By Ivan Trembow – MMAWeekly.com
MMAWeekly’s Ivan Trembow goes Inside the Numbers, comparing Season 2 vs Season 1 of the Ultimate Fighter Ratings exclusively from MMAWeekly.com.
Despite the fact that its ratings started to collapse in the second half of its season, the live season finale of The Ultimate Fighter 2 drew an overall rating of 2.0 this past Saturday night on Spike TV. This makes it the most-watched live television broadcast in the history of the UFC, surpassing the previous high mark that was set by the first season finale back on April 9th of this year.
When looking at the big picture of TUF 2’s ratings, there are two different sides to the story. On one hand, the live season finale was hugely successful. On the other hand, the 12-episode regular season demonstrated an alarming trend of decreasing ratings as the season progressed. We are first going to look at the live season finales of both TUF 1 and TUF 2, followed by a look at the first 12 “regular” episodes of each season.
TUF 1 Season Finale vs. TUF 2 Season Finale
If you just looked at the ratings for the two season finales and nothing else, you would have no idea that a problem even exists. TUF 2’s live finale drew a 2.0 overall rating, compared with the 1.9 overall rating that was drawn by TUF 1’s live finale.
This was very surprising given the decreased public interest in TUF 2 as the season progressed, and it stands as proof that most casual MMA fans will go out of their way to see live MMA fights on free television even if they lose interest in the reality show that sets the stage for those fights.
In the 18-to-24-year-old male demographic, the live season finale of TUF 2 was the most-watched show on all of television on the night that it aired (with a 3.9 rating in that demographic), a feat that was also accomplished by TUF 1’s season finale. TUF 2’s finale also had more 18-to-24-year-old male viewers than the majority of shows on television in the past week, including college football on NBC and ESPN, The OC on Fox, The Real World on MTV, WWE Raw on USA Network, and even the two shows that have the most overall viewers of any shows on television: CSI and Desperate Housewives on CBS and ABC, respectively.
The Ultimate Fighter 2’s finale drew better ratings than the TUF 1 finale in the 18-to-24-year-old male demographic, and also in the 25-to-34-year-old male demographic. However, the TUF 1 finale actually drew a higher rating than the TUF 2 finale in the 35-to-49-year-old male demographic. The result is that when you combine the aforementioned three demographics and look at all male viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, the bottom line is that the finales of TUF 1 and TUF 2 both drew the same 2.7 rating in the 18-to-49-year-old male demographic.
However, Spike TV and its advertisers are primarily focused on viewers under the age of 35, so the drop-off in this demographic is probably of very little concern to Spike TV.
What they care about more than anything, other than the overall rating, is the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic. That is the target audience for the vast majority of the commercials that you see on UFC programming, and in that demographic the TUF 1 finale drew a 3.3 rating, while the TUF 2 finale drew a 3.7 rating.
Taken on an hour-by-hour basis, the TUF 2 season finale grew in viewership as the show progressed. The first hour averaged a 1.6 overall rating, the second hour averaged a 2.1 overall rating, and the third hour averaged a 2.2 overall rating.
In the key demographic of 18-to-34-year-old males, the viewership for the TUF 2 finale grew even more as the show progressed. The first hour averaged a 3.2 rating in this demographic, the second hour averaged a 3.8 rating, and the third hour averaged a 4.0 rating.
The Monday night replay of The Ultimate Finale, which aired from 10:00 PM to 1:00 AM, drew an overall rating of just 0.8. The replay went head-to-head not only with WWE Raw, but also with the highest-rated Monday Night Football game of the year thus far, as the Colts vs. Patriots game drew a 13.1 overall rating.
TUF 1 Regular Season vs. TUF 2 Regular Season
Looking at the regular season ratings for TUF 1 and TUF 2, it’s a completely different story. The ratings collapsed as the TUF 2 season progressed, and Spike TV has to be nervous about the kind of ratings that will be drawn by TUF 3’s regular season next spring. (For the purposes of this comparison, we will look at the two numbers that matter the most: the overall ratings, and the 18-to-34-year-old male ratings.)
