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What If.....Sky and the WWF

The Reverend

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What If. …Sky TV had never had WWF as part of their programming? Would ITV have done a deal with Vince to have it shown in the WOS spot? They had WWF featured matches as part of that before. Would Channel 4 have picked it up as late-night cult programming?

If ITV had picked it up then the exposure it would’ve been given would have been huge, but would it have sunk quicker? I’m of the opinion that the fact that it was on SKY, with a lesser audience than mainstream TV, gave it a slow burn popularity over about 3 years, rather than the usual 1 year that most fads have.

Or would Sky have picked it up later, meaning tje boom period would've been the piss-poor 93-95 era.

Would the British Bulldog have featured so prominently without a UK presence?   

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Greg Dyke at ITV was busy getting rid of all the 'working class' programs like Wrestling, Darts, Cannon and Ball. Even if they were still getting good ratings (Cannon and Ball had 12 million viewers). So no chance there, although they were showing WCW by the mid 90's


How did the WWF get so big here in 92 when hardly anyone had Sky at that point anyway?



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No real memory from 91 to 92ish but my view is it was very much peer driven by the kids. There was at least one mate who had sky and might have found it either being shown or adverts while dad was watching sport etc. This led to showing mates at the weekend and boom more fans than sky box owners. The same as any craze back then. One or two like it, their mates follow and before you know it everyone is pogging up, morphing into rangers or trying to body slam the weedy kid. 

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Wasn’t it a case of WWF were desperate to get programming in the UK and would do a cheap deal for a slot. It’s why it was on WOS for a very brief period and Dyke wanted wrestling off and Sky needed cheap content so got a deal done?

WCW on ITV was weird. Some regions had it on in the early hours, others on a Saturday afternoon slot.

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Sky customers were all-in for exotic American culture, whereas any terrestrial TV boss expecting the same ratings for the same shows would've been disappointed, I reckon. Sky and the WWF were a natural fit.

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Here's a piece I did for FSM on the Sky/WWE history that covers some of the questions in this thread:

WWE’s move to BT Sports ends a three decade relationship with Sky. John Lister explores the rise and fall of the broadcaster’s longest running programming.


Sky’s WWF coverage was not actually the first time American wrestling appeared on British screens. In the early 1960s, several areas of the country including Westminster, Southwark and parts of Sheffield, were test markets for pay-per-view services. Not only did customers have to get special cabling installed, but the technology’s name was literal. Individual shows were purchased by putting money into a meter connected to the television set, with the cash collected later on by the providers.

Programming included everything from live opera and theatre to exclusive home viewing of the Cassisus Clay-Henry Cooper world boxing heavyweight title match. The early broadcasts also included “wrestling from Chicago” though it’s not clear if this was contemporary footage or archive material from the glory days of nationally televised wrestling in the US on the DuMont network.

Not only were the possibilities of pay-per-view were enough to inspire the Hurst Park Syndicate to set up a company called Viewsport specifically designed to carry boxing and wrestling events on television, but it was likely a leading factor in Hurst buying out wrestling’s dominant Joint Promotions. The market wasn’t ready for premium home television however, and by the time of the Clay-Cooper fight ViewSport had a mere 4,000 potential customers.

Clay – now renamed Muhammad Ali – was the reason for the next broadcast of American wrestling in the UK. The scheduled 3 July 1976 World of Sport wrestling slot was replaced with footage of the previous week’s mixed match between Ali and Antonio Inoki in Tokyo. It also included highlights of pro wrestling matches from New York’s Shea Stadium which acted as an undercard to closed circuit coverage of Ali-Inoki, including Andre the Giant vs boxer Chuck Wepner.

But it would be 1984 before international wrestling, specifically the WWF, became a regular sight on British television. By this point cable television lad launched in some areas of the country, albeit more as a way to deliver traditional channels to homes which couldn’t receive a strong signal over the airwaves than a way to extend viewing choice.

In 1982, the first European satellite broadcasts began with a channel known on-screen as Super Station Europe. It struggled to get much traction in the UK as the location of the satellite meant its signal was too weak to receive without a dish around three metres wide. That would have to be placed on the ground in a garden, not surprisingly appealing to few home residents. Early attempts to sell the channel to cable operators were also unsuccessful until Rupert Murdoch bought a majority stake and rebranded it as Sky Channel at the start of 1984.

