TUF 16 Looks to Bounce Back After Lowest-Rated Opener

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The reality show that put the UFC on the map in 2005, is doing its lowest ratings ever for a variety of reasons.

The 16th season of the Ultimate Fighter has its second episode Friday night on FX in its latest attempt to create some new stars and draw some nice ratings.

But after last week's debut, it looks like we're starting out in a ratings hole. The two hours of watching largely unknown fighters battle to get into the house did an 0.72 rating and 947,000 viewers. For a comparison, on March 9, the debut of season 15 on FX, the show did a 0.94 rating and 1,284,000 viewers. So it's down 23 percent in ratings and 26 percent in total viewers from the lowest first episode to date.

For a comparison, on FX last Friday, a movie from 7-9 p.m. did 1,380,000 viewers. The show after Ultimate Fighter, another movie from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., did 993,000 viewers. The prior Friday, a movie in the same time slot as Ultimate Fighter was did 1,069,000 viewers.

But UFC's strength has not necessarily been overall ratings or viewership, but the idea it can super serve an audience of adult males 18-49. UFC has never had much appeal to people above the age of 49, because they didn't grow up with the sport. It has rarely done all that well with teenagers. But at times it has done phenomenal, in particular with Males 25-34, and if someone is marketing a product to appeal to that age group, often hard-to-reach, UFC can be a valuable programming.

But that's where the big contradiction comes in. UFC airs on Friday night at 10 p.m. The show is strong in getting a certain age group, yet is put on just about the worst time slot to reach their prime age group. The first episode did a 1.06 rating in Males 18-34. As a comparison, the first episode of the first season on a Monday night did a 2.51 in that demo. When the show aired on Thursdays on Spike, the three season openers averaged a 2.82. When it moved to Wednesday, the next six seasons averaged a 2.07. There are plenty of issues with the show, but the biggest culprit in the ratings drop is Friday nights.

But it also can't be ignored that the first episode ratings, even in its core demo, was way down from the first episode last season, in the same time slot on Friday night. So Friday may be the biggest culprit, blaming it all on Friday is ignoring other issues. It certainly appeared there was more promotion leading into last season, the first on FX. But when that season opened weak compared to the history of the show on Spike, the response was it would take time for the UFC audience to get used to finding it on FX. As it turned out, last season saw a consistent decline to where later episodes were barely topping 800,000 viewers.

Once you get past the age of 35, the drop is actually worse. In the Males 18-49 demo, last week's show did a 0.89,down 28 percent from the season opener in March. More staggering is it's down more than 40 percent from the lowest rated season opener in that demo on Spike, that of season 14.

After last season ended, UFC President Dana White claimed that if numbers didn't improve this season, that FX would move them to a better night. That becomes an interesting game. FX is a significantly higher rated network than Spike. Unlike Spike, which catered to what would be best for UFC, its flagship programming, FX has a strong prime time lineup and uses Ultimate Fighter because it's still going to reach adult males better than anything else they are going to put on Fridays.

Even worse, traditionally, the first episode is usually among the highest, if not the highest of the season. Usually there's a noticeable drop for a few weeks before the show finally levels off. The exception is when there's a great dynamic between the two coaches or there becomes one or more compelling characters, which are usually people who are at the edge of constant breakdowns.

The first episode, two hours of fights to get into the house, didn't focus enough on either to see if that's going to be the case this year. We did see some quick dynamic wins, but that's almost always the case with the fights to get into the house. There are a few names, such as Bristol Marunde, a veteran who dates back to the old IFL, and Smilin' Sam Alvey, a Bellator fighter whose wife and main corner person was a fashion model, who would at least be recognizable names to hardcore fans. Cameron Diffley was actually on the show years ago, as the Jiu Jitsu coach for Forrest Griffin's team in season seven, and lived up to his reputation by getting an armbar win in 1:37.

After the lowest rated season, some changes were made, the key being a return to the old format of a taped show. Instead of 12 weeks live, this season has already been taped, done so over six weeks this summer. The advantage of filming the season before the first episode airs is the editors know who are the finalists. They also know who are the characters, and have more to work with when weaving storylines in each episode. Last year was criticized as largely being a weekly buildup to a fight with two unknown guys, without all the antics and stories in the house that in the early years of the show got people talking.

There are the obvious issues with the show. Very few shows on television last 16 seasons to begin with. When Ultimate Fighter started, just the idea of seeing mixed martial arts fights on television was a novelty. The public didn't know the first thing about the sport, the training, weight cutting and fighting strategy. As time went on, what seemed to drive ratings was seeing weeks of tension build up with two coaches. Often, the coaches didn't seem to like each other. In a few cases, they seemed to hate each other. Ultimately, it led to some massive fights like Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra, Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans and Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck. While the fights often didn't live up to the hype, it was that hype that brought viewers in.

Carwin is not a dynamic personality. Nelson is different, and there were already hints in the first episode that he and Dana White weren't getting along. From the opening minutes, it was clear that White, the fight promoter, was encouraging guys to be aggressive and have the most exciting fights. Nelson, the last genuine star the show created back in 2009, was more pragmatic. Fighters on this season were going to have to fight as many as four times in six weeks. For them, the best thing to do is not just win, but to win in the least damaging manner possible so you don't take injuries into the next fight and take away from training.

The other part of the show is creating new stars who can also fight. One of the most talked about fighters in the history of the show was Junie Browning, who seemed constantly on the verge the entire season of being kicked off the show for disciplinary reasons. Like him or hate him, he spiked ratings like few cast members in history. He came out of the show as a star, but he couldn't win in UFC competition and was quickly gone. There has been a constant struggle in casting between the forces that want the best fighters and those who want the best personalities. In the long run, personalities, if they can't fight and win at the UFC level, have no long-term benefit.

But at this point, there's not a lot new to see. We've got the usual cast of unknown guys. We've got the guys with the brightly-colored Mohawk haircuts, the pretty boy types who don't look like fighters but really are, and the outrageous personalities whose bark is often worse than their bite.

But the reality of the show is that you have to all the way back to season ten, with Nelson, and to a lesser extent Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione, to where genuine stars have come out of the show.

Because of that, the mentality that helped fuel the show in its early years, that you were getting the first look at the new stars, is no longer there. Between that, the show being long in the tooth, and its time slot, and you can see why it's starting at its lowest point to date.

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