It's tempting, if you're not a fan of grown men grappling, to dismiss last night's announcement of WWE's new digital streaming network. Don't. Because it's our best glimpse yet at what the future of television should look like.
To try to get across just how big—and how good—a deal the WWE Network is, here's a brief description of it denuded of the word "wrestling." In its place, swap in anything you love; sports, genres, individual channels, animals that think they're people. Your niche.
Here's a streaming network that offers a 30 year back catalog of [THING YOU LOVE]. Add in free access to live [THING YOU LOVE] events that normally cost in the neighborhood of $45 a pop and happen roughly once a month. On top of that, toss in some goofy original content about [THING YOU LOVE], every reality show format you can think of, reframed to specifically target [THING YOU LOVE] in a way that feels like a fever dream of access and delight. You can access this network on nearly any device that you own, perpetually just a few clicks away from [THING YOU LOVE] streaming in 720p.
And it costs ten bucks a month.
For the right person—the person the WWE network is targeting—that's insane. For the rest of us, it's a clear-eyed look at what an a la carte television utopia could be.
Paying for only the content you actually want to watch is the platonic ideal of television's future, but it ain't happening any time soon. The cable companies are too entrenched, the content deals too lucrative. Somehow, though—figure-four leglock?—WWE has bucked the system.
And it's not just that WWE has done it, it's how. One of the biggest a la carte television concerns is pricing; even if Disney were to spin off ESPN (they won't, but hypotheticals are fun!) it would cost you, conservatively, at least $20 a month. HBO Go (also not happening any time soon) would be even more. And WWE, frankly, would have been justified in offering its network at similarly sky-high pricing given its inclusion of pay per view streaming.
But it didn't. It went cheap, just slightly more than Netflix and Hulu Plus, for content whose MSRP is arguably significantly higher—though with much narrower focus—than what's offered on those. Again, think about what you'd rather pay for: Netflix and its vast but unpredictable movie library and unproven original series? Or the entirety of [THING YOU LOVE]?
Here's an even better idea. Cobble together Netflix, Hulu Plus, and couple of [THINGS YOU LOVE]. Throw in an antenna for HD broadcast networks, and amortize the cost over its lifetime. Congrats! You've got more content, highly targeted to your interests, for less than $40 a month.
And—not that this is something that you should worry about—it's going to work for WWE, too. By requiring six-month commitments from its customers, it prevents hit-and-run subscriptions targeted at ultra-cheap pay per view access. By producing a bunch of cheap reality shows, it gets to squeeze every last ounce of brand equity out of its stars aging, present, and future. And if even a million people sign up—WrestleMania brought in that many on its own last April—that's an extra $10 million of revenue every single month in Vince McMahon's pocket. That's more than a 20 percent lift. This is going to work.
Yes, we're a long, long way off from other [THINGS YOU LOVE] following suit. But how long before we see a Crunchyroll competitor do this for anime? How long before the UFC starts including its pay per view events in its own streaming service? How long before there are enough options at the TV buffet that you can finally cut the cord in good conscience?
The WWE might not be your cup of tea. That's fine. But what it's done with the WWE Network is light the path for other digital networks, other streaming solutions that aren't tethered to a bulky plan, that don't come laden with dozens of channels you couldn't care less about. And what comes next could very well be just the [THING YOU LOVE] you were waiting for.
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