ABC vs Versus

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When the Versus crew signs off the air on Friday afternoon following Carb Day, it will be the start of a well-earned vacation – with the exception of their post-race show on Sunday. But what about the rest of us? Once we discovered where the channel was; what we found with Versus was a level of IndyCar coverage that we hadn’t seen in years. The next two races, including the Indianapolis 500, are on ABC. It will be a shock to the system. The production crew at ABC is going to have to step up their game, now that we have seen what excellent race coverage actually looks like.

It’s a philosophical question…How can you miss something that you never had? For years, we have endured mediocre coverage of the world’s biggest race, while being told how fortunate we are to have ABC as a partner. To their credit, from the late-80’s to the mid-90’s, ABC/ESPN did an excellent job covering IndyCar races and the Indianapolis 500. But for the past decade, the coverage has devolved to an almost amateurish level of production.

For years, ABC had used their stable of mainstream announcers to lead the broadcast team for the Indy 500. Jim McKay filled the role for years, while Keith Jackson also took his turn. They were both paired with Jackie Stewart, which gave them some credibility but this was clearly not their sport. Jim Lampley took the reins in the mid – 80’s, but he looked too much like alleged actor Rob Lowe, to ever be taken seriously. In 1988, Paul Page took over the “play-by-play” duties and the coverage was superb. Page was the first broadcaster that was truly a racing guy. He had been Sid Collins’ successor on the IMS Radio Network, so we knew he was one of us.

Page was teamed with former drivers Bobby Unser and Sam Posey on the ABC telecasts, and with Irishman Derek Daly on ESPN. Both of these teams offered a different perspective. Daly brought a more technical aspect to his approach. The pairing of Bobby Unser and Sam Posey produced legendary on-screen squabbles as Unser would continually scold and chide Posey for his “artistic” comments on racing. In an interview this past Saturday, Unser said he and Posey had a good friendship away from the booth. He said he just wanted Sam to talk about the driver’s wives, families, etc; and leave the racing to Unser. Paul Page was very knowledgeable and did a good job in setting up his colleagues as the experts.

After the CART/IRL split, things were never the same in the booth. Page was assigned to cover the IRL while Bob Varsha covered the CART races. After a couple of years, Paul Page went over to the CART broadcast and Bob Jenkins was assigned the IRL. Jenkins did an admirable job but he was partnered with forgettable analysts such as Tom Sneva, Arie Luyendyk, Larry Rice and Jason Priestly. In 2002, Paul Page returned to the IRL booth with Jenkins in the role as host. It wasn’t the same. Gone were Unser and Posey, replaced with Scott Goodyear. The pairing never seemed to gel and sadly, Page made his final Indy 500 broadcast in 2004. It’s a shame because Paul Page did a good job. His only fault was allowing his performance to drop to the level of those he was paired with. He was also deemed too “old school” to attract the new fans that the IRL craved.

Page was then sent to the ESPN doghouse. He was reassigned to other world-class events on ESPN such as drag racing, snowmobile racing, the X-Games and a Fourth of July hotdog-eating contest. Meanwhile, the broadcast booth for the Indianapolis 500 was about to enter a new low. Todd Harris was selected to replace Paul Page in 2005. Harris was young, unqualified and in over his head. His lightweight background consisted of broadcasting Motocross, the X-Games and of course, the famous World’s Strongest Man Competition. What made the executives at ABC think he was competent enough for an event of this magnitude is completely beyond me. Harris over-hyped every moment, screamed excessively and practically went into convulsions when Danica Patrick led the Indy 500. Not only was he unsuccessful in bringing in new fans, he alienated the current fan base. Thankfully, Harris was replaced after one year.

For 2006, Scott Goodyear had his third different broadcast partner in as many years. Marty Reid was selected to be the lead announcer for all IndyCar races including the Indianapolis 500. Reid was well respected for his knowledge of motorsports. Most of his background was on the ESPN telecasts for NHRA drag racing, and Reid does a decent job. Unfortunately, the brilliant minds at ABC chose to add the newly retired NASCAR veteran Rusty Wallace to the telecasts. It was the proverbial square peg and the round hole. The thought was that Wallace would bring legions of the coveted NASCAR fans to the telecast. The strategy failed and the only thing that Wallace succeeded in doing was insulting IndyCar fans by constantly reminding everyone how different the IndyCars (hotrods, as he called them) were from stock cars and referring to all of the drivers as “cats”. Wallace was gone from regular IndyCar broadcasts after one year and out of the Indy 500 booth after two. The pairing of Reid and Goodyear is boring but adequate. Eddie Cheever was added for Indy in 2008 but brought little to the team. The three will return for five races this season, including race day at Indy.

