Once AEW announced they would produce a live weekly two hour television show on TNT, WWE could have made multiple moves. The choice to position NXT in direct competition with AEW on cable TV presents fans with two options for the future of wrestling while keeping RAW & SmackDown out of the fray. This signals that WWE believes that AEW is most similar to its NXT brand. One could assume this means that WWE looks down on AEW but it's easy to see that WWE is also playing a little defense to ensure its position as the top wrestling company in the world.
Since its inception, NXT has been touted as the future of WWE, an alternative experimental brand that grows new talent while serving as a finishing school for previously independent talent as they transition to the largest distribution platform in wrestling. All Elite Wrestling has positioned itself as an alternative to WWE rooted in analytics, wrestling, equality, and a more adult-oriented product. Both brands exhibit a wider variety of wrestling styles than RAW & SmackDown and both brands have a coolness factor that has been missing from RAW & SmackDown for quite some time.
Stemming from FCW in 2010, NXT has been able to spend the past nine years honing its style, development program, and production elements. In order to compete with NXT, AEW is going to have to differentiate itself to stand out and grab viewers. Both AEW & NXT are experiments for TNT & USA Network, respectively. There's already 5 hours of wrestling on television each week thanks to RAW & SmackDown. Will fans tune in on Wednesdays to watch both of these shows? Will these shows eventually put up competitive ratings numbers to push RAW? Here's a look at five ways that NXT & AEW can counter program each other to make the Wednesday Night War define the future of wrestling.
Tag Team Wrestling
With The Young Bucks serving as Executive Vice Presidents of AEW, tag team wrestling is likely to be one of the most defining differences between AEW & NXT programming. Only one of the twenty six NXT Takeover events had a tag team match in the main event. AEW has already had a tag team match in the main event one of their first three PPV events. With a roster that boasts so many excellent tag teams: The Lucha Brothers (Pentagon & Fenix), The Best Friends (Chuck Taylor & Trent Baretta), Luchasaurus & Jungle Boy, SoCal Uncensored, Private Party, The Dark Order in addition to The Young Bucks, AEW seems to have a strong advantage over NXT's tag division.
AEW's tag division will likely be the initial element that separates its product from NXT the most. Although NXT has a deep roster of talent, tag team wrestling isn't favored in WWE for some reason. AEW's ability to have a wide variety of tag team matches with different combinations of talent will bring tag team wrestling to the forefront and perhaps push NXT and subsequently RAW & SmackDown to feature more tag team wrestling.
NXT has been in production in some way for over nine years and has a tremendous advantage over AEW in this department. Comparing AEW's PPV events to recent NXT Takeovers, it's easy to see that NXT's crew is more experienced and the production elements of its show flow much more seamlessly. NXT has also been able to attract the top artists in popular music to lend their songs to NXT programming from Slipknot to Billie Eilish to Poppy to Baby Metal. NXT's graphics, video packages, and camera work is the slickest in wrestling. RAW & SmackDown have taken many elements of NXT's production and made them their own from cameras in the ring post to LED screens everywhere to new camera angles. Triple H prides himself on innovating technology in production of NXT and that will be a pillar of NXT production as long as he is in charge.
AEW can differentiate itself by keeping things simple in production. If they try to out-produce NXT, it will come off as second-rate. AEW has grittier lighting, less camera cuts, and at least one production error per show. Although no one wants to have errors, the imperfections in AEW's product are part of what makes it appealing. It feels like a show that's being put on by a group of rebels and that can help their production elements. If they court indie artists for music that can be more involved with AEW's product for cross-promotion, it could make AEW's music even more meaningful than NXT's. AEW has also brought pyrotechnics back to wrestling while WWE did away with them in 2017. If AEW cleans up some of its production errors, its grittier product will be a great contrast to NXT.
With the TV-14 rating, AEW has potential to exploit that rating to have more intense action, violence, and danger than NXT. In 1994 Paul Heyman famously turned Eastern Championship Wrestling into Extreme Championship Wrestling to provide an alternative to the cartoonish product that WWE & WCW was producing at the time. This shift by Heyman changed the wrestling business in the 90s. Heyman also recruited wrestlers from the world of lucha libre to add a different element to ECW's in-ring product.
