In-Depth Report – Is Raw turning into a niche product?


PWTorch editor Wade Keller presents a special Thursday Flagship edition of the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast featuring a WrestleMania 36 Preview with ex-WWE Creative Team member and professional stand-up comedian Matt McCarthy.

(Search “wade keller” to subscribe in podcast app or CLICK HERE to subscribe in Apple Podcasts.)

This week’s Raw TV ratings performance should be a concern for everyone involved in the process. However, there is a larger concern that WWE and USA Network have to address.

Has Raw turned into a niche product lacking broad appeal?

It would not have even been a question this time last year when Raw was doing okay. Not great, but okay.

This Fall TV season, though, Raw’s ratings have fallen off the table.

It’s one week, but Monday’s show following the Survivor Series PPV fell to some of the lowest demographic ratings in the current era.

Most concerning was the adults 18-49 demo, which fell below a 1.0 rating after ranging between 1.10-1.17 throughout the fall season after Labor Day.

Again, it could be viewed as “just one week” considering Raw was opposed by the next-to-last episode of this season’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Consider the following six-year trend, though.

Adults 18-49 Rating

Nov. 23, 2015: 0.99 rating
Nov. 24, 2014: 1.52 rating
Nov. 25, 2013: 1.45 rating
Nov. 26, 2012: 1.34 rating
Nov. 28, 2011: 1.73 rating
Nov. 29, 2010: 1.76 rating

– Even eliminating this week’s show to just focus on the 1.10-1.17 range throughout the fall season, it’s not close to the a18-49 rating the previous five years.

Another way of looking at it is the average a18-49 rating for the three-month period of September to November smoothing out some of the weekly ups-and-downs.

Adults 18-49 Average weekly rating

Fall TV 2015: 1.13 rating (down 14% from 2014)
Fall TV 2014: 1.32 rating
Fall TV 2013: 1.38 rating
Fall TV 2012: 1.39 rating
Fall TV 2011: 1.71 rating
Fall TV 2010: 1.67 rating

The drop-off is similar in the key male demos. Raw’s unique selling point is (a) appealing mostly to males and (b) having the ability to draw in female viewers. This fall season has not delivered and Monday’s show was a big step in the wrong direction.

Also notice the significant drop-off from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012. That was the first year of three-hour Raws. It appears the length of Raw has turned away multiple pockets of the audience.

– Why is it so important for Raw to have broad viewership? That’s what their TV partner, USA, is built on. USA sells itself in the marketplace as being able to cast a wide net. Raw, as the #1 show on the network, has to match the selling point of the network.

WWE could make the argument that the product is going through a transition period. John Cena, who brought in a wide range of viewers, was shifted out of the main event scene after this year’s WrestleMania when he undertook the weekly U.S. Title Open Challenge. He was no longer the central character of the show.

Fast-forward to the middle of the fall season and Cena was completely off the show. Enter Roman Reigns as the lead protagonist.

Reigns is a serviceable, suitable, acceptable central character. But, he has not proven to be a needle-mover. WWE even put Reigns in the ring with Cena for a breast cancer awareness spot in October to try to symbolically pass the torch, but Reigns did not measure up to the seasoned spokesman.

Reigns is a product of a watered-down system exacerbated by three-hour Raws where it’s difficult for full-time stars to feel special.

The 2.16 rating is leading to nice riffs on Roman 2:16, but it's not Roman's fault. Bigger than that. He's not an immediate solution, though

— Wade Keller (@thewadekeller) November 25, 2015

Reigns gets mostly positive reactions at house shows and TV tapings among general fans. He also moves merchandise. That’s part of the justification to push forward with top-line plans. However, he’s not generating a consistent Superstar-level reaction that WWE needs right now from their central figure. They need someone to stand out as unique, special, powerful, likable, sympathetic, heroic, and worthy of people’s attention to help reverse the 2015 ratings slide.

Reigns has a certain appeal to female viewers, but it’s not close to Jeff Hardy at his peak. After Sheamus won the WWE Title from Reigns at Survivor Series, WWE started the Daniel Bryan story of mental/physical beat downs from The Authority, but Reigns is not an undersized, plucky underdog fighting against both the on-screen and behind-the-scenes corporate machines. Reigns even has the deck stacked against him to regain the WWE Title a la John Cena’s multiple title chases, but it’s difficult for viewers to feel sympathetic toward him.

In 2015, WWE has driven away a portion of their core male audience with booking decisions that are misaligned with the audience’s expectations. There is not that “hope figure” like Daniel Bryan since WWE has defined down a candidate like Dean Ambrose. WWE wants Reigns to be that figure, but the reception is too mixed – and borderline indifferent.

– With Raw falling below the Mendoza Line of 3.0 million viewers on Monday and overall adult viewers declining so sharply this week and the Fall TV season, Raw is risking the label of a niche product.

And, the trickle-down effect will impact the rest of the pro wrestling industry, especially a company like TNA landing on female-leaning Pop TV for its third TV deal in three years.

WWE and USA have to find a way to reverse the Raw trend and broaden the audience, especially when NBC Universal just booked a host of new advertisers for Raw. Notice the multiple Kay Jewelers ads during Monday’s Raw to go along with Carl’s Jr. burgers and fries?

WWE needs to somehow improve the female demos and draw back adult males who are drifting away. It’s critical for Raw as well as Smackdown, which is shifting from Syfy to USA in just a few months.

WWE believes Reigns will eventually be the answer if they can get all segments of the audience reasons to invest in Reigns. So far, there is not enough proof from the outside looking in to support that long-term commitment to Reigns in this position. But, WWE will keep trying.

And, at the end of the day, there’s always a desperation phone call to make to Donald Trump for a publicity stunt to kickstart ratings.

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