Changes Afoot In The TV Landscape

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Word came yesterday that NASCAR and NBC Sports Group had reached an agreement to televise the second half of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series seasons beginning in 2015 and running through 2024. With FOX renewing their deal to televise the first half of the Sprint Cup season, it appears that ESPN is out of the NASCAR business after another year and a half – unless they want to bid on the first half of the Nationwide Series season, which is still up for grabs.

With this announcement comes a whole slew of questions about how this affects the IndyCar Series. Will ABC/ESPN carry more races after next season? With NBC having the rights to NASCAR and Formula One, where will that leave IndyCar in the pecking order? Will some of the wealth of talent at NBC Sports Network be shipped over to cover NASCAR during the late portion of the IndyCar season? What will happen to Jamie Little and Dr. Jerry Punch; who are full-timers in the pits at ESPN with NASCAR, but also split time with IndyCar?

As it stands now, there is no way for any IndyCar races to find their way on regular NBC. Any IndyCar production through NBC Sports will be shown on NBCSN only. The current contract stipulates that any IndyCar race shown on network television will be shown on ABC. Yes, there was the one race last year when NBC had a conflict with the Olympics and the NBCSN crew was carried over ABC, but that was a cooperative effort that was not the norm. In a nutshell – the current contract stipulates that IndyCar races on a network must be carried on ABC and anything over cable will be carried on NBCSN. The cable contract that was originally signed with Versus, which is now NBCSN is now in it’s fifth year and does not expire until 2018.

But a lot has changed since Tony George’s regime signed that contract prior to the 2009 season. Aside from all of the internal changes within IndyCar that have taken place since then, the biggest change is that Comcast bought NBC. Consequently, the peacock network took over the operation of Versus and re-branded it as the NBC Sports Network. The hope was that the excellent coverage being offered on the fledgling network’s IndyCar telecasts would finally be found by viewers that didn’t even know they had Versus. Now that the network was being packaged as a bonafide competitor to ESPN, viewers would have another sports channel to gravitate towards in their pursuit of channel hopping. It didn’t happen.

In a perfect world, all of the on-air talent we see on NBCSN would be on a telecast with the reach of ABC/ESPN. While many complain that the production value of the ABC telecast is inferior to NBCSN; both telecasts are done by the same group behind the scenes – Lingner Group Productions, owned by veteran motorsports producer Terry Lingner. If you’ve never heard of Terry Lingner, he may have the most innovative mind in televised sports. He was experimenting with small ground-mounted cameras long before FOX ever “invented” the dreaded Gopher-cam. Lingner perfected the use of in-car cameras that we now take for granted. He appeared on Trackside this past April. It may have been the most fascinating guest segment I’ve ever heard on that show.

I go into that to help explain that the only real difference in the two networks is in the on-air talent we see and hear during a race broadcast. I’ve made my opinions on the ABC/ESPN crew very clear. Without bashing them any further, let’s just say that I much prefer the NBCSN crew on a race weekend.

But is outstanding coverage for the die-hards to enjoy really worth it, if no one knows where to find it? On one hand, I think that if someone wants to watch something bad enough they should make the effort to find it. But sports fans are a lazy bunch. I can say that because I’m right there with them. NBCSN needs to become significant enough in the sports fans mind that the channel becomes a regular destination while flipping through the selected channels.

But the on-air crew on ABC/ESPN is not the only complaint out there among IndyCar fans. The general feeling is that the Disney-owned network does little to promote the races on their very network. Coverage on SportsCenter is barely more than a gratuitous mention – unless there is a spectacular crash they can show. A counter-point will say that they only give promotion to the high-rated sports. Get the ratings up and they’ll promote IndyCar more – or so the theorists claim. Another theory says that ESPN could go a long way in helping the ratings by promoting the sport properly.

