From 2005 through 2011, Spike TV and the UFC enjoyed a fruitful broadcast partnership, spawning 14 successful seasons of reality hit The Ultimate Fighter, as well as UFC Unleashed and UFC Primetime. In a formative time for both the network and league alike, each built its brand and audience in a big way.
Now, with the UFC headed to broadcast-ier pastures and Bellator, its MMA heir apparent, not due to air on Spike until 2013, the network faces something of an existential challenge.
Jon Slusser, senior vice president of Sports & Specials for Spike, sums it up neatly.
“How do we let our fans and advertisers know that Spike is still home to MMA?”
Slusser and Spike believe they’ve found the answer in Spike’s MMA: Uncensored Live, an all-new late-night show covering all things MMA live — on-air and online — every Thursday at 11:30 p.m. from Viacom’s Times Square studio. Craig Carton, no stranger to New York sports fans from his work with the MSG Network and WFAN, hosts Uncensored, along with veteran MMA journalist Mike Straka and UFC fighter Nate Quarry, who appeared on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
We met up with Slusser for Uncensored’s second broadcast to get a behind the scenes look at the show, which combines elements of sports talk radio and news magazine, but injects a big shot of real-time social media interaction to create something entirely new, tailored tightly to the tech-savvy MMA audience.
“MMA is the first sport to come to prominence after the advent of the Internet,” Slusser said. “Everyone in this world is digitally savvy.”
Indeed, the deep integration of social media may be the show’s most distinctive element. Step into the control room, and behind the typical rows of line producers and directors, you’ll find a team of digital producers on laptops, monitoring conversations on Twitter and Facebook, airing provocative comments to drive conversation among the show’s hosts.
It works. Even with only two weeks of rehearsals and one show under their belts, the trio feeds off the social integrations to develop an easy rapport that keeps Uncensored moving like a speed bag workout.
But the social centerpiece of the show is its real-time polling system, developed exclusively by Spike. Drawing from the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, the producers push poll questions on-air, which fans can respond to online or via the Spike app. We watched the poll response meters shift instantaneously on-air while Slusser voted via the app on his mobile phone.
“It’s important to take true advantage of Facebook and Twitter to have that two-way conversation. But it’s not just about using Facebook or Twitter,” Slusser said. “It’s about bringing the audience into the conversation, and incorporating their input into the show so it changes in real-time.”
Spike debuted the real-time polling system in last year’s Deadliest Warrior Live episode, and plans to feature it heavily as the network develops more live programming and sports than ever.
Of course, to paraphrase the digital gurus at Viacom, social media is just the telephone, and a telephone is only as good as the conversation it carries. And the conversation on Uncensored is pretty good.
“This is not a news and highlights show. It’s discussion, debate, controversy,” Slusser said.
Uncensored has the distinction of being the only MMA-focused show on a major network that isn’t under the direction of the UFC. Which means no topic is off limits. Each show includes a five-minute feature story, the first of which tackled the crime and corruption surrounding MMA in Japan, while the second explored the gender issues and biases confronted by female MMA fighters. The episode we watched also featured an interview about a fighter revealed to have appeared in gay porn films, and the hosts also discussed the use of steroids in MMA.
“It’s about having a real discussion around the sport,” Slusser said.
It doesn’t get much more real than the closing moments of the broadcast we attended, during which co-host Quarry officially announced his retirement from the sport.
“Everything I have besides my little girl has come from fighting,” said Quarry, fighting back tears. “But after my last fight, when I came home and saw the look in my little girl’s eyes and could see how upset she was at how damaged I was, then I knew I wanted to leave when I could still take care of her, and I didn’t ever want to be one of those fighters that people said, ‘why is he still here?’”
As Spike has showed with The Ultimate Fighter and is now showing again with MMA: Uncensored Live, sometimes the drama outside the octagon is as powerful as the fights themselves.
|Nate Quarry Retires|