With New Digital Network Set To Launch, WWE Expands Production, Streaming Infrastructure
After half a decade of anticipation and development, the WWE is set to launch its own network — a digital network, that is. WWE Network, a 24/7 streaming network will launch live in the U.S. on Feb. 24 and feature all 12 WWE live pay-per-view events (including WrestleMania), original studio and feature programming, reality shows, documentaries, classic matches, and more than 1,500 hours of video on demand.
In various stages of development for the past five years, the long-rumored network, which will cost subscribers $9.99 per month with a six-month commitment, was initially expected to take the form of a linear cable or pay channel, but, over the past couple of years, WWE Chairman/CEO Vince McMahon shifted his gaze to the digital realm.
“The WWE Network has been something that Vince has been looking at for a long time,” says EVP, Digital Media, Perkins Miller. “As not only the chairman and CEO but as a fan, he wanted the best way possible to engage with WWE content. As he looked at the success of the WWE app, our engagement on social media, what is happening in the marketplace right now, he realized that our fans are constantly on digital platforms. The more he looked at it, he realized that we could deliver this network on an over-the-top basis and engage our fans in a better way than we could [on television only].”
WWE has already rolled out an ambitious programming slate for the digital network, tapping MLB Advanced Media to provide much of the backend streaming infrastructure, application development, and operational support.
“MLBAM is a partner that can help us scale our business very quickly,” says Miller. “The WWE doesn’t do anything small, but it all needs to get done quickly. They will be critical to getting us launched on time with great quality.”
An Abundance of Digital Content Between the Ropes
While the presence of Wrestlemania and WWE’s other 11 live PPV annual events (a value of $600/year for the consumer, according to the company) will surely draw the most interest among prospective subscribers, the new WWE Network will also have no shortage of other original programming and classic archival content.
In addition to live 30-minute pre- and post-shows for weekly flagship cable programs Monday Night Raw, Friday Night SmackDown and Main Event (which will remain on USA Network, SyFy, and ION Television, respectively, with encores on WWE Network), a live studio show is set to debut shortly after the digital network’s launch.
Other original programming will include The Monday Night War (a documentary series focusing on mid-90s rivalry between WWE and WCW, WrestleMania Rewind (a documentary series chronicling the history of WrestleMania), WWE Countdown (a one-hour, interactive countdown series that allows fans to discuss and rank WWE moments and wrestlers via digital polling and social-media interaction), WWE Legends House (a reality series featuring WWE’s greatest legends living in a single house, which will premiere in April), WWE NXT (a one-hour weekly with upcoming WWE stars wrestling live from the Full Sail LIVE venue on the Full Sail University campus in Orlando), and WWE Superstars (a one-hour weekly show featuring highlights from all WWE programming that week).
WWE Network will also offer all WWE, WCW, and ECW PPVs as well as classic matches uncut and uncensored and encores of Raw, SmackDown, and WWE Main Event. All episodes of WWE Network original programming will be available on demand immediately after they premiere.
“We have a lot going into producing the live content, which we think will provide an incredible level of engagement for our fans,” says Miller. “Then there is a tremendous amount of original programming. I think we are going to have a very healthy balance of the big anchor live PPVs, live weekly content, and a lot of originals to keep our fans engaged.”
Building Out the Infrastructure
Since August 2012, Miller and his team have worked to build out the necessary infrastructure and facilities to produce and reliably deliver this barrage of original live, preproduced, and archived content.
Over the past two years, WWE has undertaken a massive logging and archive digitization project at its Stamford, CT, production facility. Built largely on Grass Valley technology, the digital-asset-management system aims to make the 100,000 or so hours of WWE, WCW, and ECW content readily available to producers creating programming for the WWE Network.
“If you look at what has been buzzing around social media [since the digital-network announcement], you can’t undervalue the power of our archive. The depth and quality of the archive over the last 30 years is going to be incredibly important.
“[The digitization process] has given us a huge head start as we look to create the backend infrastructure to support this new [digital network],” he continues. “And, on an ongoing basis, we are doing live logging, and we may be able to start introducing milestone markers into video streams, so we will hopefully have a few other tricks up our sleeve over the next few months.”
In addition to the asset-management build-out, WWE is already on the road producing live shows 52 weeks a year with its dedicated team of mobile units and boasts a substantial production facility in Stamford, including a flashy on-air studio and extensive connectivity for live-look-ins via Encompass Digital Media. In 2013, WWE began producing pre- and post-shows for some Raw and Smackdown events, as well as kickoff shows for all PPV events available on WWE.com and YouTube.
“We have been anticipating this launch for a while, so we are going to take advantage of our existing infrastructure to support the live look-ins and programming that we’ll be producing. We have the manpower and set designs already in place. So we are going to be rolling that out with greater frequency.
Building on WWE App Success
The OTT network will be available on desktops and laptops via WWE.com, as well as through the WWE App on Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices, Android devices (including Samsung Galaxy), iOS devices (Apple iPad and iPhone), Roku streaming devices, Sony PlayStation 3 and 4, and Xbox 360. Availability on additional devices, including Xbox One and selected Smart TVs, will follow this summer.
The WWE App has proved a big hit with fans. As many as 500,000 to a million unique users access it every Monday night for a synchronous-screen experience while watching Raw (the experience is also available for Smackdown). WWE plans to expand that experience for all original programming and live events.
“The dynamic of our apps was one of the bigger things we had to consider when we started looking at how to launch [the digital network],” says Miller. “The WWE app will continue to exist for all our fans to do all things that they have always done: second-screen interaction, local-events interaction, and data and information. But, within that app, you will be able to log in and get the full WWE Network experience. It will effectively do two jobs at once.”