Looking at the first 12 normal, pre-taped episodes of each season, TUF 1 averaged a 1.6 overall rating, while TUF 2 averaged a 1.4 overall rating. Not that big of a deal, right? Wrong. The problem is that the viewership patterns for TUF 2 were the complete opposite of TUF 1. While TUF 1 gained viewers as the season went on and more people discovered the series, TUF 2 lost viewers as the season went on and more people were turned off by the series and decided not to watch it anymore.
If you take each season’s 12 regular episodes and break them down into groups of three episodes apiece, TUF 1 started off by averaging a 1.5 overall rating for its first three episodes, and ended its season by averaging a 1.8 rating for its final three episodes. The lowest-rated episodes were the first two episodes (both of which drew 1.4 overall ratings), and it was all uphill from there.
The pattern with the second season was the exact opposite. In the case of TUF 2, the first three episodes averaged a 1.7 overall rating, the next three episodes averaged a 1.4 overall rating, the next three episodes averaged a 1.2 overall rating, and the final three episodes also averaged a 1.2 overall rating. That is an alarming trend, and it represents a big challenge for Spike TV and Zuffa in the future.
The final six episodes, which no longer had WWE Raw on Spike TV as a lead-in, were only able to average a 1.2 overall rating, and future seasons of The Ultimate Fighter are never going to have WWE Raw as a lead-in for even one episode now that WWE has gone back to USA Network.
If an overall rating of 1.2 is all that future seasons of TUF can muster, that’s still a hit show by the standards of cable television ratings, but it won’t garner as much in advertising revenue because it’s nowhere near what the ratings were at the beginning of the second season.
Spike TV and Zuffa can, and almost certainly will, point to the fact that TUF 2 performed better in the key 18-to-34-year-old male demographic than TUF 1, and that is true if you’re strictly talking about the season average. The first season’s 12 regular episodes averaged a 2.2 rating in this demographic, and the second season averaged a 2.5 rating in this demographic.
However, to simply say, “The ratings average was up in the key demographic” would be ignoring the fact that the same disturbing trend also existed in the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic. While TUF 1 gained viewer support in the key demographic as the season progressed, TUF 2 turned off viewers in the key demographic as the season progressed.
Looking at the twelve regular episodes from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, the first three episodes of the season averaged a 1.8 rating in the key demographic. After that, the next three episodes averaged a 2.1 rating in this demographic, the next three episodes averaged a 2.2 rating, and the final three episodes averaged a 2.5 rating.
Once again, the pattern was the exact opposite with TUF 2 (albeit not as drastic). The first three episodes of TUF 2 averaged a 2.6 rating in the key demographic. From there, the next three episodes averaged a 2.5 rating in this demographic, the next three episodes averaged a 2.4 rating, and the final three episodes averaged a 2.3 rating.
How to Improve The Ultimate Fighter’s Future Ratings
The question for the UFC at this point is how it can build interest back up for a series that much of the first-season audience has stopped watching. As I’ve previously written, one of the biggest reasons for TUF 2’s audience collapse was likely the way in which many of the fighters were presented. What do Mike Whitehead, Dan Christison, Rob MacDonald, Tom Murphy, Kenny Stevens, and Eli Joslin have in common? If you answered, “They were all treated like a piece of garbage and a bum when they were eliminated on the show,” you answered correctly. Reality show viewers want to get attached to certain characters and root for them, and there’s nothing more discouraging on that front than the constant threat that their chosen character(s) could be buried at any time and unfairly portrayed as a bum.
Another thing that needs to happen in future seasons of The Ultimate Fighter is that the over-the-top product placement spots have to be eliminated. No matter how brief, it severely hurts the credibility of the show when you have fighters participating in scripted-looking scenes where they say things like, “Hey, is that Xyience you’re using? Why, yes it is, I love Xyience! I love Xyience, too! We all love Xyience!” This might not be that big of a deal if it only happened once or twice during the TUF 2 season, but the fact that it was an almost weekly occurrence is nothing short of ridiculous. This hurts the show as a whole because scripted-looking scenes like that are naturally going to give many viewers the false impression that other aspects of the show are scripted as well, and that can be the kiss of death for any reality show in terms of viewer interest.
