The programming suits at NBC have a decision to make.
EliteXC's Saturday Night Fights debut on CBS May 31 proved that live mixed martial arts is more than viable on network television. Despite the fact that most MMA fans jeered the show, ripping into everything from the production to the officiating, SNF was the most-watched MMA event in U.S. television history. The broadcast drew a peak audience of more than 6.5 million viewers – and 4.85 million viewers in total – to top the 5.9 million who tuned into the Quinton Jackson-Dan Henderson match at UFC 75.
Those are game-changing numbers that TV executives simply can't ignore, especially when it comes to delivering the male, 18-to-34 audience that advertisers crave. That demographic comprised a sizeable portion of the viewers who tuned into SNF.
NBC already carries MMA, albeit in a time slot far removed from the bright lights of primetime. Strikeforce launched its weekly 30-minute taped series on the Peacock Network April 12. The promotion, which those familiar with the deal say purchased the airtime from the network, hoped the series would be the catalyst that leads to live shows on NBC.
"Periodically, we're in talks (with NBC)," said Strikeforce's Mike Afromowitz. "Of course, we want to be live on the network. That's always been part of our long-term objective. People want to see live events. The show's been a good way to introduce the brand and the product to people, but moving forward, we want to be live. That's the next step."
Not only do the ratings generated on CBS suggest that the next step might be imminent for NBC, programming brass at the network need to look no further than their own ratings to see that MMA draws a crowd. Viewership of "Strikeforce on NBC," which follows "Poker After Dark" every Saturday night/early Sunday morning, has increased nearly 200 percent from its first show to one of its recent airings.
The fifth episode, during the week of May 5, drew an audience of 949,000 viewers. That topped the average ratings for other late-night fare, including "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson."
"The show has exceeded our expectations," said Afromowitz, who oversees selection of fights featured in the production. "We're only several weeks into the series. We got the production together very quickly with minimal promotion. We didn't have a big, big campaign to promote it, but word spread from the first week we were on."
It seems only a matter of time before NBC makes a more significant commitment to MMA programming.