Wednesday, when speaking at the TV Summit during NYC Television Week in New York, WWE Executive Vice President of Creative Stephanie McMahon-Levesque was asked about the ongoing project to launch some kind of WWE Network on television. Broadcasting & Cable quoted her as saying that while she couldn't get more specific, "[WWE is] looking at traditional and nontraditional distribution, and we're targeting first quarter next year."
In spite of her comment Wednesday, no launch date was projected on Thursday's quarterly investors' conference call by her father, WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. When reached for comment Thursday, WWE issued this statement to Bleacher Report: "As discussed on WWE's earnings call today, we continue to aggressively pursue the launch of a WWE Network in 2014 via traditional and non-traditional distribution models. No launch date has been confirmed."
Still, it's hard to ignore Stephanie's "first quarter" projection once you've seen it. WWE's fiscal year is the calendar year, that means that the latest projection for the network has it launching by the end of March. If WWE is able to launch by then, that makes me wonder if "nontraditional" (meaning online/"over the top") distribution is the direction they're leaning towards.
Ideally, the network would be included as part of cable and satellite companies "enhanced basic" digital lineups, and WWE would get a small carriage fee from every subscriber with that plan. That would be a huge windfall for the company and its stockholders, but at this stage of the game a subscription premium channel (tabbed by WWE at $13 to $15 per month) is what WWE is aiming for.
That is if they go with a traditional cable/satellite network. In 2013, that may not be the wisest move, especially without guaranteed carriage fees. Any mention of the network has included a reference to online distribution for a long time now, and I feel that it's pretty clearly the smartest move at this point.
A little over a week ago, Netflix's third quarter results revealed that they are on track to eclipse HBO when it comes to the number of subscribers in the U.S. While obviously you can't project how the WWE Network would do based solely on that information, it shows just how much of a change there has been in content consumption.
This is especially important when you consider what type of programming the WWE Network will consist of. While there will be original programming on the network, including current traditional wrestling shows, reality shows (Total Divas was originally earmarked for the network and Legends' House, which has had a finished season in the can for a while, still is), and possibly all non-WrestleMania pay-per-view events, WWE's extensive archives will likely contribute to most of the schedule.
Archival programming is not appointment television the way Raw is, or even the way something like Total Divas is to E!'s target audience, but the network likely wouldn't be happening without WWE having such a gigantic library.
As much as I'm likely to completely nerd out over the WWE Network, if the programming is the same regardless of the delivery method, I'd much prefer an online service as long as the device support (game consoles, smart TV platforms, phone/tablet operating systems, etc.) is strong similar to how it is with Netflix.
The only way I can see an online service not fitting is if the idea of the network catches on with older fans who would be less inclined to use an online service or have something like a game console that the network's app would be available on. Granted, WWE Classics on Demand was targeted towards older fans, but it was never the subject of the type of advertising blitz that the WWE Network will get.
Of course, WWE could go half-way: A traditional cable/satellite channel wherever they can get clearances and an online service everywhere else that's blocks IP addresses of subscribers to the cable companies that carry it.
While in the long run, I expect the programming will shift to include all sorts of stuff and maybe non-wrestling programming, it's a relatively niche product right now, at least as much of a niche as pro wrestling is nowadays. Online distribution is ideal nowadays for any new "network" of content, and that goes even more so for something with a smaller potential audience since costs are so much lower.
On top of all that, WWE puts a lot of stock in being at the forefront of technology these days. What better way to do that than to launch the WWE Network online?