It’s not clear if the channel carried wrestling from day one, but by April of that year it already had a regular Saturday night wrestling slot which appears to have been the syndicated WWF show Championship Wrestling, relaunched two years later as Superstars of Wrestling.

Both Superstars and sister show Wrestling Challenge were core parts of the Sky prime time schedule. Indeed, at one stage Sky even produced dedicated commercials for individual episodes of Superstars referring to, and including footage of, the week’s major matches and angles.

Sky also broadcast Saturday Night’s Main Event episodes and shows that aired on pay-per-view in the US, albeit often on a notable delay. While Sky’s audience was still small in this largely cable-only era, wrestling was not only a comparatively strong ratings draw but something the channel didn’t shy away from touting. In a 1988 press release it highlighted the fact that among viewers with cable television, WrestleMania 4 had been the most watched show of its timeslot, outdrawing all four terrestrial channels.

The Sky-WWF partnership really took off the following year when British broadcasting laws changed to allow a satellite service that could directly reach British homes via receiver dishes small enough to mount on the side of a house. With almost every home in the country a potential customer, it marked an explosion in the possibilities for multi-channel television, yet it initially appeared Sky would be left out. A government auction for the exclusive rights to access the satellite was won by the newly formed British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB).

Murdoch responded by leasing space on the Luxembourg-based Astra satellite, thus allowing him to reach British homes without coming under the relevant UK licensing restrictions. With BSB carrying four channels, Murdoch expanded the Sky package to include the existing Sky Channel (soon rebranded Sky One), Sky News, Sky Movies and Eurosport, which would later pick up WWF’s Prime Time Wrestling.

It kicked off a brief battle between Sky and BSB, perhaps best remembered for the contrasting receiver equipment of Sky’s circular dish and BSB’s flattened “Squarial”, the latter designed to appear less vulgar to middle class homeowners. While The Simpsons would become arguably Sky One’s flagship show, its UK debut was still a year away. Instead WWF wrestling was among the defining programming of the boom in satellite television, outlasting long-forgotten Sky One shows such as Keith Chegwin talent show Sky Star Search and a Derek Jameson chat show.

In October 1989, WWF Sky success not only led to the first two UK shows, at the London Docklands Arena and Birmingham Arena, but a live broadcast on Sky One of the sold-out London show marketed with the line “It’s As Good As Being There.” (It would be a slight exaggeration to say WWF was now a hot ticket in British culture, but the cast of Hi-De-Hi were in attendance.)

Sky’s WWF deal was also proving a gamechanger for the domestic wrestling scene as the economics killed any real chance of British wrestling surviving on the small screen after ITV’s cancellation at the end of 1988. Joint Promotions chief Max Crabtree met with Sky bosses to see what they’d pay for programming. He later claimed they offered to match the WWF deal, paying £500 per hour’s programming. The catch was that this money was pure profit for the WWF as it simply sent over its syndicated tapes. Crabtree would have to bear the production costs of first-run programming, which he estimated as £20,000 a show, instantly killing the proposal.

It was clear wrestling was helping attract an audience for advertisers on Sky, but the next step was to more directly monetise the fanbase. At the end of 1989 the pay-per-view events were still on a delay on Sky, with the channel hyping up that the Survivor Series has been “rushed from the USA” to be shown five days after it took place.

While Sky One was free to view for anyone with a satellite dish, Sky Movies had become the company’s first encrypted channel, available only by subscription. While not the most obvious home for wrestling in a kayfabe era, WrestleMania VI was shown live on the channel, making it a direct money-maker as wrestling fans signed up solely to watch the event. With a couple of exceptions, this would become the norm for the big shows.

Finances aside, it also felt like a big moment for WWF in UK. Sky hyped up the broadcast with a heartstopping commercial that claimed the event had been cancelled and would be replaced by a documentary about Bonsai trees – fortunately ending with an admission it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Meanwhile fans over 18 could even attend a special live screening in London complete with a costume contest and an airing of the movie No Holds Barred.

