Network to offer mixed martial arts

CBS will begin offering mixed martial arts events as two-hour Saturday night specials.

There will be four MMA telecasts each year, and it’s looking like the first punch will tentatively be thrown April 26. Broadcasts are likely to begin at 9 p.m.

ProElite, which has a previous relationship with CBS’ cable sibling Showtime, will produce the entire package — both the telecast and the fight card. There has been no word on who will sit ringside and call the action; the announcing team could come from either ProElite or CBS Sports, or a combination of both.

Not a time buy, CBS will pay ProElite a license fee but the network will retain all advertising revenue.

This is the second time mixed martial arts — a combination of boxing, karate and wrestling — has found a place on a broadcast network’s primetime schedule. MyNetwork TV launched a MMA show last fall.

“This is a sport on the rise,” said CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl. “The wrestling numbers have softened a bit and this sport may be able to siphon off some of those fans. It’s a lot more upscale than people realize.”

MMA, which has been drawing solid numbers on Showtime since its inception there last year and just posted its highest numbers ever on the Feb. 16 edition of “Elite XC,” is certainly a way for CBS to increase its 18-34 male demo, which has always been a rough spot for the network — as well as all the broadcast nets. Currently CBS airs low-rated repeats of its crime procedurals on Saturday night, as well as a new edition of “48 Hours.”

World Wrestling Entertainment, which just signed with MyNetwork TV this week after ending a relationship with the CW, has been a successful primetime entity for a while. WWE joined forces with UPN in 1999 and pro wrestling was a Saturday latenight night staple on NBC for many years.

Critics of mixed martial arts say it can be extremely violent, but Kahl said the Eye is well aware of those concerns and reasons that other sports that are much more popular than MMA are clearly rough and tumble as well.

Added Doug DeLuca, CEO of ProElite: “The sport has a bad perception. As you watch it and understand it, you realize you’re dealing with world-class athletes. It was a natural fit. The guys at CBS are savvy. They liked the sport and have paid attention to it for a long time.”

DeLuca said the writers strike — in which the networks were clamoring for non-scripted programming — was a “catalyst” in getting a deal done but “this was no sell job. They get it.”

“This was a way to kick up our Saturday nights,” Kahl said. “It’s a perfect marriage.”

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