers the full library of HBO programming, plus comics-based shows and movies from DC Universe, Turner Classic Movies, Sesame Street, Adult Swim, Looney Tunes (old and new), Studio Ghibli and stuff from the Harry Potter universe. CBS All Access is about the change their name to Paramount +. and they offer Star Trek, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount movies, and a ton of programming shared with their sister streamer, Pluto.tv.
In order to compete at that level, Peacock has to aim wide. They offer dedicated channels for The Today Show All Day, and special early feeds of The Tonight Show and Late Night with Seth Myers. They have the Dick Wolf “Chicago” shows, plus programs that they own, like The Office and Parks and Recreation, and they’re reviving a bunch of shows that will appeal to the nostalgia-minded early-middle-aged folks.
They also intend to invest in live sports programming. EPL Soccer has one of the youngest demographics of any sport, and will bring an enthusiastic audience to their streaming service. Add to that the threat of carrying NASCAR and any Olympics that might happen this year, and you can get an idea of how wide a net they’re trying to cast.
It’s not a matter of Peacock pushing WWE as the end-all, be-all of their network. They see them as a major attraction–a prime dish at a buffet, as it were–that might appeal to one member of a family and keep them loyal, while other members of the family watch Peacock for other things. This is what they see as the natural evolution of what was once The NBC Network into a major streaming service.
In that sense, the deal with WWE makes perfect sense. The only real question is why didn’t they just try to buy WWE outright?
Legendary wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer, from Wrestling Observor, speculates that they may do just that in the future, but they didn’t want to deal with any complications from the fact that WWE’s highest-rated program, Friday Night Smackdown!, is currently airing on the Fox Network, and that potential messiness, combined with a price near six billion dollars, makes it wise to cut this deal now, and then wait to see what the next five years bring.
Plus, it’s good business for WWE to take this deal now, and see if they can parlay this into a potential bidding war if they decide to put themselves up for sale in the future. It also further ingrains them with NBC/Universal, who hold the TV rights to Monday Night RAW and NXT (both seen on the USA Network).
At the beginning of this post I mentioned that this wasn’t really a shock. Over a year ago WWE talked openly of selling off their streaming rights to another company. Around this same time, they fired Michelle Wilson and George Barrios, who were key to launching the WWE Network, and had plans to offer different-priced tiers. It seems that it came to a showdown between Wilson and Barrios, who wanted to expand the network, and WWE’s owner, Vince McMahon, who wanted to sell the rights to another service.
Vince McMahon is not going to lose in a showdown like that. Despite being publicy-traded, WWE is still his company. He owns the majority of voting shares.
In the wake of the firing of Wilson and Barrios, WWE’s stock price plunged, and then COVID-19 arrived.
Meltzer reports that WWE had been in talks with Disney/ESPN about selling their streaming rights, but those discussions were back-burnered during the pandemic, and WWE’s new president, Nick Khan, had a good working relationship with NBC/Universal, so they evntually cut the Peacock deal instead. On top of that Peacock had already been offering a selection of programming from The WWE Network for the past few months. This is sort of like a corporate marriage made in heaven.
Honestly, had ESPN acquired the WWE Network, it probably would’ve sucked for the network’s existing customer base. ESPN acquired the TV rights to UFC in 2018, and still charges full price for that companies pay-per-view events. If they did that with WWE programming, then I know, personally, I wouldn’t be watching those events live any more (it’s a bit deep in the piece for a full disclosure, but I’ve been a WWE Network subscriber since a month or two after they launched. It’s the reason I bought my first Roku streaming device).
On top of that, ESPN+ has had some major technical issues lately, and there are some irate customers demanding refunds for last weekend’s Conor McGregor fight. ESPN charges around $70 for a UFC pay per view, and for that price they ought to send McGregor out to your house personally to make sure you have a good connection.
The end result of this Peacock deal for most subscribers of The WWE Network is that we’ll get exactly what we’re getting now for half the price, and we’ll also have access to a bunch of other stuff, some of which is really cool.
It’s a rare win-win. Woo-hoo!
This also might be good news for AEW. The very-successful new wrestling company already has a working relationship with WarnerMedia, the owners of HBO Max. If WWE does really well for Peacock, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that HBO Max might make AEW an offer to move their four annual pay per views to the streaming service. I don’t expect that to happen soon, but it’s definitely on the table.