How much difference WWF wrestling really made to Sky’s success in 1990 is questionable, but the broadcaster was in triumphant mode. After technical delays, BSB launched its channels the week before WrestleMania, but by the autumn both companies were struggling to recoup start up costs. Officially the two joined in a 50-50 merger, but with the new company known as BSkyB and opting to continue using the Luxembourg Astra satellite (and thus render the Squarial redundant), it certainly felt like Murdoch’s Sky had won the war.

The merger did lead to a brief period of WWF’s monopoly on Sky being interrupted. BSB’s The Sports Channel continued broadcasting under that name until April 1991 and included WCW programming for at least some of this period. That ended when the channel was rebranded as Sky Sports, at this point still a free-to-view channel.

As WWF’s popularity in the UK continued to explode in 1991, with two hugely successful live tours, Sky directly and explicitly used it as a marketing tool. It produced commercials to air on terrestrial channels that featured a boisterous soundtrack of wrestling action but with a blank screen, ending with a caption informing viewers that they would have to get a dish to quite literally see what they were missing.

By 1992, Sky’s coverage had not only caught up with the weekly programming, but Superstars of Wrestling was airing on a Friday night, whereas most of its US outlets carried it in a weekend slot. This led to a particularly awkward moment when Gene Okerlund’s Update segment announced the Mountie having won the Intercontinental title from Bret Hart at a Friday night show in the US, which certainly sparked confusion among young fans who understood more about how time zones operate than how professional wrestling does.

1992 was of course the year of SummerSlam at Wembley. It’s often seen as the peak of the WWF UK boom before a rapid decline in interest, but the Sky broadcast was also a sign that it was about to drop down the pecking order. As with the US PPV, it aired two days after the show had taken place. It aired not on Sky Movies but rather Sky Sports where it concluded just a couple of hours before the channel switched to a subscription model.

The reason was highlighted within SummerSlam itself. While US viewers would have the questionable pleasure of seeing Crush face Repo Man in a Demolition Derby, Brits instead had a mid-show break for the likes of Richard Keys hyping up Sky’s exclusive live coverage of the newly formed Premier League. While wrestling was clearly being used to attract an audience, it was now inescapable that football would forever be the number one selling point for Sky’s paid television.

Throughout the mid-90s, WWF’s domestic slump was mirrored by a declining lack of priority in Sky’s coverage. Unbelievable as it may seem today, Sky did not pick up Monday Night Raw until it had been running for almost three years, even when it became clearly established as the main WWF programming ahead of Superstars and Challenge. Instead viewers had to suffice with a weekly update show titled WWF Mania where radio DJ Todd Pettengill introduced highlights of Raw’s happenings.

British viewers continued to miss out when WWF launched monthly pay-per-views, adding two-hour In Your House events to fill the gaps between the existing major shows. It’s not known if WWF asked too much money or Sky didn’t consider they’d drive enough subscriptions. Either way, for a couple of years British fans had to either wait several months for the official home video release through SilverVision (making for extremely disjointed storyline development) or take their chances on a converted copy from a tape trader.

Things weren’t always ideal with the pay-per-views that did air either. At several points in the mid-90s the shows – including even WrestleMania X – were not only shown two or more days later rather than live, but included ad breaks. These breaks would often (badly) hide that sections of long matches had been cut out, with Sky even adding their own bumper captions. On one inexplicable occasion this even included a match spoiler, telling viewers midway through the SummerSlam 1994 cage match that “Bret’s OK – Owen’s The Loser.”

Ironically the revival of Sky treating WWF as a serious property in the Attitude Era boom came at a time when it lost its exclusivity. In January 2000 Channel 4 not only bought up the rights to air four pay-per-views, but also the recently launched weekly Sunday Night Heat series, reflecting the mainstream interest in the promotion.

Channel 4 would drop its coverage after two years, though the decision may well have been made after the first live event. Having hyped up the Royal Rumble to a family audience earlier in the afternoon, the channel experienced a couple of major hitches. It attempted to find natural breaks to insert adverts, enraging viewers by literally cutting the Rock off mid-sentence. And it angered parents whose children stayed up late or watched a recording of a show featuring barbed wire, blood and Mae Young’s drooping prosthetic bosom.

