The #CancelWWENetwork Campaign Is A Bad Sign For The Future Of Digital Streaming

| by Will Hagle

Disappointed with the way last night’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view unfolded, wrestling fans took to social media united under the hashtag #CancelWWENetwork. The outrage was spawned by the WWE writers’ failure to let a handful of crowd favorites advance in the competition, instead handing the victory to the immensely unpopular Roman Reigns. It was the online equivalent of the boos that filled the Philadelphia arena during the latter half of the event, as major stars like Daniel Bryan were quickly eliminated. Support for the social campaign was so strong that it became the #1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide, and viewers even crashed the cancellation page on the WWE Network’s website. While the backlash stemmed from public disapproval of the show’s plot direction, the #CancelWWENetwork hashtag also demonstrates some of the general issues with OTT services like the WWE Network. Even though wrestling fans and TV viewers have been demanding a la carte and on-demand streaming options for years, instances like this prove that the unbundling of cable packages doesn’t always work out in everyone’s favor. 

The WWE Network has been one of the grandest experiments in online video-streaming content, especially considering the global popularity of its brand. The company launched the network last year, charging subscribers $9.99/month for a 24/7 linear channel of original programming as well as on-demand content and access to all live pay-per-view events at no additional cost. It’s a wrestling fan’s dream: constant, unlimited access to every past and future WWE event. 

The network also represents one of the most high-profile experiments in a TV industry that’s been slow to adapt to consumer demands for a la carte viewing that bypasses traditional cable providers. In a statement prior to the network’s launch last year, WWE’s chief revenue and marketing officer Michelle D. Wilson basically described the MVPDs with which the WWE had worked for years as a relic of the past. “Digital over-the-top offerings represent the future, and given that our passionate fans consume five times more online video content than non-WWE viewers and over-index for purchasing online subscriptions such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, we believe the time is now for a WWE Network,” Wilson told Time Magazine. The WWE still airs flagship programs like Raw and Smackdown on cable networks, but offering its own network via digital platform was a bold yet exciting move for the company. 

Vince McMahon and co. may now be regretting their decision to tout the fact that subscribers can “cancel anytime!” as a way to lure customers towards signing up for the WWE Network. The last available subscription rates were reported after the third quarter of 2014, in which the WWE claimed they had 731,000 total paid subscribers. Those numbers signified steady growth since the network’s launch, but still represented a failure to reach the 1 million subscribers they had targeted. The transition to the streaming network also led to some significant financial struggles for the company in 2014.  

It’s still uncertain whether the #CancelWWENetwork campaign is a real threat to the network’s subscriber rate or simply a tool to express disapproval in the show’s plot development. It does, however, raise concerns for the OTT business model in general. Although a la carte viewing has always seemed like the best and most logical option for consumers, paying $9.99/month can actually be more costly than a traditional cable package depending how and what viewers watch (even though it does keep the cost lower for wrestling fans that want to watch the monthly pay-per-view events without paying extra). Even if all networks transitioned to a streaming model like the WWE Network, viewers would be forced to pay individually for the channels they like rather than one sweeping fee for a cable package of hundreds of channels. Netflix and Hulu have emerged as the first digital networks, but even $7.00 per month is a lot to pay for essentially one channel. Subscribing to multiple networks could quickly become more costly than traditional cable. Viewers would also likely favor the streaming services of major networks, causing the independent channels that benefit from cable providers’ bundled packages to lose out. 

The freedom of canceling a cable subscription and moving to streaming services is undeniably appealing. With the consolidation of major cable providers like Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV and AT&T, customers are increasingly unhappy with their service and increasingly skeptical of being forced into paying for a bunch of channels that they’ll never watch. The popularity of #CancelWWENetwork, however, casts a light on the unforeseen consumer problems with OTT services. If the WWE Network didn’t exist, fans would be complaining about the results of the Royal Rumble but they’d only be losing out on a one-time fee (and they’d return to watching Raw on the USA Network tonight). But the failure of the WWE’s a la carte service to catch on will be used as an alarming example for the rest of the television industry. All signs still point towards digital streaming as the way of the future, but the massive scale of this blowback makes that future a little more uncertain.