The moment Disney gambled its streaming future on BAMTech was when WWE executives knew they had to make major changes to WWE Network, the company's video subscription service. Years earlier, WWE and BAMTech had spent 10 months building the network, which offers both on-demand content and 24/7 linear programming, prior to its flashy CES 2014 debut with CEO Vince McMahon and numerous WWE superstars.
BAMTech have seen help create HBO Now, which was reliably streamed Game of Thrones for millions of viewers every week, WWE recruited the company to build a first of its kind service. As part of the monthly subscription of $ 9.99, WWE Network would have fans stream the same live pay-per-views they had paid so far for $ 60 per event see. The service combined that tempting deal with WWE & # 39; s huge TV archives and a number of original shows. In April, WWE reported that WWE Network ended the first quarter of 2019 with 1.58 million paying subscribers.
The number of subscribers tends to ebb and flow based on the calendar, and usually peaks every year around the selection framework of the company WrestleMania event. There are no contracts with WWE Network, so customers can come and go as they please. Nevertheless, the switch to direct streaming for consumers is a triumphant victory for McMahon. Until Disney went and complicated things.
WWE and BAMTech remained tag team partners until this year, when WWE decided it would leave BAMTech after Disney called in streaming experts who had helped sports associations, including Major League Baseball (where BAMTech started), the PGA and the NHL in the era of mobile streaming. In addition to counting HBO and Hulu among its partners, BAMTech has also helped with the development of services such as Sony's PlayStation Vue. But the reason for Disney to buy the company was clear: it wanted to promote its own streaming destination and build an irresistible Netflix rival. So far, so good.
WWE knew that the writing was on the wall and had its own reasons to go somewhere else. As co-president George Barrios said The edge in a recent interview, WWE wanted more control and ownership of the technology stack of the network. "Of course I can't speak for what they thought. From our perspective we made the decision unilaterally. Maybe they are going that way too. But our perspective, once Disney came in and paid the price they had paid for BAMTech, we thought not that they would become a long-term player in the third-party services sector. Didn't know anyway, so we were calling. And then we decided it was logical to turn around. "
A Disney spokesperson told The edge that the decision to split was mutual and that the result from BAMTech evolved to Disney Streaming Services, which shifted all attention to the company's own platforms, Disney +, ESPN + and Hulu.
Anyway, WWE was faced with a crucial decision. It could try to take its streaming service – now an important part of the company's operating results – in-house under a growing digital product team. The alternative to that bet was to find new partners who would give WWE the greater control and ownership it was looking for. "We evaluated it," Barrios said he did it alone. But in the end WWE chose to build a new faction with two other companies, Endeavor Streaming and Massive Interactive, which led to the renewed WWE Network experience that started shortly before SummerSlam last month.
Endeavor Streaming is only a part (and a relatively new one) of the huge company Endeavor, which owns IMG, WME and bought the UFC in 2016. The streaming unit that attracted WWE's interest was formed after Endeavor had NeuLion last year acquired, another company that specializes in over-the-top streaming technology. More recently, WWE announced a podcast collaboration with Endeavor.
For the network, Endeavor Streaming was responsible for handling core services such as content delivery, transcoding and customer invoicing. It already performs similar tasks for UFC Fight Pass, the NBA (outside the US), Univision and others. So the resume for replacing BAMTech was strong. I spoke with Endeavor chief digital officer Guy Schory, who said that the company WWE "offers a scale level, reliability and customization that we think is currently unique in the market." Schory said Endeavor Streaming "goes far beyond a technical provider" by giving WWE a robust, flexible infrastructure backend that can be customized and adapted to its needs and a content management system capable of covering a vault that will last for many decades.
For the customer-focused apps, WWE worked with Massive Interactive to redesign the entire WWE Network user experience on mobile devices, PCs and TVs. The network was completely overhauled with much better search capabilities, improved video quality and a new "superstars" section for following WWE artists such as Seth Rollins, Kofi Kingston, Becky Lynch, Roman Reigns and the rest of the company. Certain devices running the old WWE network, including a few smart TVs, the Xbox 360 and PS3, have been left behind from 2.0. This frustrated some customers, but the service now feels more consistent on all platforms, looks much better and is easier to use as a result of the changes. And WWE gained more control over everything it wanted.
“The heavy lift is less on the video side. That's actually pretty simple, "Barrios told me when discussing the migration from BAMTech to Endeavor Streaming." The more difficult elevator is all on the data side. "Resetting and restarting users completely would have been easier, but WWE wanted things like watchlists and our account information. ”Our ability to repeat everything – across the stack – has improved enormously, so our users will be very, very happy if we continue to roll out some of the things that we had to withdraw, as well as new features and functionality. I think they will be happy. "
Barrios emphasized that WWE Network 2.0 is based on standards. It is powered by HTML5 and video has been upgraded to 1080p from the previous maximum resolution of 720p, which provides a noticeable improvement in the stream quality on TV screens, laptops and tablets.
