Starting Over With A Clean Sheet Of Paper

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Now that NBC has the full IndyCar slate as well as half of the NASCAR schedule, they held a motorsports summit in New York a couple of weeks ago. In attendance was Doug Boles, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Boles related parts of his visit with NBC execs to Trackside, pertaining to how they will cover next year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first time any other network other than ABC will broadcast the iconic race.

I liked everything I heard Boles say about NBC’s approach. First of all, there will be additional early morning pre-race coverage on NBCSN before they switch over to “big” NBC, presumably an hour before the start of the race. I don’t recall hearing that there would be any extra post-race coverage on NBCSN, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

What I liked most of all is that NBC wants to take the approach that those at home should get to see the same part of the traditional pre-race ceremonies that those of us in the stands see.

Remember back in the nineties? ABC would go commercial-free for about twenty minutes from the start of the traditional ceremonies until well beyond the command to start engines and the start of the race. Somewhere along the way, ABC started telling IMS what they needed to do to fit certain parts of the traditional ceremonies around their commercial breaks. It became a very disjointed race morning with long breaks in between certain segments of the ceremony, while some parts of the traditions were never seen by those at home.

Different parts of the pre-race ceremonies were shifted around to accommodate the commercial schedule. It seemed that every year, the breaks and pauses would go longer and were more awkward. Then when I would go home and watch the replay, I would find out that certain memorable parts took place during a Verizon commercial and were never even seen by viewers at home.

Boles was not President of IMS back then, so he is not to blame for ABC being allowed to rearrange something that we traditionalists value deeply. By the time he came on board in 2013, the precedent had long been in place. Once something like this is allowed, it’s almost impossible to undo it.

But it sounds like NBC has volunteered to undo it. My take on the conversation with Boles on Trackside is that NBC is going to give Boles a clean sheet of paper in order to rearrange the traditional pre-race ceremonies the way he wants and to make sure that the viewers at home get to take it all in.

Doug Boles understands the importance of those ceremonies to longtime fans. Any variance is upsetting to us, and yes – I put myself in that category. Credit him with getting Jim Cornelison for a third year in a row to deliver his booming rendition of (Back Home Again in) Indiana. He also brought back the ever-popular Memorial Day homage that was a staple in the pre-race ceremonies for decades until Jim Philippi passed away in 2004.

Doug Boles has been attending the Indianapolis 500 as a fan since 1977. In that span, he has gotten a sense of what he and other fans like as far as Indianapolis 500 traditions. Not every tradition is great. This will ruffle feathers, but I was never a fan of Florence Henderson’s rendition of God Bless America. It was never one of my favorite songs and she was certainly not my favorite performer. I’m also probably in the minority in saying that I would like to see Driver Introductions go away. In the current format, I think it comes across as awkward, cheesy and over-the-top. Boles can take this as his opportunity to gauge what fans want. I fully trust him when it comes to doing what’s best with this clean sheet of paper.

I was also glad to see that Boles incorporated the Purdue All-American Marching Band back into pre-race prominence. They had already been phased out of performing the National Anthem and Taps. Once Jim Nabors retired after the 2014 race, they were no longer used for (Back Home Again in) Indiana when Straight-No Chaser and Josh Kaufman performed. Jim Cornelison seems to embrace their backing him up.

Personally, so long as the core elements that we’ve come to expect every year are there – I don’t care what is added or taken away, nor do I worry about what order they go in. What I do care about is for there to be a seamless pre-race ceremony without the disjointed breaks for commercials. I also want viewers at home to be able to experience every bit of it. After all, some year I might be a stay-at-home viewer. It would be against my will, but it could happen.

NBC will know this is coming. They can plan their telecast and their ad schedule around a long commercial-free window that encompasses the pre-race ceremonies, the command to start engines and the first few opening laps before cutting away to a commercial.

I know NBC is ultimately in this to make money. That’s why they exist. But they can also be an effective partner by trying to grow the sport and taking a long-term approach with their broadcast presentation. If the viewers become entranced with the Indianapolis 500 telecast, perhaps they’ll want to tune in the next weekend and the next.

I don’t mean to kick ABC while they are already down. That’s low-hanging fruit, and there’s no point in it – we got what we wanted. But it’s refreshing to hear that we finally have a TV broadcast partner that asks for input on what the series and The Speedway wants, rather than being told how it’s going to be.

This is only a three-year contract between IndyCar and NBC. But if they continue to be the partner they appear to be at the start of this deal, I think we can expect to see peacock logos around IMS in May for the next several years.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Starting Over With A Clean Sheet Of Paper”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    It’s going to be great to have a broadcast partner that actually cares. ABC was clearly phoning it in the last few years and to have the biggest race of the year have such underwhelming coverage was, to be blunt, disgraceful. Thanks for the memories, but good riddance.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I personally like driver introductions. I like it all…just not disjointed.

  3. The driver introductions work on TV, but its a little hard to hear and follow when you are at the track. I think they need to do it, but perhaps there is a better way than it is done currently.

    This is a very positive change. Now if only they would be as smart and traditional when it comes to qualifications.

  4. I like everything on your list, particularly Back Home Again in Indiana and the playing of taps after the homage. I also miss the Purdue Marching Band and their “Golden Girl” Addie Darling. I may have graduated from Purdue in the 60s if I had not spent so much time at the parade grounds watching Addie practice with the band. A small price to pay indeed. I did last a bit longer than Robin Miller over at Ball State.

  5. For those of you who voted that you could live without “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the invocation, the “Homage” and “Taps”, can you also live without air? For your morning breakfast before going to the track, try one less bowl of Grumpy Flakes.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    It sure sounds like NBC is going to do the 500right. If they show the pre race ceremonies in full and in order ,I believe it will go a long way to restore the ratings to former glory. As you know there is nothing like the Indianapolis 500 on race day. Maybe they can convae that thru tv.

  7. NBC…remember the “Heidi Game”? and cancelling “Star Trek”?
    yes, if The Past and Tradition matters…NBC is suspect.

  8. The extra boost in May will be that NBC has the Kentucky Derby NBC will be able to promote the Indianapolis 500 for about three hours .

  9. Newburyport Says:

    Really? Six people want to get of of Back Home Again. Guess those people have never sat in the stands.

  10. Someone may correct me, but I have been a listener to IMS Radio since 1961 and followed the traditional opening ceremoniesg on radio until I attended my first race in 1971. I don’t recall “God Bless America” being a part of those traditional ceremonies until they tried (somewhat in vain) to find some way to include Florence Henderson OTHER than the National Anthem which admittedly is a tough song to sing, requiring range and power that Florence no longer had. (See Sandi Patti or Whitney Houston and their renditions.)

    I was very surprised and pleased to witness the return of the “Phillipi Soliloquy” this past year, something that reminds everyone of the significance of the Memorial Weekend, and has been a part of opening ceremonies as long as I can remember, right up until Jim’s passing. I would have no objection to someone else reciting that homage “live,” but it needs to be someone with some gravitas, one of the senior members of the announcing staff, or perhaps a member of the military.

    Suffice it to say, I am thrilled that NBC has given the Speedway the option of returning the opening ceremonies to the proper order. Time was when you could set your watch by where they were in the order of events prior to the command to start engines, and it was PUBLISHED that way in the souvenir program.

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