Hopefully, the producers of TUF will not resort to cheap tactics like putting large amounts of hard alcohol in the house like they did with the first season. I wrote about those tactics extensively during the first season, calling it Trash TV, and I stand by those comments. It not only hurts the image of the sport, but also hurts the show’s long-term ratings appeal just for a short-term gain. It would also hurt TUF’s future advertising rates if the show’s contestants were consistently perceived as a bunch of drunkards, whereas right now TUF is actually viewed by the television advertising community as a fairly “high-brow” product when compared to franchises like WWE.
How to Improve the Ratings of Future Live Fight Specials
In the case of the TUF 2 finale, the UFC was very fortunate to have had what was probably an even better night of fights than the first TUF’s season finale. While the TUF 1 finale had one classic fight for the ages and two fights that were fairly short and one-sided, the TUF 2 finale had a good opening fight and three back-to-back fights that were all excellent. Those fights could just as easily have turned out to be stinkers, and there’s nothing the UFC can do about that.
There is certainly something that Zuffa can do about the pacing of the shows, but instead the company continues to shoot itself in the foot. Let me first state that I am not just blindly saying, “I hate commercials!” as some people have said on MMA message boards. Every hour of television is going to have approximately 16 minutes of commercials, and that’s just the way it is. The 48 minutes of commercials on any given three-hour UFC broadcast on Spike TV are essential because they generate very large amounts of revenue for both Spike TV and Zuffa, which allows them to produce more live fight specials. Forty-eight minutes of commercials on a 180-minute broadcast still leaves the UFC with 132 minutes of television time to fill, and the issue here is how the UFC chooses to fill that 132 minutes of TV time.
It wasn’t a direct acknowledgment that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, but UFC President Dana Whiteby did say in a recent media interview that the TUF 2 finale would be faster-paced, with more action and less talking, than the UFC’s October 3rd live fight special. In fact, the exact opposite was true.
As previously documented by MMAWeekly, the long gaps between fights on the October 3rd broadcast lasted 17 minutes, 25 minutes, and 21 minutes. Instead of cutting back on this down-time by airing more fights in the allotted time, which was the stated goal going into the show, the long gaps between fights were actually longer than ever before.
The gaps in between fights on the TUF 2 finale lasted 27 minutes, 33 minutes, and 32 minutes, which is just inexcusible. Also, the first fight didn’t start until 17 minutes after the show went on the air. In total, four fights aired on the three-hour broadcast.
There is a way to properly hype each fight, and also hype upcoming PPV events, without having a half-hour black hole between every fight. Hardcore MMA fans are going to keep watching through the down-time no matter what, but the vast majority of the viewership consists of casual MMA fans, and many of them have undoubtedly tuned out during one of the half-hour-long gaps in between fights.
The TUF 2 finale was able to draw an excellent 2.0 overall rating even with these painfully long gaps in between fights, but it would be naive to suggest that the UFC wouldn’t be drawing even better ratings if the shows had better pacing with more action and less time in between fights.
Quarter-Hour Ratings Support the “More Fights, Less Filler” Philosophy
Besides common sense, a look at the quarter-hour ratings for the TUF 2 finale also backs up the simple assertion that I have made, as the general trend of audience growth was clearly slowed down at times by the lack of action, and the viewership actually dropped at other times when there was no fighting.
The first 15 minutes of the broadcast, which featured zero fights, drew a 1.3 overall rating. The second quarter-hour, which featured the Florian vs. Cope fight, shot up to a 1.6 overall rating. The rating for the third quarter-hour, featuring zero fights, stayed the same instead of growing; while the fourth-quarter hour, featuring the Stevenson vs. Cummo fight, shot up to a 1.9 overall rating.
The next quarter-hour, featuring the rest of the Stevenson vs. Cummo fight, increased to a 2.2 overall rating. The next two quarter-hours, neither of which featured any fights, actually dropped in viewership to a 1.9 rating. When the Evans vs. Imes fight started in the next quarter-hour, the rating increased drastically to 2.5.