For its part, Disney did everything it could during the last few weeks that it worked with WWE to ensure a smooth transition. “Not only were they great operational partners with us and a major part of our success and the continued development of the product we did – especially the core services. But even when the decision was made that we moved, they were great, & Barrios said. “They were really supportive for the interim period when we built the new product and they were really very helpful during the transition, which is scary, as you can imagine. The last few days we were on our way to the switch, the migration, those are scary, nail biting days, and they were great. We decided to leave, but (they were) incredibly professional. Michael Paull and his team, I couldn't speak higher about that. "
Barrios praised the restart of the network as a success and called it a "day and night" difference compared to when the service first came online in 2014. "It wasn't as smooth as any of us wanted it. was not so rigorous & # 39 ;, he said about the original debut five years ago. "To get rid of it, and it is clear that we are at the end of the first inning, but to make that transition as seamless as possible, I think it's a testament for the team, "he said." WWE has this incredibly talented senior team on the product side, on the core technology side, on the data side, that has really produced a re-platforming where we are super be proud of. "
That does not mean that everything is perfect. WWE Network subscribers have noticed that some content has disappeared with the redesign. "They are right. There are things that are missing, and they will come soon, & # 39; recognized Barrios. Other customers encountered problems with audio / video synchronization after the update, which have since been resolved. The new Superstars section, though useful at a glance, shows video & # 39; s game from chronological order as soon as you select someone The WWE digital team works to resolve these bugs, no matter how small, because the next phase of WWE Network is not far away .
A free layer is coming soon – and so is a more expensive one
WWE wants to record videos & # 39; s everywhere that you would find on its mobile app as part of WWE Network everywhere, including on TV devices. “Our free content lived separately from our premium subscription content. They were in different places, & Barrios told me and outlined the upcoming free streaming option from the network. "What comes here soon, in weeks and not months, is the start of integrating our free content with our paid content. It will be one integrated experience and what content you can access depends on what level you are a member of. "
But WWE has bigger ideas for the future, including a higher premium subscription that can add exclusive content and even add merchandise and ticketing components.
- Free: This offers the same free video & # 39; s that you would normally find on WWE.com. Barrios said that WWE can also provide timed previews of paid WWE Network content.
- regularly: The standard WWE Network experience, which combines free content with subscription benefits such as live pay-per-views, on-demand streaming and original programming.
- Premium: “We also think there is a possibility to serve our most passionate network subscribers with a premium layer that brings together more content for them, more functions for them, and also integrates some of our other non-video services such as our commerce – possibly something like free shipping integrate our digital ticketing efforts there. It will be the only place to experience everything WWE. ”Barrios did not disclose how much WWE might charge for the premium level.
What about subscriptions via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Roku?
In-app subscriptions are the status quo, but companies such as Apple, Amazon and Roku have pursued a model of subscription sales channels that integrate deeply with their own platforms. For the time being, WWE has no interest in becoming an Apple TV channel or Prime Video channel. "It will be a trade-off between economy, access to data, things like that," Barrios told me. "To be honest, it is not something that we get a lot of comments from our audience, from our fans. It is something we are thinking about. At the moment, however, that mix of economy and data is not something we enjoy felt. "
Offline downloads are on the way, but WWE is in no hurry for 4K
WWE Network introduces offline downloads – "Download To Go", Barrios calls the feature – in the near future, allowing subscribers to watch full pay-per-view events or TV shows from WWE, WCW and ECW wherever they want. The function has long been a top request from subscribers. "I spend a lot of time on airplanes with poor WiFi," Barrios joked. "So that is my personal function that I absolutely want. It has priority on the roadmap."
But do not expect that WWE pay-per-views will soon switch to 4K. The company has conducted tests and recorded live events in 4K, but there is still no fixed timeline when you watch the spectacle of WrestleMania in 4K and with HDR color.
“4K, I think that will be driven more by the penetration of 4K devices and then 4K consumption. It seems like a century ago, but when we moved to HD about 10 years ago, we waited until about 25 or 30 percent of the large screens in the houses were HD-capable, ”said Barrios. “I think in the same way, both from a broadband point of view (5G that controls part of it) and the 4K penetration on the big screen, if we go 4K, we will be driven by that. Up to this point we have experimented with it, but I certainly would not expect a significant amount of video content in 4K this year. Scheven van Endeavor said 4K HDR video is on the company's roadmap this year, so the option will be there when WWE decides it's time.
