DirecTV kicked off TCA‘s Saturday sessions with a look at its upcoming mixed martial arts drama Kingdom, which is premiering on October 8 at 9 PM ET/PT.  Most of TCA’s sked today is devoted to the programming from non-traditional networks, i.e. DirecTV’s Audience Network, Amazon, Reelz and Hulu. While most of the Kingdom panel’s chatter with creator Byron Balasco and castmembers Frank Grillo, Kiele Sanchez, Matt Lauria, Nick Jonas, Jonathan Tucker and Joanna Going was confined to the show’s staging of its fisticuff scenes, DirecTV SVP of Entertainment Chris Long expounded on how this edgy niche drama fits in Audience Network‘s wheelhouse.

“While our demo is adults 35-54 who are highly educated and from high income households, our programming slate doesn’t have to fit a certain demo.  We’re looking for TV shows that get out of the clutter. We chose Kingdom not so much based on the fact that it was a sport drama, but because we loved the script,” explained Long about the network’s road-not-taken m.o, particularly in the wake of acquiring Friday Night Lights.

The executive pointed to David Geffen’s talent for discovering and shepherding young artists such as Jackson Browne and The Eagles during his career. “We want to be able to cultivate great artists like Neil LaBute and Bryan Balasco, give them the creativity, and be tastemakers who don’t fit any demographic.”

Long cited stats that Audience Network attracts 6.5 million viewers a week.  The network typically ranks 38 out of all basic cable networks and that when Kingdom star Matt Lauria was on Friday Night Lights, the show averaged 800K to 1 million viewers a week.

One reporter expressed to Long that while he appreciates Audience Network’s attempt to foster niche programming, he can’t get DirecTV to set up satellite at his house, thus illuminating how certain homes in America are unable to hook up to DirecTV for various practical reasons (Condo HOAs, house placement in regards to satellite dish set-up). Long responded, “Give me your card and I’ll have someone out there in 20 minutes.”

In creating Kingdom, which was a spec script for Balasco, he mentioned how he was influenced by watching videos of the bloody sport, which he rented from the back aisle section of Blockbuster video. “We’re not going to be featuring a fight a week,” promised Balasco, “MMA is such a unique cross section of people and I was interested in why these people do what they do, why they’re particularly drawn to physical violence in ways that we as (regular people) avoid doing.”

In Kingdom, Grillo plays Alvey Kulina, the owner of  Navy St., an MMA gym in Venice, CA, and a trainer who is looking to develop the next generation of fighters including his sons Jay (Tucker), and Nate (Jonas), the latter being the prized pugilist at the gym. Enter Christina (Going), Alvey’s estranged wife who battles drug addiction. Lauria plays Ryan Wheeler, a world class fighter who had it all, while Sanchez plays Alvey’s girlfriend Lisa Prince.  Grillo is not a stranger to the MMA genre as he played a trainer in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior which also focused on the backstory of the sport.

Similar to action stars who prefer to work without a stunt man, Lauria explained how he and Grillo would work 12 to 14 hours on the set, and then train after the cameras stopped rolling. “We have the luxury of having doubles, but it’s that type of commitment we have as actors on set. I grabbed his (Matt’s) head a few times, and I’m like ‘Dude, I just punched you in the temple!'” said Grillo who showed off the welt on Lauria’s head.

DirecTV originally picked up the Endemol drama series for 10 episodes last August when it was titled Navy St.  Balasco’s first stab at creating a series, drama Westside which also was set in Venice, CA, attracted McG as director and executive producer last season when it went to pilot at ABC. He also worked on Happy Town, FlashForward and Without A Trace. He’s repped by ICM Partners and Management 360.