The last time a show called NXT aired on broadcast television was more than seven years ago as a reality show that bears no resemblance, outside of the name itself, to what's become the WWE's emergent third brand.
During the course of five years, the careers of many of the biggest superstars on Raw and SmackDown have been forged inside the confines of the WWE's Performance Center and Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. The first 10 NXT champions and first five women's champions all moved on to Raw and SmackDown, and all remain under contract to this day.
While fans have been able to enjoy the growth of superstars on the WWE Network since February 2014, and other platforms before that, NXT's audience has been limited to the most hardcore wrestling fans despite growth and major TakeOver events that have filled the same arenas that Raw and SmackDown visit. That changes Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. ET, as NXT airs its first ever episode on the USA Network.
"If you just go back, you can watch what NXT has become over the few years that it's existed in its current state," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque, during a recent interview with ESPN. "To get to this point where NBCUniversal and the USA Network -- the number one cable channel in America -- is willing to take an hour of its prime-time spot and give it to us, that's a huge statement."
The hour-long episode of NXT's weekly television program, which will also air in its normal 8 p.m. time slot on the WWE Network, marks another step forward for a brand that continues to defy expectations at most every turn. Triple H made it clear that Wednesday's appearance on USA is a one-off as part of a four-night WWE week on the USA Network that also includes Raw (Monday), SmackDown (Tuesday) and WWE's 15th annual Tribute to the Troops special (Thursday), though he kept the door open to future broadcast appearances of the show.
"The network's our home -- always will be, in some matter," Levesque said. "But we have the opportunity for us to get out there on USA to expose NXT, the brand, to the larger world. At this point, we've just been seen on the network, and that's a very small platform, comparatively. This is a huge opportunity, and I'm really excited about the night we've been able to put together."
Fans will see NXT champions past and present, and the timing of NXT's broadcast debut couldn't have been much better. Wednesday's main event, a match between Aleister Black and Adam Cole that would be a pay-per-view main event almost anywhere in the world, is one of four qualifying matches helping to determine the next No. 1 contender for the NXT championship for the upcoming TakeOver the night before the Royal Rumble in Philadelphia.
"From seeing Andrade "Cien" Almas, the NXT champion, to The Authors of Pain, one of the most dominant tag teams we've ever had," Levesque said, "To the main event that night, which will be Aleister Black and Adam Cole, It's going to be an awesome night, and I think it really will expose the brand in a positive way to the world like it's never been before."
The No. 1 contender's tournament became a necessity after former champion Drew McIntyre tore his biceps during his title match with Almas in Houston. The show must always go on, though, and with NXT's talent pool as deep as it's ever been, eight performers got a chance to step into the spotlight to challenge the new champion.
"Andrade was poised to be the next guy," Levesque said. "I think he's come on so strong in the last six months. His performance has been off the charts with Zelina by his side. It wasn't a great time for an injury. Never is. But what we ended up with was the best scenario we could've hoped for, I guess.
"In some ways, people will look at it and say it's one of the inherent flaws of NXT, that at any point in time somebody can go away," Levesque continued. "I feel it's the strength. Anybody can get hurt at any point, and you have to have a place to go. So yeah, it's unfortunate. It sucks that Drew got hurt, but there's never a positive time for that to ever happen. It is what it is."
Aside from the natural timing of the event between TakeOvers in November and in January, a fair bit of thought was put into how NXT's broadcast television premiere would play out before they landed on what will air Wednesday night. While fans will get to see the main event between Cole and Black, as well as Almas and former NXT tag team champions the Authors of Pain, a match between new NXT women's champion Ember Moon and Peyton Royce ultimately won't make the TV show.
"I wanted to put out the best show we could, and I wanted to give exposure, but it's a one-hour show," Levesque said. "There's only so much real estate there. But I wanted to give exposure to people in the best way that we could. There's a video package within in the show that gives you the personality and the profile of Ember Moon, [which was a] more impactful way to go."
In an ideal world for the WWE, viewers will catch Wednesday night's broadcast and become intrigued enough to follow NXT back to the WWE Network. Whether its current Raw and SmackDown fans, or someone who simply happens upon the show while flipping through, Levesque wanted to maximize on the value that an hour on the USA Network provides.
"It's about trying to give them the best show possible that shows them what NXT is," Levesque said. "It's a different show, a different promotion, a different flavor -- an alternative, and I wanted that to be evident. I think you get a feeling for that when you see this show."
NXT's one-hour weekly block is ultimately one of the characteristics that defines and separates it from Raw's three-plus hour block and SmackDown's two-hour broadcast. While it has its pluses and minuses, it's ultimately one of the driving forces that keeps an ever-growing pool of developmental talent motivated to go out any time they get an opportunity.
"One of the things that I'm always unhappy with is the fact that every time we put a show together on NXT there's other stuff that I wish I could fit in there," Levesque said. "You know, there's talent that I think, 'Oh, man. I'd really like to get this guy or this girl on the show. Man, I'd really like to give them that exposure, and I really want to get this person rolling. I just don't have the real estate to do it at the moment.' But I'm also happy with it -- it's a good thing.
"It always has somebody there, chomping at the bit behind [them], ready to take the spot. It creates that hunger. I think it's one of the things that makes NXT tick -- there's a lot of talent that are hungry to succeed and to make it. You know that there's somebody sitting right behind you ready to take that spot if you're not taking it."