When that deal ran its course, Sky stepped in and struck new contracts, putting the four events onto Sky Box Office, a pay-per-view service that had previously only carried WWF wrestling through a series of UK-exclusive shows of diminishing importance and quality. Within a few years existing contracts came up for renewal and all major WWF events were only available as standalone pay-per-views in the UK, leaving Sky Sports subscribers with the weekly television shows.

While an expensive proposition for dedicated viewers, the Sky-WWE relationship seemed to satisfy both parties until 2014 when Sky agreed a new long-term contract at triple the previous rights fee, likely sparked by competition from the recently-launched BT Sport. While it’s taken five years to climax, the relationship has been headed downwards ever since.

The first blow came with the launch of WWE Network just weeks after the new Sky deal. By including every major show in a subscription model, it was an obvious threat to Sky Box Office revenues. The resulting dispute appears the main reason it took nearly a year for the Network to officially be available to UK subscribers (complete with a localised price hike from $9.99 to £9.99) and even then the problems didn’t end.

While Raw and Smackdown remain on a 30-day delay thanks to US television deals, Sky was far from amused to discover the Network included Main Event, which was part of its UK exclusive deal. Rather than try to create a geoblocked feed, WWE agreed to delay the show’s addition to the Network worldwide.

Exactly what caused the subsequent ratings decline for Raw and Smackdown on Sky Sports has been widely debated. Part of it is simply the same falling interest in the product that’s affected audiences stateside. Part of it is a specific drop in UK interest in WWE shown by some disappointing house show figures at venues that would normally sell out easily, though that may be a chicken and egg situation.

There’s also a strong argument that with live broadcasts coming in the middle of the night in the UK, two WWE changes have had particularly negative effects in this country. The addition of a third hour, taking Raw’s conclusion from 3am to 4am, has likely been a final straw for many previously dedicated viewers. Meanwhile the increasing availability of legal highlight videos on YouTube may have been more of a deterrence to watching the full TV shows here than for Americans who can watch live in the evening.

Either way, as Will Cooling detailed in Issue 148, it’s not hyperbole to describe the ratings for UK broadcasts since the new deal began as having plummeted. To give just a couple of examples, when the deal was renewed, a live Raw broadcast getting less than 100,000 viewers was a rarity; by 2017 it was the norm and one show’s audience dropped to just 18,000. Meanwhile the high-profile post-WrestleMania Raw collapsed from 243,000 viewers in 2014 to just 53,000 in 2017.

Not only has the benefit for Sky in carrying WWE reduced significantly in recent years, but with the rights fee apparently set in US dollars, those cost will have risen disproportionately since sterling’s post-referendum slump.

The signs of Sky’s decreasing interest have been clear, including not picking up the seemingly natural property of NXT UK. Most notable was the revamp of the Sky Sports channel package to have dedicated channels for specific sports which saw wrestling reduced to the miscellaneous wasteland of the “Action” and “Arena” channels.

While WWE’s business model is now largely based on attracting at least two broadcasters to bid for its TV rights in a market, it doesn’t appear that’s been as lucrative in the UK. While nominally rivals, Sky and BT have both become unwilling to be drawn into further bidding wars after shelling out eyewatering sums for major football contracts that may not have paid off.

Whether BT is the right fit for WWE remains to be seen: it certainly offers far fewer opportunities for cross-promotion through the likes of Sky Sports News and associated media such as The Sun newspaper. But for Sky, it’s still shocking to see a 35-year relationship end this way. Only time will tell if the effects on ad revenue and subscriptions proves it right in concluding that WWE programming simply no longer offers enough value to justify its price.

Five Memorable Sky/WWF moments:


In the pre-digital era, the encryption of premium channels involved varying degrees of sophistications. For some satellite viewers only the picture was “scrambled” letting wrestling fans listen to the commentary. On my local cable system, the tiniest twist on an old television’s manual tuning dial was enough to reveal a flawless 9-inch monochrome picture.