When the NBA was on CBS and then NBC, the ratings were basically lackluster. It wasn’t until the league went to ESPN that their ratings rose dramatically. With all of the ancillary programming they produce throughout the season and the offseason, how could it not? Now they are even televising the summer leagues and showing highlights on SportsCenter. When did that start?

Let’s face it, if ESPN decides they want a sport to grow and succeed – they can do it. They have the power and ability to make or break any sport they choose. How else do you explain the popularity of a Fourth of July hot dog eating contest? Remember how we laughed when they started televising poker? We laugh no more as The World Series of Poker has become one of their franchise properties. They have taken the X-Games from nothing more than a kooky idea of a TV-manufactured sport to a major enterprise that is now a staple in their programming. Remember how everyone thought ESPN was crazy to cover the NFL Draft? Now, the hype from ESPN has turned the draft into an annual spring ritual.

ESPN is the behemoth in the world of sports. No one has the marketing muscle that they do. I hate to say it, but NBCSN is nothing more than a small bump in the road to ESPN. Next month, FOX will launch FOX Sports 1. They will have an instant base of subscribers because they are cannibalizing the soon-to -gone SPEED channel. It will be curious to see how quickly FS1 becomes a major competitor to ESPN.

NBCSN will probably host many NASCAR related shows beginning in 2015. Formula One is being carried by NBCSN as well as the parent network. Their presence will probably grow more next year. In the meantime, where does that leave IndyCar? How important will IndyCar be to a channel that will not get any closer to the premier event of the series than Pole Day coverage for the Indianapolis 500? NBCSN does a great job broadcasting races and IndyCar 36 is a phenomenal program – but if no one is watching, does it really do the series any good in the long run?

Of course no one, including myself, knows what ESPN plans to do. Perhaps they plan on getting out of motorsports altogether, but I doubt it. Maybe they are content with carrying the Indianapolis 500 and cherry-picking four other races per season and letting NBCSN have the rest. I hope that isn’t the case.

We don’t always like what ESPN does, but they aren’t stupid. They didn’t become the 800-pound gorilla by making many dumb decisions. I would like to think that ESPN has seen something to indicate that they can get a much better bang for their buck with IndyCar as opposed to the overpriced NASCAR. Maybe they see this as their greatest challenge – to take a perennially struggling series and turn it into the next greatest thing. We haven’t heard a whole lot publically from Mark Miles. Maybe that’s because he likes to work behind the scenes and he’s got something cooking up in Bristol, CT.

All of this could be just wishful speculation on the part of a lowly blogger in Nashville, TN, but instead of wringing my hands when the NBC/NASCAR deal was announced yesterday – I decided to dream a little. Time will tell. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Changes Afoot In The TV Landscape”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I would expect this to be good for NBCSN’s recognition with casual racing fans and sports fans in general. It should also lead to cross-promotion between NASCAR, F1, and Indycar broadcasts. That should be good for Indycar.
    While there will no doubt be some type of NASCAR-focused news and info program, I hope this also leads to some programming in the vein of RPM 2Night, SpeedCenter, and Wind Tunnel. Call it “Motorsports Talk” in keeping with the theme from the website and of the rest of NBCSN’s news and info shows… Such a show would be good for Indycar.

    The programming time needed to air 28 race broadcasts, plus selected events from NASCAR’s K&N, Whelen, and Mexico series’ and (I presume) Nationwide qualifying, may pose challenges to the Indycar schedule. I think it could be an even greater challenge to getting qualifying and Indy Lights races continuing television coverage. This is my biggest concern with the NASCAR to NBC move.

    Poker, the X-Games, and the NFL draft are good examples of ESPN’s apparent Midas touch, but I’m not sure the NBA is.
    The NBA did quite well on CBS (post-70′s) and NBC, and largely drew better ratings on those two networks than they have gotten with ABC/ESPN. This is probably not ABC/ESPN’s fault so much as it is the product of CBS and NBC riding the wave of stars (Magic, Bird, Jordan) the NBA produced from the 80′s to mid-90′s and broadcasting in the pre-internet and cable dominated era. Even so, John Tesh’s NBA on NBC theme song, “Roundball Rock”, probably remains as strongly associated with the NBA as anything or anyone from ABC/ESPN’s coverage.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    I think that this will be very much in IndyCar’s favor. Promote the Indianapolis 500 and forget about the Coke 600. I like it.

