The Ultimate Fighting Championship and its cable television partner made bold choices and declarations in announcing plans for the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which has struggled mightily in ratings in its first two seasons on FX.
It was announced the show will be moved off Fridays to another weekday, and that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen will serve as coaches for the show’s 17th season, which premieres in January. In making the announcement, FX fired a shot across the bow at Spike TV, which will launch a competing MMA reality series when it begins broadcasting Bellator Fighting Championship events the same month “TUF 17” premieres.
The current season of “TUF,” which wraps next month, has set new viewership lows for the UFC’s trademark show. The average audience for the Oct. 12 episode was only 624,000, appreciably lower than the show ever dipped on Spike. UFC President Dana White has pointed in the past to strong ratings for TUF 16 in the desirable Male 18-34 demographic to mitigate gloom. For some episodes this month, however, that case could not be made. The Oct. 12 show was sixth among Males 18-34 on cable that night; among viewers 18-49, the episode didn’t rank in the top 100 shows on cable.
One of the most oft-cited reasons for the low numbers is TUF’s Friday night timeslot, among the least desirable in television for the UFC’s core demographic. FX, which like the rest of the Fox family is in the first of a seven-year contract with the UFC, has yet to commit to which night of the week the show will move to, though Tuesday has been strongly rumored.
On a media teleconference, FX Executive Vice President Chuck Saftler said the network would be watching to see what night Spike schedules Bellator before making a decision. Saftler said Spike should “watch their ass,” referencing the UFC’s former network partner using its rights to broadcast “TUF” reruns and past UFC fights to counter-program “TUF” on FX and create confusion. Spike, for instance, aired “Best of The Ultimate Fighter” episodes that went against the first FX season of TUF earlier this year. The verbal heat has ramped up considerably in recent weeks between the UFC/Fox and Spike. Dana White has taken to calling his former partner “Spuke TV,” and saying they’re trying to take credit for being architects of the UFC’s explosion in popularity when the promotion had to buy time from Spike to air the first season of “TUF.”
The Jones-Sonnen announcement completely shifted attention away from the spat between UFC brass and the light heavyweight champion over the cancellation of UFC 151 in September, which prompted the first attempt to book Sonnen against Jones. In settling the issue with Jones prior to his Sept. 22 fight, White reportedly agreed to never again publicly disparage Jones’ head coach, Greg Jackson. White branded Jackson a “sport killer” for swaying Jones to turn down Sonnen as a late replacement.
White said Sonnen’s willingness to step up to save that show played a key part in why he got the “TUF” coaching gig over established, top contenders like Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida. Henderson, who was slated to face Jones at UFC 151 before suffering a knee injury, grumbled about the pick, but ended up agreeing to be one of Sonnen’s assistant coaches on the show. The Wrestling Observer reported the UFC had originally targeted Jones-Henderson for its Super Bowl weekend pay-per-view, but that it was determined Jones’ arm injury wouldn’t have healed in time. In the interim, Quinton Jackson was offered a slot to coach “TUF” against Sonnen, but turned down the fight. The decision led to Sonnen being pulled from the UFC 155 card on Dec. 29, where he was to face Forrest Griffin, who will instead face Phil Davis.
Jones was initially opposed to fighting Sonnen, an unranked contender at 205 pounds who is coming off a sound loss to Anderson Silva. But Jones has also said he was not in favor of another fight against Lyoto Machida, because their first fight at UFC 140 did the lowest pay-per-view buys of any of his title defenses. The fight Jones took instead of Sonnen, against Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, is estimated to do slightly less buys than UFC 140. Sonnen, meanwhile, is coming off an estimated 900,000 buys for his rematch with Anderson Silva on Independence Day weekend.
“The Ultimate Fighter: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen” went into production Oct. 29 and will air over 13 weeks in January. Jones and Sonnen are penciled in to fight on April 27.
The “TUF” franchise continues to hum along ingternationally. The U.K. versus Australia edition of the show wraps next month, and the second season for Brazilian television will go into production in January. The UFC has designs on annual Australian versions of “TUF” and, eventually, a New Zealand version. As for Brazil, it was announced heavyweights Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- known throughout Brazil for his appearance on a “Dancing with the Stars”-type program -- will coach on the show before facing off on a June 8, 2013 card in Brazil. “TUF Brazil 2” will air on the Globo television network in March. No announcements have been made regarding North American broadcasts.
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