The main complaint with ABC/ESPN in recent years has been the lack of promotion and coverage. The IndyCar series is treated as a stepchild. I cannot begin to count how many times we missed the beginning laps of a race because a ladies golf event had gone too long. However, if an IndyCar race were to run past it’s allotted time – it was the race that was cut short or moved to ESPN Classic, which very few viewers get. It seemed that IndyCar racing was the lowest priority on the ESPN schedule.

When the IRL decided to shop the TV property around last summer, several rumors had NBC/TNT in the mix. Others had a large portion going to CBS since they had no signature summertime sports programming. To everyone’s surprise and disappointment, the Versus deal was announced last fall; with five of the races, including the Indy 500, remaining on ABC. This was the worst of both worlds. Many of us had hardly heard of Versus, and the devil at ABC was still involved.

I was among the many that chastised the Versus deal. They were in far fewer homes than ESPN and all they seemed to carry was hockey and bull riding. This was hardly the way to grow a following; rather it seemed to solidify IndyCar’s standing as a niche sport.

The jury is still out on whether or not Versus will actually help to draw viewers. The deal is for ten years and sponsor participation will ultimately decide the success or failure of this venture. The ratings thus far have been abysmal, but everyone seems willing to give it time to grow.

One thing is certain, however. The quality of the Versus broadcasts have been superb—far better than anything ABC/ESPN has done in over a decade. We now get a long pre-race show as well as a post race show. Plus, they have a guaranteed minimum three-hour window for all of the races and will not cut away from any race that runs long. The on-air talent has meshed together quickly, and they offer different camera angles than we ever saw from a stagnant ESPN production crew.

I certainly understand the need to have races available on network television—especially the Indianapolis 500. It’s a shame though, that some type of arrangement couldn’t be reached that allowed Versus to actually do the race but have it carried by ABC for Indy. That would give us the best of both worlds.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “ABC vs Versus”

  1. Brilliantly written, George. I’d prefer more libelous beatdowns of Arute, of course — but this will do quite nicely.

  2. I must admit that the Versus production value is far greater than what I had hoped for. Too bad ABC is such a miserable failure with their IndyCar coverage.

  3. Very well done. From my perspective, Todd Harris was a comedic material Godsend. One factor we need to consider is the slide of IndyCar’s appeal to viewers meant it didn’t make a ton of economic sense for ABC to put the big dogs on the show. So the IRL’s declining product appeal has something to do with this whole topic.

  4. John McLallen Says:

    I am right with you about the wonderful, first class IndyCar coverage that VS. has provided. VS. is obviously a channel that is in a growth mode and the IRL couldn’t have a better partner, in my opinion. I am also impressed with the Mixed Martial Arts matches that are broadcasted on VS. People will find VS. and it will be very interesting to see VS. become what I think will be a top sports channel.

  5. VERSUS coverage of the IndyCar series is awesome. They’re essentially presenting IndyCar the way NASCAR gets presented by its myriad of tv partners. Lets pull no punches, how ESPN treated IndyCar was a joke. ESPN treated ChampCar even worse. But at the same time I understand that ESPN is in NASCAR’s camp which explains why they ignore and disrespect open wheel racing as much as they do. Hell, ESPN still acts as if Formula One doesn’t exist. Why? Because ESPN has no tv contract with F1. That’s how ESPN works. ESPN is the most self-congratulatory media entity around. Simply put, stop watching ESPN. Besides, ESPN these days is more about sports tabloid journalism than serious sports reporting.

  6. jrm111881 Says:

    Ummm, in paragraph 6, when youre talking about Page being sent to the ESPN doghouse to cover other sports, you seem to mention the NHRA with some disdain (correct me if Im wrong), as if the NHRA is as unpopular as the hot dog eating contest. Though I have not seen any numbers from last year or this year, there for a while in the mid to late 2000’s, the NHRA was beating Indycar racing in ratings and poularity. In fact, around 2007 or 2008, the NHRA was second only to NASCAR in racing popularity and tv ratings. Now, while I agree that Paul Page getting moved from Indy telecasts to NHRA is like a demotion, I dont think we should just check off the NHRA as a needless sport…

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