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Any last thoughts about All Elite Wrestling and WWE playing nice with each other were thrown out the window early Tuesday morning, when WWE announced that NXT would be moving its weekly television program off of the WWE Network and onto USA Network, with the new two-hour version airing at 8 p.m., not coincidentally the same block that AEW will be airing on TNT.
The Wednesday Night Wars are upon us, something that I never thought we would be talking about even two years ago. While WWE will never admit that it moved NXT to USA to counterprogram AEW; a lucrative TV contract with USA is enough reason to justify doing the move regardless; those in the know understand that this is WWE's attempt to cut off AEW as serious market competition.
So how will this impact both AEW and NXT moving forward? Will NXT steal enough viewership from AEW each week to keep AEW grounded on TNT, or will AEW outdraw NXT and humiliate WWE?
All of this is unknown, and we won't really know the score until later this year when both shows have been running for a few months. A big reason for the mystery is that the size of AEW's fanbase is still unknown. Without weekly TV, it is impossible to tell how many Americans are interested in AEW. Is it 400,000? Is it 3 million? Almost nothing at this point would surprise me. So far they have been extremely successful at selling tickets to their shows, more successful than WWE, but at the same time I find it hard to believe that AEW actually has more fans willing to watch each week than WWE.
With NXT, we at least have some idea on the size of the fanbase. The WWE Network has just under 1.2 million US subscribers; although obviously not all of whom watch NXT on a regular basis. At the same time, once NXT begins airing on cable, WWE is sure to pick up some fans that were not willing to subscribe to the WWE Network, but will tune in when the show is on cable.
I think it is fair to believe that at least 1 million fans will watch NXT on USA on a weekly basis. Can AEW beat that barometer? I really don't know, because there is no accurate indicator towards the size of their fanbase.
I was a little surprised that when the news broke that NXT was moving to USA, the reaction I saw online from NXT fans were mostly negative. Despite that the show was going to be one hour longer each week, and by appearing on cable the stars of the brand are going to feel bigger, fans were generally pessimistic about the move.
A lot of that pessimism comes from the belief that Vince McMahon will become more involved in the NXT product, which among other changes, would lead to NXT losing its unique charm and instead reflecting RAW and SmackDown. I think Vince is going to be more involved in NXT than in the past, but as long as the show is drawing good viewership, I expect it to feel mostly the same. If AEW beats NXT consistently though, I could see Vince making some serious changes and that would probably be to the detriment of the product.
At the beginning, though I expect NXT to basically be the same show. NXT has always existed as a way for WWE to counterprogram other wrestling companies and be WWE's own little indie-company. The wrestling style is different then the main roster, and WWE has aggressively signed the top independent talent to fill out NXT's ranks. In some ways, NXT is the ideal choice to counterprogram against AEW because it is WWE's alternative brand that is most akin to AEW. If AEW fans loved RAW and SmackDown, there wouldn't be a demand for AEW. NXT is the brand that may steer the fans interested in AEW away from sampling the upstart company.
An interesting wrinkle to the NXT viewership is that it will be going from a streaming service that offered immediate, video-on-demand viewing after the show aired, to a live, cable broadcast. While some fans certainly watch NXT live each week on Wednesday nights, a lot of fans watch it on their own time, after the show has already aired. When it comes to fans having to choose to watch AEW or NXT live, a lot of those fans are already used to watching NXT after it airs, so the need to watch the show live is not going to be as strong.
Undoubtedly, WWE is going to try and enhance NXT when it debuts on NXT. This probably will mean more focus from Vince McMahon, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you ask. It also means that WWE is going to try to feature more RAW and SmackDown stars on NXT, as a way to try and enhance the importance of the brand.
I wonder just how big of an impact on viewership main roster talent will have on NXT. We have seen from the week-to-ratings that a show featuring a top star, such as Roman Reigns or Seth Rollins, doesn't necessarily draw more viewership than a show without them. If the top stars have little independent drawing power on RAW or SmackDown, can they really increase viewership for NXT? Add on to the fact that Reigns or Rollins is also going to be featured on RAW and/or SmackDown that week as well, I don't know how significant their presence on NXT will be.
The thing about the viewership battle is that it does not have a clear winner and a clear loser. While fans and even the companies themselves will probably work themselves up into battle; the reality is that both sides can exist on the same night and come out as winners. If both programs get a million viewers per week; than WWE will be getting a nice bump in TV revenue from USA, and AEW will have shown that they are a viable weekly cable TV product. Both companies can make money and there doesn't necessarily have to be any animosity, although there almost surely will be.
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