The landscape of WWE changed dramatically on Monday with news that a deal to broadcast SmackDown on Fox has been agreed to in principle.
If the plan remains the same as reported on Monday, there's big change in store for the world of WWE. Though the agreement wouldn't kick in until October 2019, the year-and-a-half lead-up to SmackDown moving to its new home would surely be full of changes and adaptations to make such an arrangement work.
Nothing is for certain, but we can look at the past and a number of other indicators to try to figure out the direction WWE will go in when it comes to a few key decisions. As we get comfortable with this new reality, the consequences of these decisions will have significant influence both onscreen and behind the scenes. Let's tackle a few of the big ones.
End of another brand split?
With Fox ready to shell out such a substantial sum of money for the rights to SmackDown, it's only natural to consider whether or not they want all of the biggest stars WWE has to offer as part of the package.
There are two dramatically different options in play leading up to the show's move to Fox. First, there can either be a true, definitive split, with each show feeling significantly different on two different networks. Alternatively, the WWE can move back to having everyone on both shows.
The former idea seems more well-suited to the current size of the WWE roster, with a move back to one gigantic roster likely spelling the end of the line for a number of mid- and lower-card talent simply due to real estate. A sign that things might be heading back toward one big roster is the recent move to make every pay-per-view event on the WWE calendar a co-branded effort.
Will SmackDown expand to three hours?
For the better part of the past six years, Raw has had a three-hour broadcast on Monday nights. There are plenty of detractors of having such a long show, but even though overall ratings aren't what they used to be when averaged out over three hours, the expanded advertising space and rights deals have more than made up for it.
It's natural, then, to ask if SmackDown might make a similar move.
It's hard to take anything off the table entirely, especially considering the amount of money in play and any number of other factors. On the surface, it seems unlikely that a broadcast network would mess with the well-established 10 p.m. news hour, meaning a three-hour broadcast would have to start at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. Shifting the WWE window up also seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
How will WWE do a live show on Friday night?
By all indications, it appears SmackDown is heading back to Friday nights, a slot it previously occupied when the show was pre-taped on Tuesdays. While pre-tapes were the norm for Thursday and Friday broadcasts in the past, it's hard to believe Fox would be willing to shell out $1 billion -- more than $200 million a year -- for a pre-taped product to air on Friday nights on its network.
If the plan is to air live on Friday nights, it would represent a major departure from the WWE's current production schedule. By broadcasting Raw on Monday nights and SmackDown on Tuesdays in a city in the same general area, WWE is able to restrict its production costs largely to those two days. Though there are "WWE Live Events" (non-broadcasted shows at smaller arenas) that typically happen on Friday nights, a Friday-to-Monday production schedule on a non-pay-per-view weekend would come with a number of logistical hurdles -- but the price tag attached to the move would certainly help.
Big four pay-per-view scheduling
The WWE has made a big deal of offering fans a four-day (or in the case of WrestleMania, more than that) stretch of shows surrounding its "big four" events on the calendar. If SmackDown was to move to Friday nights, there could still theoretically be a Friday-through-Monday, rather than a Saturday-through-Tuesday, run in one city. It might actually come as some benefit, with the final pre-pay-per-view SmackDown offering a chance to set the stage for the weekend, rather than the Tuesday show settling into something of an afterthought role after so many days in a row of shows.
It would also come with some creative challenges in terms of scheduling for WrestleMania week, with the Hall of Fame typically falling on Friday nights, but that seems like a relatively simple fix of either shortening the show as a lead-in to NXT, Raw or SmackDown or as a standalone on Thursday night.
What are some of the other consequence of the move to Fox and Friday nights?
In the past, when SmackDown was on other, non-NBC Universal networks, there was a plan in place to market Raw and SmackDown on the other show's programming, and this move will be no different. But it still feels somewhat unnatural for an NBCU (USA Network) to be advertising for programming on Fox, and vice-versa. It will sort itself out with time, but it'll be interesting to see how much things change now that Raw and SmackDown won't be on the same network.
There are also questions about reaching the target WWE audience live on Friday nights. One of the biggest questions at hand is the astronomical amount of wiggle room such a financial windfall as the one WWE will receive with the new Raw and SmackDown contracts means in terms of the onscreen product. Creatively, would it make more sense to really go for it and make new stars, or will there be a pressure to focus on a few key stars and maintain the status quo? How will this deal impact the talent contracts, as well?
As is the case when top athletes reach their major windfall of a payday, it could easily go in either direction -- it simply depends on what the WWE thinks about how it will affect their audience size and viewership in the long term.