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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.

Isn't it rather interesting that this deal was consummated by the entertainment arm of CBS, rather than the CBS Sports division? You think maybe Sean McManus, the classy and so very savvy head of news and sports at CBS wanted no part of foisting this kind of programming on a CBS sports audience far more used to seeing big-time golf, tennis, college hoops and NFL football?

Kahl insisted his entertainment unit made the deal mostly because CBS Sports "has so much on their plate right now" what with March Madness dominating the airwaves, soon to be followed by The Masters the week after The Final Four.

"We've talked to them a little and we would welcome their input and involvement," Kahl said.

The translation: You're probably not going to see Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, James Brown or any other regular CBS Sports announcer on the air doing MMA blow-by-blow on Saturday nights. Maybe there will be some technical help from CBS Sports people behind the camera, but any big-time sports broadcaster has to know it's hardly worth sullying his or her reputation on this kind of programming.

Kahl has heard the criticism of MMA before, and insists he was somewhat skeptical himself before becoming a true believer.

"We had to do some research as well," he said. "The sport did have real rough origins. We wouldn't be putting it on if it was in the shape it was five years ago. But the various organizations have done a good job getting it sanctioned and legitimized. There's very little question that there are fewer and fewer guys competing now who are barely in shape to fight in a bar. These are elite athletes and they take it very seriously.

"When I first heard about, I have to admit I was somewhat suspicious about it being a sport myself. But the more I watched, the skill level and the athletic nature of it convinced me."

I'm not ready to drink that Kool-aid quite yet. I'm still absolutely convinced this programming has no business being on network television, especially on a weekend night when young kids probably will have no problem convincing their teenage babysitters to let them watch the bad men knock themselves senseless.

For non-believers like myself, at least there's a simple way to deal with MMA on CBS. If I'm home on Saturday night, I'll just surf right on by¿or pop in a DVD¿or read a book¿or work on the taxes¿or clean the garage¿ or read and then quickly delete all those very ugly e-mails even now making their way through cyber space to my little old laptop.

Knight Patrol

Bob Knight pretty much behaved himself in his debut week talking basketball on ESPN. In fact, Knight talked so much that by the end of the week there was a rasp in his voice, but still definitely a twinkle in his eye. He's shown a willingness to take on most issues, and even had some advice on how to improve the NCAA tournament, adding that they never listen to him anyway.

Now, if ESPN could just do something about his wardrobe. Surrounded by co-hosts usually dressed in coats and ties, he keeps showing up on the air wearing a hideously drab semi-sweatshirt adorned with an ESPN logo over an open-necked golf shirt. Maybe his old signature red sweater was at the dry cleaners last week, or that red plaid sports jacket he wore so often in the '80s and '90s doesn't quite button at the middle any more.

Whatever, this is still very much a work in progress. So far, so good, despite the emperor's attire, but stay tuned.

Hoop It Up

Listened to part of a Georgetown Big East tournament game on the radio last week, and happy to report that long-time Hoya broadcaster Rich Chvotkin is still slinging all those classic cliches throughout the game.

It was so refreshing to hear terms like tickle the twine, charity stripe and bunny (lay-ups) being bandied about over the two-hour broadcast. You won't hear much of that on buttoned down CBS during March Madness, but for a real good time and occasional laugh out loud hoop du jour jargon, Chvotkin remains The Man on Georgetown basketball.

No Talk on Tiger

If you bill yourself as an all-news radio station, it would be nice to hear some up to date weekend sports news on Tiger Woods, merely the most recognizable athlete on the planet these days.

Someone needs to tell that to whoever is manning (or woman-ing) the sports desk on Sunday mornings over at WTOP. Driving from the Baltimore suburbs back home to Northern Virginia this past Sunday, with several stops along the way, over a five-hour period I never heard during a single one of at least a dozen sports updates that Woods had shot 66 on Saturday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and was tied for the lead going into the final round. That's called news, boys and girls, and should have been reported.

E-Mail of the Week

Myron Cope never embarrassed our franchise. Dan Snyder has. Firing longtime employees, call me "Mr. Snyder," firing Charley Casserly, being hours late to a meeting with Norv Turner so he could twist in the wind, firing Turner in the middle of a season, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, how he handled Marty, Spurrier, Archuleta, Duckett, Lloyd, how he handled the fence around the parking lots, no GM, Vinny Cerrato, how they handled the selection of a coach, free agency, dead cap money, concession prices. I am sure there is more.

Mike Dashiell

Omaha, Neb.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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