By Oliver Chan
“With all due respect to Spike… Mr. Hill, Mr. Shanks, and I have 50 gross rating points and promotions in the cushions of our couches.” - President of FX, John Landgraf, on the performance of TUF on Spike (8/18/11)
There’s a lot to be said about the declining ratings of The Ultimate Fighter since the move to FX and rightfully so. FX has yet to see the same success as TUF had when it was on Spike. However, as John Landgraf pointed out during the August 2011 press conference announcing the deal with the UFC and Fox, Spike simply does not hold a candle to the ratings delivery that FX gets. When you compare the numbers on a national level, he’s right.
Just take a look at the Nielson Prime-time numbers from 3Q11:
Comparing the two networks, FX has an increase of the 18-34 and 18-49 demos on both impressions delivered as well as the ratings share over Spike. It’s also important to realize that according to the Cable Advertising Bureau, Spike is available in close to 99 million homes, where FX is in just over 97 million. In other words, FX still manages to attract move viewers, despite being in less than 2 million homes than Spike.
Moving a program to a different night of the week is always a risky move and it’s never done lightly. It should be noted that while FX is the home for TUF, the program is actually sold as a property under the Fox Sports group. Any advertisement deals involving the UFC are separate from any deals with the non-sports related programs that air on FX. When addressing a change in a program’s schedule, one must consider the risk/reward aspect of making such a change.
FX’s programmers likely looked at their Wednesday night delivery numbers and compared that with the numbers on Spike. The case can be made that Wednesday Nights on FX was already delivering higher ratings than Spike, therefore, airing TUF on Wednesday would be an unnecessary move. So the question for Fox Cable execs was, “where will the network most benefit from the TUF Property?”
The answer is Friday nights.
As most TV enthusiasts know, Friday and Saturday evenings are two of the worst nights for attracting viewers. Advertising is often guaranteed on the number of impressions (ie people watching) and not on the actual program being aired, and it becomes a hard sell to advertisers since media buyers know that airing on these nights won’t likely reach their guarantees. Many cable networks package these nights to advertisers as “anthology” titles. The network is basically airing content for the sake of airing content. From the media-buyers point of view, they are least likely to invest heavily in any program packaged to them like “FX Friday Night Movie” where you would catch Big Momma’s House 2. These time-slots are most likely going to have a few national paid units, but will most likely consist of Direct Response ads (i.e., our favorite hooker-beating victim, the Sham-wow Guy) or zero-dollar make-good units (basically free advertising given to the national advertisers to increase delivery ratings).
At the end of the day, here’s what the network execs are probably thinking (a dramatization if you will): “We have a day where we are very undersold, we now have a property that we can monetize. Should we continue plugging in make-good units? Or should we fill an hour of Friday Prime with paid advertisers?”
The answer is simple, put in TUF and sell it. Even though last season saw a downtick in the ratings, the show still performed above the network estimates and thus delivered on the guaranteed impressions needed to fulfill the network’s deals with advertisers. In other words, the network didn’t lose money or owe the advertisers additional make-good units to fulfill their end of the deal. Not only that, but the network saw an increase in their Friday Primetime ratings average with The Ultimate Fighter than their six-month-prior Friday Prime average. Whether that trend will apply to this season has yet to be seen.
Has the UFC brand been a homerun for the Fox group like Dana White said? Well, it depends on how you look at it. The numbers on Big Fox still lacks the luster to warrant it a success. Simply put, as one anonymous ESPN insider said, “it’s (The UFC on Fox) a special that airs once every few months and should get a higher rating than a Knicks regular season game.” He’s got a point there. But let’s look at the cable side of things. Fuel, the network that most people have no idea what channel it’s on, has already seen significant leaps in its ratings which will likely result in a wider cable distribution and better channel placement on major cable providers. On pay-per-view nights, FX has seen ratings increase by taking advantage of airing the prelims by strategically piggy-backing male-skewing movies immediately following the free fights. Right now, yes, the UFC has been a homerun for Fox Cable Networks.
Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at the numbers pulled earlier and see what 3Q12 looks like:
Obviously, the first thing you’ll notice is that both networks have a decrease in ratings and impressions delivery from the prior year, which can be contributed to the recent London Olympics airing this past summer, which will be seen by all networks not airing the Olympics in 3Q12. With the exception of P18-49, the ratings between Spike and FX increased in every demographic. M18-34 saw a substantial jump where FX expanded their lead over Spike by 19% in ratings and 18% in delivered impressions. That’s a pretty sizable increase especially considering that ratings were down across the board due to the London Olympics.
What’s next? Well, if ratings continue to drop, the Fox Cable execs will relook at the strategy and probably tinker with it a little more. It wouldn’t be surprising to see TUF move from FX to Fuel. Fox Cable did a similar move to the popular “Dog Whisperer” series when it began to decline on The National Geographic Channel, and then moved it to the lesser distributed Nat Geo Wild channel to help bolster the ratings on the smaller net. That would be the most likely scenario we will see if the trend continues. So for those of you who will miss the “propping a bag of flour over the front door” prank — it never gets old! — rest assured, you’ll still see the show. Despite last week’s poor ratings draw on the Fuel prelims, the UFC brand has been very good to the emerging network where there has been a steady increase in ratings since the acquisition of the UFC brand.
Earlier this year Bloomberg reported that Fox News Corp will be looking to launch a sports network that will rival ESPN. Currently, Fox holds the rights to MLB, NFL, and various football conferences, properties that ESPN also holds broadcasting rights to. The ace in the hole would be Fox’s broadcast rights to the FIFA World Cup and the UFC, two properties that ESPN does not have the rights too. Since the World Cup only occurs every four years, Fox would likely utilize the UFC as their “ace-kicker” as a way to one-up the “world-wide leader in sports.” Once you compare the ESPN/Fox tale of the tape, Fox has the advantage in combat sports with the UFC.
Everything else is practically identical.
What about your thoughts, Nation? Sing loud and sing proud in the comment section (but be nice, this is my first column here on CP).