  3. I had a sick feeling yesterday when I heard the news. My thoughts went to how much I loved the old Speed Channel and then the changes it went through when they added Nascar. Everything suddenly focused on the stock cars and they dropped a lot of actual racing for the plethora of Nascar related crap and then of course added all of the reality and game show type programming featuring a bunch of cool tatted up dudes…but I digress. As it is now, I love NBCSN and how they seem to take pride in being the “Open Wheel Racing” network – I’d just hate to see that change. I feel a little better after reading your column George, maybe things will turn out ok after all. Could ESPN really be smart enough to know how much better Indycar racing is than Nascar, and that they could pick it up for a pittance and promote it into the next big thing?

  4. George between this and your attendance post, it becomes hard to see an upside for IndyCar racing. To have any PRAYER of success, you need one of the two elements around which you can build your marketing: You either need butts in seats or eyes (spell that r-a-t-I-n-g-s,) on TV. Obviously, it would be nice to have both, but for IndyCar purposes, that is way off in the future.

    We already know that our sport has issues in BOTH areas. When you have the Coney Island Grand Prix (of hot dog eating) drawing a rating better than any IndyCar race not named the Indianapolis 500, (and THAT might be closer than you think,) you’re not going to be able to call the tune with many folks in the TV business. Not with Disney or Comcast for sure.

    With Comcast (NBC) taking the bulk of the NASCAR coverage for the back half of the season, my question becomes, “Are they going to be interested in having all three of the major motorsports on their platform.” I suspect the answer is no, in spite of the great potential for cross promotion you mentioned. I further suspect that a lot of the personnel at NBCSN will be absorbed into the NASCAR package. I hope that (assuming NBCSN keeps IndyCar,) somewhere in the equation, Kevin Lee gets a chance to step up to the job he really wants as the anchor. I know he said when Leigh Diffey was hired that he wasn’t ready, and Diffey has done a respectable job, but I submit that no one in broadcasting knows more about CURRENT IndyCar racing than Kevin.

    As far as Disney (ABC/ESPN) goes, the move of NASCAR away leaves opportunities for wholesale changes in the broadcast booth.
    I don’t know too many IndyCar enthusiasts who are fans of Marty Reid, but at least he won’t be calling NASCAR and IndyCar both, unless of course, Disney hangs onto the Nationwide series. I suspect there will be wholesale shuffling of broadcast people regardless. Hopefully, IndyCar can land some people who actually CARE about IndyCar and aren’t just doing it for a paycheck until then next NASCAR or F-1 race gig comes along.

    Finally, can someone PLEASE find a role for Paul Page? I felt all along that he should be the guy who replaced Brent Musberger on the ABC team, and, while Lindsay Czarniak is a major upgrade from Musberger, Page has the gravitas.

    Having said all that, the new crew at Hulman and Co. are not dummies. Each and every appointment that has happened since Mark Miles took over has been, in my opinion, a major improvement. Still, the task ahead is daunting and all the uncertainty on the broadcast side cannot help matters.

  5. Ballyhoo Says:

    Sorry, George, but this has ruined my morning. NASCAR took over Speed Channelin many ways. There is so much coverage on Speed Center and then Dave DeSpain is forced to repeat the highlights just 30 minutes later. Do I read correctly that IndyCar cannot be shown on CNBC, if schedules conflict? One thing NBC needs to do to bring in more viewers is to get NBCSports on basic cable/satellite packages like ESPN. That would help all of racing. I do wish NBCSports would bring Wind Tunnel to its lineup.

