Spike hanging ‘TUF’

'Fighter,' 'Samurai' punch up cabler's sked

Spurred by a staggering 44% jump in viewership for the first quarter, Spike is ordering up two more seasons and will expand reality skein “The Ultimate Fighter” into its own Saturday night franchise.

Men’s cabler has also greenlit the animated miniseries “Afro Samurai,” exec produced by and featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

Spike is expected to announce the new 2005-06 programming today during its portion of MTV Networks’ upfront presentation to advertisers. Since coming under the watch of prexy Doug Herzog, on the job since January, net has climbed 16% in primetime among men 18-49 and 18-34 categories. Growing numbers come on the heels of stripped “CSI” episodes — which rank No. 1 in key male demos from 7-9 p.m. — and originals shows “MXC” and “TUF.”

In addition to renewing “TUF,” from producer Craig Piligian (“American Chopper”), through a third cycle, Spike has also acquired rights to all 53 “Ultimate Fighting Championship” pay-per-view events, which it will cut to create 26 one-hour best-of shows.

“TUF” is the first show — on any network — to benefit from wrestling as a lead-in. Averaging 2.1 million viewers per episode, skein’s had the most buzz of any original Spike’s had on the air since 2003’s “The Joe Schmo Show.”

Until “TUF,” programmers had never been able to launch a show out of wrestling, in spite of its sky-high ratings. But with wrestling set to disappear from the cabler after September, exec VP Kevin Kay will give “TUF” a big push by turning Spike’s existing Slammin’ Saturday Night block into an all-out “Fighter” destination.

“When the finale drew 2.6 million viewers on a Saturday, without wrestling, I think we found that the show actually can stand on its own,” Kay said. “It was our highest-rated Saturday in the history of Spike. We’re going to put a lot of resources behind the next two seasons.”

Spike will premiere the second season of “TUF” Aug. 22 — Mondays post-WWE’s “Raw” — and after five weeks will move the show to Saturday nights, where it will be sandwiched with the best-of “UFC” programming and occasional live events. As part of the deal, cabler has rights to six live events, two for this year and four to air in 2006.

“Afro Samurai” is a five-part mini Kay said would likely be paired with the third season of “Fighter” on Saturdays in 2006.

Action-adventure skein from Japanese animation studio Gonzo and Fuji TV is the story of a black warrior (Jackson) in feudal Japan on a mission to avenge the wrongful death of his father — all set to a hip-hop soundtrack.

Then there’s “King of Vegas,” on tap for next year, which pits professional gamblers against amateurs in a series of casino games — poker, blackjack, horse racing, roulette — to win a $1 million pot and the title of world’s greatest gambler. Michael Yudin and Wayne Root exec produce.

Still in the programming pipeline is the animated series “Howard Stern: The Teenage Years.” Though the project received a 13-episode greenlight last year (Daily Variety, Aug. 18), series is still in the script stages and won’t be ready for a premiere until 2006.

Kay said Spike is developing several animated comedy and action projects to pair with the Stern series, in what would be Spike’s second attempt at an animation block since it rebranded from TNN in 2003.

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