For Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena, becoming a cultural icon began on WWE Monday Night Raw. It’s the longest-running weekly episodic program in TV history, and will celebrate its 25th anniversary live from New York on Jan. 22.
Raw consistently ranks as the top cable entertainment show on Monday nights, and is one of the highest-rated shows on all of cable TV among adults 18-49. Raw is also the primary reason why USA Network is one of the most-watched cable networks in prime time.
But the road to success hasn’t been without some bumps along the way.
The Vince McMahon-owned WWE—at that time known as WWF (World Wrestling Federation)—battled the Ted Turner-owned WCW Nitro franchise from 1995-2001. After Turner’s deep pockets lured multiple WWF stars to WCW, Raw knew it had to make a change and it did so by changing the tone of its storytelling.
WWE’s new Attitude Era earned TV-14 rating, resorting to provocative storylines that included violence and shock value.
Attitude Era characters like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock channeled the feelings of the time, explained WWE on ESPN editor Tim Fiorvanti. “Everything was sort of edgy, pushing all of the boundaries of what was OK in society and what was OK inside the wrestling ring.”
Raw overtook Nitro in the ratings due in part to this rebrand, and AOL Time Warner, which was never truly invested in WCW Nitro in the first place, sold WCW to McMahon in 2001.
“We almost lost the Monday Night Wars, and if we had lost, we would have gone out of business,” admitted WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon.
In order to maintain momentum, WWE decided to take Raw live every Monday night, from every other Monday and expanded from one to two hours.
It’s been a wild ride since. Here, McMahon breaks down the entertainment behemoth’s strategy for achieving longevity—and success.
Evolution: In 2008, WWE moved away from the edgier content that has recently come to define Raw as a family-friendly product. Raw’s new PG rating alienated some older fans, and made storytelling more challenging. As a result, Raw evolved into something new: a global entertainment company.
Strategy: WWE has had a two-pronged approach to expanding its audience: attract global brands and connect with women.
WWE’s global sponsorship revenue has quadrupled since 2010, and increased 29 percent year over year in 2017.
“We wanted to attract blue-chip advertisers, and we have accomplished that feat by adding 70 new advertisers over the past three years alone,” said McMahon.
Brand Partnerships: Mattel recently created a fashion doll line of WWE women Superstars in response to Raw’s growing female audience, which now represents 40 percent of its viewers. WWE Superstars have appeared in Snickers’ popular “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign, and KFC tapped Superstars to play Colonel Sanders, which was part of a larger campaign that included celebrities taking turns as the colonel. Moreover, WWE Superstars Dolph Ziggler and John Cena have starred in Cricket Wireless commercials.
Storytelling: Raw has achieved success through nuanced storytelling. The story of Stone Cold Steve Austin versus Vince McMahon, the blue-collar underdog in conflict with his demanding boss, represents a theme most Americans can relate to. Raw also introduced the McMahon family to viewers as a way to relate to families and encourage co-viewing, which has paid off. Raw’s audience is a “great cross section of America,” explained NBCU cable group entertainment networks president Chris McCumber. “You get a lot of viewers from the heartland, but you also get many from the coasts.”
Audience: In 2017, Raw averaged slightly more than 3 million total viewers, which is comparable to regular season TV audiences for the NBA and MLB. “Raw delivers larger average audiences 52 weeks per year, and that’s been pretty consistent over time,” said Guggenheim Securities media analyst Curry Baker.