Wednesday Night War: AEW’s UK TV Deal Own Goal

To use the term “own goal” is probably a very British thing to do. It derives from football (soccer for our North American cousins), another way to put it is: shoot yourself in the foot. In the build-up to AEW vs WWE in the Wednesday Night War, the new start up, instead of firing meaningful shots to Stamford, managed to create a PR nightmare. If NXT is counterprogramming, AEW has become counterintuitive.

Okay, a few things need to be cleared up first. There’s a misconception Brits like a good moan (okay, we probably aren’t scared of one) and we get a better deal than Americans when it comes to the cost of home entertainment. It’s true, boxing PPV prices appear ludicrous across the pond compared to the £20 mark we aim for. But people in the UK do pay through the nose for premium content. Aside from the mandatory TV licence (£154.50), to have a full Sky TV package – representative of US cable providers – it costs £840 a year. For full sports coverage you need to add BT at an additional £300.

So, we may sound similar to Ebenezer Scrooge but that doesn’t mean we’re tight with our disposable income. This week when AEW finally released solid details of its UK TV deal with ITV, followed by the subscription package with Fite, the outrage wasn’t purely the specific cost ($4.99 a month or $2.99 per episode of Dynamite), it was a mixture of failed expectation, frustration, and the feeling of being led down the garden path.

Cody, in a now infamous clip, stated the WWE’s UK TV deal sucked compared to AEW’s. That just isn’t the case, we now know. If he means from a corporate standpoint, perhaps it is: Three hours of telly for a princely sum. If he means from a consumer perspective, it’s the worst pro-wrestling deal the UK has ever seen. Even Impact, much forgotten in the big picture across the pond, has a sweet UK set up. One which has enabled them to secure a lucrative secondary market despite all their recent woes.

AEW had invigorated the UK wrestling audience. WWE has become stale, formulaic, its promising and most over talent misused or overlooked by a creative team that works only as an oxymoron. Jon Moxley’s frustrations and subsequent jumping of the ship became the symbolic cure to the current WWE problem. But one thing the UK fans never felt by WWE was cheated.

Sure, it was a major hassle having them locked behind Sky’s paywall. Even this situation was turned into a favourable light when they released the WWE Network. Sky – so easy to play the role of heel, with Rupert Murdoch the only man that can make Vince McMahon babyface in seconds – felt cheated that their multiyear deal, which included exclusive PPV access, would lose its importance.

Sky appeared like the money grabbers, still charging a few pence shy of twenty quid for each PPV when the Network offered them and so much more for half the price. It no doubt led to the divorce of what had been a long partnership. WWE came out of it looking like a better priced product for UK consumers.

Vince McMahon has never made promises to the UK audience he couldn’t keep or lied about a situation.

The same can’t be said for AEW. The heat here has to land on Tony Khan’s doorstep. Cody Rhodes can’t be expected to have read the Ofcom ruling. Had he done so, he’d have realised Khan’s false claims that ITV couldn’t run a live show were a badly delivered lie. Free-to-air channels such as the BBC, Channel 5 and Channel 4 have shown NFL and baseball live and applied local adverts, cut back to the studio or placed holding cards on the screen to comply with the law. A law that doesn’t actually penalise the timings for commercials within a given hour if receiving a foreign broadcast.

Tony Khan

UK fans can accept a disappointing deal (unless it’s Brexit), it doesn’t take too kindly to a lack of transparency leading up to a dishonest announcement.

In response to the backlash, AEW’s defenders have tried to turn the tables and make them the victims. As if the criticism has been too harsh or the analysis too intrusive.

You can’t be the loudest person in the room and not expect people to talk about you. AEW had to make waves but it was always going to cause deeper scrutiny. Fans desperately wanted an alternative, they were bound to place any saviour under the microscope – once bitten, twice shy. When wrestling gods fail you, it’s prudent to question the actions of those offering a road to paradise.

It’s also a two-way street. Bleacher Report – an affiliate of Warner Bros., thus TNT – draw attention to the AEW product at every possible opportunity. That’s been great considering the gaps between PPV’s. But it hasn’t uttered a single word about the UK TV deal. That isn’t balanced reporting. If WWE provides a performer with the wrong type of toilet paper, BR Wrestling is all over them like a bad bearhug. AEW has a bad press day and they are conspicuous by their absence.

The failed UK TV deal – make no mistake, it is a failure – became so vocal because Khan let people down before the first bell had even rung on a Dynamite bout. Had he explained from the start that Fite was the real home of AEW and ITV was aimed at a smaller audience (not their target audience), then Brits wouldn’t have lost their shit. They’d have had a few months to decide if they wanted the upstart bad enough to pay half the cost of the WWE Network for less than two hours of content a week.

If less than two hours a week was worth slightly more than half of a Netflix subscription, or more again when compared to the complete perks of Amazon Prime. Negative fallout makes it an argument of two hours versus thousands of hours. A better managed PR campaign, lead with honesty from the outset, would have sounded more like: get AEW every week for the price of a pint.

Instead, we are left with the former. Negativity rules. The idea of a Thursday Night Dynamite prime time show on ITV4 left in tatters. Access on the ITV Hub scrubbed. Admittedly, neither ever promised but when WWE’s TV deal is derided, it’s fair to expect something very close to those two outcomes.

AEW haven’t just shot one round in their foot, they’ve let off another. The bad PR and loss of faith is one thing, from a business point of view they’ve missed a chance to sky rocket to the big time. WWE views Britain has a valuable market. It has solid support and makes a tidy sum from these shores. I dare say, the UK has helped WWE remain in pop culture. All this, and they never had a terrestrial TV deal. AEW do but have chosen to underutilise the opportunity.

