Viewpoint: Familiar Concepts

By Tristen Critchfield Jun 24, 2013

So here’s a dirty little secret about the modern era of reality television: Virtually none of it is original.

I came to this realization recently after watching a trailer for what seems like the 92nd edition of MTV’s “The Challenge,” which pits casts members from various seasons of “The Real World” against one another in a series of asinine physical competitions. In between, the players bicker, connive, pursue ill-conceived relationships and drink heavily. A substantial cash prize awaits those who can survive until the end.

In short, it utilizes a template not unlike that of any number of reality shows that have attempted to squander our time in 30-minute or hour-long blocks. Tweak a few elements, add a fight at the end of each episode and the overall concept is more similar to “The Ultimate Fighter” than you might have initially imagined (The whole “ill-conceived relationships” part could easily gain traction in the upcoming co-ed season of “TUF.”). “The Challenge” still has legs after approximately 15 years of existence because -- often against our better judgment -- there is still some kind of perverse joy in marveling at the absurdity of it all.

The faces change, but the character archetypes, trivial feuds and humorous mishaps generally remain the same as the years go by. And that’s why some of us keep coming back.

This past week, Bellator MMA debuted its own reality series, “Fight Master,” following the promotion’s first Summer Series event. The show’s star-studded coaching cast -- Greg Jackson, Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock and Joe Warren -- all made cameos in Thackerville, Okla., to help push the show during the Bellator 96 broadcast.

In the days and weeks leading up to its unveiling, those involved with “Fight Master” trumpeted a similar theme: This was going to be something different. Forget that the show’s premise involves 32 fighters guided by celebrity coaches competing against each other for an opportunity to showcase their skills in a top mixed martial arts promotion. Writing it off as, “Déjà vu all over again” is simply unfair, Bellator and Spike TV officials said. “Fight Master” focuses on reality, not juvenile pranks and hijinks. Viewers will become invested in a largely anonymous cast of fighters as they perfect the finer points of shooting for a takedown, throwing a jab or cinching a guillotine.

That, at least in theory, seems to be Bellator and Spike TV’s master plan. After one airing, however, it does not appear that “Fight Master” is reinventing the wheel when it comes to MMA reality TV. Based on this press release announcing the show in February, that should not come as a surprise:

The 32 fighters, competing for a spot in the welterweight (170lb) tournament in the Fall of 2013, will live and train together in four camps led by the aforementioned legendary coaches. This series is much more than just a tournament, as it will capture the reality of the competitors and the grueling training regimen it takes to become a world-class MMA fighter.

The concept of “Fight Master: Bellator MMA” is unprecedented in that the fighters control their own destiny. They will choose which camp to train with and which opponent they want to fight next. The premiere will feature 8 qualifying fights with each subsequent episode showcasing at least one fight. The finale will be telecast live on Spike with the winner moving on to an upcoming tournament. Bellator announcer Jimmy Smith will serve as host.

It is hard to fault Bellator for wanting to try its hand in the reality show business. After all, Spike served as a launching point for the UFC, and MMA overall, with the historic first season of “TUF.” Without it, Bellator as we know it might not even exist -- or if it did, on a much smaller platform.

However, marketing “Fight Master” as something unique seems a bit disingenuous. The show’s attempt to distance itself from “TUF” by claiming that it emphasizes the training process is misguided at best. Most iterations of “TUF” feature their fair share of training montages and strategy talk, but when the show drifted away from in-house drama during its widely-panned live season, viewers criticized the fact that the connections with the fighters were not as strong.

On the initial airing of “TUF,” Chris Leben garnered a following not because of his fighting exploits, but because he was a magnet for controversy. Whether it was urinating on a roommate’s bed or having his impromptu campout session interrupted by Josh Koscheck, Bobby Southworth and a garden hose, “The Crippler” was a guy you remembered, for better or worse.

If “Fight Master” is going to lack such debauchery, then the fights themselves have to be one hell of a standalone product. In the initial episode, the banter between coaches Jackson, Couture, Shamrock and Warren overshadowed any of the action in the cage.

A Bellator reality series could prove to be valuable when it comes to attracting new viewers to its product. Despite having grown stale over the years, there remains a segment of the MMA-viewing population that identifies with “TUF” alums more than all but the UFC’s biggest stars. While it has shown more of an inclination to pursue big-name free agents in recent months, the strength of Bellator’s roster lies in its homegrown talent: fighters such as Pat Curran, Ben Askren and Eduardo Dantas who have blossomed under the promotion’s banner. If it works well, “Fight Master” will bring more eyes to new prospects -- which in turn should bolster the depth of cards at future events.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with piggybacking on the concept of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Rather than trying desperately to convince everyone that “Fight Master” is something entirely new, the focus should be on selling the show as a solid -- if not entirely original -- commodity. If viewers were so enamored with the unprecedented, then how do you explain Hollywood’s obsession with remakes?

Wait, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was just remade a few years ago? No problem, let’s just remake the remake, and as an added twist, we’ll show it in 3D. No one will complain.

The point is, a feeling of familiarity can be beneficial. And, whether Bellator, Spike and Viacom likes it or not, “Fight Master” does not feel all that different -- not after one viewing, at least. In a nation that consumes reality TV like Roy Nelson allegedly gobbles Burger King, that is hardly disastrous. Multiple shows boasting similar concepts should be able to peacefully coexist -- and they already have.

“Fight Master” needs to be judged on its own merits, not by what it isn’t. It is nearly impossible for the show to revolutionize the sport in the same manner that “TUF” once did, but that does not mean it cannot succeed. The series can be instantly forgettable, but if it’s at least entertaining, people will watch -- 23 seasons and counting of “The Challenge” stands as proof.


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