Further signaling a shift away from scripted fare, Fox is expected to land rights to WWE Smackdown, taking over the rights in October 2019. In addition, the series would return to Friday nights.
Fox reportedly is paying one billion dollars in a five-year deal lasting through 2021. Fox pounced after NBCUniversal passed on renewing Smackdown, which currently airs on USA Network Tuesday nights. USA is expected to keep the rights to Raw, which has aired live on Monday Nights for the last 25 years.
The WWE nor Fox had any comment.
The deal further solidifies Fox’s plans to go all-in on sports and live events as the network is separating from the studio, with Disney buying the bulk of 21st Century Fox in a $52 billion deal announced last year. Barring any last-minute surprises (from Comcast, who is looking to outbid Disney), the deal closes sometime next year. With Smackdown heading to Friday nights, recently acquired Last Man Standing is likely headed to another night if it get picked up by Fox for another season.
This is not the first time Smackdown has aired on a Fox property: between 2008 and 2010, the WWE show aired on Fox-owned My Network TV, consisting of mostly former UPN affiliates who aired Smackdown when the series premiered on the now-defunct network in 1999. After six years on Thursday night, UPN shifted Smackdown to Fridays, a year before the network merged with The WB to form The CW. In 2008, The CW dropped the show because it didn’t fit in the direction the network was going in (young, female-skewing dramas) and was pulling in lower ad revenue.
In 2010, the WWE made a deal and united all of its properties under one roof with NBCUniversal, with Smackdown airing on SyFy. In 2014, the show switched back to Thursday nights and to USA in January 2016, and moved to Tuesdays six months later so it can do live broadcasts (with the exception of a few instances, Smackdown generally taped on Tuesdays.)
The moves come as the WWE’s star continues to rise with marketers and the willingness to evolve. During NBCUniversal’s upfront presentation recently, WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon talked about women’s empowerment and announced a rebranding of the Divas Division to the Women’s Division. Three women superstars appeared on stage, including former UFC superstar Ronda Rousey.
During the first few years of its UPN run, Smackdown was singled out by activists for its reliance on sex and violence, notably the Parents Television Council. Over the last few years however, the WWE has toned down the raunchiness of its product to make it more family-friendly, so it won’t be an issue for Fox.
There is no word on if Smackdown would be live on Friday nights instead of taped.
As for the impact on Fox’s schedule, the Smackdown deal takes away another night of programming, meaning those shows on Fox next season will have to work harder to earn renewal stripes.