The week of April 3, 2016

Why the WWE Network’s streaming revolution falls short

By Kenny Herzog

I think about the WWE Network like I do America: I want it to be great. Not according to some exclusionary, Donald Trump-ian notion of excellence, but something closer to our culture’s whimsical spirit and founding principles of vast inclusiveness.

After finally signing up several months after its February 2014 launch (I’m the kind of guy that will only invest in second-generation technology), I eagerly emigrated from the quaint parameters of cable-broadcast sports entertainment to a daring experiment in democratic multimedia. For just $9.99 a month, I was granted access to everything available through the McMahon clan’s largesse—archives of matches dating back decades; original specials that promised to supplement and enhance my pro-wrestling expertise; and most significantly, the ability to watch every pay-per-view (PPV) event on the calendar, including WrestleMania, live and at no extra charge.

Not too long after binging on past WrestleMania and Royal Rumble spectacles, as well as feasting on catnip à la the all-new Monday Night War docuseries, the feeling of freedom and choice turned fleeting. More disconcertingly, fissures in the network’s ostensible foundation—i.e., its monthly PPV streams—widened and persisted unsealed, as buffering snags and resolution issues dogged marquee Sunday features from SummerSlam to Survivor Series. All of this, plus a tenuously mounted customer-feedback system, had me hitting the “cancel” prompt in my mind on more than one occasion.

Naturally, I never pushed the panic button—and WWE doesn’t quite need to sound the alarms just yet. As of the fourth quarter of 2015, the Network boasted 1.2 million active subscribers. And as evidenced by wedging in the network-exclusive Roadblock event alongside the Road to WrestleMania advertising campaign this past February, not to mention an onslaught of promotion for its largely family-friendly programming slate (e.g., Ride Along, Slam City, etc.), the service remains a centerpiece of WWE’s future. I, for one, hope it remains that way. But I’m also being realistic in thinking that its presentation lacks the sophistication of competitive streaming pioneers like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and that WWE should be making leaps and strides by now, not tinkering with modifications that make the network seem as though it exists somewhere in the nebulous space between beta and alpha launch.

If Matt Hardy can be repackaged as version 2.0, why can’t the WWE Network itself?

To that end, here are a handful of glaring areas where the WWE Network has fallen short of the quality I and many others anticipated. And in the interest of rooting on its successes so far—call it an unfailing sort of pro-wrestling patriotism, if you will—I’m humbly offering some quick and painless fixes to help everyone subscribe with pride. (Note: The following list concerns engaging with the televised network, though a few of the below observations no doubt overlap with those of laptop and mobile-device users as well.)

1) The graveyard of lost original series

Scrolling through the WWE Network’s “Shows” submenu is akin to strolling through Las Vegas’s Neon Boneyard, where you can wax nostalgic over symbols of a generation’s faded glory. Except here, it’s more like a stumble through the tumbleweeds of nonstarters, on-again/off-again or limited-run endeavors such as Countdown (more or less rebranded as The List, available elsewhere on the queue), WWE 24, and Rivalries. It’s fine if WWE’s put some of these out to pasture due to low engagement or other considerations, but then why not store them in their own, specially earmarked corner of the network rather than allow them to languish conspicuously alongside Ride Along and other actively produced series? Every time I click on Beyond the Ring and there aren’t even headings for features premiered in 2015 and 2016—with the noted exception of an October 2015 Sting video—let alone any fresher offerings than December 2014’s True Giantsit only furthers the suspicion that no matter how powerful the network’s engine, oftentimes no one’s at the wheel.

