Mixed Martial Arts Set to Sully Network Television

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 11:55 AM

It was bound to happen given the increased visibility of mixed martial arts. But who knew that proud old CBS, the long-time home base for the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, The Masters and Final Four would be the first major American television network to stoop so low as to elevate this so-called sport into a prime time slot on Saturday nights.

Perhaps you missed the announcement made last month that CBS will be airing four two-hour prime time MMA telecasts in the coming year, perhaps as soon as March Madness ends in three weeks. News of the network's troubling new partnership with ProElite Inc., one of MMA's main promoters, was released the same day ESPN also announced that Bob Knight would be joining its NCAA tournament coverage, a story that got far bigger play in sports sections around the country.

And wouldn't it be something if CBS aired its first MMA telecast a few hours after its Saturday afternoon Masters coverage on April 12? Perhaps network publicists could refer to the twin bill as Beauty and The Beast.

At the risk of once again clogging the e-mail boxes listed below with a batch of vile and occasional hate messages from rabid (in every sense of the word) followers of MMA, let me say what a revolting development it is that CBS has become party to this reprehensible programming.

According to Kelly Kahl, the see-no-evil senior executive vice president of CBS prime time for the network's entertainment division, it's mostly being done for a possible ratings bump and more advertising dollars from the primo male 18-34 demographic MMA just might draw on the slowest night of the week on network television, once the CBS domain of Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart.

"No matter how you feel about the sport, it's growing in popularity," Kahl said in a telephone interview last week. "We're putting it on Saturday night, a time period all the networks are neglecting. We think there's an audience for it, and part of our mission is to get more fans for the sport. We hope to expand the audience and we think that can happen once people check it out."

Question? If CBS had been in business during the Anthony and Cleopatra soap opera years, would it also have jumped at the chance a hundred years later to air the ultimate reality show featuring Lions vs. Christians? After all, the spectacle always drew sell-out crowds of 50,000 to the Coliseum, so why not allow the entire Roman Empire to get in on the action?

Obviously, that's a stretch. But MMA also easily could be described as MMM, as in mixed martial mayhem -- not that far removed from street fighting. You put two guys (usually heavily tattooed) in a ring enclosed by a cage, surrounded by a howling mob, and just watch the blood flow as they pummel themselves into submission, or occasionally break a bone or three. That's entertainment?

Oh yes, women will also fight it out on CBS, yet another revolting development. Sadly in the first decade of the 21st Century, it really has come to that. I know from past experience that MMA aficionados will point out the high level of skill involved. It allegedly incorporates principles of karate, judo, wrestling and boxing and has been somewhat sanitized over the last decade from its earlier roots as basic no holds barred brawling more suitable for your friendly neighborhood alley.

So why is it that nearly any time I happen to surf past the Spike or Showtime cable networks that currently carry MMA events, the combatants are beating the bloody bejabbers out of each other? You'd like to think they're at least are getting big paydays for their efforts, and you know promoters are raking it in from $500 ringside seats and mega-pay-per-view shows that bring in millions.

Google MMA and you'll also learn that Anheuser Busch has become a big-time sponsor, once again because of the young male demographic that likes to swill its product while watching these matches. No doubt they handled the Budweiser concession at the Coliseum, as well.

Even billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is getting involved, promoting MMA matches and also airing them on his HDNet channel on DirecTV. For that alone David Stern ought to fine and suspend him. He probably yells at those refs, too.

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