Musical Mystery

Obsession by Animotion was a widely licensed song in the 1980s, leading to repeated disappointment for Sky viewers who loved WWF. Whenever you were channel surfing and heard the familiar theme, you’d anticipate a rare chance to see superstars wrestling superstars on Saturday Night’s Main Event. Instead, 9 times out of 10, it was yet another episode of Fashion TV.

Tuesday In Texas Advert, December 1991

A brief clip of the Survivor Series 91 title match finish and Jack Tunney’s announcement of a return match, followed simply by the words “The Rematch”, “Hulk Hogan vs The Undertaker” and “December 6th Sky One”. A gloriously simple way of making the show and match feel like A Big Deal.

WWF Superstars, October 1992

In the days before the World Wide Web, you found out what happened in WWF by watching its programs. This episode opened with Gene Okerlund introducing “the new World Wrestling Federation champion…” In the millisecond before Bret Hart’s music played, anything was possible.

Christmas Mania, December 1996

With the In Your House Events still absent from Sky, we received a bizarre New Year treat: Michael ‘Doc Hendrix’ Hayes in a studio introducing all five matches from the IYH 12 main event. Why it aired in this format remains a mystery.



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4 hours ago, quote the raven said:

Sky would have always picked up wrestling at some point.

The boom in the late 90s would have been to big to ignore that said no one really carried WCW when it was going great over here. 

I heard somewhere, SCG possibly, there was talks in 98 of wcw PPV coming to sky sports or box office but turner internal put a stop to talks when they found out.

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30 minutes ago, JNLister said:

There’s also a strong argument that with live broadcasts coming in the middle of the night in the UK, two WWE changes have had particularly negative effects in this country. The addition of a third hour, taking Raw’s conclusion from 3am to 4am, has likely been a final straw for many previously dedicated viewers. Meanwhile the increasing availability of legal highlight videos on YouTube may have been more of a deterrence to watching the full TV shows here than for Americans who can watch live in the evening.

Fascinating stuff in that post.


This bit's wrong though isn't it?   When Raw went to 3 hours, the additional hour was the first hour.   It had been on from 2am-4am and it changed to 1am-4am.   It meant only needing to stay up until 1 for Raw to start, but we always had to stay up until 4 for it to finish.


What was the channel that aired the 4 PPVs that Channel 4 stopped airing.   They were on another PPV channel for a year then Sky got them back.   Can't remember it now.    Also, somehow in that era it meant there was one PPV that didn't air anywhere here.   Maybe Vengeance 2003 or something like that?

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21 minutes ago, The Dart said:

What was the channel that aired the 4 PPVs that Channel 4 stopped airing.   They were on another PPV channel for a year then Sky got them back.   Can't remember it now.

Was it Setanta Sport?

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5 hours ago, death rides a horse said:

Greg Dyke at ITV was busy getting rid of all the 'working class' programs like Wrestling, Darts, Cannon and Ball. Even if they were still getting good ratings (Cannon and Ball had 12 million viewers). So no chance there, although they were showing WCW by the mid 90's

They were showing it as early as 1989, at least if you lived in the Yorkshire Television area (this was back in the days when outside primetime ITV regions were pretty much a law unto themselves as to what was shown). I remember just seeing "Wrestling" listed in the paper's TV guide for ~1am one day in the morning in the Prisoner Cell Block H timeslot, so I set the video. It was NWA, from memory the first show had the Flair/Funk/Muta/Sting post-match brawl at the Great American Bash and Flair's awesome post-match promo with his green and red face.


The second week was more of the same, there's a decent amounf of the show on Youtube including the infamous Sid Vicious/Lee Scott squash plus Sting badly botching a dive to the outside and more Funk craziness.

Sadly it didn't last much longer than a few weeks, but it was great while it lasted.

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58 minutes ago, Hannibal Scorch said:

It can't have been. They didn't exist in England then.

Sky Box Office showed the C4 PPV's in 2002 they had shown in 2000-01. The other PPV's I think were just on regular Sky Sports.

Yeah, I'd agree with this too. I can't recall the specifics for Rumble '02 (I did watch it though), but definitely remember Backlash '02 being Box Office. It was the first ever PPV to incorporate the new, first time ever brand split concept. Sure it opened with Kidman and ?Tajiri? for the cruiserweight Title.

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