MMA Paper Trail: Cold Reality

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By Jack Encarnacao Oct 5, 2012
Ratings for “The Ultimate Fighter” have plummeted. | Photo:

Coming off the least-watched season in the history of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the Ultimate Fighting Championship hoped a return to a taped format and feuding heavyweight coaches would reverse declining ratings.

That is not happening, as the reality series that reversed the UFC’s fortunes in 2005 reached a new all-time audience low for a single episode three weeks into Season 16, which premiered Sept. 14 on FX. Still, the company is hardly giving up on the reality franchise, rolling it out aggressively into international markets and beginning casting for a 17th season in the United States and a second season in Brazil.

The two-hour premiere episode of TUF 16 did an average total audience of 947,000 viewers, the lowest of all TUF premieres, including the one last spring on FX and the prior 14 seasons on Spike TV. The audience was down 26 percent from last season’s premiere, which aired in the same timeslot. The audience for episode two dropped to an 872,000 average and to 775,000 in week three, the lowest audience ever for a TUF episode.

The audience for the premiere was at its peak of 1.02 million for the first 15 minutes of the program. It then dropped to 859,000 viewers, the least-watched quarter-hour of the broadcast. The audience moved back up to one million at one point and hovered around 930,000 throughout the second hour. The episode featured a bevy of fights that qualified contestants to compete in the TUF tournament, with coaches Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson assessing the fights alongside UFC President Dana White.

White said the season premiere was the number one show on television among males, ages 18-34. “Thats all that matters,” White tweeted. That demographic is the most coveted by advertisers but least likely to be watching television on a Friday night. While not clarified, it is likely White meant that the show was number one on cable television for its timeslot. The demo dropped 34 percent in week two, when TUF was fifth for the timeslot on cable.

As it did in the spring, Spike TV, the UFC’s longtime cable partner-turned-competitor, tried to cut into “The Ultimate Fighter” audience by airing Roy Nelson fights head-to-head with the premiere episode. That presentation did 434,000 viewers, a number White mocked. It was the last time Spike TV will be able to counter a TUF premiere with UFC footage. After the UFC moved to Fox, Spike retained contractual rights to air archived UFC fights through the end of 2012.

The launch of TUF 16 came the same month the UFC expanded the reality show into its second international market. After debuting a Brazilian spinoff earlier this year, “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” premiered Sept. 19, pitting a British squad coached by Ross Pearson against an Australian team coached by George Sotiropoulos. Pearson and Sotiropoulos will fight each other at UFC on FX 6 on Dec. 14 in Queensland, Australia.

The 12-episode series, which plays on a century-old cricket rivalry known as “The Ashes,” airs Mondays on ESPN in the United Kingdom, the same station that airs live UFC events, and on the Australian version of FX, a channel that launched in February. The series does not have television clearance in the United States but streams Wednesdays on The Fuel TV cable channel carried “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” over the summer after completion of the U.S. season, which replays on Fuel. There is no word yet on whether “The Smashes” will be broadcast in the United States. Casting is underway for a second season in Brazil.

Also this month, the UFC called a press conference in Mumbai to announce the premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter: India” in 2013. Few details, including coaches, have yet to be announced. The series will air on Sony Six, a channel that began airing in the nation of 1.2 billion in April. Sony Six will also air live UFC events, “Countdown” and “Primetime” specials and archived fights. The UFC eventually wants to bring a live event to India.

There are some question marks around India’s appetite for mixed martial arts. The Super Fight League -- a promotion founded by a cricket team owner and Indian movie star -- was recently restructured to hold weekly fight cards in a custom studio instead of monthly events in standard arenas. In August, the league premiered a reality series remarkably similar to “The Ultimate Fighter” that airs on two Indian stations that are more established than Sony Six. The reality series does not appear to have caught on in the country in any significant way.

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