by Ivan Trembow
The war between the UFC and World Wrestling Entertainment continues to heat up, as the two entities will compete head-to-head with each other on different cable channels for the first time on Monday, October 3rd.
USA Network and WWE have put a huge, multi-million-dollar advertising campaign behind the October 3rd return of WWE Raw to USA Network, which is being billed as “WWE Homecoming.”
By contrast, there has been a conspicuous lack of advertising or even acknowledgement that the UFC’s October 3rd live fight special even exists. The special was just announced by Spike TV on Wednesday, September 21st, less than two weeks before it is scheduled to take place. There is no way to measure how severely the October 3rd live fight special has been damaged by this glaring lack of promotion.
Working in the UFC’s favor is the fact that WWE is not allowed to display or say the words “USA Network” on the last remaining episodes of WWE Raw that air on Spike TV. So, for the many people who only see the “WWE Homecoming” commercials on WWE television, they are being bombarded with commercials that say, “WWE Homecoming- October 3rd,” as opposed to seeing commercials that say, “WWE Homecoming- October 3rd on USA Network.” It remains possible that WWE will violate its agreement with Spike TV by mentioning the words “USA Network” on the final episode of Raw that airs on Spike TV, but there are currently no plans within WWE to do so.
Tension with WWE Leads to Spike TV Having a Change in Attitude
Tension between WWE and Spike TV has been building for years. This tension has been stronger than ever in recent weeks, as Vince McMahon is said to have “flipped his lid” and “gone nuts” with multiple headset-throwing tempter tantrums (as first reported by the Wrestling Observer) upon seeing that Spike TV is advertising a competing pro wrestling organization (NWA-TNA) during WWE’s own TV show, and is also continuing to air commercials during WWE Raw about the UFC being a “real sport” with “real athletes.”
Spike TV has also been firm with WWE in stressing the 11:08 PM cut-off time for WWE Raw on Monday nights. While Raw went over that time limit to as late as 11:10 PM on four separate occasions during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Spike TV has made it clear that it is no longer going to grant WWE any wiggle room in that timeframe. If WWE Raw is still taking place on any given week when the clock strikes 11:08 PM Eastern Time, Spike TV has made it clear that the show will be cut off regardless of what is happening at that moment, the screen will fade to black, and The Ultimate Fighter will begin airing as scheduled.
Several months ago when Spike TV cut off all negotiations with WWE for a contract renewal between the two parties (a move that cost WWE millions of dollars in lost negotiating leverage with USA Network), the attitude within Spike TV is that they would not try to compete directly with WWE for the same demographic in the 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM timeslot on Monday nights. Instead, the network would move TUF to Saturday nights and would air repeats of “CSI” and “CSI: New York” head-to-head with Raw on Monday nights, as the CSI shows draw from a completely different demographic and would not likely be damaged by going head-to-head with Raw.
That attitude changed at some point in the past month, prompting Spike TV to test the waters with a live UFC special on Monday night, October 3rd. In addition to the mounting tension with WWE, Spike TV may have been emboldened when The Ultimate Fighter, in its latenight timeslot, actually drew a higher rating than WWE Raw in the 25-to-34-year-old male demographic on Monday night, August 29th.
Indeed, the timeline of events would seem to support this assertion, as the Wrestling Observer reports that Spike TV initially contacted the UFC on Thursday, September 1st, and asked if the UFC could put together a live fight special that would take place on October 3rd.
The UFC was not about to turn down all of the programming rights fees and advertising revenue that it generates every time it has a show on Spike TV, so the UFC agreed to Spike TV’s request and had tentatively put together a complete fight card by the end of the day on Saturday, September 3rd, just two days after Spike TV’s request.
UFC and WWE Play a High-Stakes Game of “Chicken”
For the past several weeks, Spike TV and the UFC have played a constant game of one-upsmanship with USA Network and WWE, which has been documented extensively by MMAWeekly and also by the Pro Wrestling Torch.
Shortly after WWE management learned that Spike TV was planning to air a live UFC special on October 3rd, WWE made its October 3rd show into a huge event with numerous big-name returns scheduled for one show, despite the fact that they could make more money in the long run by spreading those returns out over the course of a few weeks or months instead of hot-shotting them all in one night. The pro wrestling audience has always followed pro wrestling when it changes nights or networks, so there would be no need for WWE to blow everything in one night if not for the sense of competition with WWE.
