Reality television really isn’t my thing.

I won’t lie, I have watched my fair share of drunken train wrecks embarrass themselves on national television—Rock of Love sucked me in for two torturous seasons, but I’m still pinning the blame on my wife for leading me astray with that viewing choice.

When it comes to MMA and reality television, my philosophy has been only slightly different. I have to admit that the early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter didn’t really register on my radar. That was before I was writing about the sport, so therefore I was interested in only the fights, and not the drama of which two immature fighters were having a drunken spat in what amounts to a frat house environment. Now, as a writer covering the sport, I often watch just because it feels like an obligation. When everyone gets their panties in a wad over someone throwing a fit on the show, or someone adding their bodily fluids to a tray of sushi, I don’t feel like I can be the guy left in the dark. Still, the series never genuinely thrilled me until it was time for the finale and a night’s worth of live fights.

Then came the first season of the show following the move to FX, and with it came a new concept: live fights during a live season. No more spoilers about who got kicked off the show, who made it to the finals or who won a particular fight. No more sitting in front of the television with the certain knowledge that the fighters competing in the Octagon at the UFC’s TUF gym were really sitting in front of the tube, just like you or me, enjoying the fight and reminiscing about their time on set—or completely ignoring the show, given that they were probably sick of the TUF house, gym and their reality show compatriots by then.

With the new concept came weekly odds lines for the fights, with fans placing bets. And we could be certain that the fighters were really in the cage at that very moment when we were watching the episode premiere on Friday nights. And it turns out that the shift to a live fight also meant less time to squeeze in drunken house antics. It was more about training and introducing the fighters to the audience. Not everyone prefers to watch the sparring sessions over the occasional character development that comes from putting cameras in a house full of bored, isolated twenty somethings, but for this writer at least, it was an improvement.

Now we know that this variation on the TUF formula was a single-season deviation from the norm—UFC President Dana White has confirmed that the 16th season of the successful series will return to the taped format—and that is unfortunate. It’s likely that the greater expenses related to filming 13 weeks of a live season, as opposed to the shorter six-week stretch of filming a taped season, had a lot to do with the decision to abandon the live format. And the ratings surely didn’t help either, regardless of how much those numbers are being blown out of proportion—everything suggests that the ratings really aren’t that bad, given the show’s doomed-from-the-start time slot on a Friday night.

But is returning to the taped format the best move, beyond the financial aspects, for the show and its fans?

Reality television is a somewhat amazing phenomenon. Every show might have a unique twist on the concept, but after one or two seasons, it starts feeling like we’ve been there before, just with different faces. We’ll still find at least one jerk, at least one promiscuous female (if the show is co-ed) and one loner who gets ostracized by everyone else. Yet, viewers keep eating it up, over and over again.

And The Ultimate Fighter is no exception. Sure, (most of) the fights on this particular reality show involve a referee and an athletic commission, but outside of the one or two bouts per episode, which hopefully haven’t already had their outcomes spoiled via the internet, the rest of the taped show focuses on the standard reality fare. We’re going to see fighters get on each other’s nerves, we’re going to see someone make stupid choices, and we’re going to see pranks.

Prior to the live season, there was already an outpouring of editorials and forum posts lamenting the stale format and making suggestions for improvements. Even after the live season, everything still isn’t perfect, and we could talk about any number of ways to improve the show, but that’s not the point here.

Fans want an improved product, and the live season was a great start. Sports are never meant to be watched on tape delay. In the case of The Ultimate Fighter, reality might play a big role in the show, but when you strip everything else away, the focus is still on what happens when two men step into the cage as the episode draws near its conclusion.

Knowing that anything could happen—that Dana White was watching it all unfold at the same moment as you or I—that’s what made this season so intriguing, and such an improvement over past seasons. There are plenty of things that can be changed to freshen up this reality series, but a step backwards should not be an option.

Photo: Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa pounds on Justin Lawrence (Al Powers/Zuffa, LLC)

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