    Thanks for letting me vent. We will just have to wait and see.

  6. Ron ford Says:

    There has been a lot of good analysis here and elsewhere about what this may or may not mean in the short term. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the need for IndyCar to improve its TV ratings. One thing that does not seem to get discussed much related to that need is the fact that for most of this decade cable and satellite are steadly losing suscribers, particularly amongst the younger demographic. Those eyes are increasingly looking to the internet provided video services for entertainment. I believe that trend will continue and accelerate. Somehow IndyCar needs to get its foot in that door along with network TV for a full season. Few of the young people that IndyCar is trying to attract will pay the extra money required to get a niche channel like NBCs. That is just not going to happen. Most probably don’t even know it exists.

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      Ron, I think make very valid points. I do not have Verizon, but one of my younger racing friends does have the IndyCar app. Seems to be pleased with it.

  7. I hope IndyCar drops nbc too and goes exclusive to espn

    • Nick: The more I think about it and talk about it with other people who know far more than I, the worse I think it would be to throw all of the IndyCar eggs in the Disney basket. They have shown a remarkable proclivity for NOT promoting IndyCar, even though they have 5 races currently including the “biggie.” While they do promote the 500, they fail miserably in broadcast and promotion of other races.

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      Sorry, I do not agree with you. I can’t stand the Disney broadcast team. We have it so much better on NBC. I have never thought ESPN really supported motorsports. Even their NHRA coverage is delayed. I want to see IndyCar races live!

  8. I am not sure whether there will be any affect on Indycar or not. I guess I don’t see how it really helps unless more homes have access to the NBC Sports channel.

    Maybe the bigger question is about Nascar. I am wondering if this doesn’t show weakness on the part of Nascar.

  9. NBC Sports landed NASCAR because ESPN & Turner did not want to renew their contracts.

    Think about that.

    The 800 lb Gorilla of Motorsports just got dropped by the 800 lb Gorilla of TV Sports.

    Why? Well, NBC was willing to pay the $440 million annually, which is a 54 percent increase over the $285 million ESPN and Turner are paying for the same races. NASCAR still has 14 Nationwide and three Cup races to sell. Combined with the $300 million that FOX already pays annually, NASCAR’s annual TV rights amounts to $740 million beginning in 2015.

    NASCAR just took the big paycheck, and jumped overboard into the unknown. That takes some France family sized hubris, as no matter what anyone says, significantly fewer people will be watching their races on NBC in 2015 than watch today on ESPN. Lower ratings, fewer eyeballs, can’t be thrilling news for Sponsors.

    So, in WIN-LOSS terms, my take is…

    NBC – WIN (They land a property that can only boost their ratings)

    ESPN – LOSE (This is going to be a tough programming hole to fill.)

    NASCAR – WIN (in the short term, big increase in $$$ for broadcast rights)

    NASCAR – LOSE (in the long run this will accelerate their decline in ratings among the casual sports fanbase, which will result in a decline in sponsorship, and more empty seats)

    INDYCAR – WIN (In the short term, having NCAR on NBC will only help to peripherally boost their ratings(hard to go any lower), which will help with what few sponsorships they currently have)

    INDYCAR – LOSE (In the long run. By 2018, ESPN will be 5 years into their Post-NASCAR broadcast strategy, and will have little interest in bidding on Indycar or any traditional Motorsports properties)

    • I have tried to look on the bright side of this new development. Tom, I think you are right about the short term. The NASCAR deal will bring more viewers to NBCSports. Will they watch IndyCar, who knows! I have F1 friends who are watching IC now that we are on the same network, so this is good. On Wind Tunnel Sunday Robin Miller mentioned that NBC inherited IndyCar when they bought Versus, but they bid for both F1 and NASCAR. It will be interesting to see how the next contract shakes out now that we are competing with two other major series. I have been pleased with the NBC coverage and hope that IndyCar will continue to have this depth of visibility in the future.

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