Saturday Night's Mania Event: The Ultimate Fighter failures and how to save the Spike TV reality show

After taking last weekend off due to the Strikeforce: "Diaz vs. Daley" event, which was superb, Saturday Night's Mania Event (SNME) makes its return.

In the last edition, we touched on Brock Lesnar and the slow but steady decline of his appeal to the wider audience. His draw is becoming less and less as the days go by.

As my esteemed colleague Jesse Holland pointed out to me earlier, one need look no further than the Brock Lesnar video posted earlier today (April 16), which, as of this writing, has all of four comments. Even for a slow Saturday, that's pretty bad, folks.

Another reason given for his declining draw, were the numbers for the debut episode of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 14, where Lesnar is a coach opposite Junior dos Santos, which were as low as they had ever been.

More than a few readers were quick to point something out: "Geno, the ratings for TUF aren't bad because of Brock Lesnar -- they're bad because the show sucks."

They're right.

That wasn't always the case. In fact, hard as it may be to envision now, TUF used to be one of the most compelling shows on television. Somewhere down the line, however, it all went wrong. Where exactly would that be?

When it stopped being about reality TV and started being about just plain old fighting.

Let's go back to the very first season, which premiered on Spike TV on January 17, 2005. Up to this point, it was hard to find more than a handful of people that cared about MMA.

Sure there were plenty of hardcore fans that bought and paid for everything that had the UFC logo on it but the all-important wider audience just never connected.

It's not that they didn't want to; they just needed something a little more interesting than two guys simply punching each other in the face. Or worse yet, a glorified wrestling match.

Without getting into too much of a history lesson, TUF was pitched to executives at Spike and it was given a chance with an outstanding timeslot, right after WWE Monday Night Raw.

The show was a smash hit.

Featuring two of the biggest stars in the history of the UFC as coaches, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who would fight at the conclusion of the show (and do incredible numbers on pay-per-view largely because of the success of TUF), season one had it all.

Drama created by compelling personalities, eliminations, challenges, a beautiful host (remember Willa Ford?) and, of course, a loudmouth bossman that wasn't afraid to tear into anyone that pissed him off.

All of that combined for a must-see TV. Now think of the show today. Are there any of those key ingredients? No. Essentially, the only thing that remains is the loudmouth bossman, which, if given a choice, is the absolute last thing one would want to keep after all these years.

How did the show go so wrong? Why is it such an unmitigated failure today after being such a smashing success in the beginning?

Because they tinkered too much with the very ideas that made it so compelling in the first place and replaced it with an extremely bland and entirely too stale format.

A typical episode of TUF today would consist of fighters talking to the camera about wanting to become the next UFC star, followed by a training montage and then a fight between two men with unpolished skills which typically leads to a sloppy snoozefest. 

Boooooring,

That formula might work for the hardcore fans that will watch no matter what the show is about, but it doesn't cut the mustard for the larger audience. That's the key point the UFC has seemingly forgotten.

A good rule of marketing and promotion is that you never cater to your core fanbase. There's no reason to. They will always be there, buying the pay-per-views, purchasing the merchandise and watching the TV shows.

Rewind back to season one and notice the differences. For starters, there wasn't even a fight until the third episode. And that worked perfectly because, remember, this is a reality show.

There was also the matter of how they decided fights -- with challenges. The two teams would compete against each other in various tests of strength, will and agility. There was no limit to what they would have the fighters do.

For instance, in episode three, Alex Schoenauer won the light heavyweight challenge while Bobby Southworth came in last. Because of that, he was forced to fight in the first elimination bout.

But losing a fight wasn't the only way to get kicked off the show. In the beginning episodes of the season, they had eliminations based on the challenges. What made this even more compelling was the fact that the coaches were the ones tasked with deciding who left the show.

That's reality television at its finest. That right there, whether it's about fighting or not, is enough to get a casual viewer to tune into the show. That's something you can convince your girlfriend to watch with you each week.

Here's another reason it was so compelling: decisions made throughout the course of the season that were a direct result of happenings within the season. Example -- when Chris Leben, the original bad boy that ran roughshod through the TUF house, had issues with Josh Koscheck that boiled over into "Kos" spraying cold water directly onto a sleeping "Crippler," it was decided by Dana White that the only way to properly resolve their dispute was to have them fight.

Can Leben make Koscheck pay for harassing him? Will Koscheck send the bad boy home for good and restore order to the house? Tune in next week!

At this point, not only do you have compelling TV, you've also got a reason to want to watch, and actually care about, the fight that will occur.

Fast forward back to today. That grief you're hit with, that stunning sense of dismay, is because that entire format is dead. Instead, it seems the UFC is less concerned with making good TV and more concerned with making sure a couple of their biggest draws are on the tube each week. 

Let me ask you a question. Would you rather watch Brock Lesnar explain to his team what he means when he calls them chicken shit or deciding which one of them to send home, who never even got the chance to fight, because he was the weak link in the log-rolling challenge?

I know which one I would choose.

What makes this even worse is Lesnar and dos Santos are suffering through guilt by association. They both end up looking worse just by their presence and the fact that it's had zero effect on the ratings.

You readers were right, though. It's not Brock's fault and it's not Junior's fault. It's the UFC and Spike TV's fault for allowing this once great show to become a stale, sad excuse for a reality show.

Things will never turn around unless they make a radical change. And they need look no further than the formula they created when they started this whole song and dance.

TUF can be a juggernaut once again; it just needs those in charge to remember what it is and what it's for. It's not just a fighting show ... it's a show that has fighting in it. 

We won't watch just for mediocre fights from starving artists that couldn't make the big leagues on their own merits. Our girlfriends don't enjoy that. But they do enjoy an off-the-wall challenge followed by a tension filled elimination. The fights? Yeah, I guess we can watch those, too.

Make it happen, UFC. It's not like you're going to lose any more viewers than you already have.

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