A new night and timeslot, two prominent and controversial coaches, and a new take on production elevated the premier of the seventeenth season of The Ultimate Fighter – Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen – to its highest TV ratings yet since moving to the FX network in January 2012.
TUF 17’s first episode drew 1.51 million viewers, according to FX officials citing the Fast Nationals Nielsen ratings.
The total signifies a major step in the right direction for the flagging reality series.
FX also noted significant improvement in the key advertising demographics, including Adults 18-49 and Men 18-49.
TUF 15 (the live season) was the series’ debut on FX. It opened strong, pulling in 1.3 million viewers for the premier episode, but declined throughout the season as the “jive live” format fell flat with most viewers, who also didn’t warm to the Friday night timeslot.
The Ultimate Fighter went back to the tried and true pre-recorded format for season 16, but ratings declined even further, likely due to continuing its Friday night run, a night that a significant portion of the show’s key demographic isn’t all that likely to stay at home to watch television.
UFC president Dana White was never pleased by the fluttering ratings for seasons 15 and 16, although he insisted that FX officials were please with the ratings performance, particularly in key advertising demographics relative to past programming on the network.
The UFC/Fox television deal – which encompasses FX – came together rather quickly and has been a constant work in progress. The Ultimate Fighter is chief among the projects, receiving significant changes for the new season.
Selecting UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and controversial wordsmith Chael Sonnen as coaches, all but ensured some improvement in the declining ratings, but having an appealing match-up between coaches couldn’t fix all of the series’ ills.
The most significant immediate improvement is moving the series to a new timeslot. The special two-hour premier aired Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. PT. TUF 17 will make its home Tuesday night’s at 9 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. PT, a much more appealing night and time for most fans.
Another improvement that could pay off with larger gains over time, if Tuesday night’s series opener carries throughout the season, is a revamped take on production.
Several past criticisms have targeted the show’s stagnating format, focusing almost solely on juvenile antics and the fights. The TUF 17 opener put much more emphasis on trying to get viewers more attached to the fighters on the show via improved background and storytelling, instead of just throwing them in a cage and having them throwdown. The fighters this season were allowed to bring family and friends with them to Las Vegas to watch the elimination fights and support them as they chased down their dream of making it in the UFC. Having a small audience at the fights certainly gave the bouts more of a live, exciting feel.
This is a powerful element that is used to huge effect on other reality shows. From the Biggest Loser to Survivor to American American Idol, if you can get the viewer to somehow empathize or connect with the personalities on the show, they are much more likely to return for 12 straight weeks to see how it all turns out.
Whether all of these changes will result in consistently strong TV ratings throughout the season remains to be seen, but they are small steps that combine to provide huge improvements, at least for the TUF 17 premier.