Fox’s $1 billion stewardship of the WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown franchise is coming to an end, as NBCUniversal has signed off on a five-year deal for the package beginning October 2024.
While financial terms were not disclosed, the deal will return SmackDown to USA Network, where it aired from January 2016 until Fox’s tenure kicked in on Oct. 4, 2019. As the linchpin of Fox’s Friday primetime lineup, SmackDown has outperformed every other Friday-night program in the all-important sales demo; per Nielsen, the two-hour showcase is averaging 785,090 adults 18-49 per episode, making it the 14th highest-rated entertainment series on TV in 2022-23.
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With just a handful of episodes left before SmackDown transitions into its fifth season on Fox, the show’s demo deliveries are up 14% versus the year-ago period, good for an average gain of nearly 100,000 viewers under 50 per airing. That demo growth comes as overall TV usage has dropped 10%.
As one of the most widely distributed channels on the cable dial, USA reaches 72.3 million U.S. households, or about 17 million shy of Fox’s broadcast reach. In a bid to ensure that SmackDown continues to put up network-grade deliveries, WWE will produce four primetime specials each year that will air on the NBC flagship.
The SmackDown shift reunites the property with USA stalwart WWE Raw, which has dominated the Monday night cable landscape for decades, as well as the Tuesday night developmental offshoot, WWE NXT. Bringing SmackDown back into the NBCU fold allows for the sort of heightened cross-promotion that isn’t feasible when ownership is shared by two rival programmers.
“We are excited to extend this longstanding relationship by bringing SmackDown to USA Network,” said WWE president Nick Kahn, by way of announcing the deal. NBCU entertainment chair Frances Berwick echoed Kahn’s sentiments, saying that the company would “continue to use the power of our portfolio to super-serve this passionate fan base.”
For NBCU to enjoy the full synergistic effects of its WWE portfolio, it’ll have to renew the Raw and NXT packages before those current deals expire at the end of September 2024—a fait accompli, in light of the media conglomerate’s SmackDown coup and its long history with WWE.
According to media buyer estimates, SmackDown has been a relative steal for advertisers looking to connect with Fox’s younger-skewing audience, as the average unit cost for a 30-second spot has ranged between $50,000 and $55,000 a pop over the course of the last four seasons. By comparison, ABC’s lower-rated Friday night anchor, Shark Tank, commanded nearly $85,000 per unit during its most recent run.
SmackDown’s ad rates are likely to be cheaper still on USA, which, as of Aug. 1, was available in 58% of all U.S. TV households. Nielsen estimates that USA has lost carriage in some 14.2 million homes since January 2020, a decline that is in keeping with the accelerated cord-cutting trend. (In the same period, subscribers to the traditional pay-TV bundle have dropped nearly 30%.)
While renewals aren’t always a sure thing, Fox first indicated that its WWE deal may have been on borrowed time earlier this spring. Speaking at an investors’ conference in March, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch said the company had yet “to engage [with WWE] on the rights,” before adding that his team was “ready to engage … when they’re ready.” At the time Murdoch made his remarks, WWE was in the midst of cooking up a $21.4 billion merger with Endeavor’s UFC.
In parting ways with SmackDown, Fox frees up its Friday primetime block for high-impact sports fare such as Big Ten football and Big East college basketball. In a post-SmackDown universe, Friday night’s Wisconsin-Purdue game would be a perfect fit for the broadcast network, but under the current configuration, that Big Ten matchup is relegated to Fox’s cable sibling, FS1.
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