The year is 1996, the place is World Championship Wrestling (WCW). With the New World Order, made up largely of former WWE stars, reigning supreme, WCW Nitro took the ratings lead over WWE Raw–a streak it would hold onto for 83 weeks. In that time, WCW regularly boasted about trouncing its competition in the ratings. After all, when you’re the king of the wrestling mountain, why wouldn’t you want to talk about it? That said, wrestling fans know how this story ends. WCW ultimately falls apart, with a long list of reasons for its downfall, from ego to a corporate merger. The story remains the same, though: For all of its non-stop bragging, the company lost.
Fast forward to 2020 and there’s something intriguing happening on Wednesday nights. When All Elite Wrestling (AEW) launched in October 2019, it looked to be an exciting alternative to WWE’s programming. And, thankfully, in many respects, it is. Many of the wrestlers are interesting and new, having not appeared in a major role in WWE before–from the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega to Private Party and Orange Cassidy. However, as time goes by, AEW seems to be borrowing more and more tactics from WCW’s playbook, and it’s starting to get grating.
This is most evident with the TV ratings. Pretty regularly since its debut, AEW has topped WWE’s NXT in the 18-49 TV rating demographic, the one typically seen as the most important factor to TV advertisers. For the majority of its existence, the company hasn’t let that become much of a factor in its storylines. After all, WWE doesn’t tout when it beats AEW–which would largely be seen as punching down–so what good would it do for AEW to start doing so?
Then former WWE and AEW champion Chris Jericho started tweeting about it. It all began during the COVID-19 pandemic, when NXT’s total audience slipped ahead of AEW’s regularly. At that point, Jericho began tweeting about how it didn’t matter because AEW still had the coveted demographic.
He’s not wrong, but a little context would be helpful. First, you have to know how TV ratings are gauged. Nielsen is the leading group behind measuring TV viewership. According to a 2019 story from The Hollywood Reporter, the Nielsen ratings are determined based on a sampling of 40,000 homes (roughly 100,000 people) in the United States. The company then uses an algorithm to determine its ratings numbers.
On the August 5 episode of AEW Dynamite, the show scored a 0.36 in the 18-49 demographic, which translates to 468,000 viewers based on Nielsen’s calculations. The episode of NXT that same night, on the other hand, garnered a 0.20 rating, which equates to 256,000 people.
Both are decent numbers and both improved on recent ratings. What they aren’t, however, are numbers worthy of basing your character around. After all, both numbers are a fraction of WWE Raw’s audience for this same week, which was a 0.51 in the 18-49 demo (652,800 viewers) and a total audience of 1.715 million.
Yet, over the past month, Jericho has taken his tweeting about the ratings and incorporated it into his AEW character, regularly bragging about winning the “ratings war” and christening himself the “DemoGod.” He’s even released two different T-shirts with the phrase.
And to be fair, this is well within Jericho’s rights. He, like every other professional wrestler, is an artist who is simply plying his trade on TV weekly. However, as a longtime connoisseur of this particular genre of art, it’s a little too reminiscent of the crowing WCW did about its ratings in the ’90s. It’s a nudge and a wink at a minuscule segment of the audience that obsessively tracks such things while leaving the majority of the audience confused–or, at worse, misinformed about what’s actually happening.
Because, while AEW’s ratings success over NXT is somewhat notable, it’s also a skewed victory. To get to the bottom of that, you simply have to take a look at something else AEW is doing that might remind you of WCW.
The roster for AEW is one of the most impressive in the industry. It’s a group of up-and-coming wrestlers bursting with talent, mixed with an array of former WWE stars who have had varying levels of mainstream success. Does that sound familiar?
AEW featuring guys like Cody Rhodes, Jon Moxley (FKA Dean Ambrose), and Chris Jericho to elevate their roster–in addition to the likes of Shawn Spears (FKA Tye Dillinger), Matt Cardona (FKA Zack Ryder), and FTR (FKA The Revival)–is a truly fantastic idea. It brings eyes to their product that recognize the talents from WWE, while also giving the company bankable stars to build itself around–to date, the only two AEW World Champions have been Jericho and Moxley.
However, this is a roster going head-to-head with NXT. For those unfamiliar, NXT was formerly viewed as WWE’s developmental brand. It’s the place where new signees go to learn how to wrestle in the WWE style and acclimate themselves to the company before debuting on Raw or Smackdown. That perception has changed as NXT has begun to be billed as WWE’s third brand and, what’s more, one main roster star (Finn Balor) has returned to NXT to help establish it.
All that said, NXT remains a platform full of names that have had little-to-no exposure on Raw or Smackdown. So comparing the star value of NXT to that of AEW doesn’t quite make sense. That said, it also doesn’t quite make sense comparing AEW’s ratings to those of Raw or Smackdown, shows with decades of a baked-in audience.
Ultimately, AEW’s ratings are something the company should be proud of on their own, regardless of what WWE is presenting on any given night–especially now, in the past couple of weeks, as they seem to be on track to regain the audience lost during the first months of episodes filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While ratings for wrestling programs have been down across the board, AEW (and NXT, to an extent) have both begun slowly gaining back viewers that were lost.
Those gains are something Tony Khan, president of AEW, spoke about proudly on Twitter, thanking fans for tuning in and promising another strong show next week. It’s the exact right way to handle the situation
TV ratings are something the majority of the audience doesn’t care about and even more of the audience doesn’t understand. While proclaiming you’re “winning” is an exciting prospect, you’ll be hard-pressed to find WWE doing the same, or even mentioning AEW and its other competitors. There’s simply nothing to gain from it. And those in the know understand that for all AEW’s bragging, they’re only managing to top WWE’s lowest-rated show.
This simply isn’t what fans are tuning into a wrestling show for. They want characters they love and matches that excite them. While AEW is packing in plenty of that, one of the least interesting aspects of the show has become Jericho–who is truly one of the absolute greatest professional wrestlers of all time–gloating about beating WWE’s lowest-rated brand in a ratings demographic by a couple hundred thousand people. What’s exciting about that?