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Monday, April 17, 2006
Mixed Martial Arts--- Ultimate Fight Night 4 Ratings Down from Previous Live Fight Specials
by Ivan Trembow
Originally Published on MMAWeekly

The ratings for the live Ultimate Fight Night special that aired on April 6th on Spike TV have to be considered a double-edged sword for Zuffa and Spike. It's undeniable that Ultimate Fight Night 4 accomplished one of the missions that it was meant to accomplish, which was to provide a strong lead-in for the season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter 3. However, in and of itself, Ultimate Fight Night 4 didn't draw particularly strong ratings based on the standards that live UFC fight specials have set in the past.

Ultimate Fight Night 4 drew an overall rating of 1.6, while also drawing a 2.3 rating in the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic, and a 1.9 rating in the 18-to-49-year-old male demographic.

Ratings for Live TV Events Gradually Decreasing Since Last November
In overall ratings and also in the aforementioned two key demographics, the UFC's live fight specials have actually been on a bit of a downward trend ever since the record-breaking numbers of the November 2005 live finale of The Ultimate Fighter 2.

The live season finales of The Ultimate Fighter have twelve weeks of TV shows building up to them, whereas the "non-TUF" live fight specials only have a few weeks of commercials on Spike TV to promote them, so one might expect the last two specials to have been down slightly. However, a downward trend is still never a good thing under any circumstances, and the fact that the November 2005 special was a TUF finale does absolutely nothing to explain the additional drop-off in viewership from the January 2006 live special to the April 2006 live special.

The April 6th special didn't have the disadvantage of having to go head-to-head with WWE Raw for more than half of its two-hour telecast, which was something that the January special had to contend with, and yet the April special still drew lower ratings than the January special. (On the bright side, unlike the January special, nobody lost control of their bowels in the middle of a fight during the April special, which has to be considered a good thing.)

After the strong 2.0 overall rating of the November 2005 event, the January 2006 live special on Spike TV was down to a 1.7 overall rating, and the April 6th live special was down further to a 1.6 overall rating.

In the single most important viewer demographic for advertising purposes, 18-to-34-year-old males, the November 2005 live special drew a record-breaking 3.7 rating, the January 2006 live special was down to a 2.7 rating in that demographic, and the April 6th live special was down further to a 2.3 rating in that demo.

In the broader demographic of 18-to-49-year-old males, the November 2005 live special drew a 2.7 rating, the January 2006 live special drew a 2.0 rating, and the April 6th live special drew a 1.9 rating.

Where UFN 4 Fits Into the Ratings History of Live Fight Specials
Looking at the bigger picture of every live fight special that the UFC has ever put on, Ultimate Fight Night 4 comes in near the bottom of the pack.

Ultimate Fight Night 4's overall rating of 1.6 was tied for the second-lowest overall rating of any live special that the UFC has put on. The only show that did worse was the August 2005 live special, which drew a 1.5 overall rating.

Heading into the April 6th live special, the average rating for all UFC live specials (dating back to April of last year) in the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic was 2.9. Ultimate Fight Night 4's rating of 2.3 in this demographic was down significantly from that average, and was also the second-lowest to date. The only UFC live special that drew a lower rating in that demographic was the August 2005 live special, which drew a 2.0 rating in that demographic.

Finally, in the 18-to-49-year-old male demographic, the average-to-date for all UFC live specials was 2.3, and Ultimate Fight Night 4 fell short of that mark with a 1.9 rating in that demographic. Once again, it was the second-lowest rating to date, and the only live special to have done worse was the August 2005 special and its 1.8 rating in that demographic.

Why Were the Ratings Down? Timeslot? Competition? Judges' Decisions? The Fights Themselves? The Atmosphere?
While previous live fight specials all started at either 9:00 PM or 10:00 PM (and all of them ended between 11:00 PM and 12:00 AM), Ultimate Fight Night 4 was slotted to run from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM. It was not only the first time that a live UFC fight special aired in that timeslot, but it was also the first time that a live fight special debuted on a Thursday night. However, the new night and time cannot adequately explain the show's lower ratings, due to the fact that The Ultimate Fighter drew some of the highest ratings in series history while in the same boat of being on a new night and time.

So, if it wasn't the new night and time, then why were the ratings for Ultimate Fight Night 4 down from previous live fight specials? It wasn't due to strong competition for the UFC's core demographic of viewers, because the UFC actually faced stronger competition for young male viewers in January up against WWE Raw. Just the fact that all of the fights went to the judges' scorecards had nothing to do with the lower ratings, because three of the four fights on the most-watched UFC event in history (the November 2005 live special) went to the judges' scorecards.

The biggest factor that is likely to have contributed to the lower ratings is the general sense that the fights on this card turned out to be not particularly exciting compared to some of the previous fight cards, and that is something that simply can't be controlled in a legitimate sport like MMA. There are naturally going to be some extremely exciting events, like last November's show (which arguably had three of the year's top ten fights in terms of pure excitement), and other times there are going to be less exciting events. Some events are simply going to be "better" than others. Every legitimate sport in which the outcomes are not pre-determined has to face that, and mixed martial arts is no different.

One thing that Zuffa and Spike TV do have some control over is the venue, and it needs to be changed in my opinion for the sake of future TV ratings. I'm not suggesting for a second that viewers at home would say, "Oh, I like (or dislike) that venue, so I am (or am not) going to watch." What the venue does is help create the atmosphere for the event, and there can be no doubt that the atmosphere of a live television event does have some effect on the ratings.

No matter how pleasant or unpleasant it might be to attend UFC event in The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, the way it looks on television is almost like a high school gymnasium. The viewers at home need to be made to feel like they're watching a professional sporting event, and even the strong "Hard Rock" brand name can't save that particular venue from looking completely bush-league on television.

