Adam Swift over at MMAPayout.com has an interesting look at the ratings history of The Ultimate Fighter. What he discovered — ratings for the show are getting steadily worse — should come as no surprise, but it is worthwhile to look at what it means for the show and for the UFC. First off, the cold hard numbers.
The show is currently averaging a 1.07 rating in its seventh season. That’s down from 1.12 last season, 1.18 in season five, and so on all the way back to season three’s peak of 1.69 (slightly better than season one’s 1.6). Among men aged 18-34 the show is doing a 1.6, up from 1.5 last season and on par with the 1.6 in season five. The ratings among that demographic group also peaked in season three with a 2.9, up from 2.2 in the first season and 2.5 in the second.
You don’t have to be an expert on TV or math to see that overall, TUF is on a steady ratings decline. While the show has been holding fairly strong among 18-34 year-old men during the last three seasons, it’s still clear that the initial luster of this series has worn off for the general public. The question is, what does it mean?
One thing we have to remember is that some of this is due to the nature of reality TV. So much of the genre is built on novelty, which is ironic when you consider that almost all reality TV programming follows the same predictable path in terms of format and structure.
When TUF debuted it was unlike any other show on television. Instead of hoping for a fight between reality show contestants, we were promised one. It was tremendously successful in getting the UFC brand into the public sphere. It exposed a lot of new viewers to something they hadn’t seen before, and that usually equals great success right off the bat (just look at the initial success of Fox’s Moment of Truth, which turned out to be a cultural disaster).
But after a few seasons the TUF format inevitably became stale. Ratings peaked in season three with the Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock rivalry, and then hit a new low in season 4, with the numbers dropping in each successive season.
The point is, if you’re a TV watcher in America you’ve probably made up your mind about the show by now. And if you like MMA you have far more options these days than you did when the show premiered. Of course, part of the reason you have those options is because of the success of TUF, but television is and always will be a ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ type of business.
For all the criticism the show receives from hardcore fans, the encouraging thing is that the UFC and Spike have been taking steps to try and give people what they want. We complain about too much manufactured drama and not enough fights, they respond by giving us more fights per episode and cutting back on footage of guys wandering aimlessly through the TUF house. Will that appease the show’s fickle demographic?
Probably not. But that’s the way it is, particularly with a reality TV show on a cable network without much in the way of original programming. The show seems to be holding steady among 18-34 year-old men, but don’t expect that number to be markedly improved when Frank Mir and Big Nog take over as coaches next season.
At the same time, Spike TV seems to be happy with the ratings, and why wouldn’t they be? It’s one of their most popular offerings. It may be that TUF has to readjust its barometer for success. It’s a show about up-and-coming fighters, many of whom are simply not good enough to be worthy of fighting on TV for people’s entertainment. Some of them are a few years away from that point, others are light years from it. But considering what the show offers and where it is in its evolution, the UFC shouldn’t be surprised or even disheartened at these ratings.
Maybe it just proves that reality TV, at its core, just kind of sucks. The fact that even when it sucks it’s still better than According to Jim, that might have to be enough consolation for now.