It was also announced that the October 3rd episode of Raw would be a special three-hour episode, starting at 8:00 PM instead of the usual 9:00 PM, thus giving WWE a one-hour head-start on the UFC and a chance to hook viewers on something that they feel they can’t turn away from. In other words, expect to see Stone Cold Steve Austin and/or Hulk Hogan on the screen right around the time that the UFC’s live special is starting at 9:00 PM, in order to discourage Raw’s viewers from changing the channel to the UFC.
The response from Spike TV was to schedule a new episode of UFC Unleashed to air at 8:00 PM on October 3rd before the live fight special, thus negating WWE’s lead-in advantage. This episode of UFC Unleashed will feature the Forrest Griffin vs. Bill Mahood fight that just took place at UFC 53 in June 2005, as well as the Andrei Arlovski vs. Vladimir Matyushenko fight that took place at UFC 44 in September 2003.
WWE quickly responded by announcing that Raw would actually start at 7:55 PM, thus giving WWE a five-minute head start on the UFC. WWE also added a one-hour “Best of Raw” special that is scheduled to air on October 3rd at 11:05 PM Eastern Time, head-to-head with a new episode of The Ultimate Fighter 2 on Spike TV.
Earlier this week, WWE announced a ridiculous amount of wrestling legends who will be making special appearances on the October 3rd episode of Raw, in addition to the previously announced appearances by Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, Vince McMahon, and Vince McMahon’s son-in-law Triple H. In an effort to squash the competition that it will be facing on Spike TV, it was announced that Raw on October 3rd will also feature appearances by wrestling legends such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Superstar Billy Graham, The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Harley Race, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Hillbilly Jim, Chief Jay Strongbow, Jimmy Hart, The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young, Koko B. Ware, and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
On the other hand, because mixed martial arts is a sport as opposed to “sports entertainment,” the UFC can’t just add an unlimited number of special guest stars to its shows. It’s quite the opposite in this case, as the UFC special will undoubtedly be damaged by the loss of Stephan Bonnar to a broken hand suffered in training, as Bonnar would have been the UFC’s #1 ratings draw on that night.
On Wednesday of this week, Spike TV countered yet again in this continuing game of, “Can you top this?” by announcing that the aforementioned new episode of UFC Unleashed will actually air at 7:00 PM on October 3rd, followed by a “UFC Ultimate Knockouts” special at 8:00 PM.
So, unless WWE fires back once again, the five-hour UFC programming block will begin approximately 55 minutes earlier than the WWE programming block on October 3rd.
As of right now, here is the schedule on October 3rd for the two competing line-ups:
UFC on Spike TV, October 3rd (All Times Eastern)
7:00 PM to 8:00 PM: New episode of UFC Unleashed
8:00 PM to 9:00 PM: UFC Ultimate Knockouts
9:00 PM to 11:05 PM: Live airing of UFC Ultimate Fight Night 2
11:05 PM to 12:05 AM: New episode of The Ultimate Fighter 2
WWE on USA Network, October 3rd (All Times Eastern)
7:55 PM to 11:05 PM: Special three-hour-and-ten-minute-long “Homecoming” episode of WWE Raw
11:05 PM to 12:05 PM: Best of Raw special
Ratings Expectations for October 3rd
In terms of the head-to-head ratings battle between the UFC and WWE, there is nobody on either side of this battle who is expecting the UFC to match WWE in overall ratings, or to even come close to doing so.
Instead, the hope within Spike TV and the UFC (and the fear within WWE) is that the UFC can take a significant chunk of WWE’s young male demographic, while also maintaining the same overall rating that live UFC fight specials on Spike TV have drawn when they’re not going head-to-head with WWE.
Spike TV has aired live UFC fight specials on two previous occasions, with events on Saturday, April 9th and Saturday, August 6th of this year. Those events drew overall ratings of 1.9 and 1.5, respectively. If the UFC’s two-hour live special from 9:00 PM to 11:05 PM on Monday, October 3rd can still draw a rating somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 1.9, despite the fact that it will be going head-to-head with a mega-hyped edition of WWE Raw, that will be considered a huge success.