This stuck out like a sore thumb on the April 6th broadcast. The sub-standard TV look of the venue had been somewhat mitigated by the enthusiastic crowds that were in attendance at the last few live TV specials before this one. However, on this particular night the crowd was dead for the entire event and only served to suck the life out of the TV broadcast. An enthusiastic crowd can add greatly to the atmosphere of a TV broadcast, but just as easily a dead crowd can have the opposite effect.

In short, Zuffa and Spike TV have no control over the fact that in a legitimate sport like MMA, some fights and some events are going to be more exciting than others. On the other hand, Zuffa and Spike certainly do have the ability to book a venue that doesn't come across looking like a high school gymnasium on television.

Gaps Between Fights Still a Factor
The long gaps in between fights weren't as long on the April 6th live special as they had been in previous live specials, but that was mainly because there was little choice in the matter. Given that four fights had been booked to air on a live two-hour broadcast, and all four of those fights went to the judges' scorecards, there was no choice but to move things along as quickly as possible. Even then, the show went over its allotted time and didn't go off the air until 10:09 PM Eastern Time. Ultimately, the gaps in between fights on this event (starting at the conclusion of the first fight) were 17 minutes, 19 minutes, and 13 minutes.

However, what would have happened if the fights had been shorter? What would have happened if the four scheduled fights didn't take up the entire two-hour broadcast window? Would they have moved things along and aired a couple of undercard fights, or would they have killed endless amounts of time in between fights? Based on the January 16th live fight special, the answer would appear to the latter.

Going into that event, the UFC had publicly claimed in interviews that it would be giving its live fight specials a faster pace and shortening the long gaps in between fights. In fact, just the opposite happened, as the gaps in between fights were actually longer on the January card than they had been the last time the UFC had a two-hour live special with the same amount of time to fill (which was in October 2005).

On the two-hour special last October, the gaps of time in between fights had been 16 minutes, 24 minutes, and 20 minutes. Instead of getting shorter, the gaps in between fights on the next two-hour special (in January of this year) actually got longer and were 20 minutes, 29 minutes, 16 minutes, and 18 minutes. Anything over 20 minutes is too much down-time for a live fight special, and anything over 25 minutes is just inexcusable.

This is not my way of saying, "I hate commercials!" or anything of the sort. If you have a TIVO, you don't have to watch commercials unless you notice one that you specifically want to see. But the fact is that the vast majority of TV viewers still don't have a TIVO, and a certain percentage of those people are simply not going to sit around for 25 minutes in between fights waiting for the next one to start.

Of course you have to air commercials (approximately 32 minutes of them on a two-hour TV broadcast), and you also have to air the live fights, the basic level of background video packages, and some on-cameras of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan offering analysis. However, anything beyond that is just dead air that is taking up time that could be spent airing undercard fights, which would discourage a certain percentage of viewers from changing the channel. The only reason that the long gaps in between fights were not a factor on the April 6th broadcast is that the barrage of three-round fights ate up all of the allotted TV time (and then some).

On future live fight specials, this issue will come back up and continue to be a problem unless a concerted effort is made to move the shows along more quickly and broadcast more undercard fights in between the live fights. No matter how high or low the ratings may be in the future, they would be higher if there were shorter gaps in between fights.

How Far MMA Has Come Since Early 2005
Even while comparing the contrasting the ratings of various events and discussing the possible reasons for the ratings trends, one also can't over-state just how far the sport of mixed martial arts has come in such a short period of time. It was just over a year ago that there had never been a live MMA fight on any form of television other than pay-per-view. Now, in April 2006, there have been six different UFC live fight specials on Spike TV, there have been new Pride fights produced specifically for Fox Sports Net, and it almost seems commonplace to have new MMA fights on cable television.

The TV executive who ultimately pulled the trigger and gave the greenlight to airing live MMA fights on cable television was former Spike TV president Albie Hecht, and no matter how commonplace it seems now, it's important to remember that this kind of thing was considered unthinkable just a year-and-a-half ago. The current management teams at Spike TV and Fox Sports Net have continued to support the sport, and we shouldn't lose sight of how much more mainstream the sport has become in the past year.

UFC's Upcoming Schedule, Including Two Possible Events in June
The UFC's next live fight special will be the TUF 3 finale and is scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 24th. Zuffa has also requested a date for a Spike TV event in the state of Nevada for Wednesday, June 28th. June 28th is a tentative date that has not yet been approved or finalized, and it's not known exactly how that date might be used.

It could be that the UFC plans to tape original fights on June 28th for use on future episodes of UFC Unleashed; it could be that the UFC simply wants to leave its options for the TUF 3 finale and wants to have the ability to have it on the 24th or the 28th (although airing it on the 28th wouldn't make much sense on Zuffa's part); it could be that the June 28th date is for an Ultimate Fight Night event; or it could be that the additional date (June 28th) will simply be cancelled.

In any case, the next UFC pay-per-view events after UFC 60 in California on May 27th (headlined by Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie) are currently scheduled to be UFC 61 on July 8th, and UFC 62 on August 26th.

One final note regarding the UFC's schedule in the coming months and years is that Zuffa's contract with Spike TV actually calls for six live fight specials to air each year on Spike TV, even though the press releases, quotes, and news stories on the subject have specifically said that there will be four live specials per year.

Apparently, when Spike and Zuffa say, "Four live specials," a more precise explanation of what they mean is, "Four non-TUF-affiliated live specials." The contract actually calls for four specials per year that are not Ultimate Fighter season finales. Those live specials are in addition to the live finales for various Ultimate Fighter seasons, including The Ultimate Fighter 4 later in 2006 (featuring UFC veterans), The Ultimate Fighter 5 and 6 in 2007, and The Ultimate Fighter 7 in 2008.

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