Instead of exploding into the British public’s psyche, it risks being the butt of jokes with its Sunday morning timeslot.

Personally, the initial shock and anger has been replaced with a calmer view of the situation. Is AEW worth $4.99 a month. On many levels, yes. It has already taken two PPV orders from me based on a leap of faith. It just feels like a bigger leap this time. The sense of everyone playing fair, pulling in the same direction, has evaporated. It’s hard to part with a cent when one feels hoodwinked.

I don’t want to join the army of people now saying the only way to go is illegal streaming. If you want to see AEW that much, pay them. They’ve worked hard and deserve it. If you still feel slighted Wednesday night (or Thursday morning) take a rain check. Hopefully by Monday night, we’ll have all calmed down and can enjoy the one-hour ITV highlights package.

 

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ITV WOS Wrestling – Review

New Year’s Eve saw ITV revive a nostalgic brand: World of Sport Wrestling. Those of a certain age will remember Saturday evenings watching Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks – and my personal favourite, who can probably take some credit for how I’ve spent my professional career hidden behind a mask – Kendo Nagasaki. It’s just dawned on me, my years chasing fame in Japan could be down to my first exposure to professional wrestling. The original WOS Wrestling was pulled in the mid-eighties, followed by Wrestling with Kent Walton. The question is: does the TV schedule have room for it today?

There was room for it back in 1988 when wrestling left our screens. Hindsight is 20/20 but producers must look back on that decision and kick themselves. A year later the WWE (then known as WWF) started its UK invasion. It grew so fast in popularity here, SummerSlam was held at Wembley stadium in 1992. Over 80,000 fans witnessed The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith take the Intercontinental Championship from Bret “The Hitman” Hart.

Had a channel retained UK wrestling, maybe the WWE would have had a genuine transatlantic rival. We’ll never know, but by passing up on wrestling, the UK television networks gave up all creative control. Vince McMahon designed the blueprint, defeated his only challenger WCW (ironically, they aired on ITV in the nineties), and every wrestling organisation since has fallen into line.

ITV clearly has been watching WWE. From the opening minutes of WOS Wrestling it becomes obvious. The set has good production values, without the scale of WWE. It’s a mix of their take on Gladiators and a clinical TNA set. The game changer is having Jim Ross on commentary. The voice synonymous with a whole generation of WWE.

ITV may have watched WWE but what follows is veiled flattery. Vince’s outfit has gone from the cartoony version of wrestling it brought to the world when WOS Wrestling ended in the eighties, through the adult-rated Attitude Era, to the PG and Reality Era. That current landscape means a pre-watershed wrestling show can survive on telly. During this evolution the term: sports entertainment was coined.

The problem with WOS Wrestling is how it tries to pay homage to the old stars like Big Daddy with constant reminders, evoking nostalgia, but accidentally makes one nostalgic for an antiquated version of pro-wrestling in the form of old school WWF.

Nowadays a wrestling show is all about the storylines and mic work. ITV went for the owner angle, a Mr Beesley that ran things. Okay, so we get a British Jack Tunney. Beesley’s “office” was propped with posters indicating it was just a spare room at MediaCityUK.

The first match saw Grado get screwed out of the WOS Championship by bad guy Dave Mastiff. This, in itself, was great. Mastiff was the clear heel, he had two henchmen in tow and he and Grado told a classic tale of favoured underdog holding his own.

Nowadays clear heels and faces are rare in professional wrestling, this throwback was fine and a necessity with a less savvy audience. What wasn’t great was the way Beesley said he couldn’t let a screwjob stand for the title and declared Mastiff would defend it at the end of the show against the winner of a Battle Royal.

Okay, anyone that was watched wrestling long enough knows that if a title (in this case, the only title) kicks-off a show, we’re not getting a clean finish. So the surprise was gone from the off. The idea all dodgy finishes will be challenged is flawed. The acting with Beesley was from a bygone era.

And that is WOS Wrestling’s major problem. It doesn’t know if it’s a programme that should be like its eighties counterpart, or one that can be compared to modern day WWE.

They edged toward the latter with a ladder match. Kenny Williams took the result, he looked better than the rest based on ability and aesthetics. But the other three, CJ Banks, Sam Bailey (not The X Factor singer) and Delicious Danny, all deserve a round of applause for pulling off a dangerous match with tea-time restrictions.

The other main standout – no, not El Ligero, although he was good – was Alexis Rose. She looked the part and moved around the ring well. WWE’s current British female wrestler is in the bad books. Rose would be worth a shot in their performance centre.

alexis-rose

The Battle Royal had a secret entrant (that joined late for no good reason). It was The new British Bulldog, the son of Davey Boy, now using his name with Jnr added. He didn’t progress to the title bout. Presumably, ITV aren’t confident they could tie him down should the show go fulltime so can’t afford to have a champion MIA.

Of course, Grado won the Battle Royal and then the title match. Classic babyface overcoming the odds in the end. Cheating never pays, kids.

ITV must have an eye on a permanent return, why bring back the title otherwise? Based on this, there is plenty of potential that deserves exploring but they need a creative team more akin to the modern era of wrestling. Without this, WOS Wrestling would grow stale fast.

Promising but work to be done.

6/10

(Follow @MrCliveBalls on Twitter. He points out, he is available to do creative work for Sports Entertainment outfits.)