For an extremely ambitious and innovative sports entertainment entrepreneur, Vince McMahon has certainly been behind the curve in setting up his own network and is rushing to catch up. WWE is already several years behind the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, all of whom have had their own channels up and running in the United States for several years. Even the former queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, beat Vince to the punch by launching a network named after herself with partners Discovery Communications at the start of this year, but her struggling channel's deep financial losses in year one suggest that Vince may have left things a little too late.
Indeed, Vince may be making many of the same schoolboy errors that she made. Oprah thought she could just waltz in and command large carriage fees right off the bat, but she was sorely mistaken:
Last year, as Oprah Winfrey was attempting to set up lucrative carriage deals for her new TV network, she decided to negotiate personally with the executives at Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator. Winfrey traveled to the company's Philadelphia headquarters in the hope that a little Oprah magic would result in handsome fees for her joint venture with Discovery Communications. But according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting, Comcast executives not only rebuffed Winfrey but characterized her pitch as "greedy" for an unproven network. After that, Winfrey did not attend other such meetings.
As Dave Meltzer reported in last week's Wrestling Observer Newsletter, a very similar story is currently playing out with the WWE network:
From what we understand, negotiations for clearances is going slow and in cable, the feeling is they are asking for too much and that WWE believes they have more leverage than they do.
The end result for Oprah was that she had to agree to be paid no carriage fees whatsoever in order to get her foot in the door with major cable providers like Comcast, which is common for new networks and WWE is likely to be no different. But such a scenario would be disastrous for WWE, whose budget for the network in its first year alone is expected to be a hefty $60-90 million between payroll, upgrading their production facilities, satellite uplinking, marketing and the costs of developing and producing many hours a week of new programming, as WWE cannot hope to recoup those costs from advertising alone.
The parallels don't end there. With Oprah's wealth dwarfing even Vince McMahon's, it's unsurprising to discover that she's just as cocooned from reality as the crazy old kingpin of professional wrestling:
Winfrey also is said to have been unfamiliar with the general television landscape, according to sources with firsthand knowledge -- one insider says that in the early going, she often expressed enthusiasm for ideas that seemed original to her -- but weren't. "Oprah has a bubble she lives in," says another. "She's not a fan of a lot of TV."
Frankly, it's a scary prospect to imagine what Vince McMahon will rustle up in the limited time at his disposal when his film division has been full of turkeys. Thankfully, they've got their enormous wrestling tape library to mine which should give them a solid foundation of quality shows with little effort and is a major advantage that Oprah did not have, but such programming will only have a niche appeal and may struggle to sustain an audience once the nostalgia has worn thin.
Furthermore, with the Oprah Winfrey Network being at best a failing brand and at worst a sinking ship, this has led to them being "beset with executive turnover". If the OWN is finding it difficult to attract and retain quality personnel, then WWE must be finding it impossible with their lack of track record in the field. Indeed, Meltzer reported this to be the case last week, saying that no-one wants to be associated with a network that has failure written all over it:
The problem isn't so much the network but the fact they are rushing it out there. Not only is there limited direction, but they still don't have enough people hired for it. People in key positions in charge haven't been hired, and there are only four-and-a-half months to launch. I know of people who had been in talks and all passed on it, with one remarking that Vice President of the XFL may not be something you want on your resume. So they aren't inspiring confidence, largely because of the apparent lack of long term vision.
At this point, it would certainly be wise for Vince to call an audible and delay the launch of his network for several months while he sorts out these significant teething problems properly, otherwise this project seems doomed to short term financial failure at the very least. But he's far too proud to do that and you know what they say about pride, pride comes before a fall. 2012 could even be the worst fall in Vince McMahon's whole career as a promoter depending upon how badly he messes up this project and how his stockholders react to it all. Lets hope not, but the signs aren't very promising.