Announcement From e.tv
On July 20th e.tv, one of four major free-to-air broadcast TV channels in South Africa, announced that it would be dropping its WWE programming after airing the product for 16 years – well over the span on my entire wrestling fandom. Managing director of e.tv channels, Marlon Davids, in an official statement elaborated saying “international rights contracts [like e.tv and WWE’s] are complex” and “after reviewing our renewal options, we decided to focus instead on the direction our entertainment lineup has been taking over the last 12 months”. The station will continue to air their selection of weekly WWE programming up through to September 1st.
With e.tv declining to renew their broadcasting rights, SuperSport (the main sporting network on South Africa’s largest satellite broadcaster, DSTV) has signed what appears to be the most comprehensive WWE TV deal the country has seen. In a statement lathered with more corporate buzzwords than an ESPN “think piece” chief executive of SuperSport, Gideon Khobane, announced that all WWE programming will air live with next day replays – including all pay-per-views and weekly TV.
Apart from the implication of free Network content there may not be much else of note in this statement for readers outside the country. It is only within the last few years, however, that e.tv has aired WWE programming on a week delay. Throughout the majority of their 16 year run, shows aired on a three week broadcast delay. Stranger still is that RAW and SmackDown are both trimmed down to a single hour on e.tv – a practice that spanned the entire WWE/e.tv relationship.
In terms of presentation SuperSport quite clearly blows e.tv out of the water. In this respect the deal is a major positive. However, this does not necessarily make it the best deal possible for the majority of South Africans or even the WWE long-term.
Bad News for Most
The WWE (and likely wrestling as a whole given the attendance of local indie promotions with minimal promotion and unknown talent) is exceedingly popular in South Africa. Whilst down from what was a local wrestling popularity boom of sorts in the 2000s, RAW and SmackDown both do well in excess of 2 million viewers every week. RAW, now e.tv’s flagship wrestling show after SmackDown dominated Wednesday nights for years, often breaks the 2.5 million viewer barrier – an extraordinary number in a country of 55 or so million people and 44 million potential television viewers. WWE will not be able to sustain such popularity on the DSTV network, at least for the foreseeable future.
Approximately 13 million households in South Africa have access to television, of which the vast majority have access to e.tv (there are some minor caveats related to signal strength). Of these 13 million households over 8 million are without access to paid TV of any kind – this translates to 27 million people of the 44 million in population terms (*).
Pro-wrestling is more popular in the country than it has any right to be given the lack of direct cultural connection to its own territorial past, lack of a major local scene, and event promotion. But, satellite TV remains a minority luxury in the country and the numbers above bear this out. With potential households decreasing by more than 50% this may very well bring about the death of what, in my experience anyway, has been a very unique, vibrant, and highly invested wrestling audience in the country.
For all its flaws the WWE means more to casual viewers in this country than many reading this can likely imagine. Regardless of how corporatised or over-blown the product becomes, few fanbases world-wide live and die with pro-wrestling as the working class opera than those in South Africa. The viewership figures are important. The effect this will have on WWE may be interesting to hobbyists, however, the true loss here is a human one. A loss where a predominantly working class genre becomes inaccessible to most of its fanbase due to the same set of life circumstances to which wrestling ought to provide refuge.
Implications for WWE in the Rest of Africa
The details of the WWE deal with SuperSport aren’t public, but even if the new deal means higher rights fees in the coming years – this has to be a long-term blow to the company, at least within South Africa’s borders. On the other hand, the number of live events run in the country is minimal with the last WWE tours taking place in 2007, 2011, and 2013. Beyond the WWE 2K video game series and children’s clothing, merchandise sales are likely negligible in comparison to television rights fees. In this sense a hike in rights fees may be worth the WWE’s while, simply due to the fuel it provides to their hopes of global expansion.
SuperSport is available through MultiChoice/DSTV in over 40 African countries, and so depending on the health of the prior existing deals in those regions this could lead to a net increase in WWE viewership on the continent even if South Africa takes a hit.
Possible WWP Coup and Similarities to itv Deal
The loss of WWE programming on free TV may have its perks for the local wrestling scene, as the WWP, the country’s largest promotion, has been teasing the announcement of a new national television deal since April. Whilst a WWP deal is unlikely to quell the resentment e.tv has brought itself in the wake of the Thursday’s announcement, it could put the WWP in a similar position to the much discussed possible World of Sport show on itv. This is as, by virtue of being freely available and airing at a reasonable hour, the WoS show would conservatively draw numbers several times greater than those the WWE could possibly rake in on Sky Sports.
Whilst WWP has yet to announce an official TV deal, a spot was filmed for the upcoming show on July 20th, the day of the e.tv announcement. The company’s teases thus far (made via wwp.co.za) point towards a deal entailing “national television in South Africa and the rest of Africa”, which may rule e.tv out as a potential station. The worst case scenario, apart from failing to score any TV deal, would be for the WWP to end up on DSTV along with the WWE.
The WWP is a ‘WWE Lite’ promotion if ever there was one – even more so than IMPACT/GFW in some respects as presentation, match style, various gimmicks, and terminology are all borrowed from the global juggernaut. This is a problem in and of itself, but could seriously hamper the potential growth of the local wrestling scene should it land on a comparable platform to the WWE and fail to bring anything new to the table.
We see this to some extent already with WWP’s currently airing weekly clip-packages from their April WrestleMonster III beach-side show on a small regional station, Nelson Mandela Bay TV on DSTV.
Resting on WWP’s shoulders is a massive burden of proof, having not only promised a major television deal, but also the signing of a talent who has “filled the Tokyo Dome” in a Facebook post on June 13th. Depending on how far one is willing to stretch the truth the signing could be as obscure as Giant Singh (Great Khali) who, in an amazing piece of Dome trivia, appeared second from the top on the 2002 January 4th Dome show teaming with Chono opposite TenCozy.
WWP appears confident, however, at least from its Facebook posts:
“Could Pro Wrestling in South AFRICA be headed for a massive Revival….
Could WWP Wrestling be headed for a Commercial Channel ?
Could it be that the biggest deal in South African Pro Wrestling History ever is about to be signed…..
Time will tell….!!!!”
Whether a company like the WWP who have been massively ineffective promoters over the past several years, can pull off something extraordinary in a major international deal and new TV show is yet to be determined. It will be one of the greatest triumphs in the history of South African wrestling if they do.