EDITORIAL: Why NXT going to The CW is such a baffling decision and could thwart NXT’s momentum next year

By Zach Barber, PWTorch contributor


I know I typically stay on the AEW side of things, but when I saw the announcement last Tuesday that NXT is headed to The CW next fall, my jaw dropped. It was such a baffling decision.

While the terms of the deal beyond its five-year length weren’t officially disclosed, it’s rumored to be worth double the current rate of $15 million per year. WWE president Nick Khan attempted to spin this as a good deal for NXT and a way to expand its audience. It sounds good, but unfortunately the facts don’t back those statements up. This is not like Smackdown going to Fox in 2019. In The CW’s current state, WWE has basically agreed to ship NXT off to the broadcast TV equivalent of Siberia.

In the last twelve months The CW has undergone a radical makeover. Last fall CBS and Warner Bros Discovery, the co-owners of the network formed in 2007 as a merger of UPN and The WB, sold their controlling stake in the network to Nexstar Broadcasting. Nexstar, owners of several local news affiliates that air their news broadcasts on The CW, quickly replaced longtime CEO Mark Pedowitz with Dennis Miller (not *that* Dennis Miller) as president and Brad Scwartz as entertainment chief.

Miller and Schwartz’s first order of business was to completely gut the network’s primetime lineup of superhero shows popularly known as the “Arrowverse” and young adult dramas like “Nancy Drew” and “Riverdale.” Much of the reasoning for this decision was complicated and not relevant to this discussion, but there is one specific reason for the mass cancellation that I will come back to.

Suffice to say, the new ownership threw the network’s identity for the last decade and its existing audience base out the window. In its place they have inserted a lineup of shows imported from other countries (mostly Canada) and cheap reality shows like “Fboy Island.” Calling this strategy anything short of a failure at this point would be an understatement.

The highest rated show on the network, the magic competition show “Penn and Teller: Fool Us,’ draws a whopping 645,000 viewers on average. That doesn’t seem so bad when you compare it to the low point of NXT’s ratings which were in the 650,000 range, although the show has been drawing in the 700s lately and, during Becky Lynch’s visit, the 800k range.

There is a catch, though. The show was already on the lineup when Nexstar took over. Of the programming that Nexstar put in place, the new backbone of the network, only one show, the Christian historical drama “The Chosen,” even breaks 400,000 average viewers (it draws an average of 556,000). The rest of the lineup draw anywhere from 157,000 to 357,000 average viewers. Yes, broadcast network ratings are down, but these are by far the lowest ratings of any broadcast network.

That is the situation WWE is inserting NXT into. NXT instantly becomes the highest rated show on a network where that’s not saying very much. The idea of NXT expanding its audience when, at the moment, it is outdrawing that network’s highest rated show by double or even triple digits depending on the week, seems highly implausible. If anything, the low ratings, and afterthought nature of the network will be a drag on NXT.

Typically shows lose some viewership when they change networks. Smackdown did buck that trend to some degree when they moved to Fox, but I think it’s fair to say current viewers won’t be as interested to follow NXT to The CW as they were to follow Smackdown to Fox. The lack of a cohesive identity on the CW doesn’t help either.

Nexstar publicly stated that NXT would be an addition to its “growing live sports portfolio.” Once again, it is something that sounds promising until you see that their sports portfolio contains second tier programming like LIV Golf, AAC football, and NASCAR. I’m not sure that’s the company WWE wants to keep.

Speaking of strange company that brings me back to that one aspect of the previous lineup’s wholesale cancellation. The “Arrowverse” and its ilk were aimed toward a younger demographic. Nexstar’s primary goal has been to implement a lineup that will appeal to a broader and more importantly, older demographic as that’s the predominant audience for its local newscasts. WWE, on the other hand, has always been focused on that coveted 18-49 demo. It’s true that at one point the average age of an NXT viewer was in the mid-50s. Still, I don’t think WWE wants to cater to that demo. That seems like an inherent conflict of interests to me.

One final concern about this deal is the long-term viability of The CW as a whole. When it was created, it was never designed to be profitable. It was designed mostly as a clearinghouse for content that CBS and Warner Bros owned and could re-run. As the television landscape has changed, both of those companies made the decision to utilize that content for their respective streaming services. That meant that the money-losing network became an pointless drain, hence why it was put up for sail.

On Wednesday, one day after the NXT announcement, Nexstar reported that The CW lost $60 million in the third quarter, technically an improvement from the $78 million the previous quarter. Still, how long Nexstar put up with a division losing that much money per quarter is a valid question. If The CW doesn’t show real signs of growth and improvement, it’s possible Nexstar could just shut it down. That’s what makes this such a risky venture for WWE.

Nexstar was desperate for content it thinks will bring eyeballs to the network. I’m sure they would have paid WWE three-to-four times NXT’s current rate if they had been asked. There’s just no way, based on the factual analysis, that this is actually a good move for NXT. It feels like WWE is cashing out on its developmental brand, taking the big payday, and leaving NXT to fend for itself. It’s not all that different from putting it back on the WWE Network on Peacock. The problem is WWE will probably be looking for a new deal for NXT come 2029, but its value will be greatly diminished after five years on a network that on a given night does good if a half million people are watching.

*All numbers are as of Nov. 3

(Zach Barber authors the “AEW Feud Tracker” weekly column at PWTorch.com.)

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