Spike TV’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter very quietly celebrated its 100th episode on Nov. 12. But by no means is the adrenaline-filled, action-packed series a secret among the network’s male-skewing audience.
The series, an offshoot of the popular mixed martial arts outfit the Ultimate Fighting Championship and produced by Survivor producer Craig Piligian, is the most successful original in Spike’s five-year history.
During its run, which began in 2005, the show has average 1.9 million viewers — easily ahead of its nearest competitor, the TNA Impact pro wrestling series which averages 1.5 million viewers.
Not bad for a show that almost didn’t make it to the air.
Three years ago, when the nascent UFC franchise pitched Spike TV a reality series in which 16 big mixed martial arts fighters are secluded in one house and forced to fight elimination bouts until a winner is chosen, the network was skeptical, president Kevin Kay said. At the time, UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and co-founder Dana White, were trying to resurrect a struggling franchise, having been labeled as a sport akin to human cockfighting by Arizona Sen. John McCain in the mid 1990s for its no-holds barred fighting style.
“We had concerns,” Kay said. “We read all the press and we knew the history of the organization, so sure we were concerned.”
But White believed that the series — which the organization spent $10 million of its own money to produce in its freshman season — would fit well with Spike’s mission to reach young male viewers.
“When we first started shooting the series, we were just looking for a way to get on television,” said White, who also serves as on-air host of the series. “After we finished the first season, however, I realized what it meant to our business.”
Piligian, who had success with other competition reality series such as Survivor, also felt that the testosterone-filled series would catch on with Spike’s 18-34 year old demo.
“We thought it would be great to create a reality show that put 16 guys in one house,” he said. “It was a gamble as is almost everything in TV, but we made the concept simple and raw and the first season struck a chord with viewers.”
Added Kay: “We had a bunch of young guys in the office who were in their early to mid 20’s who kept coming into our development teams saying you have to watch the UFC — it’s the coolest thing ever. The youngest people in the office are usually ahead of the curve, so you have to take that seriously.”
Indeed, in its first run the series averaged 2 million viewers and helped establish the UFC as a legitimate sports outfit.
“We spent a lot of time with the organization going to fights and watching and talking to them and learning about the safety rules and regulations, so we got a level of comfort about the safety that was being employed by the UFC,” said Kay.
Despite the potential for very violent and blood-heavy shoots, Piligian said he’s never had to cut a scene because it was too extreme. “It’s always been raw — what you see is what you get,” he said.
(During this season, viewers witnessed one fighter actually urinating on a piece of fruit that another competitor eventually eats as payback for wrongs done against him.)
The series has also made household names of many of today’s UFC stars. For example, The Ultimate Fighter 1 champion Forrest Griffin has since become the current light heavyweight champion of the world. Veteran UFC fighter Chuck Liddell was introduced to new viewers when he served as a coach, also during The Ultimate Fighter 1.
For Spike, the series also brought legitimacy to the network, which was looking for a stable series to draw and keep its target male 18-34 age group. Since its launch, The Ultimate Fighter has averaged over 1 million viewers in that demo.
“As we moved forward with the UFC and Spike, a lot of what’s reflected in the UFC is reflected in Spike’s brand and vise versa,” Kay said. “I would say that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the UFC — it informed our brand and it helped us get guys to tune into the channel on a regular basis, and that always helps them get to our other programming.”
As for the future, White said the UFC will continue to produce two seasons of Ultimate Fighter a year through 2012 on Spike. He added the show will continue to look for different approaches to keep the series fresh. The ninth season set to debut in April 2009 will pit English fighters against American fighters.
Kay feels that despite its age, the show still has a lot of fight left in it. “These type of shows build a life of their own — everybody wants to see who’s next,” he said.