The work done by Fremantle in keeping WWE DVD releases on the shelves in an era when digital streaming services are more prevalent than ever is something that we can heartily identify with here at Inside The Ropes. Keen to find out how the company is able to survive and thrive in the digital age, ITRWrestling.com’s Dante Richardson spoke to Ken Law and Ciaran Chivers-Procter, the two long-time WWE fans leading the charge to keep analogue media alive.
What was the first wrestling VHS you bought?
Ciaran: It was Survivor Series ‘98. I had to beg my mum to get it for me because it had an 18 certificate. I have a vivid memory of buying it from WHSmith in Brent Cross. I could only afford one tape and I got it because The Rock was holding the championship on the back—so when everyone has a go about the spoilers, I always think, ‘You know what, that made me buy my first one!’
Were you on board with the industry shift to DVD or were you attached to VHS?
Ken: VHS was extremely expensive to produce and the quality wasn’t that great. They were clunky things. When you got them made they used to have to be wound, so a three-hour PPV would take ages to make. When DVD came along they were better quality, cheaper to produce, and you could stock more of them on shelves. The whole industry couldn’t wait to shift to DVD.
How did Fremantle’s WWE deal come about?
Ken: I was originally at Fremantle from 1999 to 2003 coinciding with the time when my interest in WWE increased. After I left I always kept in touch with my old boss, Pete, who remained a friend. In 2012 I bumped into him at a function and he said, ‘There’s something on the horizon that I think you might be interested in, I’ll give you a call when I have more details’. I thought, ‘What the hell could this be?’ I had no idea.
Then in mid-2012 he called me into his office and said, ‘Look, I’m just about to sign a deal with WWE for home entertainment’—he had remembered that when I worked for him I had a life-size Rock standee in my office. He said, ‘If anyone’s going to fill this role to look after the label across Europe, it’s going to be you. Do you want it?’ And of course I wanted it!
The reason for the change from Silvervision was because WWE consumer products was looking to ramp up its licensees worldwide. There was a number of small companies and licensees that had been around for a long time and I think WWE just wanted to deal with a single media company for Europe versus the old model of several different independents. They wanted it easier to manage and Fremantle fitted the bill.
How difficult is it to keep analogue media alive in the modern era when online streaming has become such a feature of everyday life?
Ciaran: When the WWE Network launched we were a bit worried but, interestingly, it’s not really had an effect on our sales. Sometimes things get taken off the Network because of licensing issues, but if you own the DVD you can still watch it.
Ken: We appeal to those wrestling fans who love to collect. But there’s also the casual fans who are not going to watch or buy every PPV or spend £120 a year on the Network, but they see the Royal Rumble on the shelf in ASDA and they think, ‘Yeah, I’ll have that for £10.’
How much control do you have over the titles you release? Are you able to make requests?
Ciaran: We feed ideas to WWE every year—we are in constant communication with them. We’ve had a lot of UK exclusives over the years and where we are able to do things, they help us. So this November we have a hand-signed Undertaker special edition coming out that’s exclusive to the UK.
There’s flexibility, but it’s also WWE and everything has to go through an approval process—sometimes that takes five days and sometimes it takes five months. As long as we present a rationale for what we want to do they look into it for us. Sometimes it’s a yes and sometimes it’s a real hard no.
Ken: Outside of the US the UK is the biggest territory for home entertainment so they do listen to us. We are not one of these labels that just releases content and puts it out. We always feedback. They respect us because we know what we are talking about, because we are fans at the end of the day.
Explain to our readers what a catalogue number is and why they do not always line up chronologically?
Ken: When we started we had to separate the old Clearvision catalogue that we reactivated from our new releases. We started our new releases at “001” and said, ‘Well, if we have this license for so many years, we are going to release hundreds of DVDs, so where do we start the back catalogue at?’ We decided to pitch it at “500” so there’s no confusion over which is which. Of course, now with the new releases we are at over 200, so we are halfway there. We are going to have to come up with a new system!
Also, when we first started there was more Blu-ray than we have now and the DVD (with a “D” suffix) and Blu-ray (with a “B” suffix) would have the same cat number. Thing got confusing because people wouldn’t see the “B” and “D” as they looked very similar, so we would put an order in for Blu-ray and people would confuse the two and give us DVD.
Our operations team eventually said, ‘Look, we can’t do this, it’s too confusing, there’s too many mistakes happening.’ So about two years on we stopped having the suffixes with the same number and started having sequential numbers, so the DVD would be, say “110”, and the Blu-ray would be “111”.
As for when there are numbers out of sequence—we put a release schedule together way before we get delivery and sometimes confirmation of titles. So sometimes we will allocate cat numbers for titles that just don’t happen. But because it’s already on the system we can’t then assign a different title to that cat number—it already exists as something else . . .
Ciaran: We tried that once and it led to even more mistakes.
Ken: It caused all kinds of confusion because there were two titles with the same cat number. What we do now is create cat numbers and if they’re not used we just can them—they don’t exist. That’s the reason there are numbers missing.
I know it’s annoying for collectors—and if you’ve got numbers where you don’t know what happened I can probably tell you what that title would have been—but to keep the business running operationally it has to be as fool-proof as possible.
Are there any plans to revisit some of the old VHS catalogues for future releases?
Ciaran: We’ve looked at it. We were originally going to have a much bigger back catalogue available but there were technical reasons why we couldn’t. Masters just don’t exist anymore and some discs you can’t rip from because of copyright. I think maybe we looked at the costs as well and it just didn’t rack up in terms of the number of buyers who would be interested.
Ken: Some of these second generation analogue masters would just look appalling on today’s high definition TVs. A lot of the material, a lot of the content, just wasn’t there and it wasn’t in a format that we could really use anymore, sadly. But we do keep going back and thinking, ‘What can we do?’ It’s not completely forgotten about—we will have plans, probably in the next couple of years, to look at some retro stuff.
Is physical media still going to be around in 10 years as digital media grows and grows?
Ken: We certainly hope so. People have been talking about the demise of physical media for a long time. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, the decline in DVDs started more than a decade ago—people said that by 2020 it would be gone. It’s not—people want physical media. There will always be people who want to collect and we are from that era.
We are collectors too. We want to keep it going for as long as possible, and as long as fans keep buying and there’s a market, there will always be room for physical media and the opportunity for us to keep releasing titles.
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