A press release announcing the record-breaking billion-dollar deal boasted, "SmackDown Live is a consistent winner on television," and touted the wrestling show's "2.9 million average viewers." And so for FOX to spend that much money, it pretty much had to be buying built-in viewers and a bullet-proof fanbase… or at least enough of a ratings boost to justify the huge asking price... Right?
Let's compare FOX Friday and SmackDown Live viewership from 2018. For the purpose of every comparison in this article, I've left out the massive October 29th World Series spike on FOX. My wife, who does something with data for a living and also much better at Microsoft Excel Pivot Tables than I'll ever be, assures me this is proper protocol.
When adjusted, the total viewership doesn't look that far apart. Yes, FOX has a few more ebbs and flows than SmackDown, but, that'll likely be cleaned up once we look at averages for each.
But you will notice that FOX numbers are a lot more fluid than SmackDown Live numbers.
That's because, per stating the obvious, FOX is a television network with multiple shows on every Friday, as opposed to the 2-hour SmackDown Live block which counts as one show. (Yes, WWE & USA count RAW as three separate hours, but that's always been little more than an effort in narcissism.) Being a broadcast network also means FOX finds itself at the behest of special events, season finales, new show premieres, sports broadcasts, and all of the uncertainty that accompanies each of those.
So if you look at FOX as a whole year, the network seemed to do pretty well early in the year, carried by reality hits Hell's Kitchen and Master Chef Jr. Then, during the summer, FOX plummeted (reruns of The Orville and The Resident cost the network very little, but also, they likely did little for the network's bottom line).
This is the way broadcast networks have been run for years, though: show off your best stuff in the Fall and Spring, and replay everything in the Summer while potential viewers are outside and at the beach (or, while potential new viewers who watched something else the rest of the year discover your hidden gem. Remember: "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you!")
Now, recall - rumors of WWE taking SmackDown to somewhere other than NBC Universal started early in 2018. By the time FOX was in the discussion, around May-ish, FOX was leaving behind the Gordon Ramsay reality TV party and heading into the sunken place of Summer.
And that's when the the deal announced was announced. In June. When Fox Friday nights were averaging only 1.29 million viewers, and doing an abysmal 0.29 rating.
But then, FOX got a big spike in the Fall. Smackdown bounced-back a little, too, but not back to its Spring heights.
So the other narrative here is the Tim Allen / Roseanne Barr story. Back in the spring, while FOX was playing chef and WWE was busy planning its biggest show of the year, a rebooted Roseanne brought surprisingly massive ratings to ABC.
FOX exes - like most television execs who are prone to following a hot trend - quickly wanted their slice of the middle-America programming pie. So they wisely brought back the Tim Allen vehicle Last Man Standing, which had been cancelled only a year earlier despite decent-to-good ratings. (This was largely because the show was originally broadcast on ABC, while being owned and produced by FOX, thus making it less financially viable for the alphabet network).
FOX ended up looking like geniuses as a result. Their Fall Fridays, even with the juggernaut MLB excluded, have been averaging nearly 4 million viewers since.
But how could FOX have known that back in early 2018 when serious discussions with WWE first started?
Listen, we all know the current WWE television situation; RAW has just dropped to the lowest ratings in its entire history. SmackDown Live is on a steady decline. It's likely something FOX execs have noticed as well. Part of what helps buoys WWE, however, is its strong viewership in the key 18-49 demographic.
And remember: FOX bought the rights to SmackDown Live not just for the show, but for the synergy between Vince McMahon's baby blue and the broadcast network's Thu-Sun football offerings. It's also probable FOX expects a bump from cross-promotional efforts as well as from being back on a hyper-accessible broadcast station (rumors suggest FOX is looking for an audience of around 3.3 million). Plus a consistent, albeit lagging, performer like SmackDown makes executives' lives easier than them continually dealing with seasonal scripted shows which might hit or might not (remember: number-crunchers love stability.)
Last Man Standing can always be moved to another night and help FOX gain a foothold there. But WWE still needs to play offense and make sure it doesn't bottom out before reaching its new home. Sure, many consider professional wrestling DVR-proof since it's a live sport - it's just that RAW and SmackDown haven't been consistently good enough, let alone compulsively watchable, to make viewers HAVE TO tune in. Especially when WWE releases everything on social media just moments after it happens, and everything on YouTube pretty much in its entirety. Yes, an increased social media following is part of the company's continued growth strategy, as outlined on the recent earnings call. However - the company still needs to find a way to make viewers feel like they really missed out if they didn't watch the show.
At the end of the day, it's not where ratings are this week. They're bad, historically-speaking, sure, but they're okay when propped up against other shows. It's where ratings might be in a month, six months, or where they land come October 2019. With that in mind, any kind of downward trend probably should be worrying WWE - and FOX - executives.