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How WWE makes long-form content

The sport entertainment company’s reputation as a content powerhouse has seen it produce everything from feature films to acclaimed TV documentaries. In an industry engulfed with quick, disposable offerings, Susan Levison, head of WWE Studios, explains the value of long-form storytelling.

24 February 2021 Ed Dixon

Susan Levison cannot help but wax lyrical over her role at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

“We get the fun thing of figuring out how to tell the story of our talent, our company and our IP in lots of different ways,” she says through a smile. “We're never bored out here at WWE Studios.”

Having joined WWE in March 2019 from CBS, it is not hard to see why Levison is having a good time of things. As head of WWE Studios, the long-form, third party, non in-ring division of the Vince McMahon-led juggernaut, she has licence to create a swathe of different shows in various formats to be sold domestically and internationally.

The scope is vast, even for a sports entertainment property synonymous with storytelling. Even so, the onset of social media and digital content has meant WWE, like others, has had to adapt fast. It would be an understatement to say it has made a good fist of things so far.

Just on YouTube, WWE is by far and away the most followed ‘sports’ channel, with 73.6 million subscribers at the time of writing. Just five other channels on the Google-owned video sharing site have more. Based on the valuation YouTube places on ad-supported content, WWE was on course to generate more than US$13 million on the platform in 2019.

Last April’s WrestleMania 36 was also hailed by WWE as the ‘most social event’ in its history. The behind closed doors showpiece racked up a staggering 967 million video views across its digital and social platforms, a year-over-year increase of 20 per cent.

Certainly, wrestling, as well as boxing and martial arts, have been conducive to social media success, thanks to their one punch knockouts and other head turning hits. The three sports have over 15 billion video views collectively on TikTok alone, according to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The thirst for WWE content has continued at the start of 2021. In January, NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service secured exclusive US rights for the WWE Network over-the-top (OTT) platform at a reported cost of more than US$1 billion over five years.

Given the extent of its output, you get the impression that WWE does not just like its stories, it unashamedly adores them. In a world where instant, bitesized and disposable content appears to be the priority for extracting value, long-form offerings often appear an afterthought. Levison thinks otherwise.

“We're at a place where every consumer has so much choice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week through any medium they want,” she acknowledges. “I think the unifying principal now of so many of these platforms is they want the premium storytelling, they want excellence.

“There are certain things that, just because of their quality and the purity of the execution, I think multiple platforms would want it. Everything from small SVODs [subscription video on demand] to the biggest broadcast networks.

“Sometimes it's a mistake to think about which platform first. I think it's more helpful for us to say ‘what's special about this content and how are we going to execute flawlessly?’. Then what we've found is that the market place opens up because that's sort of the underlying DNA of what all of these platforms are looking for these days.”

I think that's a really important question for sports. How do you create a format or an idea, or use a piece of talent in a way that's bigger than just the core fans of that particular entity?

Levison, who was speaking at the SportsPro OTT Summit in December, believes that lengthy content should not be feared, even amid the shifting media landscape. If what you are making lends itself to a longer format, do not fight it. Should you want to develop engaged communities within your audience, it could lead to spectacular results.

Last year, there was no better example of a long-form megahit than The Last Dance. The ten-episode docuseries, chronicling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ journey to a sixth National Basketball Association (NBA) title, was watched by 23.8 million users on Netflix users outside of the US in only is first four weeks.

While The Last Dance unquestionably benefited from the lack of live sport – it was released during the height of the first lockdown – the show still stands as the poster boy for long-form content in the modern age.

In recent years, highlights from WWE include 2020’s Undertaker: The Last Ride, a miniseries from WWE Network looking at the 30-year career of Mark Calaway, the man behind the moniker. In 2018, WWE Studios also produced the critically acclaimed documentary André the Giant for HBO. The US pay-TV network later claimed the film was the most watched sports documentary in its history.

Obviously, WWE can afford to take more chances than most when it comes to content. According to Levison, the promotion is “in 800 million homes worldwide three days a week” with its various Raw, Smackdown and NXT events. Undoubtedly, live remains WWE’s bread and butter, with the long-form production complimentary. Levison refers to it as the “cherry on top”. Quite often, that small and special touch is what sets something apart.

