The last few weeks have seen WWE turning to pre-taped shows thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, both for WrestleMania 36 and for several weeks of Raw and SmackDown around that. But now, they’re heading back to live tapings, and that reportedly isn’t going over well with all of their talent. Ryan Satin of Pro Wrestling Sheet reported Friday that Raw and SmackDown will return to live tapings from the company’s Performance Center in Orlando this coming week (NXT is also expected to return to live weekly tapings from its regular home at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida), despite the state still being under a safer-at-home order. But as Robert DeFelice writes at Fightful, not all of WWE’s performers are pleased with that:
Fightful was told that a “very aggressive” Vince McMahon made the decision, and many on the talent roster are unhappy about it. He was at the Friday Smackdown. Some at the WWE tapings were given a letter in case they were questioned by law enforcement, stating that they are “essential media.”
As per Mike Johnson of PWInsider, WWE had initially planned to pre-tape everything through early May:
Although WWE initially planned to tape all of their April and early May TV in advance over the next several days, PWInsider.com has confirmed that there have been changes made to that plan over the last day and as of tonight, most of the plans have been thrown out altogether.
WWE had planned to pre-tape episodes of Raw on Sunday and Monday, but that idea has been dropped and going forward, Raw will be broadcasting live from the WWE Performance Center. The decision to go live weekly was made this afternoon but had been in play over the last 24 hours.
While tonight’s episode of Smackdown was taped in advance, the plan going forward is to broadcast that live on Fridays on FOX as well.
…WWE talents began arriving on Wednesday in Orlando for tapings that would have brought the company through the week of next month’s Money in the Bank PPV, taping five weeks of Smackdown (through 5/8) and four weeks of Raw (through 5/4), NXT (through 5/6), 205 Live and Main Event. Instead, talents will be traveling to Orlando weekly.
It seems not ideal to have people traveling weekly during this kind of a pandemic, and it’s definitely a curious move to change the pre-taping plan partway through. Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer wrote that this may be about the way WWE’s TV contracts are written:
Contracts with both NBC Universal and Fox call for a certain number of shows per year that can be taped. For Raw, that number is three which, at the start of the year, was earmarked for one show over Christmas week and two shows during European tours. In theory, that would leave them with 49 live Raws. Fox has a similar deal.
While nobody will say so publicly, the fear was that by violating the contract, it would give the networks the legal ability to withhold money or find a way to change the deals. With no house shows, the company, like all sports companies, is surviving largely based on television revenue, but the networks paying that are also taking in far less revenue than they projected at this point in time due to the pandemic.
It’s certainly possible that this decision was made to avoid giving the networks potential leverage to change the contracts. But that comes with its own perils; by making this move, WWE has certainly upset at least some of their talent, and they may also be putting their performers at some risk. It’s maybe notable that one on-screen WWE talent not on the ring roster has already tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered (as The Wrestling Observer’s Josh Nason writes). And having a bunch of people traveling weekly for shows and being in close proximity with others during that time seems not ideal, even with all possible precautions.
And it’s unclear that Fox and NBCUniversal would have pushed back on the contracts even if there were more pre-taped shows than the contracts allowed for. Pushing back on that might have saved the networks some money, but it would probably have been a bad look publicly for them to be calling for WWE to be going back to live shows during a pandemic. But WWE is going ahead with this anyway, so it’s a moot point. Here’s what the company said in a statement to ESPN Saturday:
“We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times,” the statement said. “We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance.”
We’ll see how well that works out for them.