WWE Just Moved Its NXT Showcase to Directly Compete with AEW

The wrestling entertainment titan seems to hope that its development product will squash AEW. Will it work?

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WWE has spent decades in the wrestling business as the top company, facing almost no competition with remotely the same cultural impact, size or scale. As the brand became increasingly politically contemptible and alienated much of its top talent through relentless bureaucracy and incomprehensible creative decisions, dissent in the industry began to foment, perhaps indirectly accelerating the creation of All Elite Wrestling. Now, as both companies snipe at each other through a series of escalating passive aggressions, WWE is making money moves in what many are interpreting as a not-so-subtle attempt to thwart the latest challenge to its supremacy. 

Last week, it was officially announced that NXT, at one point considered WWE’s developmental brand, would be moving from WWE’s digital streaming service to the USA Network on Wednesday nights—during the exact same time slot AEW announced its new live show would run on TNT. NXT had essentially functioned as WWE’s minor leagues by allowing up-and-coming stars to gain a larger following and practice in front of TV camera setups and stadium-sized audiences before finding their way onto the main roster. The program, in the past handled by an entirely separate creative team from other WWE shows, has since become its own unique brand with a different look and feel than WWE’s other flagship endeavors. Now, as NXT becomes its own full-fledged TV show, it seems unlikely it will serve the same purpose going forward.

But the announcement has prompted several unanswered questions within the industry: Will WWE move to replace NXT with another, smaller developmental division—as it has in practice been doing with EVOLVE? Will WWE CEO Vince McMahon, who has been repeatedly criticized for exacerbating a creative crisis within the company writ large, seize creative control of NXT from his son-in-law Paul Levesque (akasemi-retired pro wrestler Triple H), thus changing the mood and tone of the celebrated black-and-yellow brand? Will some characters be exclusively drafted to NXT, thus making the concept of “call-ups” to the main roster obsolete? Will the move from a one-hour to two-hour time slot significantly impact the enthusiasm for NXT? How calculated were both AEW and NXT in their scheduling decisions?

The last query specifically was investigated by journalist David Bixenspan, who received communications dripping with venom from WWE, essentially saying that the decision to move NXT to TV had nothing to do with AEW: “NXT has been on Wednesday nights since 2015 [sic] as I’m sure you know,” a WWE spokesperson wrote. “It isn’t called counter-programming if you continue to air a series on the same day/time as it has been on for nearly five years … Perhaps you’ll ask AEW about counter-programming NXT?” An AEW spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, WWE is showing some signs of crawling its way out of the self-made disaster its shows have recently become, as evidenced by an ever-so-slight bounce in ratingsRoman Reigns vs Buddy Murphy on Smackdown Live! proved that the company may not be entirely out of fresh ideas, and the handing over of some powers to Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff potentially indicates a new direction.

Similarly, the resurrection of the time-honored King of the Ring tournament proved WWE isn’t completely out of nostalgia to mine. Despite Vince McMahon’s rumored hatred for “tournaments,” a cross-branded series of fights has been scheduled, bringing a certain kind of prestige to the programs that had largely been missing. Originating in 1985 and continuing annually on-and-off in the following years, the beloved contest is generating excitement amongst both performers and audience members alike.

If these are signs of WWE rising to the challenge posed by AEW, then good on them. On the other hand, in this era of increasing political division, WWE’s commitment to conservatism and reluctance to embrace progressivism in anything but the most platitudinous of gestures (see: this year’s Pride photoshootlater criticized for its immense hypocrisy) may alienate younger viewers who suddenly have what at least appears to be a more liberal option in AEW.

Perhaps the most humorous part of the situation is how both companies continue to childishly shade each other while constantly looking over their shoulders to see what their nemesis is up to. Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks, the charismatic figureheads of AEW, say they’re lookingto provide an “alternative” to WWE rather than compete with them—but then went out of their way to literally destroy WWE iconography at a major pay-per-view. 

Parallel to that, WWE personnel repeatedly attempt to publicly minimize the risk AEW poses to WWE’s dominance, even calling the new rivals a “pissant company” at this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony, while continuing to schedule events at the exact same time as AEW.

Doth thou protest too much?

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