The most compelling storyline of the fall TV season is happening inside the squared circle: A pair of pro wrestling companies are about to engage in an old-fashioned timeslot battle that is nearly two decades in the making.
When TNT announced over the summer that upstart outfit All Elite Wrestling (AEW) would air a two-hour prime-time show every Wednesday beginning Oct. 2, it made huge news in the wrestling community. While there have always been alternatives to WWE's massive global footprint, no competitor has had a major TV deal since TNT and TBS aired World Championship Wrestling (WCW) programming until 2001.
It's clear that AEW and TNT picked a timeslot that would prevent interruptions with the channel's NBA coverage. But AEW also avoided WWE's programs, the long-running Raw on USA Network and Smackdown, which is set to debut on Fox on Friday, Oct. 4 as part of a massive billion-dollar deal with the network. AEW talent, including announcer and WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross, went out of their way to say that the company was not in direct competition with Vince McMahon's "sports entertainment" behemoth.
McMahon has other plans. In August, WWE announced that its "developmental" brand NXT would move from the company's streaming platform to a new two-hour prime-time slot on USA Network -- at the exact same time as AEW's Wednesday show. WWE has debuted new episodes of NXT (the show) at 8 p.m. every Wednesday for more than five years, but the show's growth to two hours on a cable is telling. As is that WWE planned the USA Network premiere of NXT for this Wednesday, Sept. 18, two weeks before AEW will begin on TNT.
The sympathetic read of the situation is that WWE wants to protect its interests on cable. But McMahon's history -- including his history with Turner -- indicates that NXT's move to USA Network is an attempt to destroy the competition as quickly as possible.
McMahon built the WWE empire through two methods: buying up smaller regional wrestling promotions and utilizing cable TV to give his company a national audience. In 1984, McMahon bought WWE's (then WWF) way onto TBS to the ire of the Superstation's owner Ted Turner. WWE took over a prime Saturday timeslot, replacing the 12-year run of World Championship Wrestling. McMahon's broad entertainment clashed with the Superstation's southern audience, setting off a legitimate public outcry that's come to be known as "Black Saturday." WWE bombed so hard that McMahon divested from the timeslot but not before catalyzing a rivalry with Turner that lasted 15 years.
By 1995, WWE was in a downturn but had a sturdy home for Raw on USA Network. Turner, still smarting over McMahon's domineering approach in the 1980s, gave WCW cushy primetime space on TNT -- directly against Raw on Mondays.
Turner's decision set off what wrestling fans look back fondly upon as "The Monday Night Wars," with WWE's Raw and WCW's Nitro trying to outdo each other every week. Bolstered by Turner's passion for wrestling, WCW used a large budget to sign away WWE talents like Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall. On-screen, McMahon responded with comedy segments poking fun at Hogan and Savage's age and the supposed lunacy of "Billionaire Ted." Off-screen, he complained about WCW's "unfair" "predatory practices" and sued over alleged misuse of character trademarks.
For a short time, there was nothing McMahon or WWE could do. For 83 straight weeks between 1996 and 1998, WCW bested WWE in the Nielsen ratings. WWE eventually pulled ahead by developing an edgier product, spearheaded by one of the most popular anti-heroes in TV history, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The battle between WWE and WCW helped resuscitate pro wrestling as a mainstay of pop culture relevance. But as Stone Cold and WWE soared, WCW spun out. Its ratings had sunk by 2001, putting it in the crosshairs amid the upcoming AOL-TimeWarner merger. In March 2001, McMahon swooped in and bought out his biggest competition for just $4.2 million.
For 18 years, WWE has dominated the pro wrestling world, particularly on U.S. television. In a world where the value of live programming is inflated, WWE's weekly output of five hours of live TV has only gotten more financially viable. The company's presence all over ESPN -- and soon Fox's FS1 -- has further legitimized it as exactly what McMahon always wanted: sports entertainment.
But as WWE has grown its global brand and sanded off any remaining edges from the late '90s heyday, many older fans have grown disaffected with its programming. Despite the Fox deal, WWE's TV ratings have been on a steep decline, even relative to dips across cable. It's gotten bad enough that the company stopped uploading so many TV segments to YouTube -- where it has done well for years -- in an effort to drive people back to live broadcasts.
AEW, led by a core of performers who built a very modern version of fame through winking YouTube series and social media, offers a kind of independent authenticity that contrasts against the WWE monolith. They do a much better job of turning individual moments into memes and popular T-shirts. In an echo from the past, one of WWE's biggest modern stars -- Dean Ambrose -- left the company earlier this year over what he described as a creatively stifling environment to join AEW where he performs as Jon Moxley. While the core AEW group has to-date only put on four very successful live events, the team has decades of experience working in wrestling and on TV for other, mostly smaller, companies.
So McMahon isn't taking any chances. He is doing what he's always done -- trying to kill the competition -- even if it means borrowing a strategy from his old foe Ted Turner. The NXT show appeals to the older diehard audience that is likely to also enjoy AEW's show. The first few live episodes of NXT will pull out all the stops with big matches and shocking moments. WWE will also surely use airtime on Fox to remind viewers of the new Wednesday offering on USA Network. It's an all-out assault.
The biggest question isn't whether or not AEW can survive the assault. It's whether or not the head-to-head battle can have even close to the same effect as it did in the late '90s. Timeslots barely matter as they did even five years ago, let alone 15. But real competition did wonders for pro wrestling, USA Network, and TNT before; there's no reason it can't happen again.
All Elite Wrestling premieres Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 8/7c on TNT.