2) Manic pixel syndrome

Whether you stream the WWE Network via Roku 3, PlayStation 4 or any other snazzy hunk of sequentially named hardware, odds are you’re still experiencing technical difficulties during live events. Buffering delays, outright freezes—especially pronounced when in mid-broadcast—and sputtering, pixelated screens still plague subscribers. It’s enough to make someone who signed up primarily for the perk of catching all dozen PPVs for an approximate $120 annual fee consider cherry-picking two or three they deem must-see, ordering the PPVs the old-fashioned way through their cable provider, and enjoying premium wrestling without all the yips. Any content developer with skin in the game invests in swiftly conquering these kinds of snags, cannily marketing updated product that essentially streamlines what you already own. So I say, if Matt Hardy can be repackaged as version 2.0, why can’t the network itself?

3) The free-trial imbalance

Virtually every month, particularly heading into prominent PPVs, WWE breathlessly avers that viewers who subscribe to the WWE Network at that very moment can get their first month—including the next upcoming PPV—on the house. This is standard operating procedure for cable and streaming outlets alike, and uniquely enticing for the network, which subsists on month-to-month renewals. The trial run gives a fairly true window into the network’s sum experience. But for those of us who signed up before these halcyon days of 30-day giveaways and have continued handing over our $9.99 every several weeks, it stings a bit that we haven’t been rewarded with a free month of our own as a way of saying, “Thanks for always being there.” On the contrary, it feels as if veteran subscribers are somehow being penalized for being silly enough to buy in before the network was more incentivized. As a simple customer-service overture, nevermind olive branch of sorts given the aforementioned quirks, a free month for the O.G.s to coincide with the network’s next big anniversary (or at any point, just because) would be, ahem, best for business.

4) Search malfunction

To be fair, this problem is nearly pandemic across much of the cable and streaming landscape. But man, is it hard to get into the weeds of the WWE Network’s archive when your search capabilities begin and end with an interface similar to this. It’s a deflating sight, reminiscent of visiting one’s local library in the days of yore and being confronted with just a card catalog to locate the latest Matt Christopher tome. And the more probing your inquiry, the more likely you’ll be led down some overly broad corridor of thumbnails tangentially related to the specific wrestler or historic match you had in mind. As nice as it would be to feel as if every recorded moment in WWE, WCW, ECW, et al., lore is at your fingertips as part and parcel of those handsome monthly dues, it’s often tempting to cut your losses and see what bountiful results a far more intuitive YouTube can generate twice as fast. The network is a case study in the kind of interactive multimedia that can benefit from fully integrated, voice-activated technology. Who cares about barking at their smart kitchen to make them an egg? I want to relive Zack Ryder vs. Kane in a Falls Count Anywhere clash, and I want it now! Oh, there it is.

The more probing your inquiry, the more likely you’ll be led down some overly broad corridor of thumbnails tangentially related to the specific wrestler or historic match you had in mind.

5) We like it… Raw

This gets tricky. We all understand that there are myriad licensing issues and other obstacles that prevent WWE from simulcasting or immediately rebroadcasting Raw and SmackDown on the WWE Network following their USA Network premieres. And to the company’s credit, they upload a wealth of bonus content along the lines of Raw Pre-Show, Raw Backstage Pass, and various supplementary podcasts to offset the glaring omission of its two flagship cable series.

But riddle me this: How is it that, as of this writing, the most recent Raw Replay available for network streaming dates back a month, which is like a whole life cycle these days in the WWE’s story world? (Ditto for SmackDown, which has evolved into something much meatier since the move away from SyFy.) It’s more than reasonable that USA Network demands a period of some exclusivity over the sister shows, but it’s no less hard to fathom how, should a fan’s DVR screw them over or they otherwise fail to record USA Network’s one-off live premiere, that they can’t lean on the WWE Network as a de facto backup hard drive.

The solution to this, as with all these growing pains, might be to broker an understanding with subscribers: Bear with us as we up our monthly fee to the still-affordable and perfectly catchy, say, $12.99. That concession could help smooth waters with your partners, open up revenue to hire more troubleshooting personnel, and grow the platform into something children, adults, and shareholders of all ages can love. Then you could even forget about throwing in that free month.

Illustration by J. Longo