It’s Time For Versus To Step Up

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Even though the Iowa race was more entertaining to watch than most others this season, the only people that know that are the very few that watched. The overnight ratings for ABC’s telecast pulled a whopping 0.8; down 27% from the 1.1 rating for Iowa last year. Overall, the two races on ABC other than the Indy 500 (which also drew poorly) have averaged a 0.7 overnight, down a whopping 30% from the 1.0 from last year.

So what does all of this mean? I am not a media analyst so I won’t attempt to explain what each ratings point (or in this case – fraction of a point) represents. Suffice it to say, though – far fewer people are watching IndyCar races this year than last. Nor, will I pretend to know how to fix it quickly. If I knew that, I would be sitting in Terry Angstadt’s office at 16th & Georgetown.

But as a fan that watches this series from a couch instead of a grandstand most of the time, I can offer a few suggestions. Most have heard/read my previous rant about ABC/ESPN poor coverage of the series, so I’ll try to not belabor those points. If you so choose, you may read it here.

I don’t recall seeing any promos on ABC or ESPN leading up to the Iowa race, but to be fair – I wasn’t completely glued to ESPN for the past couple of weeks. I’m not an NBA fan, so I did not watch one second of the NBA Finals. I’ll assume that ABC ran promos then, but I don’t really know. I do watch baseball, and I don’t recall seeing ANY race promotions during baseball or SportsCenter for the past two weeks – although I did see ads promoting the NASCAR race at Sonoma that was to be shown on a competing network.

My suggestion is this – move everything except for the Indianapolis 500 over to Versus. The IRL is committed to Versus for another nine years, anyway. Versus is trying to leverage their IndyCar coverage to grow their own brand. Let both sides jump in with both feet beginning next year. Another step is for ABC to strike a deal so that Versus can actually produce the broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 with the Versus on-air talent and production crew, and have ABC simply carry the feed.

There was a certain disconnect at Indy this year. We had been spoiled with the excellent Versus coverage throughout the season. With all of their extensive qualifying coverage that Versus provided during the Month of May leading up to the race, it was a little unnerving seeing and hearing these “other people” telling us what we had been seeing through different eyes for the past two months. With ABC covering only five races this season, it reinforces the stepchild status that we IndyCar fans have been feeling from ABC/ESPN for some time now.

If it could be worked out where Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis could call the races with ABC logos and graphics – why not? ABC certainly gives the impression that they care little about the Indy 500 and even less about the series.

And while they are re-working the Indy telecast, please do something about the role of “host”. Personally, I never quite understood the purpose of that role. But if they feel the need to have a host…please, make it a racing guy. Brent Musburger may be a sports television icon, but on a racing telecast — he is an embarrassment, as he trips over half of the drivers names and has his mouth fill with saliva as he drools over the very mention of Danica Patrick.

If ABC is averaging a 0.7 rating with a 30% drop from last year, what would it hurt to move all but Indy over to Versus? At this point, what have they got to lose? I’m sure ESPN would love to not be saddled with those five races for next year. At least there would be more continuity. We die-hards would know where to tune in every week. Versus could promote the races on ESPN and other outlets, just as TNT did with Sonoma.

Another suggestion I would make to Versus would be to produce a weekly IndyCar show to air live, during the middle of the week. Taking a cue from the many NASCAR shows on SPEED and ESPN, they could have a host moderate a discussion between drivers, team members, etc. Maybe they could even copy one format that has a couple of regular drivers on each week and they basically sit and talk, unscripted for thirty minutes to an hour. This would help Versus enhance the product they have invested in; while allowing the IRL a vehicle to promote their drivers and teams.

The IndyCar brand did not diminish overnight and it will take a long time to build it back. The IRL and Versus are in a long-term agreement with each other. They are both trying to grow their brand and identity through each other. It will take time. Versus is owned by Comcast, so their resources seem to be in place. After what has erupted within the Hulman-George family in the past month, the IRL’s funding seems to be tenuous, at best. Both sides say they are in this agreement for the long haul. If that’s the case, then it may be time for the IRL to ditch ABC/ESPN altogether and cast their lot with Versus.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “It’s Time For Versus To Step Up”

  1. redd carr Says:

    I saw some promo’s on ESPN that week.

    Obviously with the smaller audience Versus has right now, ratings won’t be as high. But I wonder why are the audience ratings for ABC are lower than year? I guess you say they’re not being promoted, but could it be something else? How are other sports doing in comparison to last year–say the Kentucky Derby or tennis or something? I’ve read plenty about the lower ratings but never anything about why they’re lower…

  2. The Versus deal is okay, but I’d rather have the Indy 500 on another network because of how pitiful ABC’s coverage is.

  3. I agree that its time to dump the ABC/ESPN crew. Its pretty clear that those producing the telecasts are not race fans and don’t know anything about racing. I just get frustrated when I watch. When I think of the Indy 500 this year, the first thing that comes to mind is screaming obscenities at the TV as they came back late from commercial on the last restart and I got to see “Presented by GoDaddy.com” on my screen instead of who was getting a good jump on the restart.

    If ABC/ESPN care so little that they’re going to roll out their “C” team for these events, they should just outsource it to the Versus crew.

