Has WWE ‘SmackDown’ Been a Boon for Fox, or a Billion-Dollar Bust?

TheWrap takes a hard look at wrestling show’s ratings on broadcast

tony maglio ratings report banner Tonight marks three weeks into the great (both in terms of its scale and price) Fox “Friday Night SmackDown” experiment. That’s just enough time for rabid fans to have formed their snap judgments about whether the WWE show is a success on broadcast TV, or if there are already red flags for the blue brand. We’ll attempt to inject a little professionalism into the debate about the pro-wrestling property’s performance. In Fall 2018, Fox averaged a 1.3 rating in the key adults 18-49 demographic and 5.241 million total viewers in primetime on the first Friday of the TV season, anchored by the network’s debut of Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing,” according to Nielsen’s Live + Same Day ratings. That was followed with an average of a 1.0 rating and 4.107 million total viewers for both the second and third Fridays. Yes, consistency had set in. This year, Fox’s new and expensive property “Friday Night SmackDown” filled the two-hour primetime window, initially posting an average of a 1.4 rating and 3.888 million total viewers, according to the same ratings metric, and then the next week getting a 1.0 rating and 2.899 million viewers. Week 3 of “Friday Night SmackDown” comes this evening; we’ll know its “live” rating on Saturday morning. There’s a bit of an asterisk here as “Friday Night SmackDown” didn’t launch on Fox until the second Friday of the 2019-20 television season. But (almost) no matter how you look at it — we’ll show you each way to — the early ratings have been a year-to-year downgrade for the broadcast network. As we noted before, Sept. 28 marked the return to television (via Fox) of “Last Man Standing,” which was canceled by ABC a year earlier. After that aired, Fox debuted new comedy “The Cool Kids,” followed by the Season 18 premiere of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” There was a lot of intrigue built-in for the “Last Man Standing” premiere, and its first-episode performance demonstrates that. The comedy ended up averaging a 1.1 rating and 5.7 million “live” viewers over the course of the 2018-19 season. With one week of delayed-viewing per episode, those numbers grew to a 1.7 rating and 8.3 million total viewers. The swap to “SmackDown” hasn’t been all bad though. The show’s Fox premiere rating in the important 18-49 demo was higher than what the network got out of Premiere Week 2018’s Friday (Sept. 28) primetime and on the first Friday of October 2018 (Oct. 4). The young-skewing sports entertainment program was lighter in terms of total viewers, however: by 26% and 5%, respectively. See last fall’s breakdown by week and by show below.

Sept. 28, 2018 (8 p.m.) “Last Man Standing”: 1.8 demo rating, 8.130 million total viewers (8:30) “The Cool Kids”: 1.5 rating, 6.870 million viewers (9) “Hell’s Kitchen”: 0.9 rating, 2.981 million viewers

Oct. 5, 2018 (8 p.m.) “Last Man Standing”: 1.3 demo rating, 6.149 million total viewers (8:30) “The Cool Kids”: 1.1 rating, 4.895 million viewers (9) “Hell’s Kitchen”: 0.8 rating, 2.656 million viewers

Oct. 12, 2018 (8 p.m.) “Last Man Standing”: 1.4 demo rating, 6.320 million total viewers (8:30) “The Cool Kids”: 1.0 rating, 4.769 million viewers (9) “Hell’s Kitchen”: 0.8 rating, 2.670 million viewers

The three-week averages starting the 2018-19 TV season were a 1.1 rating and 4.485 million total viewers. Scratching the third Friday of the 2018-19 TV season, Fox’s averages were a 1.2 rating and 4.674 million viewers.

This year, Fox’s demo number matches that 1.2, but its total-viewer tally is a much lower 3.394 million, or -27%. Of course, what advertisers really care about is the demo, but remember, this WWE partnership is costing Fox Sports like $1 billion over five years, and the total-viewer number is often what gets discussed with live sports. For a live sports-ish telecast like “SmackDown,” a delayed-viewing comparison isn’t going to do it many favors. With three days of delayed viewing, the recent debut’s unrounded demo rating grew from a 1.39 to a 1.59. Adding in four more days, that number — which would also be Fox’s two-hour primetime number — increased to a 1.61 rating. The viewer-averages increased to 4.358 million and then 4.409 million, respectively. Basically, the show grew +14% in ratings and about +13% in total viewers. Those increases are much lower than what straight-up entertainment shows tend to get. The second week of “Friday Night SmackDown” grew to a 1.1 in Nielsen’s Live + 3 Day ratings, up 14%. The overall audience tally increased 11% to 3.21 million. We do not yet have the plus-7-Day number for Week 2. For comparison, the Sept. 28, 2018 primetime averages grew to a 1.78 in Nielsen’s L3s and an 1.89 in L7s. The next week’s averages rose to a 1.47 and an 1.56, respectively. At this point you may be wondering if Fox Sports is concerned about its new WWE property’s ratings. Not at all, according to executive vice president of Research, League Operations & Strategy Michael Mulvihill. “The Week 2 number is probably ahead of where I would have expected it to be if you asked me months ago,” he told TheWrap. “What ended up happening is that WWE was able to put together such an extraordinary show for the premiere that the premiere number popped even higher than I think we were anticipating, which I think set us up for a little bit of a correction in Week 2.” Mulvihill is “really happy” with the numbers, though he offered that it’s “too early for a victory lap.” Likewise, it’s too soon to “start looking for cracks in the foundation,” he said. “We are two weeks into what’s a 260-week commitment to live content.” Mulvihill makes a good point. Not every week of the year is as highly rated as September and October, but every week of the year will have a “Friday Night SmackDown” on Fox. Last season, Fox broadcast network programmed at least one rerun on half of the year’s Fridays, and 42% of all Friday programming was encores. There won’t be one of those for the next five years. We may as well point out that Fox’s version of “SmackDown” has out-performed USA Network’s version in these first two weeks, as well as USA’s flagship WWE show, “Raw.” Those are both to be expected with its huge marketing push and due to the fact that Fox is available in 30 million more homes than cable channel USA is. “SmackDown” airs Friday nights on Fox from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.