The “Wednesday Night War” Is Over

Last night was the final encounter of the “Wednesday Night War”. Since October 2, 2019 through today, AEW Dynamite on TNT and WWE NXT on the USA Network aired simultaneously, competing head-to-head on 75 Wednesday nights.

NXT moves to Tuesday night next week, WWE announced recently.

Through 75 head-to-head Wednesdays AEW led NXT in total viewers on 63 of 75 nights. Both programs aired from 8:00 to 10:00pm. NXT often had an overrun of a few minutes past 10:00pm.

NXT led in total viewership ten times. One of those time was this week, despite the program airing simultaneously and without commercials as Peacock, as WWE and NBCUniversal push their fans to sign for the new home of WWE Network content ahead of Wrestlemania this weekend.

The shows tied to the nearest thousand twice: 12/11/2019 and 11/25/2020.

The ten nights NXT had a bigger audience than AEW were: 11/20/2019, 11/27/2019, 12/18/2019, 4/8/2020, 4/15/2020, 6/24/2020, 7/1/2020, 7/8/2020, 10/28/2020, and 4/7/2021.

The P18-49 viewership demographic, an important measurement to advertisers, was the subject of much consternation among fans and pundits as the competition went on.

In that category, AEW led on 74 of the 75 nights.

NXT led with adults aged 18 to 49 just once, on 12/19/2019.

Beginning in the summer of 2020, AEW extended its lead over NXT in the key demo, possibly as audiences in that group settled into watching AEW more regularly than NXT, at least in live and same-day viewing.

On the P2+ (total viewers) vs. P18-49 subject, Turner and therefore AEW are far more concerned with P18-49 than P2+. Advertisers never buy based on P2+; they buy based on demos.

It’s not clear to me WWE or NBCUniversal or other television networks view it quite as exclusively.

Recent WWE TV deals were made after including P2+ as well as P18-49 data in their pitches.

Younger viewers are more desirable, for sure, but all cable viewers are in a home with a cable subscription. And cable networks make the majority of their revenue from carriage fees supports by those subs.

Nonetheless, AEW dominated with younger viewers. NXT dominated with viewers age 50 and over.

“Unknown” cells appear in the tables below for some weeks because Showbuzzdaily reported limited demos for NXT when it didn’t finish among the top 50 cable originals in P18-49.

In recent months, AEW’s lead weakened. Dynamite lost viewers in the first quarter of 2021, particularly among younger female viewers.

Source: Showbuzz Daily / Nielsen

Meanwhile NXT better maintained its female audience while losing more of its male audience.

In the final quarter of the “war”, female viewers aged 18 to 49 accounted for about 40% of NXT’s audience was female and about 31% of AEW’s.

Source: Showbuzz Daily / Nielsen

And then there were quarter-hour numbers, first reported weekly by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (or on very rare occasion, Wrestlenomics/me).

Here’s how total viewership by quarter-hour sorted out.

P2+ (total viewership) quarter-hour comparison

NXT led in 110 of 592 (19%) quarter-hours in total viewers. AEW led 480 (81%). There also two ties.

P18-49 viewership quarter-hour comparison

NXT led in P18-49 viewers in just 13 of 592 (2%) quarters. AEW led the other 579 (98%).

It’s tempting to look to these quarter-hour data to make sense of which stars are big attractions to viewers and which are not.

More than any star, viewership correlated to time-slot.

The first 15 minutes, at least partly due to lead-ins, was often the most viewed quarter.

Quarter-hour viewership analysis is also compromised by needing to account for, not just time placement, but also commercial breaks. Quarters consisting of matches also tend to perform better than video packages or other pre-taped segments.

Minute-by-minute data is tracked by both companies. Datasets of entire shows for either AEW or NXT have never been reported. AEW vice president of business strategy Chris Harrington (and creator of Wrestlenomics) did a screen share video interview with me in December of one night of minute-by-minute data, the December 16 episodes of Dynamite and NXT.

How did the “war” start?

