‘Raw’ Runs Rings Around Competition

When WWE superstars The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels appeared in the first-ever Monday Night Raw event 25 years ago this month, they helped launch a unique TV series/brand that promised live, action-packed and often raucousprogramming every week.

Fast-forward to today and nearly 1,300 episodes later, Raw remains a unique entity on television that draws more than 3 million viewers a week for its signature, live programming that takes no prisoners within a very competitive TV arena.

“It’s the ultimate reality show,” said WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon, who was in high school when her father, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, launched what was then WWF’s Monday Night Raw on USA in 1993. Stephanie McMahon is now an integral part of the show’s weekly production and development.

With Raw — which will officially celebrate its 25th anniversary with its Jan. 22 episode — the WWE has been able to effectively weave together the athletic prowess of its personable, larger-than-life “Superstars” — WWE icons such as The Rock (known in his Hollywood life as Dwayne Johnson), Steve Austin, John Cena and Brock Lesnar have all appeared on the show over the years — with relatable and relevant story lines that keep fans tuning in every week.

“One of the most important things that the WWE does is create iconic characters that people really relate to, and that transcends any trends,” said Chris McCumber, president of Entertainment Networks for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “The characters may come and go, but what remains the same is the reliability of the characters and the consistency of the audience that wants to see their favorite characters week in and week out.”

Add a sprinkle of high-profile celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Hugh Jackman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristen Wiig and Kevin Hart across its long run, and WWE Raw has been able to pin down the formula for longevity where TV shows that generate nine or 10 seasons are considered groundbreaking.

Raw is no different than Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or any great television movie, book, opera or play, because it’s protagonist versus antagonist with conflict resolution,” said McMahon, who herself has assumed the antagonist role in many Raw episodes. “The only difference is that our conflicts are settled inside a 20-by- 20-foot ring with some of the greatest live action that you can see in any form of media and that includes strict sport.”

In its 25th season, Raw continues to build on its record for producing the most episodes for a series in television history while helping to make USA Network perennially among the most watched on cable. USA finished 2017 as the top viewed entertainment-themed network in primetime on cable for the 12th straight year — every year since Raw moved back to USA after a brief run on TNN/Spike TV from 2000-05.

“It’s an important thing to have live programming on a week-in, week-out basis that Raw and [WWE’s Tuesday night SmackDown Live] shows give us, and the consistency of the rating has been stellar for us,” McCumber said.

All In the Family

One of the big reasons for WWE’s ratings success is that it appeals to multiple demographics — more than 40% of the Raw audience is women — and it generates significant co-viewing between parents and kids, according to McCumber.

“What we see time and time again is that you know families watch together and the parents passed down the WWE tradition to their kids,” he said. “I don’t see why that wouldn’t continue to happen in the future.”

McMahon added that WWE and USA have worked closely together recently to add more than 70 new advertisers to the series, further building and enhancing the Raw brand.

“Our story lines are all about the hero’s journey, and we’ve worked together with USA to get the message across to advertisers and to viewers that the real heroes are not only the Superstars in the ring but the everyday heroes in the audience,” she said. “That message has certainly resonated with audiences and partners alike and we’ve actually quadrupled our sales revenue in the past 10 years. It’s a very successful story for both USA and WWE in terms of what we can accomplish together.”

Both McCumber and Stephanie McMahon said that they want to continue to work together after their current carriage deal ends in 2019. “I see Monday Night Raw hopefully continuing for another 25 years,” McMahon said. While McCumber would not comment on negotiations between the WWE and NBCU, he did say that he would welcome the WWE and Raw back on USA going forward.

“We’ve had a wonderful, and continue to have a wonderful, partnership with the WWE, and there’s nothing I’d like more than for that partnership to continue,” he added.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.