What's wrong with the UFC? (cont.)
The Ultimate Fighter Spirals Downward on FX
The FX relaunch of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality TV series widely credited for the UFC's explosion in 2005, has, thus far, been unable to produce the solid ratings the long-running show enjoyed on Spike TV. Last March, FX and Zuffa shifted the show's 15th season to a challenging live format as it moved from Wednesday to Friday nights, but the ratings have steadily declined.
The Ultimate Fighter averaged 1.7 million viewers during its seven-year run on Spike TV (the 10th season with Kimbo Slice averaged a series-high 3 million viewers), but the TUF Live season dipped to one million average viewers on FX from March to June -- its lowest-rated season to date.
The show returned to its pre-taped format for its 16th season debut six weeks ago, with its debut episode netting 947,000 viewers. The season's first four episodes weren't disastrous for FX, as they placed respectively among the target demos, but the fifth week's episode hit a series-low 624,000 viewers and became the first TUF episode ever not to place among the top 100 cable shows that night. This downward trend is alarming.
After 15 seasons, it appears the series has run its course, though its placement on Friday nights, when its core male demographics typically aren't in front of the television, hasn't given the show optimal means to grow its audience either.
The sinking ratings were enough for FX to take action. FX executive vice president Chuck Saftler announced on Oct. 17 that the show would be moved off Fridays when it returns next spring with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and mouthy middleweight opportunist Chael Sonnen as its stars.
"We've learned once again that in our business you have to make it easy for viewers to find your programming," said Mulvihill this week, via email. "In the end I think the combination of a lower TV usage night and different network was just too much change, even for the loyal UFC audience. We're studying our options earlier in the week and I think we can find a home for the show where it will have a better chance to succeed."
Live events have done comparatively better for FX. Five live UFC on FX events this year have held steady with an average 1.24 viewers, while viewership for UFC pay-per-view preliminary cards on FX have averaged 1.22 million viewers -- fluctuating between 880,000 and 1.8 million viewers over 11 events.
Fuel Sees Gains
Where the UFC-Fox partnership has been an unequivocal success, in terms of ratings at least, is on Fuel TV. Since adding 2,000 hours of live and taped UFC programming to its schedule starting last August, the Fox-owned cable specialty channel has seen a 50 percent rise in total viewers, an astronomical 164 percent in its 2012 primetime viewership, and three-digit percentage gains across the key male demographics.
On Aug. 4, Fuel's viewership reached an all-time peak of 328,000 during its UFC on Fox prelims broadcast, according to the network. These are phenomenal gains for a channel with a relatively limited reach of 36 million homes. Still, it's only a portion of the audience that watched comparable UFC content on Spike TV, which is available in nearly 100 million homes.
It's apparent that the UFC's fifth show on Fox will be an important one. As the third and fourth show ratings were expected to drop because of decreased viewership in the summer and competitors including the Olympics, there will be anticipation for a ratings spike for UFC on Fox 5, which airs on Dec. 8.
"I tend to look at the first two [UFC on Fox] specials as more indicative of the potential of the sport, rather than the most recent two," Mulvihill said.
Those shows had average viewership between 4.7 and 5.675 million, not insurmountable numbers given how Zuffa is stacking the card with potential breakout stars like underrated lightweight champion Benson Henderson and characters like the hardened Nate Diaz. If the last two years of overly concentrated UFC content has done lasting damage to MMA's overall mainstream crusade, we'll begin to see it here in these ratings.
And even if UFC on Fox 5 doesn't rebound to the proposed range, it won't mean Fox is ready to throw in the towel just yet.
"Part of our job is to take the long view," Mulvihill said. "There's a reason that we don't do this as a one or two-year deal. You do it as a seven-year deal because, fundamentally, you have confidence a) in the product and b) in our ability as a company to develop the platforms for it and the marketing around it that will lead to that mainstream acceptance."