  4. To attract the new/casual fan, I hate to say it, but we need to ditch the 45 minute pre-race stuff. The broadcast should start with helmets on, butts in seats, belts fastened, and “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!”

    We, my family, are as passionate about IndyCar as anyone, but even we groan when, expecting to see a race, we see drivers walking around the pits in sunglasses. How many casual fans flip the channel and never return , instead landing on a repeat of the World Series of Poker or NCAA Softball?

    Follow the model of the NFL. For the die hard junkies, put on a pre-race show, and call it that. But when the TV schedule says IndyCar race, get to the race as quickly as possible. Green flag before the first commercial break, and work in the other “get to know IndyCar” segments during yellows.

  5. Boo Boo Says:

    Actually, ABC promo’d VS during the Iowa race. I don’t remember that happening before, and it was something that was really pissing me off. Apparently it finally occurred to somebody that as go VS’ ratings, so go ABC’s ratings, albeit to a lesser degree.

    Also, were y’all aware that TV ratings are down 10% across the board nationwide this year? So when somebody says “Ha! NASCAR is down 11%, they’ve lost there shine, the bloom is off the… blah, blah, blah…,” just remind yourself that statistically, as a percentage of viewership, they aren’t really down at all.

    And what’s up with that 10% nationwide? Anybody really believe that there is 10% less TV being watched? I didn’t think so. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Nielson changed their methodology. In fact, they’ve had to go back and refigure some stuff for one broadcast network when they threw a big snit about the big (highly unlikely) drop they were seeing in their ratings.

    So, are IRL’s ratings really down 27%? Well, you can subtract 10% right off the top, so that’s 17% Then you can take into account that Nielson as had revise ratings for at least one broadcast network. No way to adjust for that, except to remind yourself that you’re looking at statistics for which the methodology has apparently changed.

    I’m convinced that the switch to VS has impacted ratings on ABC/ESPN to one degree or another, if for no other reason than it meant the first 3 races of the season happened in a black hole for many viewers. It’s also clear to me that the number of “surfing” viewers was larger than some IndyCar marketing types were assuming, and the numbers of “hard core” viewers was less.

    Last year also had a lot of buzz going on with Danica’s first win, stomping down pit lane, etc… that probably helped the numbers, which had dropped back down to “sorry assed” by the time the Olympics rolled around. It really was a prefect progression: we went from opening day, to Danica at Motegi, to the Indy 500, the race at Mid Ohio was preceded by a big Golf tournament broadcast… There was a nice run of ratings bumpers.

    This year is the opposite. We started with a ratings thumper (first three races on VS), and nothing big has really happened since; just a lot of belly aching and whining from the blogoverse.

  6. I found myself watching the final….er…third round of the U.S. Open this weekend after IRL and Formula One finished up and found myself thinking, “Why can’t the 500 be on NBC?” The NHL has pretty much the same deal where the majority of coverage is through VERSUS, while the big stuff goes to NBC, and that seems to be working pretty well for them. NBC also has tennis, golf, football, the olympics, and an event that, logistically, is very similar to the “500”: the Kentucky Derby. They’ve also done the Brickyard 400 in the past, so they should know their way around the track.

    Put Bob Costas, the single best “host” in all of sports broadcasting, on the stage in the pit lane, then have him throw it to Bob, Jon, and Robbie for the race. Also consider having more than three pit reporters, since there are 9-13
    more cars in this race than in any of the others. Some camera angles need to change or be added as well, but that’s another discussion for another time.

    I know there are some within Speedway circles that like to look on the past of the ABC partnership, but it’s just not working anymore. Hell, the Daytona 500 and CBS were joined at the hip for years on end, but when FOX showed up with a better product in 2001, NASCAR jumped at it. I would like to see NBC and the Speedway brass do the same.

  7. SkipinSC Says:

    I could not agree more that the ABC/ESPN partnership with the ICS has worn itself out. Problem is, NBC and CBS both have a large investment in golf which produces way better numbers than ICS can generate currently (even in the events where Tiger is NOT playing.)

    In terms of entertainment, information and production, the Versus broadcasts far exceed those of the House of Mouse, and they’re aboard for the next nine years. Yet half the world can’t find (or won’t pay extra for) Versus.

    The possiobility of doing the Indy 500 on NBC and everything else on Versus (with the Versus crew behind Bob Costas) is intriguing, but once you get into the U. S. Open (golf) or Wimbledon (tennis) don’t look for NBC to do anything with the ICS. Best you’re going to do there is an NHL-type arrangement.

  8. Hey, really starting to like this blog. Going to have to make it a regular.

    I watch a lot of ESPN (P.T.I.= favorite show, and what male American DOESN’T watch SportsCenter?) and Versus (getting more and more quality sports on that channel), and in watching said channels I have seen Iowa promo’s last week, along with a lot of Texas promo’s the previous week. Of course I saw tons of promo’s for the NBA but that doesn’t mean I was going to watch it!

    I think all of us fans love the Versus coverage, and like the NHL on Versus I see our audience slowly growing as familiarity sets in alongside the improved coverage.

  9. George, I couldn’t agree more. I think that another advantage of being with Versus is that they are a television network who is going to bust their tail to get their programing viewed while also growing the number of households that have access. Put it all on Versus, including the 500. I am sure that by this time next year they will have the number of homes that will provide a 4.0 or better rating from their promotion.

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