A YouTube feeling
With nearly 50 million subscribers, WWE is among the top 10 most popular YouTube channels in the world, and the company is not shy about trumpeting that achievement. Viewers of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live! are regularly reminded that the company has more subscribers than any other major sports competition.
WWE uploads new video & # 39; s to YouTube several times a day, including important moments raw or SmackDown Live a complete competition every week, top 10 collections and more. But is it possible to be to good at YouTube? If you can capture the highlights on YouTube, why watch? raw on the US and treaties of commercials? WWE has data showing that some fans prefer their WWE in short. "We don't want to lose them," said Barrios. For similar reasons, WWE produces condensed versions of Monday Night Raw for Hulu on-demand that was much less expensive than three hours.
"It's a balance and we're really thoughtful. We have a lot of analysis on this to tune it so that we maximize it for everyone – we and our partners, and also for our fans," Barrios said. "We are really good at where the strategy is today and we have changed it. For most fans they will not notice it, I do not want to be public about what we have changed, but we are testing different things." This constant consideration of what where applicable, also applies to ancillary activities such as UpUpDownDown, the gaming channel led by Austin Creed (WWE superstar Xavier Woods). "You just have to think about that. What are you trying to achieve with that specific piece of content? That's how we decide today. It will evolve. That is all I can guarantee. "Barrios told me:" We are now essentially a data powerhouse, so we are quite advanced in how we feel about it. "
The major switch from WWE to Fox takes place in October
It is especially important that YouTube does not score in the cable, because WWE is approaching its October 4 premiere on the Fox broadcast network. SmackDown Live will leave the US and move to Friday night in his new home. Fox has reportedly paid $ 1 billion to close the five-year WWE deal. NBCUniversal is also supposed to agree to keep a very large number Monday Night Raw, The WWE flagship program, exactly where it is located in the US. "We think there is an enormous amount of value and value for our pay TV partners, and also for our audience, so we think that live content in the pay TV bundle makes perfect sense," Barrios said. WWE Network may have canceled WWE & # 39; s traditional pay-per-view revenue, but the company's weekly live programming is stay on the cable for the near future.
WWE also jumps at opportunities to "broaden the brand" on cable with reality shows like Total diva & # 39; s / Total Bellas, Miz and madamand documentaries. Bill Simmons produced a long documentary about Andre the Giant for HBO last year, and ESPN sent one 30 for 30 about wrestling legend Ric Flair. "We are lucky that we have created a lot of content. And we are very careful about which content fits where," Barrios said. "It is an ever-evolving Rubix cube. There are several dimensions: there is geography, there is a platform, there is the content, there are different fan segments that you do. So you try to do your best to optimize all four of these. But that is our job. "
Yet having WWE Network Plan B undoubtedly helped WWE in negotiations with Fox and the US. Both raw and SmackDown remain an important rating element for the networks, even if the number of viewers has fallen sharply from the lightning-in-a-bottle days when "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock were the face of WWE. Just listen to the response Austin received last night at Madison Square Garden – in the year 2019:
WWE focuses more than just on assessments, but also pays attention to "time spent" and other engagement statistics. Just like Netflix, it is not lost on WWE that fans' attention is more divided than ever, with Fortnite just as much threat as other primetime cables show. "Everyone has a thousand times every day, so you want to keep an eye on everything and try to be as relevant as possible at all times and on all fronts," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque in a recent media call.
And WWE is preparing for the most direct, substantial competition in years from All Elite Wrestling. The new company was founded by Tony Khan, son of Shahid Khan, owner of Jacksonville Jaguars (who is AEW's largest investor), and includes former WWE artists Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose and Cody Rhodes, among others. AEW will debut its own live weekly program on TNT next month. At the end of August, WWE announced plans to relocate NXT – the weekly WWE Network show with the most promising young superstars in the company – out of service. NXT will be converted to a live show broadcast on the US every Wednesday evening in the same time period as AEW.
“Welcome to the game. We will see how it goes, & Barrios said about the arrival of AEW. AEW streams its pay-per-view events via the Bleacher Report Live app from WarnerMedia. It is currently unknown how the company could eventually fit into HBO Max. AEW is trying to set level expectations, and some say it is unrealistic to think that the new company will somehow overtake or overthrow WWE. But it can be more disruptive and fans hope that a new rival will keep WWE at the top of its game, just like WCW did during the "Monday Night Wars" in the & # 39; 90.
As far as WWE Network is concerned, WWE is well ahead with the new experience and adds new value where possible. Barrios made the short-term objectives very clear: "Even better performance, bring back the functions that could not be available at the launch, bring new functions such as Download To Go, make sure both levels are active. If by following SummerSlam we have all done that, we will feel great. "