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Did You Miss Spike TV's Hit Show, "The Ultimate Fighter"?

By Cliff Montgomery,
Recently there was a weekly series showcasing the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a true and defining first. For UFC, the fight for television has been as tough as any that has taken place inside its Octagon. But for seven weeks, immediately after 'WWE Monday Night Raw' on SPIKE TV, the UFC presented its first weekly reality program, "The Ultimate Fighter." A separate TV deal with Fox Sports Net for four specials over the year is ongoing.

For many Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fans this is the promised land. The UFC has finally made its way into the mainstream and now, the reasoning goes, nothing will hold the sport of MMA back.

The competitors for 'The Ultimate Fighter' were brought to Las Vegas, where the UFC has its National Training Center. For seven weeks they were under the strict supervision of two of the world's most successful and famous UFC fighters and trainers: UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture and UFC Light Heavyweight #1 Contender Chuck Liddell. The competitors endured perhaps the most grueling training and intense pressure of their lives. They trained together, lived together, and fought against each other inside and outside of the famed UFC Octagon.

The men were split into two teams, Team Liddell and Team Couture. The two squads competed against each other within their weight classes, with the individual losers being eliminated. In each episode, the competitors were also competing in "Challenges," which were said to be "designed to push the fighters to the edge of their physical and mental capabilities." Perhaps, but they were also designed to fill up the show with a steady supply of exciting activity; watching the slow, meticulous training sessions these fighters go through would have made for terrible television. The challenges revolved around 'old school' training techniques, physical stamina, and mental strategy. The team that won the challenges decided which fighters would fight to avoid elimination.

At the end of each week, one fighter from each team fought in the Octagon to avoid being kicked out of the UFC Training Center, until only two remained in each weight division. In the end, The Ultimate Fighter was 'ultimately' decided by a thrilling competition match--a head-to-head fight to the finish inside the Octagon.

The overall show went well, but were there problems? Of course, especially with episode Five. The real question coming out of Week Five's show was whether it was really a good thing that nearly two million people saw it, and perhaps went away thinking that it represented MMA as a sport in any way.

The decision at the end of that week's episode to remove alcohol from the residence was long overdue, and it was ridiculous that the producers put alcohol in the house in the first place. They probably felt that the alcohol would "loosen the fighters up" and "cause crazy shit to happen." But is that really what Ultimate Fighting needs, at the very time it's struggling to re-invent itself in the eyes of the world?

The whole Jerry Springer-like atmosphere of Week Five perhaps made for compelling television; but is this really the kind of 'compelling television' MMA fans want? Would you really want a mainstream sports journalist who decided to give the UFC a chance by reviewing 'The Ultimate Fighter' to watch episode Five, perhaps the only episode they'll watch? Hardly.

One other thing, loosely related to the show: The MMA organization has quietly begun to emphasize American fighters first and foremost. Some see this as xenophobic and so forth. And to an extent maybe it is. But in America, MMA is on the verge of some big dollars right now, and right now those with the dough are purposely de-emphasizing the most unfamiliar aspects of the new art until it's built the large, solid fan base many feel MMA deserves.

If that first wave of exposure and acceptance does go as planned, we should expect MMA to once again be more genuine in its initial fight philosophy and true international flavor. And if it doesn't remember its roots, but forgets its reasons for being, the sport's truest fans should then damn well say something about it.

So how did 'The Ultimate Fighter' do in the ratings war? In its first week, the show drew a final national rating of 1.4, while drawing a 1.6 rating in the 18-34 year-old male demographic. In week two, the overall rating of 1.4 remained the same, while the rating in the 18-34 year-old male group actually crept up from 1.6 to 1.8. Spike TV was thrilled that the ratings held strong in Week Two.

Big deal, right? Right indeed. As an approximate rule of thumb, any given show on cable is a hit if the overall rating averages a 1.0 rating over the course of the series, a big hit if it averages 1.5 over the course of the series, and a mega-hit if it averages 2.0 or higher over the course of the series.

It gets better. The February 21st episode of 'The Ultimate Fighter'--Week Six-- posted a final overall rating of 2.0, shattering the show's previous high mark of 1.7 from Week Five.

As MMA Weekly boldly put it, "The Ultimate Fighter Now Officially a Break-Out Ratings Hit."

One of the keys to creating the increase in ratings from week-to-week--a very unusual occurrence for cable television--might have been the biggest change producers made in the basic dynamic of the show: Starting with Week Three, an actual fight closed out every episode.

When the editors of any hour-long reality show trim their footage down to 44 minutes of content for each episode, they have to build a proverbial "story" for each episode which builds towards the show's climax. Producers came to understand that when you have a fight at the end of every single episode, it ensures that even the non-fighting portions of the show must be cut to emphasize the fight as the show's high point.

With no more nauseating elimination ceremonies determining who gets eliminated, the editing of each episode was afterward wisely structured towards an actual fight that viewers got to see at the end of each show.

So what does the future hold? Will there be a second 'Ultimate Fighter' TV series? It's not as certain as you might think.

In the past few years Spike TV has been passed around from owner to owner, with each new corporate team wishing to "re-brand" the cable network. It has happened again recently. The new owners have voiced a desire to offer a more 'upscale' version of the cable channel. What remains to be seen is precisely what the new boys on the block mean by 'upscale'.

Our two cents? Write or email Spike TV, and tell them you wish to see another season of the show which has performed so admirably in the ratings, and has made the network so much money to boot. And while you're at it, you may want to remind them that 'upscale' doesn't mean feminized...Spike TV was meant all along to be 'The network for men'; it could show its overwhelmingly male viewers that it hasn't forgotten that fact by producing another great season of 'The Ultimate Fighter'.

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