Despite Live Format, The Ultimate Fighter Struggling to Find Footing

Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

If you haven't watched this season of The Ultimate Fighter on FX, you're missing out. It's expertly produced, the live format is significantly more engaging, much of the unpleasant, fabricated variety of ‘drama' has been mercifully stripped out and the talent is at least on par with previous seasons.

But if ratings are any indication, the adjustments to the show and the changing of platform have not yielded the results Zuffa anticipated. The most recent episode of TUF: Live pulled in 947,000 viewers, thereby making it the lowest-rated episode in the history of the show. The season itself is on track to be the lowest-rated to date.

How can that be? FX is in as many homes as Spike TV, the show was heavily advertised across a variety of sports media platforms and the addition of the live fight should have made the show more DVR-proof than ever.

Except that it didn't. And it didn't for reasons that are potentially disconcerting. What's impeding the show could be less about cosmetic adjustments that UFC or FX need to make. It's perhaps existential and intractable realities of television and today's MMA that no amount of adjusting can necessarily fix.

Why are things where they are? Let's take a look at what may be causing the declining numbers in the most important show in the history of the sport:

1. MMA Is Deeper and the Climb Steeper

Consider this: Forrest Griffin's fourth fight in the UFC was the feature bout for UFC 59 against Tito Ortiz. In fact, the promotional poster for the event had the Griffin vs. Ortiz imagery ahead of Sean Sherk vs. Nick Diaz, the actual co-main of the fight card.

Griffin would eventually lose by split decision, but many feel he was the rightful winner. That means Griffin was a legitimate challenge to Ortiz and merited a key fight card promotional position. The point is this: TUF winners or standouts cannot advance through the UFC system as quickly as they once could.

There are a few reasons for that. The talent level among more recent cast members isn't as high as it once was. Smaller promotions like Bellator take many high-level prospects away. In fact, so does the UFC. They often take developing talents, e.g. Michael McDonald, and place them directly into the UFC fighting pipeline.

UFC also has more shows with different tiers and implications for victory. There's UFC on FUEL TV, UFC on FX, UFC on FOX (which is becoming more than a FX show, but slightly less than a pay-per-view) and pay-per-view shows. High-level talent can be placed on any of these cards, but there is a general sense of hierarchy when it comes to importance, prestige and skill levels of rosters.

Let's also contrast the experience of Jonathan Brookins (season 12 winner) with that of Griffin. Three fights into his UFC career and where is he? He just defeated Vagner Rocha on the undercard of FUEL TV. He's about to face Charles Oliveira on the undercard of UFC on FOX 3 for his fourth bout.

Simply stated, it's a lot harder and a much slower process for TUF grads to advance through the UFC to the point where they're in relevant fights against known commodities on grand stages. If it takes that long for prospects to turn into stars - and that alteration is by no means a given - is there really a strong incentive to watch the early stages of ascension?

2. Friday Nights Makes Anything DVR-Friendly

Part of the impetus to turn TUF fights into live fights was to make them DVR-proof. If the television industry has learned anything, it's that sports are far less likely to be recorded for later consumption. Either you watch sports live or you don't watch them at all.

There's an open debate about whether adding the live element to TUF contests - namely, bouts between unknown and still developing fighters - enhances the interest, but we haven't really tested the theory. Friday nights appear to be directly undercutting the effort. Much of the demographic that would or does watch TUF isn't at home on a Friday or is busy with other engagements.

TUF on Fridays might be good for FX (more on this later), but it isn't the right format to test the theory about live vs. recorded fights.

And of all of TUF's problems, this appears to be the easiest to fix. While such a change wouldn't fix all of the show's issues, the improvement would likely be more than negligible.

3. Changing Channels Isn't Easy

Not for programs, anyway. Ask anyone in radio or television: if you change time slots, you risk losing listeners or viewers. Sometimes a lot of them. Now imagine what happens when you change stations or channels.

There isn't much the UFC can do about this problem. They aggressively advertised the new show and the move to FX. And as hard as it may be to believe for the hardcore that it's essentially common knowledge the show moved to FX, it's not. How sizable the casual audience is that is unaware of the transition is not clear. It's likely not a major contributor to the ratings decline. Still, it's another challenge the show is up against and one without any obvious remedy.

4. What's Good for the Goose Is Not Good for the Gander

There is a suggestion that while TUF might not be setting the world on fire, this is an improvement for FX. Friday nights are typically dead nights, so if UFC content can spruce this up even just a little, that's a win.

The claim is debatable, but let's assume it's true. If it is, only FX wins. This is much more a zero-sum game than one of mutual benefit.

