Past, Present and Future Collide On Inexpensive New Network
It’s finally here. The day wrestling fans have always dreamed about will become a reality on February 24, 2014 when the WWE Network launches. With only weeks to go before the Internet-based WWE Network enters the households of the WWE Universe, what is already known is that several original programs will air exclusively on the network (The Monday Night War, WrestleMania Rewind, Countdown, NXT, Superstars and Legends’ House to name a few), all of the past WWE, WCW and ECW pay-per-views will also be available as part of an on-demand archive and subscribers will receive all future WWE pay-per-view events as part of the $9.99 monthly service. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing all the online speculation has already shown us, the rabid WWE Universe can’t wait to see what else will be available. With that in mind, perhaps the best way to speculate on the future is to look back on the network’s precursor: WWE Classics on Demand.
WWE Classics on Demand
When WWE Classics on Demand launched in October 2004, it was initially named WWE 24/7 and available through Blue Ridge Cable in Pennsylvania. By the spring of 2005, the service began to have widespread availability on most major US cable carriers.
As part of the service, fans were treated to roughly 40 hours of content per month that generally had never been seen since their original broadcasts. Each month they’d put the spotlight on a different Hall of Fame performer and adopt a unique theme such as Ric Around the Clock, Latino Legends, and, when everybody else was offering their season’s greetings, WWE would typically present Season’s Beatings. Old school WWF cards from historic arenas such as Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden and Maple Leaf Gardens would also be seen with occasional tickers indicating what else was going on in the world at the time of the original airing. Past pay-per-views were run featuring offerings from WWE, WCW, ECW and even the AWA.
The WWE was initially most predominantly featured, and that trend not only continued throughout the service’s run, but also became more noticeable as the years went by. Aside from cards from the previously mentioned arenas, WWE programs such as the entire run of Tuesday Night Titans, Prime Time Wrestling (1986 to 1989), WWWF Championship Wrestling (1977), Mania (1993) and Monday Night Raw (1995 to 1999) received regular play, though infrequent airings of Coliseum Videos and programs such as All American, Challenge, Shotgun and Smackdown were also included.
The promotion with the next most voluminous coverage was World Championship Wrestling. More than three years (1985 to 1988) of the TBS Saturday night favorite entitled NWA World Championship Wrestling aired on the service. Along with that was roughly one year (1981-1982) of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, as well as several months of 1993 WCW Worldwide. Somewhat surprisingly, airings of WCW Monday Nitro began playing once the service was launched, but were discontinued in mid 2012 when the program reached the late summer 1998 portion of its run.
Of course, many other promotions were also included. Among those, ECW was prominently featured with the vast majority of their 1993 to 1998 televisions programs airing. World Class Championship Wrestling also received consistent play on the service beginning in 2007 with episodes dating back to 1982. Around the same time, random episodes of Championship Wrestling from Florida from 1976 through to 1987 began running on the service. Similarly, random episodes of the AWA also began airing, before finally settling in with episodes from 1981. Canada’s Stampede Wrestling finally became a fixture in the latter years of the service showcasing primarily episodes from 1979. Barely any Smokey Mountain Wrestling or Georgia Championship Wrestling aired, though given the poor video quality on some of the Georgia footage, that decision was very understandable. Towards the end, the service also showed a few matches and segments from the recently acquired Mid South/Universal Wrestling Federation library.
If television specials were your thing, Classics on Demand delivered many of those including the WWE’s Saturday Night’s Main Event and WCW’s Clash of the Champions events. Surprisingly, other specials like Florida’s Battle of the Belts were never rebroadcast.
While fans greatly appreciated the offering, it wasn’t quite as flawless as many would have liked. The first major issue the service encountered was with the seemingly random edits to programs. Music replacements were expected and occurred frequently. However, match exclusions were not expected yet occasionally occurred. Fortunately, match exclusions seemingly ceased to occur until 2007.
Following the events of the horrific 2007 Chris Benoit double murder suicide, WWE immediately made the decision to remove all Benoit matches and interviews. Some fans accepted the decision in stride, while many others became irate. Regardless, WWE continued to make the edits through to the end of the service.
