Understanding the big picture about TV ratings

Since the Monday Night Wars, TV ratings have been fodder talk for pro wrestling fans, usually as a misguided attempt to validate their feelings about a promotion. Hell, even I made comments in the past that misunderstood TV ratings in the past.

However, I went through great pains to learn more about TV ratings, how they work, and how to properly interpret them. With that being said, I decided I would craft this little guide to understanding TV ratings for fellow armchair media analysts out there about how to think about TV ratings and what you should be your takeaways from them.

It's all about the demo

"Demo God" jokes aside, demographical TV ratings, first introduced in 1970, are the most important ratings metric, period. Demographic ratings are the main reason why that TV shows that have ugly numbers in regards to total viewership can still keep their shows on air. Supernatural, for example, is a show that lost literally half of its audience throughout the 15 years it was on television, but still had over 300 episodes because the CW network could live with the demographic ratings.

The 18-49 demo is the most lucrative demographic for advertisers, followed by the 18-34. Why? Because this age group typically spends the vast majority of their income. Older demographics typically opt to save (defer spending) rather than consume (actively spend). This is where the shows prove their value and while fans often bark at each other over total viewership numbers in comparison to the late 1990s boom period, TV is a much, much different landscape now.

Both WWE and AEW are beating the cable TV market which has shrunk by 9%. Their TV offerings are actually up year-over-year, thanks to a return to live crowds above all else, enhancing the presentation.

So what should you do? If you see total viewership numbers, ignore it. Advertisers and networks don't care as much as you think they do. What's ideal for each show?

  • WWE Raw: 500,000-600,000 in the demo
  • WWE Smackdown: 700,000-750,000 in the demo
  • AEW Dynamite: 400,000-475,000 in the demo
  • AEW Rampage; 250,000-290,000 in the demo
  • WWE NXT: 300,000-350,000 in the demo*
(*) Relatively speaking, WWE NXT is really the only underperforming show of all the 5 major TV offerings from a demographics standpoint.

Pro wrestling ratings are quite...good

Let's make something perfectly clear here: pro wrestling TV ratings going quite well. Both WWE and AEW are sporting healthy TV numbers, with all of WWE and AEW's TV offerings, except WWE NXT, usually finishing within the top 20 on their respective broadcast days. In fact, WWE NXT usually finishes anywhere in the top 50.

While it is not the same as the late 1990s or early 2000s numbers—pro wrestling was commanding a viewership of 10 million per week—it is still quite good given today's market. Those that discuss TV ratings with unnecessary alarmism are thinking of TV ratings in absolute, not contemporaneous, terms. Thinking of TV ratings with an absolute view is just simply bad analysis.

For example, AEW Dynamite has seen a consistent decline in viewership over the past few weeks. Is it because of AEW itself? It would be if Dynamite has been plummeting down daily TV rankings—but it has not. Dynamite has been consistently in the top 5 in most weeks in the 18-49 demo. AEW is still TNT's highest rated offering and has thus far torched TNT's NHL coverage.

Another example? The alarm when someone reports that an episode of Raw has had the lowest viewership in the history of the show. The debate is fairly meaningless.

As long as all three hours of Raw is still land in the top 10 for the demo, things will probably be just fine even though NBCUniversal probably wants higher ratings for the amount of money they're paying for live fictional TV. However, I can confidently say that if there was serious alarm, NBCUniversal would canceled WWE NXT by now and Raw would have an overwhelming reboot.

AEW's viewership will probably never, ever exceed WWE's

I love AEW. I don't watch WWE. I don't hate WWE. I actually think WWE has a good product. But I am going to be real here—AEW TV premiere day (also known as same day) viewership will never, ever exceed WWE's.

This is not an indictment against AEW, nor is it a ringing endorsement of WWE's supposed supremacy.

Why? Three reasons:

  • WWE programming is broadcasted on networks that are available in more homes than TNT. FOX is a broadcast television network, so its coverage is obvious as most Americans don't need a pay TV subscription to watch. USA Network is in roughly 1 million more homes than TNT. AEW does, however, close the gap significantly in 7-day delayed viewing, as viewership increases anywhere from 20-40%.
  • AEW has been pretty clear that its tailored for a much narrower audience than WWE. WWE's product is designed to be accessible as possible, de-emphasizing the wrestling aspect and focusing more on presenting marketable entertainment personalities. AEW is committed to being a pro wrestling promotion, and while it will cross-promote and borrow from other WarnerMedia properties, the company makes it clear that they are a pro wrestling promotion first and an entertainment brand a distant second.
  • There's simply a greater demand for WWE content than AEW content due to entrenched market leadership. That's not going to change within 2 plus years' time.

Pro wrestling will never get back to the 1990s to 2000s viewership...and that's okay!

Out of nostalgia (or to use as fodder for claims that wrestling has lost its way), there will always be that argument that brings up how much higher viewership was back then. Once again, TV is much, much different from those years.

The way people watch television has changed. There are so many options for a viewer to watch programming that they don't even need a full blown cable TV subscription. In fact, the cable TV market shrunk 9%.

It's hard to say how many people exactly are watching pro wrestling programming. Streaming platform viewership is not publicly reported. No pro wrestling show will ever draw 5 million viewers again. Hell, there won't be a pro wrestling show that draws 3 million viewers again. Those days are over, but for some corners of the wrestling fandom world, they cannot let go of the past and accept today's reality.

So what should you do when a ratings report comes out?

Before you start claiming that the sky is falling for this or that promotion, think about these three things when you read a story about pro wrestling TV ratings:

  • Where did the show rank that day in the demo?
  • What was the competition that evening on television? What actually finished ahead of the show?
  • What was actually promoted ahead of time?

The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Cageside Seats readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cageside Seats editors or staff.