In May 2019, the week before AEW’s first pay-per-view event the company announced it would have a weekly program on TNT. Despite AEW previously filing for a trademark “Tuesday Night Dynamite”, the show was scheduled on Wednesday nights, beginning in October. NBA games often occupy primetime Tuesdays on TNT.

NXT at the time was a one-hour program, taped in multiple-episode blocks at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, and airing first-run on the WWE Network at 8:00pm Eastern.

Over the summer of 2019, WWE was reportedly in discussions with Fox to take NXT off of the WWE Network onto FS1 as a live two-hour program that would oppose Dynamite. But in August, WWE and NBCUniversal announced NXT would move to the USA Network.

NXT’s weekly program was one of the most popular shows on the Network at the time, so the move was met with some confusion by those in Wall Street. In a January 2020 conference talk, stock analyst Laura Martin mentioned to WWE’s then-co-president George Barrios (in one of his final public appearances on behalf of WWE) that taking NXT’s first-run off the Network was “one of my least favorite things you’ve done.”

WWE argued moving NXT was an opportunity to grow the value of NXT’s media rights, like Raw and Smackdown which had just attracted new U.S. deals worth in excess of $200 million per year.

How much NXT has been able to attract in rights fees from NBCU, in its original two-year deal or in the new deal just announced, is unclear.

When AEW started to decidedly take the lead in the ratings competition, some wondered if it was the best thing for NXT to move to a different night where it was not opposed by another wrestling program. Maybe Tuesday or Thursday.

WWE EVP Paul Levesque, in a September 2020 conference call with media, seemed to respond to the notion that WWE put NXT on Wednesday night on cable to compete with its new competitor in the wrestling space, but wanted to point out AEW put its program on a night NXT long occupied.

“It’s a funny thing. I don’t hear anybody else asking people about moving on Wednesday since we were always on Wednesdays,” Levesque said.

“But it’s not like every other channel just has free air all the time.”

Full audio of Levesque’s comments are here:

WWE EVP Paul Levesque is asked about NXT moving away from Wednesday night (September 30, 2020)

Why is NXT moving to Tuesday?

The impending close of the NBC Sports Network is probably the biggest factor leading to NXT move.

There’s little debate to had, while NXT was close on total viewers, AEW was usually winning in every viewership category publicly reported except for viewers age 50 and older.

But there’s a good chance NHL games will be coming to the USA Network in the near future. A deal between NBCU and the NHL is not finalized, but the NHL’s new deal with Disney and ESPN included the “A” package of games. It didn’t include the Wednesday night games currently carried by NBCSN.

While Fox is an outside possible suitor for a package that would include Wednesday night games, NBCU is still the likeliest home, and USA Network the likeliest network home.

NHL games on Wednesday nights on NBCSN do comparable P18-49 viewership to NXT, but NHL probably drives better ad rates. And USA Network is running reruns of NBC programs like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in primetime most nights when WWE programs aren’t scheduled.

What will happen to NXT and AEW viewership now that they’ll be unopposed?

In August and September, AEW and NXT were both preempted due to playoff games form the NBA and NHL, respectively. When left in their normal timeslot, the shows did drew more viewers than usual.

In August when NXT was twice unopposed by AEW on Wednesday, its viewership improved by 29% an 24% compared to the median of the previous four weeks. In P18-49 viewers, it improved 37% in both instances.

Based on recent performance, if viewership improves to that degree when NXT moves to Tuesday, the show could see total viewership of around 800,000 and a P18-49 rating of about 0.23 (about 300,000 viewers in that age group).

When unopposed on Wednesday on two occasions in September, AEW viewership was up 13% and 24% compared to the median the previous four weeks when it was opposed by NXT. In P18-49 viewers, it increased 13% and 16%.

And increase to that extent would mean total viewers of around 875,000 and a demo rating of about 0.33 (about 425,000 viewers), based on AEW’s recent performance.

In other words, audiences the programs deliver might be even more comparable when they’re on separate nights.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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