‘WWE Backstage’ delivers shocks
The control room on the Fox Lot in Los Angeles was relatively placid on Nov. 12 as the network’s weekly studio show “WWE Backstage” wrapped up.
The show’s host seemingly went off script in the final segment and started a countdown that led into the song “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour — the intro music used by CM Punk, a wildly popular wrestler who had an acrimonious split with WWE in 2014.
Half of the control room gasped when they saw CM Punk walk out on set. The other half cheered. It was a production scene that was more in keeping with a live sports event than a studio show.
The reason for the chaos: Only a half dozen people of the two dozen in the room knew CM Punk would appear. Fox wanted to make sure news of CM Punk’s appearance did not leak.
“Part of what we’re doing with this show is shock,” said Brad Zager, Fox Sports’ executive producer, executive vice president, head of production and operations. “You heard that natural reaction from our control room not believing that this was really happening. We wanted to make this a surprise. We wanted to make this a moment.”
As the first network sports division to produce weekly wrestling shows, Fox’s overall relationship with the WWE is unique. Its studio show, which airs Tuesday nights on FS1 at 11 p.m. ET, provides a good demonstration of that and was started after Fox landed rights to WWE’s “SmackDown” that airs on Fridays. That agreement, which started in October, is for five years and worth $205 million per year on average.
Produced in the same studio as “Fox NFL Sunday,” the show has a different look and feel than a traditional studio show — down to the need to deliver a tease at the end of one show to bring viewers back to the following week’s show.
“The first challenge we had was figuring out how to produce this show without making it feel like we’re putting the WWE superstars and our host behind the NFL on Fox desk and calling it a day,” Zager said. “That started with the look and feel of the show — building a wrestling ring on set and creating an environment where these guys can feel natural.”
The challenge was developing this type of show with a behind-the-scenes crew that is more accustomed to working on traditional sports. Every person in the control room the night of CM Punk’s debut works on a mainstream sport, like the NFL, MLB, NASCAR or others.
“This show is unique because if you put together an NFL studio show, there’s a template for that,” said Jacob Ullman, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of production and talent development. “To do a show on sports entertainment, where we all know that it’s scripted, it’s almost more like covering a television show than a sporting event.”
For Zager, that translates into creating what he called “moments” that would give the show credibility to WWE fans. One of those moments was CM Punk’s entrance, which is why Fox Sports executives went to such great lengths to keep it quiet — putting the former wrestler in another hotel and sneaking him into the studio through a side door during the commercial break before his appearance.
CM Punk, who is represented by CAA’s David Koonin and Matt Olson, had signed the deal the week before. All sides promised to keep the news quiet.
The night before the show, Punk, Zager and Ullman were out at dinner in Los Angeles and were surprised that the news had not leaked.
“We had to buck the trend and not let it leak,” Zager said. “It was the tightest circle of people to ever know about something that we’ve done.”