Cable Nets Join Fight Club

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

For cable networks seeking male viewers, it’s time to enter the octagon.

Inspired by the success of Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” BET, MTV2, Fox Sports and Oxygen (yes, Oxygen) are rushing to fill their slates with martial arts cage-fighting shows.

Spike’s program, in which fighters live together a la “The Real World” and settle their differences in an octagonal ring, has helped fill the ratings void left in the network’s schedule two years ago when it dropped the staged bouts of World Wrestling Entertainment.

The proliferation of real-life fight shows, replete with blood-splattered mats, choke holds and flying knee kicks, will test viewers’ and advertisers’ taste for the genre. Ultimate fighting audiences have yet to match those attracted by WWE’s theatrical big-time wrestling, leaving cable networks to divvy up a pie that may not end up being as large as they hope.

Ultimate Fighting Championship, the league that began popularizing so-called mixed martial arts competitions 13 years ago, supplies Spike with the reality show, 36 fight specials a year and has a pilot deal with the network. Spike TV programming head Kevin Kay said he’s considering a magazine-style series featuring UFC news and profiles.

The rush by other networks to get on the bandwagon prompted a sneer from UFC President and co-owner Dana White.

“It just goes to show all these guys have no creativity and no imagination,” Mr. White said. “We were pitching this show forever and nobody would touch it … Now here we are two years later and everybody is copying us.”

BET, MTV2, Oxygen and Fox Sports are betting the popularity of ultimate fighting will grow, providing plenty of viewers for everyone. The phenomena, which first entered the American media landscape as VCR tapes and DVDs passed around by devotees, is gaining steam.

“The Ultimate Fighter” on Spike has posted continuous ratings gains each of its three seasons. Current episodes tout more viewers and a younger median age than NBA games on TNT and Major League Baseball games on ESPN.

“When guys say, ‘Did you see the fight last night?’ they’re not talking about boxing anymore,” Mr. Kay said. “They’re talking about ultimate fighting.”

It may take time for ultimate fighting to win mass audiences. Currently, “The Ultimate Fighter” averages 2.2 million viewers, compared with the 5.3 million who tune in to “WWE Raw,” which moved to the USA Network. Advertising prices reflect that difference, with the average 30-second big-time wrestling spot costing $15,000 while commercials on “Ultimate Fighter” garner $3,500, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

For mixed martial arts, a sport that Arizona Sen. John McCain once dubbed “human cockfighting,” gaining advertisers may prove to be a permanent challenge. After all, Madison Avenue is wary of pro wresting-and that isn’t even real.

Ultimate fighting’s violence has been toned down in recent years through rules that bar headbutts and crotch strikes. It’s still brutal enough to make some viewers squeamish.

Cable consultant Ray Solley said he’s uncertain whether the mixed martial arts audience can support all the shows. Either way, the bouts are unlikely to create enthusiasm for the networks’ other shows, he said.

“You don’t put fighting on to expand your audience, you put it on to capture the cult audience it already has,” he said. “You put boxing on Showtime, the show spikes-but it doesn’t do anything for the rest of the network.”

The networks planning new ultimate fighting shows are trying to distinguish their offerings from Spike’s with an assortment of flash, flesh and format changes.

Fox Sports, which last year began televising “Pride Fighting Championships,” another form of mixed martial arts competition, this year has added the International Fight League on Sunday nights. Fox Sports used to host pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship matches.

“We don’t want to go into business and do the same thing as UFC,” said Gareb Shamus, a gaming and anime magazine publisher turned co-founder and CEO of the International Fight League. “We wanted to bring a real sports element to it with actual teams … and cool names and logos.”

IFL will bar elbow strikes to the head, which will keep fights going longer because the combat won’t have to be stopped as often due to facial cuts, he said.

MTV2 is set to announce a July premiere date for its fighting series “The Final Fu,” which will be a more stylized take on the format, said David Cohn, general manager for MTV2.

“Obviously UFC has been a real juggernaut for Spike-our show is a much different feel,” he said. “Whether we felt it was jumping on a trend, I don’t know, but our guys brought in a pilot that was really cool and highly stylized.”

Over at BET, President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin is so excited about his project he won’t say anything about it-especially given all the interest among rival nets.

“The producers came up with an exciting new angle; I literally cannot say what it is,” he said.

And Oxygen’s angle is, well, girls fighting.

Oxygen President of Programming Debby Beece described the two-hour “Fight Girls” special as an experiment. “I think it’s a fantasy for women to be able to defend themselves and fight,” she told TelevisionWeek last December. “For younger viewers, it will be interesting, though I’m not sure the older viewers will necessarily watch.”

Jon Lafayette contributed to this report.