Major WWE pay-per-view events have been getting longer and longer in recent years, with the past couple WrestleManias starting at 5pm and ending after midnight on the east coast. Up until now, the “B” PPVs have been relatively untouched in format, but due in large part to all PPV events being dual branded, word on the street is all PPVs will be at least four hours long starting very soon.
I consider myself a big WWE fan. I go to live shows a couple times a year. My brain is host to way too much useless WWE trivia. I used to watch Raw religiously and still mostly do, on top of SmackDown, NXT and loads of other weekly content on WWE Network. And four to five hour PPVs is just too much wrestling, even for me. WWE must know it’s a lot to ask of their audience — just look at the XFL’s reboot, where one of Vince McMahon’s biggest stated goals (other than forcing everybody to stand for the national anthem) is to get football games under two hours. Why is three hours of football simply too much, but four to five hours of wrestling isn’t?
From WWE’s PR standpoint, the answer would probably look something like this: WWE’s brand of entertainment is different. A typical event hosts entertainment in many different forms: wrestling matches, in-ring interviews, backstage skits, pre-taped vignettes, and more. It’s more akin to a variety show like SNL than a sporting event. (Though it should be noted that SNL runs only about 90 minutes, and that is typically entirely too long.)
The real answer probably takes much more than that into consideration, though. The entire nature of consuming pro wrestling has changed ever since the advent of WWE Network. The on-demand nature of the Network means that you no longer have to plunk down 55 dollars and sit glued to the TV for three hours to get your money’s worth. You can just as easily watch some that night, go to bed at a reasonable time, pick it back up on your phone during your commute, and finish up the rest on your lunch break or when you get home the next day. WWE probably isn’t expecting everybody to watch these gargantuan events in real-time (though many obviously do) — I mean, Greatest Royal Rumble took place over the course of five hours starting at noon on a work day. WWE Network means you can catch these events whenever you want. It wouldn’t surprise me if every time you resumed, it counted as another “play” of the video file for WWE to tout to Network advertisers and shareholders.
In this on-demand world, there’s little incentive to make every match must-see for everybody. The approach lately actually seems to be the opposite: while very few people will be enthralled with every match and segment, there’s something for everybody. If you’re a Daniel Bryan fan, you can scrub directly to his match. If for some ungodly reason conga lines and dance-offs are more your thing, you can skip to whatever the hell that segment was at Backlash.
Under these new timeframes, if you want to watch every bit of weekly programming WWE puts out in a week where there’s a PPV, that’s at least eleven hours of wrestling per week, from one company. During Big Four weeks, tack on another hour for the show and another three for the accompanying NXT TakeOver and you’re at fifteen hours a week. Soon enough, the Cruiserweight Classic, Mae Young Classic, and WWE UK show will only balloon that number more.
So why is WWE doing this? Well, in 2018, content is king. They aren’t necessarily looking to create the best content, just a lot of it. The main selling point of WWE Network is “X hours of content, including Y hours of original programming!” WWE no longer has to sell you on every single pay-per-view every single month — they just need to sell you on something on the Network you find worth 10 bucks a month. Live pay-per-view events are merely one of many offerings, and since they already set the stage up and are already there, they may as well milk another hour of “original programming” out of the setup before they pack up and drive to the next town.
It’s just another side effect of the upside-down business model WWE seems to have now, but can you blame them? It works. WWE has no incentive to listen to the live crowd’s opinion, or lose out on an hour of advertising every Monday night to provide a more action-packed product, or even give a damn about the ratings anymore. They are making more money than they ever have without thinking about any of that stuff.
On top of all this, live programming is at a premium — that’s why FOX is reportedly willing to spend a billion dollars on SmackDown Live. So whether or not it makes for a more compelling product or is best for the viewer, it’s impossible to deny, it’s what’s best for business.