The next significant issue occurred in 2009 when the company made the decision to apply the black and white treatment on any scenes involving blood. To their credit, WWE took swift action in responding to viewer complaints. Before the end of the year, all blood-related footage was restored to full color.
Perhaps the biggest problem involving the service was a video quality issue that first surfaced in January 2010. Beginning with the January 2010 updates, videos suddenly had a film-like look. Some fans and cable companies speculated the problem was a framerate issue. Others thought it was related to video compression. Still others claimed to not be bothered by the issue. By July 2012, the problem was gone and videos were restored to their original brilliant picture quality.
With only weeks to go before the launch, expectations are very high for the WWE Network with some referring to the network as the next step in the evolution of television. Unfortunately, based on the nature of current Internet technology and some MLB.TV (the company WWE is working with on the network) viewer complaints, the possibility exists that video quality may become an issue with the new network. There’s a slim possibility some form of the film-like look that plagued Classics on Demand for a couple of years may once again arise, as could a new problem of sub-par video resulting from poor Internet connections. The network is also likely to tackle a new picture-related issue concerning archival 4:3 footage. In the months leading up to the announcement, WWE began polling members of their Fan Council asking them such things as whether they would prefer to see this footage cropped or with black sidebars. Results of the poll are unknown.
Other issues that have already been addressed are related to content edits. According to published reports, Chris Benoit content will return on the new network with an advisory on those particular programs. It’s also worth noting that WWE has indicated that, contrary to what we’ve seen and heard on several WWE DVD releases, we should expect all of Jesse Ventura’s commentary to remain intact and music replacements will be kept to a minimum. Of course, all WWF logos, including the Attitude era scratch logo, will be featured without any blurs.
So based on what we’ve seen from the Classics On Demand offering what should we expect to air on the new WWE Network? Eventually, it’s possible that everything in the WWE’s archive of over 100,000 hours of footage could air, however, recent information indicates that only five to 10 hours of vault footage will be made available per week. We already know that all of the WCW, ECW and WWE pay-per-views will be available on the debut date. Based on WWE’s Classics on Demand offering, it’s safe to say that everything from the 1980s to present day WWE should be well represented. More specifically over time, virtually every WWE, WCCW and AWA program from the 1980s could become available, as well as most of the Florida 1980s library and virtually every episode of NWA Mid-Atlantic from 1981 through to the last day of WCW in March of 2001. Unfortunately, it would appear that WWE’s Georgia masters begin with 1983 episodes, so it’s unlikely we’ll see much of that promotion. Aside from NXT, it’s also unlikely we’ll see much of prior developmental leagues such as Ohio Valley or Deep South. If you’re looking for footage prior to 1980, it would seem the most likely complete episodes to air on the new WWE Network will be from Texas, Florida, AWA, Stampede, or the WWWF, as many other promotions had the habit of recording over masters for budgetary reasons. As far as 1990s footage, not only should we expect the company to play lots of WWF and WCW footage, but also both of the ECW programs, as well as possibly scarce amounts of Smokey Mountain Wrestling. Of course, there will likely be plenty of WWE, WCW and ECW footage from the 2000s. If the press conference is any indication, it’s a safe bet you won’t be disappointed if you’re a fan of the “Monday Night War” era through to today’s product, as the last two decades will likely receive most of the focus.
The new WWE Network should give fans of all generations countless hours of viewing enjoyment for only $9.99 each month (though you must commit to a six-month subscription). With all of the classic content and the WWE’s future pay-per-view events airing live, it appears that the WWE Network should be a winner for all involved. Fans will have the opportunity to watch favorites from yesterday and today without having to spend on the comparatively high-priced pay-per-views. Meanwhile, the company’s vast archival footage will inevitably earn the WWE another chance to reconnect and recapture time-lapsed fans. The future of WWE has arrived and it has a date: February 24, 2014.
James DeMedeiros is a special contributor to Between The Ropes.