WWE Network Subscriber Count Disappoints, Coverage Area to Expand August 12

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WWE Network Subscriber Count Disappoints, Coverage Area to Expand August 12
Credit: WWE.com
Vince McMahon unveils WWE Network in Las Vegas.

WWE announced today that as of June 30, the end of the second quarter, the WWE Network subscriber count was at about 700,000.  While the hard sell for the network on WWE programming lately led to a lot of speculation that it would be a disappointing number, most predictions that I saw were closer to 750,000.  They've gained less than 33,000 subscribers since WrestleMania 30 back in April.

Well, sort of.

This is what they actually wrote: "The quarter was highlighted by the ongoing ramp up of WWE Network, which attracted gross additions of 161,000 subscribers since WrestleMania on April 6th and ended the quarter at 700,000 subscribers, reflecting a net addition of 33,000 subscribers."

In other words, WWE Network has actually had about 828,000 paid subscribers to date, but 128,000 of them dropped off when their payment methods failed for one reason or another.  On the investors' call (which Dave Meltzer did a great job summarizing at F4WOnline.com), WWE CFO George Barrios said that the "churn" (non-renewal percentage) was similar to other subscription services, but those do not have a six-month commitment.

WWE Network Growth So Far
Date Number of Paid Subscribers
2/24/14 (Launch Day) >130,088
3/31/14 (End of Q1) ~495,000
4/7/14 (Day After WM 30) 667,287
6/30/14 (End of Q2) ~700,000

WWE & IndeedWrestling.blogspot.com

It's not exactly a secret that the commitment is part of the business model to protect the pay-per-view events, especially WrestleMania.  You're not supposed to be able to hit-and-run.  What's the point of the commitment if so many dropped off and WWE doesn't appear to be willing to try to collect the balance?  The reps on their customer service line always say that a billing issue won't be reported as a debt and affect your credit.

To deal with this issue, WWE announced that not only will they be taking month-to-month subscriptions (no theoretical commitment) for $20 per month, but the six-month commitment can now be billed as a $60 lump sum instead of the $10-per-month method that has been in play since launch.  Previously, only Apple TV users subscribing through the device were able to pay in a lump sum.

I would hope WWE is researching what exactly led to the unexpected churn.  If it's unintentional, they're clearly getting some fixes into place (I doubt people are intentionally filing chargebacks, canceling credit cards, etc. to dodge the $9.99 monthly payment.).  PayPal subscribers have an easier workaround, but it was reported in the new Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscription required) that only 5 percent of subscribers pay with PayPal.

The six-month commitment seemed like a stroke of genius when it was first announced, the key to them including the PPVs on the network.  Now that it looks like it's completely unenforceable?  They really should have come up with a different plan.

WWE told the Associated Press in January that 800,000 to 1 million homes buy two to three of its PPV events each year.  By all rights, those homes should be subscribers, since two to three PPVs at regular price is comparable to or more than the annual cost of the network.

Having said that, there's potentially some good news on the horizon, as the international rollout is coming a lot sooner than expectedless than two weeks from now.  On August 12, there's going to be a two-pronged expansion.

Which WWE Network model do you find most appealing?

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In a surprise, it will be launching as a regular premium cable channel in Canada on Rogers’ cable systems with a special preview and "thereafter through other Pay-TV providers outside Rogers’ footprint."  Obviously, being a cable channel, the linear/"live" stream is the centerpiece of the service like any other traditional cable channel.  

Where the cable version will differ from the streaming version is the on-demand library.  A WWE representative told Bleacher Report the on-demand library will be smaller, with content to be determined.  Cable services just don't have the capacity to have bigger on-demand libraries.  In 2015, the online service will become available to cable subscribers, essentially as WWE's equivalent to HBO Go or Showtime Anytime.

As for the rest of the world? On the same day, "170 countries and territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico, Spain and the Nordics, among others" will be able to get the American version of the network.  In the U.K., it's "expected to be live" by October, while Italy, UAE, Germany, Japan, India, China, Thailand and Malaysia are still to be announced.

The lack of the U.K. (which, for WWE's purposes, appears to include Ireland, which is not actually part of the U.K.) means there won't be quite the boost one would hope for, but they should still see a sizable bump.  When it comes to increasing domestic subscriptions, besides fixing the hurdles with cancelled subscriptions, what's crystal clear at this point is that there needs to be changes to the content and promotion of the WWE Network.  

What that entails is a lot less clear.

What content is most enticing to you as a current or potential WWE Network subscriber?

