The Brains Behind The Ultimate Fighter Profiled

May 31, 2009

Reality TV pioneer Craig Piligian is profiled at Multichannel News. The piece takes a look at his career as a whole but a good part of the article discusses his efforts with the Fertittas, first with American Casino and then with The Ultimate Fighter. I’ll excerpt the portions that deal with the UFC:

And Piligian has proven he’s not afraid to tackle some touchy and controversial brands. He initially approached two Las Vegas-based casino owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, about creating a reality series about the rough-and-tumble world of legal casinos. But it was another business that the Fertitta brothers had — the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed-martial-arts franchise — that caught Piligian’s keen development eye, according to UFC president and co-founder Dana White.

Despite negative publicity surrounding the UFC and mixed martial arts at the time — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once referred to the sport as human cockfighting — Piligian decided to get into the ring with the Fertitta brothers and create a series pitting several up-and-coming UFC fighters living under one roof against each other in a week-to-week elimination tournament.

That was the beginning of the Ultimate Fighter, now Spike TV’s No. 1 show. The current season of UFC — a faceoff between U.S. and United Kingdom mixed martial artists — is averaging a hefty 1.6 million viewers.

Indeed, White — who also hosts the series — said the UFC franchise, which will distribute its 100th pay-per-view event in July, would not be where it is without Piligian, Spike TV and Ultimate Fighter.

“He’s a partner, he acts like and partner and he’s probably the best partner we’ve ever had,” said White. “In my opinion he’s the best reality show producer on television — he’s aggressive and he knows what he’s doing.”

White said part of Ultimate Fighter’s success is that Piligian puts the real in reality, allowing the action to flow seamlessly without staging or crafting situations to help draw ratings.

“You never have to watch the Ultimate Fighter and wonder if the action is contrived,” White said. “He lets the action run its course. I’m no actor, but the great part of doing the reality show is that he lets me be me.”

While Piligian may let his reality shows imitate real life, he’s never too far from the action. Piligian said he makes a point to remain an integral part of the day-to-day operations of all of his reality series, however grueling and time-consuming that may be.

“Think about all the shows that he produces, and yet he’s at every fight for the Ultimate Fighter,” White said. “He’s an animal — an absolute lunatic — he’s very aggressive and very good at what he does.”

Piligian was key in developing TUF and creating the concepts that have driven the show. He was instrumental in coming up with the concept along with Lorenzo Fertitta. Fertitta spoke with The Atlantic and detailed Piligian’s role in bring TUF to market:

So we had to take a step back. And we partnered up with Craig Piligian, the reality show producer, who we had originally met through UTA, and then that relationship went away, and then about I don’t know how many years later, let’s say two years later, he called and said he wanted to do a reality show about a casino, and the only person he knew in the casino business was me. And would I be interested. And originally I said ‘nah, I’m not really into that kind of stuff, I kinda have a low profile.’ But we started talking about it and I said, ‘You know what, it actually might help our business, and so for business’s sake, you know, we’ll talk about it.’ So we ended up doing a deal. American Casino went on the Discovery Channel. It actually did okay.

So I got on the phone with Craig one day. I said you know the Ultimate Fighting thing again, he says ‘yeah, we gotta figure a way to get that on.’ I said ‘yeah, but we met with everybody, and everybody’s turned us down.’ And just through talking to Craig, he goes, ‘you know another way you could do it, is you could just bankroll, and then go and sell to sponsors yourself to finance it.’ I go ‘wow, I didn’t even know that, I didn’t even think of that. Maybe that’s what we do.’ So that’s essentially what the strategy was. So we sat back down with Spike. And Spike wasn’t real enthusiastic about it, but after about 3 or 4 meetings, they’re like yeah, okay, we’ll do it.

Piligian built the relationship with Fertitta during their first reality experience and was able to revisit that for TUF, bringing a fresh perspective to getting the show on the air. He also made key production decisions like placing all the athletes in one house, for heightened drama. The UFC as it is currently constituted as a PPV powerhouse owes a debt to Pilligian. TUF may at times seem like a Faustian bargain, what with the Junie Brownings of the world that the show has foisted upon us, but the MMA landscape absent the reality show would be a vastly different, smaller scene.

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