Earlier this month, FOX Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier had some interesting comments about SmackDown coming to the FOX network in October. SmackDown is scheduled to debut on the network on Friday, October 4th. While it was originally announced the SmackDown would be moving to Friday nights; Collier admitted that SmackDown may only be there for the short-term.
Chris Hayner of Gamespot who covered Collier's press conference reported that when asked about the future of the sitcom Last Man Standing, which currently airs on Friday nights, Collier said that for the "short term" Friday night was going to belong to WWE.
That kind of language seems to indicate that FOX is looking to move SmackDown to another night during the week, which would be in theory a win for WWE since Friday and Saturday nights are typically the worst nights of the week for television viewership. A move to any night Tuesday through Thursday would be an improvement for SmackDown.
However it can also be interpreted that FOX is unhappy with SmackDown's declining viewership on USA, and while the show will almost assuredly draw greater viewership on network television, FOX should probably be concerned about the significant amount of fans SmackDown has lost in recent months. In 2018, SmackDown averaged 2.352 million viewers. So far in 2019, the show is averaging 2.060 million viewers. If that wasn't troubling enough, add in the fact that the first quarter of the year is typically when WWE draws its highest viewership. At this time last year, SmackDown was averaging 2.566 million viewers, so in a single year SmackDown has seen it's audience drop by 20 percent.
How does that compare to what FOX is currently showing on Friday night? FOX is in an interesting position since when it acquired SmackDown last June, it was under the assumption that it would be a huge boost to their typical Friday night lineup. However, FOX began broadcasting the previously canceled ABC sitcom Last Man Standing which began to draw a larger viewership on Friday night. Averaging around 6 million viewers per episode, and coupled with another sitcom The Cool Kids (around 4.7 million viewers) and long-standing reality show Hell's Kitchen (around 3 million viewers), FOX had a very competitive Friday night lineup.
SmackDown will certainly receive some form of a boost being on FOX. FOX will advertise it's investment heavily, and if nothing else FOX is in more homes (114 million) than USA (94 million) so more people will have access to the show. There are also some advantages SmackDown has over sitcoms or reality television; SmackDown will have 52 new episodes a year instead of 20 to 25, and SmackDown takes up a full two hours as opposed to relying on multiple shows to draw viewership.
Still, it's unrealistic to expect SmackDown to be averaging 6 million viewers per episode, particularly given their recent trend in viewership. Perhaps the reason Collier is thinking about moving SmackDown is because he doesn't believe it will be able to replicate the success the network has had on Friday nights. Could that mean SmackDown is being moved to another night?
It will be tough for SmackDown to crack another night; last fall FOX programming averaged 7.14 million viewers per night. It seems very, very difficult for SmackDown to match that total. Part of the reason that FOX number is so high is because the network secured a slate of Thursday Night Football games; giving Thursday nights a shot in the arm. However, the Thursday night games are only for 11 weeks a year, which means that there is theoretically an opening for SmackDown in the weeks there are not games. FOX is currently filling that timeslot with Gotham and The Orville both of which do between 3-4 million viewers per episode, which SmackDown could potentially attain.
Ironically the weakest night of the week for FOX is Tuesday night, which is Lethal Weapon (down 23 percent in the 18-49 demographic from last year) and The Gifted (averaging just 2.58 million viewers per episode). SmackDown could conceivably take over the Tuesday night slot, because unlike the other nights of the week, it would not have to see a massive jump in viewership to outperform the shows that used to be on during that time period.
It should be noted that we don't know the exact specifics of WWE's deal with FOX. It is possible that when the deal was signed, FOX agreed to air SmackDown on Friday nights for a particular length of time, before it could be moved to another night. When Collier said that SmackDown on Friday night was for the "short term" it could imply that FOX is contractually obligated to keep SmackDown in that slot for a period of time before it can be moved.
There is also the possibility that the sliding viewership for SmackDown might prevent FOX from committing to it on the FOX network for a long period of time. Losing 20 percent of your audience over a single year is a difficult pill to swallow, especially when viewership has been trending downward for years. If that turns out to be the case, SmackDown may be moved off of FOX and onto FS1, FOX's cable sports station. SmackDown would be a great fit on FS1 and be a huge boost for that station, but it would certainly take the wind out of WWE's sails.