The Sad Reality
Juxtaposition is the placement of two unlike things near each other in a literary work. The purpose is most often to create an unsettling effect. I am currently unsettled. The two unlike things in my Indy car world causing this feeling are Death and Ratings.
IndyCar, like any business, is a bottom line proposition; you should make more money than you spend if you want to keep the doors open and the lights on. IndyCar’s profits are derived from a mixture of sanctioning fees, sponsorship money, TV deals, and advertising dollars as well as a subsidy from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard is trying to make the series a self-supporting proposition. And one thing, and one thing only, is the goddess that determines the value for promoters, sponsors, networks, and advertisers: television ratings.
And the ratings were up for Las Vegas. Randy Bernard said he would resign if Vegas did not do a .8; it did a 1.6. But AP writer Tim Dahlberg noted that the broadcast hit a high of 3.8 at the time Dan Wheldon’s death was announced. Suddenly I am unsettled.
What caused the spike? Certainly fans with phones, radios, and computers were calling, tweeting, and texting. People tuned in to see the wreck and were greeted with the news that the reigning Indy 500 champion was dead. They stayed tuned to see the emotional aftermath of tears, prayers, and interviews. They watched the five lap tribute. And the ratings were good.
Up to this point, everything is as expected. A tragedy took place. People tuned in to watch as they would any disaster. They were moved. They cared. But they also watched the replays. And the ratings were good.
Fans want danger. ABC/ESPN and Versus both advertise Indy car races by showing highlights of flying and spinning cars. They advertise side-by-side racing with cars touching wheels. It takes our breath away. They hope the action draws eyeballs because eyeballs equal money and ratings are religion. What does this mean for IndyCar? Sadly, it is simple. A champion died in a fiery multi-car crash at the last race of the season, the same kind of crash the networks use to entice our viewing. And although they won’t use the Las Vegas crash in their ads, you can expect other crashes to be shown as they ramp up for the opening race next year. And the ratings will be up. We will tune in. IndyCar may well be in for a good year in the ratings business. Danger sells.
And what nobody wants to say, and what people will condemn for being said, is that a champion’s death may lead to higher ratings and the success that comes with them. As Kurt Vonnegut, himself a son of Indianapolis and a master of juxtaposition, so aptly put it: “So it goes.”