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Among current subscribers, the top 10 most-watched shows each week in the list released by WWE were almost always current/original programming of some kind, with the most recent pay-per-view event first.  ECW Hardcore TV showed up once or twice, as did WCW Clash of the Champions not long after the shows were added in May, but that's it.  The most basic takeaway from this is that content drives subscriptions.

Does attracting new subscribers mean more of the same, like ramping up documentary production?  Maybe.  It could also be symptomatic of the relative lack of archival programming on WWE Network.  If you want more than just old PPVs and specials, there's not much there.  If you subscribe, it's too sparse to binge watch.  If you don't, it's not enough to entice you to subscribe.

When the service launched, Monday Night Raw, ECW Hardcore TV, and World Class Championship Wrestling were all adding episodes regularly in chronological order.  In addition, Old School, the collection of previously broadcast house shows, mainly from the '80s, had episodes added in no particular order.  The Legends of Wrestling roundtable shows produced a few years ago were also added weekly, with the whole run available now.

Problems mounted quickly, with World Class skipping many episodes, even those that had aired on the WWE Classics on Demand cable service.  If WWE has them not only digitized but stripped of music they can't use, why were they skipped?  The last "new" episode was in April, with just 20 shows in the on-demand library.  

Which accurately describes your interest in the older non-WWE shows like ECW and WCCW?

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ECW fared better, as a large batch of episodes dropped fairly quickly, but the last "new" episode was in April.  Skipped episodes are less of a problem, as the episodes missing here were also missing from WWE Classics On Demand's History of ECW series, so tape issues out of WWE's control are likely the culprit.

New episodes of Old School also stopped around the same time, while Raw, which airs every weekday morning on the linear feed, has been continuously updated.  The only complaint in this department is that they've skipped the pay-per-view preview specials, like Sunday Night Slam, that were re-aired as episodes of Raw 24 hours after they premiered.

Essentially, if you want to do Netflix-style binge viewing of old weekly wrestling TV shows, there's really not much besides Raw, which is up to 1995 right now.  If you want to watch ECW or especially WCCW, you'll run out quickly with no additional episodes in sight.  If you want context for the PPV events, you're out of luck for anything other than WWE from 1993 to 1995.

It's even worse that this is happening when there's so little variety.  While shows cycled biweekly to monthly with no archive, the cable-based WWE Classics on Demand service had a much broader selection of programs, especially in their last couple years of existence, with chronological runs of a lot more shows from almost every library WWE owns.  Worse, the old WWEClassics.com service, which DID maintain an archive, also had more variety than WWE Network.

Then there's the issue of how, aside from the occasional big drop like Saturday Night's Main Event, new stuff only shows up after it's debuted on the linear stream. 

This leads us to the next problem: WWE is promoting the network all wrong.

This week on Raw, they heavily promoted an airing of SummerSlam '98, the biggest SummerSlam ever, this Sunday at 8:00 PM ET.  As you may remember, every WWE, WCW, and ECW PPV event has been available in the archive since the network launched.  Aside from pushing communal viewing on social media, why, in 2014, are you asking us to watch this show at a set time?

Not counting live events like PPVs, what is your preferred way of viewing WWE Network programming?

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It's confusing.  If you're telling me I can watch any PPV ever at any time, why are you also telling me to watch a specific older PPV at a set time?  Yes, they'll need to promote the Canadian network that way via ads on the Canadian broadcasts of Raw and WWE's other weekly shows, but it hasn't debuted in Canada yet.

WWE just doesn't appear to grasp how people consume online video content.  The search engine is, on most platforms, not very good, especially since it looks like they've abandoned adding chapter marks (with wrestler names and other searchable details) to shows.  There's no way to create playlists.  You can't stop a show and resume it on another device (or even the same device on some platforms).

Whatever the answer is, unless the biggest hurdles are not wanting a perceived commitment and not understanding the technology, it looks like "every PPV live with your subscription and an archive of every PPV ever" is not going to get them significantly more subscribers in the U.S.  While the company is saying that the break-even point has gone from 1 million subscribers to 500,000 thanks to WWE's recent cutbacks, that shouldn't be the solution.

I love the idea of WWE Network.  I want it to be way more awesome.  There's cool stuff there, but aside from the best PPVs and the occasional additions like Saturday Night's Main Event, there isn't much to get excited about.  WWE needs to make the network more exciting for it to get over the hump.  Personally, for me, sheer quantity of older footage would do that.  For everyone who's less geeky?  I have no idea.

David Bixenspan is the lead writer of Figure Four Weekly and a monthly contributor to Fighting Spirit Magazine.

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