In the final week of the Television Critics Association summer press tour, attendees were granted a glimpse at Simpsons World, FXX’s intuitively laid-out digital platform that allows access to all 552 episodes of The Simpsons. (Not to mention clips, a character database, and creator commentary from Matt Groening.) While that promises much excitement for fans of the long-running Fox cartoon, those fans should temper that with a bit of reserve—perhaps by talking to followers of World Wrestling Entertainment about pop-culture institutions over-promising and under-delivering their products.
No matter what South Park may have you believe, The Simpsons doesn’t always do it first: February of this year saw the launch of the WWE Network, an all-encompassing digital platform that allowed subscribers to view, at launch, over 1,000 hours of content, with promises to slowly roll out the rest of the company’s collective 100,000 hours of library content. (A point of comparison: At launch, the WWE was offering five times as much content as Simpsons World will at its height.) WWE Network was not just limited to the archives, but also promised access to both original and live content, including professional wrestling’s bread and butter, pay-per-view events. Programs that previously cost anywhere between $45 to $60 were now available for a $10 monthly subscription fee.
Anticipation was high but the response has been middling. WWE had originally reported that in order to maintain revenue from the pay-per-view model in 2012, WWE Network would require approximately 1.3 million subscribers. As of early April, that number was just under 670,000 subscribers; the organization has since amended its hopes, forecasting an even million subscribers by the end of 2014. Those numbers, coupled with a lackluster re-negotiation deal for its programming’s television rights, resulted in WWE’s stock plunging 50 percent in May, a devastating financial blow that led to downsizing in the ring as well as the front office.
The numbers released Thursday in the second quarter financial report do little to help the company’s prospect, revealing that a mere 33,000 new subscribers were added post WrestleMania, bringing the total to 700,000, far short of the year-end goal. Moreover, it’s the third-quarter numbers the company has to be nervous about, as August will see the end of the original six-month subscription period for Network users and will be the first quarter where subscription numbers could actually dip.
Launch of the WWE Network has been underwhelming. I was as excited as anyone to have the opportunity to have thousands of hours worth of footage at my fingertips, a direct vein into the entertainment of my youth. But the actual experience leaves me a bit cold. While trying to find precisely what you’re looking for isn’t difficult, the app is far from being as intuitive as it needs to be when it comes to navigating so much content. The most fervent of wrestling fans may have no trouble when it comes to figuring out which matches happened where and what will appeal to them at any given moment, but the Network needs to appeal just as much to more casual enthusiasts if it’s going to become as fruitful as WWE needs it to be.
And while streaming has held up better than expected—especially during events causing heavy server load like WrestleMania XXX—the combination of slow content roll-out (give me Attitude Era RAW or give me death) and that clunky app interface leaves me and 700,000 other people with an experience in no way as expansive as we might have expected five months post-launch.
There are a number of ways in which the two streaming services differ, but one in particular leaves Simpsons World at a significant advantage. For as much chatter as there is about HBO Go becoming a separate subscription service and as much as the WWE Network struggles as such, The Simpsons and FXX find themsevles in the fortuitous position of not having to worry about separate subscription numbers. The concept of being tethered to a traditional cable channel is novel in the new-media age, but it may be that the shelter of traditional consumption is exactly what’s needed when it comes to ushering in a groundbreaking digital venture. Simpsons World also diverges from the WWE Network model by featuring ad breaks during streaming episodes, underlining the fact that streaming content always comes at a price—it’s just a matter of whether the customer pays or an advertiser does.
That said, while the WWE Network looks like a separate business model more than that of Simpsons World, there’s nothing to say that the latter won’t run into many of the same issues that ultimately undercut the success of the former. The Simpsons World presentation at TCA impressed even the staunchest of critics, but a pitch-perfect demonstration of a digital platform is a different matter than delivering on the promises made in that demonstration. Moreover, what happens if this platform, with all of its revolutionary potential, doesn’t launch fully formed? What if the “Every. Simpsons. Ever” app launches and you can’t get every Simpsons ever on your smartphone? What happens if you’ve been promised 552 episodes and you only get 250? What does a comprehensive collection look like if it just isn’t comprehensive?
It looks like WWE Network.
Thankfully, with its launch pinned to an unannounced October date, Simpsons World still has time to decide precisely how it will enter the public sphere. With vision, network protection, and public enthusiasm all in place, it’s sure to make a splash, regardless of how it launches. Whether it sinks or swims, however, depends wholly on how well it can make the most of, for once, not doing something first.