KELLER’S TAKE: AEW’s new expanded partnership with Warner Media Discovery – a collision course for failure or a chance to grow to new levels

By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

Tony Khan comments on All Out event in 2023
Tony Khan (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


When the new AEW-Warner Media Discovery (WMD) deal is announced this Wednesday, a few key components are expected to be part of the deal.

•A new weekly Saturday two hour prime time program called AEW Collision

•A content agreement with the newly rebranded Max (formerly HBO Max) streaming service

•Roughly $240 million in rights fees overall (that’s $4.6 million per week!) on average per year over five years

The rights fees circulating in the wrestling industry is not confirmed, but feels like more than a rumor gone wild at this point. That’s a massive increase over what AEW is currently receiving and gives AEW several things: Financial security, nearly assured profitability, and a much bigger budget for talent and production.

There are some concerns, though. Here are just a few:

•AEW’s booking will be spread thin, and that’s already been a weak point in my view. Tony Khan’s booking is too often paper thin with an over-reliance on the “star-rating” thrill of the action and less on nuanced and layered character development. His “grey area” with heels and faces feels more scattershot than some philosophical stand against more clear-cut portrayals of wrestlers earning cheers vs. earning boos with clear, consistent constitutions guiding their actions and attitudes. Matches are often thrown together with a contrived, rushed interaction during a backstage interview rather than built over the course of several weeks in a more organic, less formulaic manner. Does that become more of a problem with 40 percent more TV time to fill?

•Talent will be featured more often and could be overexposed. This seems like less of an issue than the first point, as I’d argue a lot of wrestlers from the top tier to the bottom tier aren’t featured on TV consistently enough. That said, if TK’s response to the increased work load is to fall back on “Internet Darlings” and dream match-ups that super-serve people reading articles like this and hitting refresh on Twitter and Reddit on any AEW topic, that could lead to more viewers feeling left out and disinterested in wrestlers they don’t know well who are fighting for an issue that either doesn’t exist or is summarized merely by Excalibur’s heavy-lifting on commentary. More time needs to be spent cultivating personas and storylines for more wrestlers so that AEW isn’t just giving double-doses of TK’s favorites doing the same thing twice a week instead of once a week.

•TV event arena attendance could suffer. With diminished attendance in many markets on repeat visits, AEW could be facing burnout in more and more cities. Whether the Saturday show is taped on Thursdays or takes place live on Saturdays, it’s another city getting another AEW event each week. It’s likely some of these fans won’t want to attend twice as often over the course of each year, and there’s only so many cities to visit with regular TV events with arenas that look major league. Will crowds diminish over time and will it start to affect the energy in the arenas and the visuals that give the show a major league vibe (as Knoxville did Friday night for Smackdown with that crowd which was the largest in many years for WWE in that city). Will most of the top stars appear on only one show, giving fans only half of the top stars to see in person in exchange for their ticket money? Or will AEW do more “dark matches” so top stars aren’t overexposed on TV twice a week, but at least live fans in the arenas get to see most all of their favorites thanks to off-TV main events as WWE has done for decades?

•If WMD wants streaming content on Max, does that mean AEW will be increasing the number of special events? Will All In from London, England be streamed live on Max, and if so, will that help or hurt the PPV buys for All Out days later back in the U.S.? TK has been disciplined in running only four PPVs per year, and that has likely helped PPV buys increase more often than not over time. Will “giving away” special events on Max spread the big matches AEW has to offer too thin? Will there be throwaway line-ups that water down the special feeling of AEW’s big events (as has been the case with UFC as it began to supply more TV content to its partners)? Will TK lean on the crutch of title matches, which mean less and less for every new undifferentiated title that’s added to AEW’s ecosystem and for every international belt that’s carried around by AEW wrestlers? (If there were six variations of the Stanley Cups in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup would mean very little compared to there being just one championship trophy.)

There are other concerns and questions going into this expanded content scenario, such as whether Rampage’s viewership will decline even more to the point of not even being worth the time or whether the wrestlers will be asked to wrestle more often and suffer more injuries, thus depleting the roster of key names. Most of these issues can be addressed, though. But AEW has to be aware these actually are potential problems and then devise strategies to overcome them with a lack of denial that they are actually problems, develop a deeper support team (which I’ve heard from people in AEW is one of their top wishes for TK’s creative process), learning from their past mistakes (which means staying out of an echo chamber and avoiding framing good-faith critiques from non-coopted pro wrestling media and fans as “unfair attacks”), and being open to new approaches to the overall booking approach (including TK not just booking for people who are fans of pro wrestling for precisely the same reasons he is).

