Spike TV unveils the first of its new original mixed martial arts programming with the live MMA Uncensored magazine show on Thursday at 11 p.m. ET/PT, as it starts to rebuild the void left from the UFC’s departure last winter.
The 30-minute, featured-based Uncensored will attempt to break away from the mold of a handful of MMA news-format shows that currently populate the market on television and online, said John Slusser, Spike’s senior vice president for sports and multi-platform programming.
“It’s not a news and highlights show,” said Slusser, who’s also an Uncensored executive producer. “It is an in-depth look at the sport of MMA, especially in broad strokes. No one has stepped up and said we’re going to talk about the sport in an unfiltered, uncensored way yet. We will.”
Uncensored is the first round of MMA-related programming that Spike has produced since UFC owners Zuffa and the men’s friendly cable network ended its seven-year, multi-million dollar broadcasting partnership in December. That union introduced the breakthrough reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, to mainstream television and put both promotion and network on the map in 2005.
Since the dissolution, both companies have made big moves within the sport. Zuffa signed a seven-year, $90 million a year deal with Fox Sports Media Group that splits thousands of hours of UFC live-event and taped programming between Fox, FX, and Fuel TV, which started airing last November.
In September, Viacom, the parent conglomeration that owns Spike TV, purchased a majority stake in rival promotion, Bellator Fighting Championships. Spike TV will begin airing live Bellator events and shoulder programming in 2013.
Uncensored is hosted by retired UFC fighter Nate Quarry, former Fox News’ “Fight Game” creator Mike Straka, and syndicated New York radio sports personality Craig Carton, who will lead live, viewer-interactive discussions from the show’s studio in Times Square.
Slusser, who previously specialized in digital programming for the network starting in 2005, said the show will utilize real-time social media like Twitter, Facebook and Skype to create a two-way dialogue between the hosts and viewers.
“It’s not just answering Facebook and Twitter questions online. It’s doing real-time polling, skyping in fans to ask questions,” said Slusser. “Let’s say a fighter is talking about an upcoming fight and he asks the viewers who they think he should fight next? We’ll have a producer who can type that into the poll and air it within a few seconds. The data and results will be posted in real time, as well, so the hosts, guests, and viewers can react to it during the show.”
Slusser, who worked on the new format with Loyalize, an audience-participation company operating across multiple cross devices, said the concept has already been incorporated into other Spike shows to great response.
The show will also include live in-studio and satellite-remote guests: UFC and Pride multi-division champion Dan Henderson will appear on the first episode, in addition to a surprise guest, who if the network is able to deliver on, should set the tone the network is looking for off strong.
However, it might be the show’s features that stand out early on. Slusser believes the first feature, documenting the rise and fall of the Japanese MMA market in the last decade, will be an eye-opener.
“[The show] will cover all of the Yakuza [Japanese mafia] involvement. We’ve talked to people who are finally coming out and talking about what happened back in 2003 and how it all went down,” Slusser said. “They’re talking about things like guns to the head, kidnappings, staging murders. We dive deep into the whole world that no one’s ever really talked about before.”
The feature should be timely, as it airs on the eve of UFC 144 in Tokyo this Saturday, Zuffa’s first visit to Japan and the UFC brand’s first real presence in the country since 2000.
Slusser said six direct sponsors have already committed to the first few months of the show.
The show’s unique format should also alleviate video-rights issues that have arisen in the sport, particularly with Zuffa-owned UFC footage. Spike does have access to the 2005-11 UFC library for the next year — the final phase of its contract with the fight promotion — but it’s unlikely Zuffa will extend that arrangement given that Spike will begin airing a rival promotion in 2013.
“We developed this show with that specifically in mind, that this isn’t a footage-based show,” said Slusser. “[The plan has] allows been discussion, debate, controversy, and investigative journalism that gets to the deep heart of different issues. It more like Real Sports then it is like Sportscenter.”
Slusser said Uncensored won’t be a “Bellator marketing opportunity” either, though both are owned by Viacom. Nor will it fall into the trappings of a UFC-centric series, said Slusser, but rather will focus on interesting subjects and topics that bridge the sport as a whole.
“It’s no-holds-barred on everyone. It’s about saying things that nobody’s said before — that’s what this show is about,” said Slusser. “We’re eagerly awaiting the opportunity to rip everybody equally.”
MMA Uncensored airs live every Thursday at 11:00 p.m. ET/PT on Spike TV.
– Loretta Hunt