WWE pays close attention to what resonates with its fans

When it comes to deciding what projects to work on next, WWE Studios does look to prior engagement figures and what storylines are currently popping. As a production company, which has produced a string of cinematic releases – including 2019’s Fighting With My Family starting Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – that demands that content ideas are viable enough to be commissioned, paid for and distributed by a buyer.

To hit those checkmarks, Levinson asks a series of questions for production pitches: “We have to think not only is this a great story but also is there a market for this? Is there someone who's going to pay US$3 million for an eight-part docuseries?

“How will this not just serve our fans, but how does it transcend then into pop culture and will there be a buyer that wants to show it to the whole world?

“I think that's a really important question for sports. How do you create a format or an idea, or use a piece of talent in a way that's bigger than just the core fans of that particular entity?”  

As its efforts with Undertaker: The Last Ride and André the Giant have shown, WWE is not afraid to pull back the curtain on, quite literally, its biggest stars. Yet, seeing as how the company has a better idea of what is going to happen in any given matchup compared to a traditional sports rights holder, are its methods truly transferable? Ultimately, Levison believes honest content and keeping abreast of what resonates is universal. 

“Vince [McMahon] always talks about WWE being the first interactive sports company because when two superstars are out in the ring you can hear the fan – you get your feedback instantly on what's working and what isn't,” she explains. “That's the old school metric that we use when we figure out what to work on next.

“Fans are so savvy right now. They know when you're doing a puff piece, they know the nuances of what happened in an event or a match, or the history of an athlete. If you don't work with a producer who holds you to account and forces you to tell the tough, maybe unflattering, parts of the story, fans otherwise will see it as an advertisement and a whitewash and they'll reject it.

“So it's something [where] we're constantly trying to push ourselves to tell as much of an objective, true story as we can so that fans will appreciate that we're really willing to go there.”

As we’ve seen, in-depth storytelling lends itself to a longer format. But Levison feels that does not rule out content akin to The Last Dance or Amazon’s All or Nothing series making an impact on short-form platforms. There is not, however, much margin for error. Get it wrong and the product will be a square peg in a round hole.

“I don't know that anyone cracked it yet. I'm sure somebody will,” says Levison. “It's hard to go really deep in five minute increments and so I think somebody is going to have to come up with what that new format is. The quest continues.

“I'm always dazzled by people who work in short-form because I think it's an ultimate highwire act.”

Indeed, things can come crashing down alarmingly quickly. Last October, mobile-focused streaming service Quibi announced it would close after just six months, having failed to entice enough subscribers. Launched by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman amid much fanfare, and US$1.8 billion worth of investment, its ‘quick bites’ of video lasting ten minutes or less failed to hit the mark.

Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s chief brand officer, says the promotion’s approach to storytelling has helped attract more female viewers

Reasons for Quibi’s demise range from launching during a pandemic to the concept not being strong enough for consumers to justify paying for another subscription service. Fight Like a Girl, produced by WWE Studios, was one of the high-profile shows to feature on Quibi and, despite the failure, Levison shows no regret over the experience.

“It was a really interesting experiment and I think there was some great work we did and other producers did,” she says.

“I thought it was a great attempt to try something new. Jeffrey and Meg put their heart and soul into trying to disrupt this business and evolve this business and I think that should be commended. I had a great experience producing for Quibi.

“This doesn't work for a variety of reasons but that's what this business needs. It needs more attempts to try and innovate.” 

What WWE’s approach has shown is the value of behind the scenes, personality-driven content. It enthrals existing fans and engages new ones. At June’s SportsPro Insider Series, WWE’s chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon cited this type of storytelling as the key to growing the promotion’s female audience. Revealing that “nearly 40 per cent” of the audience for WWE’s core programming is female, McMahon concluded that you have to give people a reason to care.

“Women love action, but I think they also really love the stories. They love the characters, they love the drama. Women need a reason to watch, more so than men I think, so the more you can get your female audience engaged in the character and in the story, then they care. They care about who’s going to win, they care about who’s going to lose,” said McMahon.

“It’s really the storytelling that captures people, and I think that’s one of the reasons our female viewership is so high.”

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