Throwing matches that would have otherwise been on Rampage or Dark to pad Dynamite and Collision each week, booking the same wrestlers twice as often, or lengthening the key matches to fill TV time could all backfire. Both of AEW’s signature shows need to feel as substantial and worth viewers’ time as Dynamite currently does (and some weeks lately that’s already been a struggle). That can be done, but just adding more wrestlers into the mix alone isn’t sufficient. The booking needs to be better. Booking, by the way, in this TV-rights-fee-based era isn’t merely “match-making;” it’s having a strong team in place to present new ideas and concepts while also storyboarding and pacing storylines over weeks with coherent and compelling interactions between wrestlers that don’t feel like convoluted “first takes” or contrived “amateur hour” skits, which AEW suffers from all too often.

AEW has the budget to acquire a handful of new wrestlers, including disgruntled WWE wrestlers who are looking for a better push or a fresh start along with just about any indy or international star that TK feels would be a good fit for AEW. But signing someone that fans on Twitter tell TK is wonderful is not a substitute for introducing them to the majority of AEW TV viewers whose knowledge of and investment in those wrestlers is cursory at best. Even fans who know who these wrestlers are before signing with AEW need hooks to keep watching them on their AEW journey that goes beyond novel match-ups against AEW wrestlers in dazzling highspot-filled matches. Jay White is an example of a recent signing that has vastly underdelivered his potential as he’s quickly become “just another guy” instead of framed as a difference-maker with a distinct push based on his personality quirks and distinct in-ring style.

The new expanded budget, the financial security, and the reaffirmed partnership with a major media entity brings with it a chance for AEW to expand their reach and improve the fan experience at the same time. If AEW expands their reach but delivers a watered-down fan experience, the average viewership of their flagship cable shows, PPV buyrates, and live event attendance could decrease quickly and substantially.

It’s time for TK to step up his game and expand his support team even further to give AEW the best chance to not suffer some of the same critical issues WCW did when it expanded Nitro to three hours and added Thunder to the weekly docket. Eric Bischoff told me nearly 15 years ago in my five-hour “Torch Talk” interview with him (available to VIP members HERE. Sign up for VIP benefits HERE.) that the biggest single mistake he made was not fighting harder against expanding WCW’s hours of TV content when Turner pushed for more TV content.

Eric Bischoff said to me:

When the whole TBS Thunder discussion came up, [Brad Seigel, the president of TNT] came to me and said, “Eric, don’t do this. You’re going to kill yourself and you’re going to kill your product. You don’t have the resources to do this as well as you need to do it.” …

We knew going in that we were killing the talent, we’re working them to death, we’re creating injuries, we’re taking away from our house show opportunities. There were a lot of reasons why that move was one of the moves that hurt us.

A case can easily be made that the greatest month in AEW history is May 2023. Don’t let it be the start of the company’s decline. In this cable TV environment, though, they have a more room for error and more time for course-correction than any company in a similar position in history.

PWTorch editor Wade Keller has covered pro wrestling since 1987. He has been a guest on the Steve Austin Show as an analyst of current events and pro wrestling history 40 times, making more appearances than any other guest. He currently hosts the “Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast” and “Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Post-show” along with several PWTorch VIP-exclusive podcasts every week. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for “Excellence in Writing on Professional Wrestling” in 2015. He hosted “The Ultimate Insiders” DVD series in the 2000s including long-from studio interviews in Los Angeles, Calif. with Matt & Jeff Hardy and Vince Russo & Ed Ferrara. He has interviewed more big name wrestlers and promoters in long-form insider interviews over the last 35 years for the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter, usually in the “Torch Talk” transcribed Q&A format, than any pro wrestling reporter. The list of those he has interviewed include Steve Austin, The Rock, Vince McMahon, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Eric Bischoff, Verne Gagne, Lou Thesz, Jesse Ventura, Drew McIntyre, Brian Gewirtz, Paul Heyman, Mick Foley, Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, Jon Moxley, and dozens of other top stars and influential promoters and bookers/creative team members.

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