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Wave of MMA-themed programs ready for Friday night premieres

MMA's staying power will be gauged again Friday when the UFC and Bellator Fighting Championships launch their latest live TV projects on the same night for nearly congruent 12-week runs.

The Ultimate Fighter Live, a re-envisioned (and slightly re-branded) take on the popular reality TV series that ran on Spike TV for seven years, debuts on the Fox-owned FX at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Bellator, purchased last September by media giant Viacom, begins its sixth season of eight-man elimination tournaments on MTV2 and EPIX (HD) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

The two live broadcasts will overlap for one hour, and TUFL is now expected to run longer than its original two-hour slot so it can air all 16 qualifying fights to decide which lightweight hopefuls move on to compete for a six-figure UFC contract.

"We've expanded the episode to two and half hours, but it could go longer," said Chuck Saftler, executive vice president of FX Networks. "As far as we're concerned, this is live sports, and there's nothing that keeps us from passing that amount of time. You finish when the night is over."

For its debut, Saftler promised surprises at the top of the show regarding the revamped series' rules, though he wouldn't elaborate on them.

In future weeks, when TUFL settles into its new one-hour format, it and Bellator will run in back-to-back time slots (except on April 27). In the past, TUF shot an entire season in 30 days, then edited the episodes for airing three months later. TUFL promises one live fight every Friday to cap off a swift turnaround feature of that week's drama caught at the training gym and fighters' house in Las Vegas.

"The show will open live with [UFC president] Dana White and host Jon Anik, who'll be at the top of the show every week to talk about what has happened in the house," Saftler said. "We'll roll in features that show you the reality elements, the personalities and relationships in the house, which will typically air in the first half hour. The back half-hour will be the fight and its aftermath, ending with the announcement of who will fight who the following week."

Bellator's sixth season will feature five eight-man tournaments from featherweight to middleweight from a different venue each week; Friday's live event kicks off with the featherweight quarterfinal bouts and a championship defense between featherweight titleholder Joe Warren and season two lightweight tournament champion Pat Curran from Hammond, Ind. Six preliminary bouts will air, beginning at 7 p.m. ET at Spike.com, as Bellator will jump to Spike TV in 2013 once the last phase of its existing deal with UFC owners, Zuffa LLC, lapses.

Will the sport's fanbase tune in strong for two shows running on the same night to the point where it optimally benefits both promotions? Will the sport's core audience split between the two choices or will one bolster the other? That remains to be seen, though both networks are confident they've landed on the right night.

Bellator, which has already aired on MTV2 for one year, had heavy competition from UFC pay-per-views and Strikeforce events on Showtime when it aired on Saturday nights last year, prompting its December announcement to move to Fridays.

"The reasons that we moved off Saturdays were all good reasons and made sense in terms of the competition that existed there with college football, and major boxing and UFC pay-per-view events and a lot of different options," said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, who founded the promotion in 2008.

FX, which is available in 98 million homes (18 million more than MTV2), has the more recognizable brand in the UFC, and wanted to build on the promotion's staple Saturdays.

"The network's feeling was there was an opportunity, especially with the live element of the show, for guys to kick back and watch with their friends, in bars, in places they gather to watch sports without having to go to work the next day," said Saftler.

For this first season of TUFL (which is actually the 15th season of the series for those keeping count), FX's greatest task will be to migrate viewers away from the other channel they went to for seven years to get their fight fix.

"The first goal is make sure that the UFC audience knows that it's moved to FX and to know that they'll have a consistent place to see The Ultimate Fighter Live," said Saftler. "Friday nights also work really well with the Saturday events, so you'll be able to get a full weekend of UFC [content]. It's all about destination and a consistent, simple message."

Bellator's challenges might seem heftier. With former No. 2 promotion Strikeforce now under Zuffa's ownership, Bellator is all that stands between the UFC becoming the top-echelon monopoly. Yet, it's still viewed as a far ways off from the industry leader in key areas like roster depth and production value.

What Bellator does have this season is some added muscle from Viacom, specifically from Spike TV, which has been working closely with sister network MTV2 and the promotion to improve the Bellator product.

In mid-November, the newly acquired Bellator flew its 60 tournament participants (including two alternates per division) to Orlando, Fla., for an entire week of tapings on multiple Universal Studios soundstages. The extensive backlog that was recorded -- from intensive sit-downs to action sequences to generic B-roll -- should give Spike and MTV2 a greater palette of content to work with when presenting the athletes' stories and supporting packages this year and beyond.

"The whole team at Viacom and Spike has been really intertwined in everything we've been doing since the initial MTV2 deal was cut," Rebney said. "Ever since the Viacom acquisition, they've stepped it up to another level. They have an enormous amount of people from their creative to production teams and they just get it. They do this better than anybody in the industry; they wrote the book on this."

There are other elements, both obvious and subtle, that have benefited from the boosted relationship, Rebney said. The promotion has recently signed into a music-licensing deal that will give it more variety with fighter entrances and live-event filler, while the traveling promotion has upgraded its mobile editing system on the road.

"The goal for season six is to keep elevating, to literally keep refining, polishing and improving every single element of what we're doing, whether it's the storytelling or live event or sponsorship integration or international or production," Rebney said. "It's just getting it bigger, faster, stronger and more entertaining."

Spike TV president Kevin Kay said there will also be an emphasis on improving the live-event experience and attendance, a task that should be easier with the move to a weekend night. With 60 events in three years, Bellator has only been able to draw a fraction of the audience that the 18-year-old UFC is able to attract with relative consistency.

"We've got a new audio and lighting package, so you'll see the production improve on-site and on television," Kay said. "We're trying to upgrade the venues, and that means bigger venues in some cases, and making sure that we fill them and get the most excitement in the house because that translates to the TV audience."

Kay said that Viacom has been able to plug into its local affiliate marketing to push events, while Bellator has gotten ahead of the curve in scheduling its events with ample lead-in time to promote them properly.

"You'll see it this weekend in Hammond, they ran several hundred spots locally to focus on ticket sales and I think that paid off," Kay said. "We've introduced Bjorn to some of our partners on other events, in the radio world and such to help with all types of advertising. The more deeply we get into this, the more we have to offer on the marketing side."

Viacom and Spike is sticking fast to Bellator's tournament format, a structure the UFC utilized in its earliest days, but abandoned in 1998. Along with the earlier prime-time slot, an abundance of live fights could give Bellator a surprising edge in the Friday night showdowns.

"We're two hours live of major world-class fights happening right in front of you," Rebney said. "We're not a reality show. None of what were doing is pre-taped, so it's a different choice. They're such different options, that each will draw a distinct audience."

If both promotions can capture a strong crossover following of old and new fans that watch both programs, it will be another marker that speaks to the continued mainstream growth of MMA, a still-developing sport that is only 18 years old in the U.S.

But if it proves to be too much MMA on one night for even the most diehard of fans to digest?

"We live by an axiom that works pretty well for us and that is we never really plant the flag and say we're doing this and we're never going to adjust," said Bellator's Rebney. "You make decisions on the best information you have and you see what the results are. We'll see how people react to it. We'll see how this plays out."

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