Spike TV may be ending its relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment, but it still wants action.
The network announced last week that it has ended discussions about extending its relationship with WWE to run its top-rated original programming. Meanwhile, another action sports show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” has quietly grown in importance at the Viacom-owned cable network.
The “Ultimate Fighter” finale will be televised live on Spike Saturday, April 9, marking the first
time an Ultimate Fighting Championship event has appeared live on basic cable TV instead of being a pay-per-view event.
“Fighter” stands as one of the top-rated shows on Spike and is poised not only to set ratings records for the network during its finale but also to continue to be an important part of the network’s original programming strategy under Spike TV President Doug Herzog.
Mr. Herzog said Spike is beginning negotiations for a second season of “Ultimate Fighter.” “We’re certainly talking about it,” he said, adding, “There’s no question these programs perform on our network. So as long as we can make a deal that makes sense, we’ll do that.”
Mr. Herzog, who was put in charge of the network in February, told TelevisonWeek last week that events like UFC are a good fit going forward as he looks to incorporate more action shows on the Viacom-owned channel. “Part of the promise of the network for men is going to be some action of this [UFC’s] kind,” Mr. Herzog said. “I wouldn’t apologize for it. We’re a network for men. If there’s any network for these things this is it.”
He also said he sees filling the “action void” represents a big opportunity for Spike. “The idea of an action hour has sort of disappeared both on network TV and, to a certain extent, in syndication. I think it’s ripe for a comeback. I think Spike needs to be the guys to do it.”
“Fighter,” which debuted on Spike in January, features 16 athletes who train and compete to win a contract to fight against the pros in the UFC. Each episode ends with a bout that combines elements of boxing, wrestling and the martial arts.
In addition to the final bouts of the series, in which a light heavyweight and a middleweight will win UFC contracts, the “Fighter” finale will feature martial arts legend Ken Shamrock fighting UFC rising star Rich Franklin. It’s a bout that would normally be part of a pay-per-view event, which at $29.95 a pop would generate significant revenue for the UFC.
Spike continues to carry World Wrestling Entertainment fare, but said last week that it will not pursue a deal to keep it on Spike after the current pact expires in September.
“Moving forward Spike TV will expand its investments in original programming and new acquisitions for its core audience,” a company statement said.
Another program soon to appear on Spike is “Super Agent,” a reality show in which USA football star Shaun Cody will select an agent to represent him in the upcoming NFL draft. The series, due to launch July 20, will be hosted by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzales. Mr. Herzog said the project was started before he arrived at Spike.
WWE might wind up returning to USA Network, which it left before joining TNN-which was renamed Spike TV. Spokespeople for USA and WWE had no comment, but wrestling Web sites said WWE and USA executives negotiated last week.
One executive at a rival network said that WWE was attracted to USA, owned by NBC Universal, because of promises of specials on NBC, as well as plans to feature WWE performers in what is expected to be an extensive brand campaign due to be launched in the summer by USA.
Brand exposure in fact has been a big part of the collaboration between Spike and Ultimate Fighting. UFC President Dana White said the “Fighter” finale on Spike will help familiarize more people with the sport. The finale will also promote a major PPV event the following week in which the coaches of the two teams in “Ultimate Fighting,” light heavyweight champion Randy Couture and light heavyweight contender Chuck Liddell, will square off.While “The Ultimate Fighter” has been succeeding on Spike on Monday nights, the finale is running on Saturday “to make it a big sporting event. The fans are going to know where we are,” Mr. White said. “Big boxing and wrestling matches take place on Saturday night, not Monday night at 11:05 p.m.”
“The Ultimate Fighter” might be the first show in cable history to benefit from a lead-in from WWE’s Monday night grapplefest. On the “network for men,” “Fighter” has been averaging a 1.6 household rating for Spike, and attracting a 1.7 Nielsen Media Research rating (900,000 viewers) among men 18 to 49 and a 2.1 rating (525,000 viewers) among men 18 to 34.
Mr. White said he expect the finale to attract more than 3 million viewers, topping Spike’s highest-rated telecast so far, the finale of “Joe Schmo.”
“Ultimate Fighter” has been successful because “It’s well-produced, with good drama and interesting casting,” Mr. Herzog said. The show features athletes living together, and in one recent show, when two had a beef, they went into the ring to settle their disagreement.
“It’s what every reality show wishes it could do,” Mr. Herzog said. “There’s something kind of brilliant about that. Simple and brilliant.”
Mr. Herzog said he’s programming to a broad-based group of 18- to 49-year-old men, “with a little bit of a sweet spot at 18 to 34. I think both of these [UFC and WWE] fit the bill.”
Whether “Fighter” can maintain its momentum without the “WWE” lead-in remains to be seen.
Mr. Herzog said he’s in the early stages of looking for action series and action movies as well. “I would think UFC and WWE would be a great place to promote such a program.”
More broadly, Mr. Herzog said, “I want to be in the scripted business. I want to be in the unscripted business. But I want big ideas. And the biggest litmus test going in is will it appeal to men. So I think I can be in a lot of genres as long as it is ultimately directed at men. So whether it’s sports or drama or comedy or sci-fi or horror or actions, as long as men are in mind, I think I have license to go into any of those areas and do something interesting.”
“Ultimate Fighter” is “definitely ready to go into a second season. I don’t think I’d do anything differently,” Mr. White said. “The show turned out perfect. I was happy with the cast. At the end of the day, we’re going to come up with what we were looking for: six or seven guys we can market and turn into PPV stars.”
The show is a joint venture among Full Circle Entertainment, Ultimate Fighting Championship and Tufguy Productions. The show was created by Craig Piligian, one of the executive producers.
The partners split the ad time with Spike. Robert Riesenberg, president and chief executive officer of Full Circle Entertainment, said this season, ad time was sold in the scatter market because the program wasn’t proven. Now that it’s a ratings success he’s approaching advertisers about intergrated marketing opportunities.
Starcom has bought ads on “The Ultimate Fighter” for clients including Miller Beer.
The show is less violent and bloody than some might expect, said Chris Boote, executive VP of Starcom. “They’ve toned it down and dialed up the drama in the reality format,” Mr. Booth said. “I think the MMA [mixed martial arts-a combination of wrestling, boxing judo, jiu-jitsu, karate and kickboxing] really does well with young males. This is the first time it’s come to the mainstream.”
Mr. Booth added that it’s a good match with the network. “Spike is a perfect place to reach young men for some of our clients.”