WWE announced Tuesday morning that NXT, its third touring brand alongside Raw and SmackDown, is moving to the USA Network for a weekly two-hour live show starting on Sept. 18.
NXT is based out of Orlando, Florida, and utilizes wrestlers who train at the WWE Performance Center. Since 2014 and the launch of the WWE Network, NXT has become the most-watched series on the WWE's proprietary streaming platform. The roster features a mix of hand-picked athletes and entertainers, as well as a deep roster filled with some of the best independent wrestlers initially trained outside of WWE's walls.
The move to USA Network raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is how this move will affect the WWE and upstart All Elite Wrestling alike. AEW is set to debut a two-hour show on TNT starting on Oct. 2.
What are the changes?
For now, three major elements of the show are changing. The weekly show expands from one hour to two hours. That doesn't necessarily mean double the content, however, as what was an hour-long show with only a handful of WWE-centric ads will now feature full commercial breaks on USA.
Second, the show will now be filmed live, rather than recorded as part of a batch of three or four episodes taped on one night. For the time being the show will continue to be filmed on the campus of Full Sail University, a short distance from the WWE Performance Center.
Third, and perhaps most notably, is the move to USA Network. With SmackDown set to move to Fox on Friday, Oct. 4, USA maintains two weekly broadcasts on its airwaves with five total hours of programming.
International fans will still be able to watch NXT on a weekly basis, but will now see NXT on Thursday nights on the WWE Network, rather than on Wednesdays. The show will become available on demand at 8 p.m. ET.
Is WWE doing this because of AEW?
It's plainly obvious that putting NXT up against AEW's new show is done with purpose. This was no coincidence. WWE is very aware of what AEW is doing, which was made clear during the latest shareholders call when Vince McMahon denigrated the "blood and guts" in AEW's product.
NXT versus AEW is an obvious head-to-head matchup. Both products are built on work rate -- athletic, engrossing in-ring action -- as much as they are stories. That is where NXT differentiates from Raw and SmackDown and what AEW has been trumpeting as its bread and butter.
WWE likes to call its product "sports entertainment," but NXT and AEW are very much professional wrestling and drawing from the same audience of "smart" fans who follow the industry closely.
If it wasn't before, this is now very much a WWE vs. AEW war and everyone knows it.
What does this move for AEW?
All Elite Wrestling has been riding high on a wave of momentum, thanks to the success of its debut show Double or Nothing and a pair of subsequent smaller shows. All Out, AEW's next major arena show, as well as its first two weeks of television tapings in Boston and Philadelphia are sold out, but it faces another big test once it hits major cable airwaves.
With apologies to IMPACT Wrestling (formerly TNA), which aired on Spike TV from 2005 to 2014, AEW's move to TNT is the biggest change to the pro wrestling ecosystem since WCW shut its doors in 2001. With the financial backing of the Khan family, which also owns and operates the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC in England, AEW has been given every chance to succeed. That won't mean much if it doesn't draw a TV audience.
AEW has built up a solid roster of recognizable former WWE stars like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose), Cody (Rhodes), Shawn Spears (formerly Tye Dillinger) and Dustin Rhodes, but the long-term success will depend on whether fans buy into the rest of the roster. Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks have enjoyed some mainstream crossover attention, but the majority of the roster has not. Familiar voices like Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone will aim to bridge the gap with fans watching AEW for the first time on Oct. 2.
But until we see how each show looks on broadcast TV, and the audience it attracts, the true impact remains to be seen.
Does NXT have enough roster depth to handle this change?
In short, yes. WWE has brought in a considerable volume of talent over the last five years, with more than 100 wrestlers training at the WWE Performance Center as of December 2018. The NXT roster on WWE.com currently lists almost 60 performers, and that doesn't include numerous talents who have yet to debut with the brand.
WWE has also shown a willingness to mix and match stars from its other brands. Expect to see a fair bit of crossover from NXT U.K. and 205 Live, as well as the potential for short-term runs by current Raw and SmackDown superstars as well as longer-term returns, as we've seen in recent months with Tyler Breeze and Fandango.
New talent that debuts on NXT TV will perform in front of a much broader audience on the USA Network, but the familiar confines of Full Sail will likely relieve some of that added pressure.
Will this ultimately help or hurt the NXT roster?
Moving to USA and a longer format will ultimately help the NXT roster. While top stars like Matt Riddle, the Undisputed Era, Johnny Gargano, Shayna Baszler and the Velveteen Dream are already featured on NXT TV most weeks and will get an expanded presence on a larger platform, more of NXT's performers who are either on the cusp of breaking through to that top level or are just starting out will now have more opportunities to be featured.
It will also be interesting to see if and how the format changes with the move to USA. Will it have more non-wrestling segments, a la Raw and SmackDown, with performers in the ring talking on the microphone? There's a solid chance of that, of course. But if they can also bring some of the newer, more creative ideas that have been thriving on NXT TV and the WWE Network, like the Prime Target show centered around Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano ahead of NXT TakeOver: Toronto, they may come to find that they have a star-making weapon that will get fans invested in a major way.
How big of an effect will the move to live programming have?
For NXT's top stars, it'll likely be negligible. They're already used to performing live on NXT TakeOver specials, and that experience will be a big help in the transition and allow them to absorb some of that pressure. The real test will be for NXT's up-and-coming talent, who had the benefit of pre-tapes and editing to brush over their slip-ups. While NXT has seemingly moved beyond the label of being just a developmental brand, one of the most important things to watch will be if and how the process of debuting new wrestlers will change.
Is Full Sail still the best location for NXT?
In the short-term, yes. The production setup at Full Sail University is a well-oiled machine at this point, and keeping the show in one location will keep costs way down. It will be a familiar environment for talent, making the transition to the USA Network feel a little less severe.
In the long-term, it remains to be seen. Over the last few years, NXT has expanded into a touring brand that has traveled all over North America and Europe for short tours. NXT TakeOver specials showcase some of the best wrestling under the WWE banner five or six times a year. There's a potential of burnout with the same (or at least similar) Full Sail audience attending shows every week and there will no longer be episodes taped ahead of NXT TakeOver specials to break things up, either.
While Full Sail will continue to give NXT a different feel from weekly WWE TV, there's a potential risk of it feeling too small in comparison to other shows. Even if venues remain small, taking some of the touring opportunities to places like Center Stage in Atlanta and turning them into weekly broadcast locations on either a regular or occasional broadcast could easily spice things up.
Will this move hurt the WWE Network? And how much?
It's tough to say how big of an impact it'll have, but taking the most successful weekly show and debuting it on broadcast TV every week will almost certainly have an effect. Keeping the broadcast (albeit on delay) on the Network for international viewers will definitely soften the blow, but NXT is one of the main reasons fans subscribe to the network, along with monthly pay-per-view events, the deep WWE archive and other original content.