AEW can't have a Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes bloodbath every week, but they do have their share of daredevils like Darby Allin and violent characters like Jimmy Havoc & Joey Janela. They also have one of the best wrestlers on the planet in Kenny Omega. When the WWF was trying to differentiate its new generation of talent in 1994 from Hulk Hogan, who had just jumped to WCW, the WWF emphasized the athleticism and speed of its new generation of young stars. AEW will need to highlight the danger and the sports element of their program in contrast to the story-driven nature of NXT and WWE programming in general.
The toughest thing to do in television is to get through the first season of a show. A new show has to establish its setting, each character, and the overall world. Although NXT will have to do a bit of work now that they're moving from the WWE Network to a cable audience on USA, expanding the program to 2 hours each week, and going live every week instead of taping shows in advance. The advantage that NXT has is the base of NXT's viewers have an understanding of how the world of NXT works, the power structure, and who the major players are so NXT's stories can be more complex and have more depth from the first episode that airs on USA Network.
AEW has a tougher start as they debut on TNT. Aside from the global names of Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, & the Rhodes brothers, most of their talent is getting introduced on cable television for the first time. AEW will need their talent to have strong characters that can be understood quickly to lure in new viewers. AEW does have a major advantage over NXT by having a TV-14 rating on TNT while NXT will have a TV PG rating. This gives AEW flexibility to tell more adult-oriented stories while WWE's world is a bit more cartoonish. The grittiness of Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho's characters combined with the heart and intensity from the Rhodes brothers have grounded AEW's early storylines more in reality than the wild characters seen on RAW & SmackDown.
Tony Khan, the CEO of AEW, has insisted that wins and losses will very much count in AEW and they can very much differentiate their show from NXT by emphasizing the sports element of their show while NXT will emphasize "moments". The storytelling in the matches will be different as AEW's coaches are Dean Malenko, Jerry Lynn, BJ Whitmer, & Billy Gunn - all wrestlers known for their in-ring technical ability, athleticism, and speed. Whereas NXT's coaches are Matt Bloom, Shawn Michaels, Norman Smiley, Sarah Amato, Terry Taylor, Scotty Too Hotty, Steve Corino, Serena Deeb, Robbie Brookside, & Johnny Moss - a much wider variety of coaches that are very hands-on with each performer. NXT's approach is seen by some as over-producing whereas perceived looser atmosphere of AEW has allowed performers to bring their own styles to AEW resulting in a program with a wider variety of wrestling styles.
AEW will also need to lean into the choice that none of their promos are fully scripted while NXT's promos are heavily scripted.The most popular media in 2019 is content that is somewhat rooted in reality that feels genuine and not produced by a corporation. Eschewing writers could be a mistake for AEW, but Jon Moxley has been vocal about how creatively suffocated he felt by WWE's bureaucracy and how AEW's freedom allows for him to give more compelling promos. Moxley credited to the fact he's speaking from his heart instead of using someone else's words. If AEW focusses on that heart and the reality that some of its performers won't be the most eloquent, the genuineness of the performers' words will reach the viewing audience and ring much truer with them than any words a writer could write.
One tremendous advantage NXT has over AEW is the depth of their roster. Any week NXT can draw upon NXT UK's roster and there likely will be a surprise visit from members of the SmackDown and RAW rosters for special episodes. Injuries happen often in wrestling and this depth gives NXT a roster flexibility that can weather any setback that has hampered WWE programming in the past.
AEW has an impressive roster with bigger names than any individual NXT performer so far but if AEW gets hit with an injury bug similar to what WWE experienced in late 2018 and early 2016, it could be devastating for their business. NXT will be able to cycle in new stars every single week, if they choose, to keep the show fresh while protecting top attractions from becoming over-exposed. The key for both brands is to train the viewing audience to be enthusiastically open to unknown talent. So far, NXT has done a pretty good job of training a traditional WWE audience to do this as we've heard far fewer derogatory "WHO ARE YOU?!" chants in recent years. AEW fans have been very open to performers they haven't seen before, usually beginning matches with tempered enthusiasm while the crowd takes in the new performer building to raucous enthusiasm for this new discovery. Hopefully AEW can find future partnerships to be able to keep up with the depth of NXT.
In the comments below share what you'd like to see from the new live televised productions of NXT & AEW.