Can UFC revive The Ultimate Fighter?
After 14 seasons using essentially the same format and structure on Spike TV, The Ultimate Fighter moved to FX as part of the UFC’s seven-year broadcast partnership with the Fox network, and got a complete makeover.
The long-running reality TV competition moved from Wednesday to Friday, and the pre-taped, six-week format of old was replaced with a broadcast that recapped the events of the week, before culminating with a live fight.
The result: the worst ratings in the history of the show.
While some of that can be placed on the shoulders of Spike TV being in far more homes than FX, the move to Friday night and the inability to generate any drama in the editing of the show played a major role as well. People weren’t nearly as interested in staying home on a Friday evening to watch guys train, whether a live fight as the payoff or not.
Sad as it may be, part of the appeal of the show was always the in-house tension and antics of the cooped up collection of fighters, and that was pretty much gone during Season 15.
In the wake of last season’s (I don’t want to say “failings” because it wasn’t as bad as some people make it out to be) struggles, the news surrounding TUF over the last week and change has been about format changes coming for Season 16.
The live format is being scrapped in favour of a return to the “taped in advance” formula that worked well in the past, and earlier this week, news broke that the UFC had decided to skip the standard tryout process they’ve long used, opting to fly selected potential candidates to Las Vegas for interviews instead.
Both shifts are intriguing.
Hand-picking potential contestants eliminates the possibility of someone having a really bad audition and not making the cut, and assures the UFC that they get a collection of hopefuls that meets the criteria they’re looking for heading into what needs to be a bounce-back season. Additionally, returning to the edited format of old allows for more of what made the show appealing to so many – pranks, in-house antics and tension – to be brought back into play.
As much as I’m not a fan of the over-edited, fake conflict bits on TUF, I spent every week during Season 10 wondering if they really were going to bring Kimbo Slice back into the competition just like everybody else, and those are the kinds of things that were missing this past season.
But are these changes going to be enough?
My initial feeling is no, and that’s not because I’m a Doubting Thomas who likes to bash on The Ultimate Fighter. Here’s the thing, though: Friday nights suck for television, and even if you hand-pick the contestants, the North American talent pool is pretty much tapped.
There’s a reason television networks never put anything useful on the air on Friday nights. I can personally attest to the awfulness of the Friday night television line-up, as I’m a boring old man who tends to stay home more often than naught on Friday nights, and dammit do the TV options suck.
After working all week, a lot of people want to go out and unwind, not settle in on the couch to watch The Ultimate Fighter, especially those in the UFC’s core demographic. You’d think I’d be the same, seeing as I work from home all week, but you’d be wrong.
The second major issue blocking the way for a TUF revival in my opinion is that there just aren’t that many quality unsigned talents kicking around as there were in previous years. And by previous years, I mean like 10 seasons ago, since I think Season Five was the last year that featured more than one fighter capable of making any kind of lasting impact in the organisation.
Not only has the UFC snapped up a great deal of talent over the last year or two, but Bellator has done a tremendous job of signing pretty much everyone the UFC hasn’t gotten to in North America, as well as a number of talented international fighters as well. Though there are markets that remain somewhat untapped – including Australia and the UK, as we’ll see when “The Smashes” comes together later this year – most of the quality prospects are already signed somewhere, and those who aren’t general bypass the Ultimate Fighter experience anyway.
The regional circuit in North America – MFC in Canada, and Titan FC in the US for example – is mostly made up of fighters who are either (a) journeymen who have already had a cup of tea in the big time, and been let go, (b) up-and-comers who still aren’t close to being ready for prime time, and (c) guys who will forever be marginal, but still like fighting nonetheless.
That’s not a very appealing talent pool to be dipping into when you’re looking for contestants to help revive a reality show that feels like it has run its course already.
Regardless of who gets picked for the show, I’m going to watch because there’s nothing else on TV on Friday nights, and I’ll watch just about anything fight-related, but I know I’m in the minority on this one.
It’s going to take much more than a change in format and hand-picked participants for the UFC to revive The Ultimate Fighter.
It might take a miracle to be honest.
Follow E. Spencer Kyte on Twitter (@spencerkyte).
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