The UFC is in a position where it needs to do everything it can to facilitate star growth. Not only does TUF's positioning compromise what it can do with cast members and winners, but it's not helping as a lead-in programming for Primetime shows either. High TUF and Primetime ratings don't necessarily translate to strong gate receipts or pay-per-view buyrates, at least not on a one-to-one basis. But the mass exodus of several top UFC stars in their thirties (BJ Penn, Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson, Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin and many, many more) is just a few years away or less. The UFC needs all the star power it can get. Creating figures of public appeal is as much luck as it is craft. Knowing that key programming designed to promote future fights is not being maximized is not a reality the UFC can blithely accept.

5. The Coaching Rivalry is PG

Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz are by no means also-rans or unknowns. They are as adept as coaches as they are fighters. They are also active participants in the ‘reality show' trimmings of pranks, stunts and squabbling. Unfortunately, their rivalry isn't a rising tide floating others' boats. Both men are simply too professional to let themselves descend into the frothing at the mouth style of reckless abandon that's historically pulled ratings. That isn't to suggest there's nothing redeeming about their inclusion on the show. But there is reason to reconsider not all rivalries are the same. The ingredients of a successful dispute are more than an impending fight or vocal displeasure. There has to be exquisite disgust and neither Cruz nor Faber seem really capable of it.

6. MMA Is a Star-Powered Sport

The highest-rated season of TUF was season 10. It featured all heavyweights, several former NFL players and one Internet sensation who fought people in backyards named Kimbo Slice. Almost unilaterally, it was Slice who helped deliver records for Spike TV and the UFC during that season.

The rule in MMA is incontestable: stars move the needle. Yes, they need the right platform. And it's true outside of the UFC many MMA stars have no star power at all. But every conceivable metric - gate receipts, pay-per-view buys, merchandise sales - confirms MMA is a star-driven sport.

Reproducing a Kimbo Slice-effect each season is like asking UFC to catch lightning in a bottle. In series history, though, star coaches have provided that role. But even that effect is hard to create. The biggest MMA star of the last five years in Brock Lesnar turned in very tepid numbers as his ‘rivalry' with Junior dos Santos never heated up. Season 11 featured coaches Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, but those ratings don't stack up against season 3's Ortiz vs. Shamrock.

This isn't to suggest star power doesn't matter. Rather, it's in tighter supply now than it once was. And even when it's available, getting the application of it right can be tricky.

Star-divide

Underscoring problems is a far simpler task than providing meaningful solutions. I am not attempting to draw attention to alleged UFC or FX mismanagement. What we should bear in mind is just how significant the challenge is of maintaining a reality show. That's especially true when the reality show has the rare honor of being the most important television programming in the history of a burgeoning sport.

Maybe it's that importance that makes TUF's issues so sticky. Most shows in this genre are eminently disposable programming. There appears to be a natural half-life to them and when a tipping point is reached where the effect the show once had can no longer be duplicated without excess cost or effort (or at all), they are discarded. No show is meant to last forever, but the reality aspect tends to accelerate the timeline. Easy come, easy go and there's relatively low production costs along the way. TUF, by contrast, does not share the luxury of being ephemeral without consequence.

The changes the UFC has made are not cosmetic. They're substantive and forward-thinking. It's true the show still revolves around the core concept of fighting in a reality show tournament for a six-figure contract in the UFC. Yet, compare the first season to today's and for better or worse the contrast becomes stark. It's true all reality programming has a dose of gimmick to it, but today's show is truer to MMA than ever before.

Most importantly, the show has historically been central to the popularity of the sport and many of its top stars. It's at a minimum responsible for keeping the UFC brand on television on a weekly basis in front of young men 18 to 34 years of age. More than creating tomorrow's stars, that's the real value of TUF today. That's why letting go of it is not an option now or anytime in the foreseeable future. The undeniable issue is what trajectory the show is on and how long it can maintain a steady path.

There's a rule in computer programming called GIGO ('garbage in, garbage out') that is as applicable to that science as any other. If you put nothing of value into a system, you get nothing of value out. UFC is still getting value out of the TUF system, but at a significantly greater cost and with less return. And they're not putting proverbial 'garbage' in. Real financial and manpower resources are being invested. That could mean there's a potential issue with the system, not what's being put in or spit out.

So what happens when that machine can't run anymore? No one knows and I am not advocating the dismissal of TUF. Not by a long shot. But given how tenuous the hold reality programming is over audiences - especially as those audiences mature - alternatives to showcasing UFC content need to be considered.

Calling for revision of the show is helpful in certain respects, but the time for comprehensive overhaul has long passed. It's not clear drastic changes would help. Frankly, it's not clear they're even possible.

We have to at least entertain the idea iterating something isn't enough to keep it viable. In the capricious and fast-changing world of reality television, sometimes being new is better than being different from what's old.

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