Not since Archie Bunker kept viewers glued to their sofas 35 years ago has a Saturday night on CBS received this much attention.
And, similar to Bunker’s unabashed commentary on the long-running hit, “All in the Family,” many might be entertained when mixed martial arts makes its debut in prime time, while others might feel a bit aghast.
Tonight’s five-fight card will mark the first time a major network will broadcast the rapidly growing sport during prime viewing hours. The event is scheduled to take place in Newark, N.J., and will be shown on tape delay on the West Coast beginning at 9 p.m.
CBS had been searching for an MMA event to fill the time slot. In March, the network reached an agreement with Elite Extreme Combat to televise “CBS EliteXC Saturday Night Fights.”
Elite XC had the inside edge in negotiations with CBS, given that Elite’s fights debuted 18 months ago on the CBS-owned Showtime cable network.
“There was an infrastructure in place,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president for CBS Primetime.
Expectations among executives range from curious to concerned. Those at EliteXC are expected to do more hand-wringing than their counterparts at CBS.
It’s the first of four cards scheduled to be shown on the network over the next year. However, if ratings are especially poor in its debut, CBS has the option to move the remaining fights to Showtime.
Out-performing the current Saturday night schedule shouldn’t be difficult, however.
“The bar that is set is not all that high,” Kahl said. “We do OK. We don’t set the world on fire so we’re hoping to see an improvement.”
On May 10, for example, a repeat of “Criminal Minds,” beginning at 9 p.m., attracted 5.98 million viewers and a 1.3 rating and a 5 share, followed by a new “48 Hours Mystery” from 9-10 p.m., which attracted 6.16 million viewers and a 1.6/5.
Kahl said he expected the debut telecast will net 3 million to 4 million viewers, but allows it could attract more.
The largest draw for an MMA fight in North America was in September at an Ultimate Fighting Championships pay-per-view event, when an average of 4.7 million viewers watched, including a peak of 5.6 million during the main event between Quinton Jackson and Dan Henderson. But that was pay-per-view.
Doug DeLuca, chief executive officer for ProElite, an umbrella organization that includes EliteXC, said MMA’s arrival on CBS likely will draw a variety of viewers, from hard-core fans to the curious.
To make the sport more understandable to viewers, the network plans to mix in some explanatory segments on rules of the sport and its different forms of combat.
As for the negative reaction that has been present since MMA came out of the shadows a few years ago, DeLuca said it’s easy to identify the source of that consternation.
“Most people who don’t like the sport have never watched the sport,” DeLuca said. “We’re going to help the non-fans learn how to watch MMA.”
Gary Shaw, president of EliteXC Live Events, said the main difference between his organization and the others is the control given to fighters in running the business. “We work for the fighters, the fighters don’t work for us,” he said.
The UFC is the most well-known brand in MMA, but Shaw compares the UFC to a NASCAR team that enjoyed an early start, but now others are gaining ground.
“When they look in the rear-view mirror, we’re on their right rear bumper,” Shaw said.
UFC President Dana White, always candid with his responses, isn’t worried.
“Every morning when I wake up, there’s a new show that’s going to come kick our [rears],” White said. “I’ve heard it all, I’ve seen it all, they come and go . . . every time one pops up, they’re gone faster than the old ones.”