The next quarter-hour, featuring the final three minutes of the Evans vs. Imes fight, drew a 2.4 overall rating. The following quarter-hour, with no fights, dropped down to a 2.0 overall rating. The final two quarter-hours of the broadcast, both of which featured parts of the Sanchez vs. Diaz fight, increased once again and drew quarter-hour ratings of 2.3.
You might be thinking that maybe it’s just older viewers or other “un-important” demographics that are often unwilling to sit through the long gaps in between fights. However, that is not the case, as there was a similar pattern among the UFC’s core audience of 18-to-34-year-old males.
In the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic, the ratings increased at various times when the show went from a “non-fight quarter-hour” to a quarter-hour with a fight in it. The presence of the respective fights caused the ratings in this demographic to increase from 2.7 up to 3.2 (for Florian vs. Cope); from 3.4 up to 3.5 and 4.0 (for Stevenson vs. Cummo); from 3.5 up to 4.2 and 4.1 (for Evans vs. Imes); and from 3.8 up to 4.2 and 4.0 (for Sanchez vs. Diaz).
On the other hand, the lack of fighting in various quarter-hours caused the ratings in the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic to drop from 4.0 down to 3.7 (after the Stevenson vs. Cummo fight); from 3.7 down to 3.5 (when there was still no fight after Stevenson vs. Cummo); and from 4.1 down to 3.8 (after the Evans vs. Imes fight).
The long gaps between fights are clearly causing many viewers to tune out. The solution to this problem is simple, and it is what UFC President Dana White publicly said was going to be applied to the TUF 2 finale broadcast.
If the UFC were to put more fights on the air during any given broadcast (airing prelim fights if necessary), there would be less down-time in between fights, the UFC could still spend 10 to 15 minutes sufficiently hyping whatever they want to hype in between fights, and a combination of common sense and statistical evidence clearly demonstrates that the UFC’s future live fight specials would draw higher ratings as a result.
The UFC’s Ratings Conundrum
Reality shows generally tend to burn out in terms of viewer interest, and given the fact that The Ultimate Fighter already experienced this burn-out in just its second season, it’s going to be a challenge for Spike and Zuffa to retain interest in TUF 3 and TUF 4.
Fortunately, the ratings for TUF 2’s live season finale demonstrate that even if casual MMA fans grow tired of The Ultimate Fighter as a reality series, they will still watch live MMA fights en masse.
There is no doubt that the public wants to see actual fighting a lot more than they want to see a reality show about fighting. That point is proven not only by the TUF 2 finale ratings, but also by the fact that UFC Unleashed has averaged a surprising 1.1 overall rating in its new timeslot of Monday nights at 10:00 PM.
UFC Unleashed has been able to draw these ratings despite the fact that it goes head-to-head with WWE Raw every week, despite the fact that it’s just a simple compilation of old UFC fights without anything to spice up the presentation, and despite the fact that Spike TV has done a woefully inadequate job of advertising the show’s new timeslot. Despite all of that, UFC Unleashed averaged a 1.1 overall rating in the same four-week period when The Ultimate Fighter and its massive marketing push averaged a 1.2 overall rating.
At the same time, there is also no doubt that the 12-episode seasons of The Ultimate Fighter are a significant factor in helping to build public interest in seeing its fighters compete in the Octagon. The UFC has had a total of four live fight specials on Spike TV. The two live specials that were Ultimate Fighter season finales drew overall ratings of 1.9 and 2.0. The two live specials that were not the culmination of an Ultimate Fighter season drew significantly lower ratings of 1.5 and 1.6.
So, Spike TV and Zuffa find themselves in an odd situation. It’s unquestionable that the TV-viewing public wants to see live MMA fights a lot more than they want to see an MMA-themed reality show, but it’s also unquestionable that the reality show helps to build up interest in the live MMA fights.
How well Spike TV and Zuffa are able to strike a balance between these two factors will play a key role in the UFC’s future level of success in the ratings. The UFC plans to run twelve live fight specials on Spike TV during 2006. If two of those twelve specials are live Ultimate Fighter season finales and the other ten are simply live fight shows that have no connection to TUF, it would seem likely that the TUF season finales will be the two most-watched UFC TV shows of 2006.