Kelly Kahl, CBS Executive, Discusses MMA's Return to Network Television

Thursday's announcement that the Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers Strikeforce card will air live on CBS caught many people by surprise, as most expected the event would be shown on Showtime.

FanHouse spoke to Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of primetime programming for CBS, about how this decision came about and whether he thinks the UFC will counter-program the telecast. The full interview is below.

Ariel Helwani: How did this decision come about?
Kelly Kahl: Well, we had a deal with Strikeforce for some time. When they did a deal with Showtime, CBS had a deal in place, as well, and we always kept the door open. We were just kind of waiting for the right place, right time and right talent. And once Fedor was signed, that certainly looked to us as a great way to jump back into MMA on network TV. And talking to our partners at Strikeforce and Showtime, we were able to put a fight together and we're very excited to get back on the air.

How do you juggle satisfying CBS and Showtime's needs in a situation like this because Showtime clearly has a lot invested in Fedor?
Well, I think the word you used, 'juggle,' is correct. You know, luckily Strikeforce has a lot of quality fighters and there's plenty to put together solid cards for each of us. And having good fights on CBS is also in Showtime and Strikeforce's interests because it really brings their fighters to a bigger audience. You know, a lot of the idea here is to help create new stars and expose these fighters to a wider audience and that's the real value of CBS to these other two entities.

Will you be heavily promoting Fedor on CBS like you did when Kimbo Slice fought on the network?
Certainly that is part of the plan and that's what we're going to work on almost immediately start doing. While Fedor is certainly the No. 1 heavyweight in the world, you know, we have to let non-MMA fans know who this guy is. He's got a great look, he's got a great story and we need to share that with people.

Are you concerned that the UFC will try to counter-program this telecast?
You know, the UFC is a great company and a smart company. They're going to do whatever they feel is necessary to protect their interests. They've done it before and they've done it really any time anybody else has put a big show together. So we'll make due with whatever they do or maybe don't do. But would it surprise us if they counter-program? No.

Will anything be done differently on the broadcast from the past EliteXC shows on CBS?
Each broadcast we really tried to improve and get a little better, and I think we learned a lot from fight one to fight three. Most of that team is back in place for this, and they've even gotten better as they've done more fights on Showtime. I love our broadcast team; I really don't think there's anybody better. I think Gus [Johnson], Mauro [Ranallo] and Frank [Shamrock] do an awesome job, and I think that we're going to try and put the highest quality MMA event on network TV that we can.

After everything that transpired during the last EliteXC event on CBS, did the thought ever cross your mind that MMA would never air on CBS again?
[Laughs] I certainly always hoped there would be the day that we would get back on the air. I believe in this sport; I think our network believes in this sport. You would have to be blind not to see what's happened, really, I think in the last year in terms of popularity [with] the coverage MMA is now getting in the mainstream press, on ESPN, local sports telecasts. I mean, it's really moved beyond just kind of an Internet-based reporting where it's really come along ways to the mainstream. So I always hoped that we would get back to this day and we're very excited that we have.

Are you surprised other networks haven't begun airing MMA?
It's hard to say. You know, each network has their own business plan, so it's not my place to criticize what other networks might or might not do.

What would be considered a successful rating for this show?
Well, what we talked about the last couple of times was if we could improve our demographics on a Saturday night, which we did a great job of the last few fights, and then, you know, we have to sell commercials. So if we can sell commercials, if we can improve our demos then we would consider that a success. ... We don't have kind of the built-in media hot buttons that maybe we've had in the past, but like I said, we do have the world's No. 1 heavyweight, who is an interesting and compelling story, and again, it's up to us to let the people know who he is and what that story is. When we get that out there, we'll get people there. Certainly in the MMA world, everyone knows who Fedor is and we're excited to be giving a lot of these people their first chance to see him.

Are there plans already in place for CBS' fifth show?
We'll handle it kind of like we did the first time with Elite. We'll get one under our belt, see how it goes, see how we do, and then will plan the second [Strikeforce show]. You know, the good news is with Strikeforce and Showtime they're great partners and a great deal of professionalism and a really solid stable of fighters, so when it is time to go back on the air we know they can deliver.

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