June 13, 2012

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Dana White moments after the season finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Live had just wrapped up. As the production crew was packing up cameras and lights in the vast Las Vegas gym, the UFC president mused on what he loved about this season — the reality show’s first on FX — more than any of the previous 15.

“Live,” he said. “There’s no putting it in the can. There’s no keeping it a secret. … Live is the real deal. I love it. This is the most engaged I’ve been in a season of The Ultimate Fighter in a long time.”

Well, White is going to have to find something new to engage him. Next season the show will revert to the taped format that, prior to this season, had been used ever since TUF launched on Spike back in 2005, he told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday night.

The other TUF news White passed along has to do with something he wished were changing but will not be: The show will remain in its Friday 10 p.m. ET time slot. During our recent conversation, Dana said he understood why the Fox network initially had put the fighting show on Fridays — the UFC deal was completed after programmers had settled on much of their season schedule — but was hoping to move it to a better slot for next season. “Friday nights are a bad night for us. We know that,” said White. “We would never go out and air a show that we really cared about on Friday night.”

Why is that? Friday is not a popular night for television viewing. Indeed, although Fox officials have lauded the viewership numbers and White told Yahoo the show “was a smash hit home run for them,” other observers have dwelled on a ratings dip. However, it’s tricky to compare this season of TUF to past ones: FX is available in more households than Spike, but Fridays are a graveyard compared to the old Wednesday time slot. Suffice to say ratings numbers can be manipulated to tell whatever story you want to tell.

And so can reality television … at least when it’s, as Dana says, “in the can.” Whereas past seasons have been edited to feature reality TV fodder — pranks and spats in the house where 16 fighters were cooped up for several weeks of no TV, no phone, no outside world — this season was mostly centered upon the live fights. There was the real-life drama of fighter Michael Chiesa losing his father to leukemia in the show’s first week, an ongoing story line that built to the finale, when Chiesa became the show’s winner. But we didn’t see a lot of the old Jersey Shore-style hijinx.

Maybe FX wants more of that. Or maybe it simply wants the show to end on time (several weeks this season the live fights pushed TUF past its allotted hour). Whatever the case may be, White is at least publicly upbeat, expressing a willingness to accommodate his fight promotion’s broadcast partner for Season 16, which debuts in September, featuring welterweights. But the UFC president surely will be watching closely — even if the show is not live, as he prefers — and if “this next season isn't up to the standards I expect,” he told Yahoo, “they promised me we can move it to Tuesday or Wednesday.”

—Jeff Wagenheim  

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