New York -- Citing a lack of carriage by most of its
affiliates, Viewer's Choice last week dropped Semaphore Entertainment Group's Ultimate
Fighting Championship pay-per-view series.
The decision will significantly cripple the controversial
combat sport, although SEG executives said the show will go on.
Viewer's Choice had been carrying the events on its
"Hot Choice" service, which serves about 8.5 million households. Industry
observers said the move was not surprising: The closing of Request Television added more
affiliates to Viewer's Choice that didn't carry UFC. And
Tele-Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable now a hold majority interest in
The network will carry the July 17 UFC event, but
not its October show.
"Now that TCI and Time Warner are in charge [of
Viewer's Choice], there was no way that the UFC was going to survive,"
said one operator, who wished to remain anonymous.
But Joe Boyle, vice president of corporate communications
for Viewer's Choice, downplayed TCI's or Time Warner's influence in the
"Close to one-half of Viewer's Choice's
affiliate base will not carry the [July] event; any future events would create a major
hole in the schedule," Boyle said. "It's a tough decision, with no easy
Indeed, UFC was only reaching about 8 million homes
-- one-fourth of the addressable universe -- mostly through midsized and small operators.
Ironically, SEG recently signed Adelphia Communications Corp. to carry its July event.
The loss revenue from those Viewer's Choice homes,
however, will be devastating to the UFC series, which was already operating in the
red, even though the genre has grown in popularity over the last year. But without a large
part of its average $1 million to $1.5 million PPV take, it will be difficult for the
series to stay afloat.
Nevertheless, SEG president Robert Meyrowitz has vowed to
keep the franchise running. "The UFC will definitely continue," he said,
although he would not reveal how the company would recoup the lost PPV revenue.
SEG will continue to distribute the event via
direct-broadcast satellite services, and it will pull revenue from the live gate and from
ancillary product sales such as videotapes.
For those operators carrying UFC, Viewer's
Choice's decision is one more disappointment for the PPV-events genre.
"We generate 8 percent of our revenue from that genre,
of which they are the main player," said Gregg Graff, senior vice president of
programming, marketing and advertising for Coaxial Cable. "Along with wrestling,
it's one of the reasons why we're still ahead of our PPV budget."
The Viewer's Choice move is one of a number of
setbacks that the ultimate-fighting genre has suffered since exploding on the PPV scene
three years ago. Originally touted as no-holds-barred fights to the death, the genre ran
into serious political trouble last year in New York, where the state's athletic
commission banned it.
But for all of the violent rhetoric, SEG insisted that no
one has been seriously hurt in an event. In fact, only 4 percent of fighters have been
knocked out, which is far less than boxing.
Nevertheless, in an April 1997 letter to operators,
National Cable Television Association present Decker Anstrom expressed concern that the
no-holds-barred events could affect the industry's political position in its attempt
to set public-policy objectives, and that they could "neutralize" operator
"good citizenship" with local officials.
By that time, Cablevision Systems Corp., InterMedia
Partners and TCI had already banned the sport. Soon after, Time Warner, Adelphia, Jones
Intercable Inc. and Request followed suit.
Viewer's Choice was one of the few industry companies
to remain supportive of the series, but the network eventually relegated the beleaguered
event to its lower-penetrated Hot Choice service earlier this year.