Changes Afoot In The TV Landscape
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.