Ratings talk is one of the most exhausting parts of being a wrestling fan nowadays; because it’s almost always devoid of proper context and flat out disingenuous in the name of generating clicks and downloads. But if you’re willing to look at it honestly there is actually some good information; to be gained so long as you don’t let it cloud your judgement as to the quality of what you are or are not watching (remember people, highest viewed segment ever was the Rock’s ‘this is your life’).
On that note I went and looked at how things have been going audience wise for both AEW and NXT to see if there was any real story to it all. (As for Raw and SmackDown; if you’re being intellectually honest there is no story there). OK, so here are the audience numbers for this year, minus January 1 when NXT punted and ran a clip show on New Year’s Day:
Now this past Wednesday was not a normal week because like on January 1 NXT ran a clip show while AEW ran a live show with new matches and everything. But if you look at the patterns from 1/8 through 3/11 one thing that jumps out is that with the exception of January 22 both shows either increased or decreased in numbers from the previous, which means that it’s likely that neither show is being demonstrably affected what’s happening on the other. Yes there are some channel flippers for the most part people are choosing to either watch one or go to something else entirely, most likely cable news because of the elections and the coronavirus or prior to all the cancellations maybe an NBA, NHL or college basketball game.
The NXT audience is likely a subset of people who watch WWE with a hard center in the 500,000s like they got this week and on Jan 1, and the AEW audience is mostly the folks who wanted something different from WWE. We don’t know what AEW’s hard center is yet because they have yet to do something like a clip show this year, but I would suspect you could just lop off 200,000 as is the case with NXT. Which leaves the channel flippers probably somewhere between one and two hundred thousand.
All in all that means that combined the two shows aren’t hitting even 1.7 million; which would be a gloom and doom number for Raw or SmackDown.
Is that a problem?
Only if you bought into the hype, that AEW was going to snag all of these hypothetical lapsed fans while NXT got people to turn off Raw and/or SmackDown and look there. Based on my Twitter feed I see plenty of people meeting their non-WWE interests through indie and/or Japanese wrestling or even Impact or MLW; and those options were there before AEW ever started. AEW on the other hand from day one has been fueled by the airing of grievances against Vince McMahon through a competing company. That cohort has been tapped and now it comes down to how many people they can get to join the party by offering familiar faces; like Chris Jericho or Matt Hardy or managers like Jake the Snake Roberts.
The lapsed fan argument isn’t a total bust in that those names I mentioned can get the attention of some people who haven’t watched in a while; but the fans who quit watching because the’re mad at Vince just aren’t there in anywhere near as large numbers as Twitter would have you to believe. There just aren’t millions of people out there who are so mad at Vince McMahon that they’re going to tune in every week to see Jon Moxley take on Shawn Spears. That crowd is already there.
Now going forward; based on the numbers to date and a few anecdotal things I’d expect both to keep doing what they’ve been doing. The double whammy of NXT announcing a clip show days in advance and the knowledge that there was going to be at least one big debut this past Wednesday to max out on their regulars only got AEW to 932,000 which is their best number since January but still short of the magical 1 million mark.
If they go through with the Blood and Guts match then they might hit it if NXT punts again, but if they don’t then barring someone like Brock or Cena switching over then the die is cast. And even if they do hit the million; history says that they’ll drop back down once things settle into a routine again. There are temporary spikes when NXT punts or they do something big but they haven’t been sustainable week to week. For example their post-PPV show went up to 906,000 but the very next week ratings were down to 766,000.
As for NXT they’re going to be perpetual victims of audience fatigue. Twitter debates aside they are the third offering of WWE programming for the week and add a sixth and seventh hour of programming to the slate. By contrast you can watch the entire NCIS franchise or Chicago Med/FD/PD franchise in three hours.
I’m willing to bet ‘same show a third time’ is the prevailing thought in the world that exists outside the ‘NXT is the best WWE brand’ take that exists on social media. For all intents and purposes there are somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 people who will watch NXT live in addition to Raw and SmackDown or in place of either one. And I don’t see that changing unless someone like Cena goes there for a while.
The other thing is that I think this is an indicator of what the true ceiling is for a ‘pure wrestling’ show minus the infidelity angles; comedy skits and so on that take place on Raw and SmackDown (and AEW for that matter). Yes if AEW did not exist they would probably run closer to the 1.1 million they got the two weeks they ran unopposed before AEW debuted but; hitting 2 million or above isn’t happening.
Which brings me back to the original point I’ve been making all along since the Wednesday Night Pillow Fight started; pro wrestling is a niche entertainment product that most of America thinks is too dopey to watch; and that booking a show ‘the right way’ is not going to change that. When the next Hogan or Rock or Austin come along then it’ll blow up beyond the bubble again. Until then they’re just trying to max out the bubble as best as they can. And that’s fine! For the millionth time, stop regulating your enjoyment based on how many common folk can name who’s on the show. I don’t know anyone on the Bachelor or Real Housewives or Love and Hip Hop; and I don’t think anyone who watches those gives a damn. And that’s the lane we’re in as wrestling fans, not Game of Thrones or Walking Dead.