On the other hand, if the live UFC special draws a rating somewhere in the range of 1.0 to 1.4, it will be considered a mild disappointment by Spike TV. Finally, if the UFC special draws a rating that is under 1.0, it will be embarrassing for Spike TV as a whole, and particularly for Spike TV president Doug Herzog, who made the decision to put the UFC head-to-head with Raw on WWE’s first night back on USA Network.
The Long-Term Schedule After October 3rd
As mentioned in this article and as chronicled previously on MMAWeekly, Spike TV originally planned to move UFC programming to Saturday nights as soon as WWE left the network to go back to USA Network. The plan was to have a Saturday night schedule with UFC Unleashed at 8:00 PM, new episodes of The Ultimate Fighter 2 at 9:00 PM, and another episode of UFC Unleashed at 10:00 PM, all of which would serve as a strong lead-in to the “TNA Impact” pro wrestling show at 11:00 PM on which Tito Ortiz is expected to be a featured attraction.
Now, those plans have changed. Not only will a new episode of The Ultimate Fighter air in its normal timeslot (Monday at 11:05 PM) on October 3rd, but the Wrestling Observer is reporting that Spike TV currently plans to keep new episodes of TUF 2 in that same timeslot for the remainder of the season. Those plans are tentative, and could change based on the results of the ratings battle that is going to take place on October 3rd.
As of right now, Spike TV management has convinced itself that it’s a good idea to continue airing new episodes of TUF 2 on Monday nights at 11:05 PM, with the reasoning being that viewers who are used to watching The Ultimate Fighter after WWE Raw will flip the channel from USA Network to Spike TV every week at 11:05 PM when Raw goes off the air.
As for Spike TV’s line-up on Saturday nights, starting on October 8th that line-up will consist of an action movie from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, an episode of UFC Unleashed from 9:00 PM to 10:00 PM, a repeat airing of The Ultimate Fighter 2 from 10:00 PM to 11:00 PM, and TNA Impact from 11:00 PM to 12:00 AM.
If the UFC absolutely tanks in the ratings on October 3rd, it’s possible that Spike TV could decide to shift the new airing of The Ultimate Fighter every week to the Saturdays at 10:00 PM timeslot that the network currently has booked for TUF repeats every week.
The only thing that has been set it stone by Spike TV at this point is that The Ultimate Fighter 2 will continue to air on both Saturday nights at 10:00 PM, and on Monday nights at 11:05 PM, even after WWE Raw leaves the network. At this point, the only question is which one of those airings will be the new episode every week, and which one will be the repeat every week. Spike TV’s advertising sales are flexible enough that the network can afford to make the final decision on this matter depending on how well the UFC performs in the ratings on October 3rd.
In the meantime, a marathon of the first six episodes of The Ultimate Fighter 2 will air on Saturday, October 1st from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM on Spike TV, in a move that Spike TV feels will provide a quality lead-in for the October 1st premiere of TNA Impact at 11:00 PM.
Possible Dates for UFC Live TV Specials in 2006
If Spike TV wanted to run live UFC events on Monday nights a few times per year, in order to capitalize on the pro wrestling audience that is normally watching TV on Monday nights, surely the best nights to do so would be the nights on which WWE Raw is pre-empted, right?
That would seem to make the most sense, and if Spike TV is thinking the same way, then three potential dates for live UFC specials on Spike TV would February 13th, August 28th, and September 4th of 2006.
One of the major reasons that WWE left USA Network for Spike TV several years ago was because of WWE’s frustration over being pre-empted three times per year for other programming on USA Network. Now, having been essentially forced to return to USA Network after Spike TV and every other cable network was unwilling to meet its contractual demands, WWE is right back in the same situation it was in several years ago with three pre-emptions per year.
A press release that was put out by USA Network this week discloses that WWE Raw will be pre-empted on Monday, February 13th, 2006 for the network’s annual airing of the Westminster Dog Show on USA Network. That just screams to Spike TV, “Put a live UFC special on this date in Raw’s timeslot and maybe regular viewers of Raw will watch Spike TV that night instead!” It’s not known if Spike TV executives are planning such a move at this point, but it’s certainly something that they’re going to consider at some point.
In addition, USA Network will pre-empt WWE Raw on Monday, August 28th, 2006 and again on Monday, September 4th, 2006 for its annual coverage of the US Open tennis tournament. Logic would dictate that either of these two dates would be ideal for a live UFC special from 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Again, nothing has been decided by Spike TV on this matter, but don’t be surprised if you see it happen.