IndyCar and television: a dysfunctional relationship
Iowa Speedway put on a great show with its Iowa Corn 250 this past weekend. Even though Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe dominated the race, there was passing throughout the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay came back through the field to finish second while Tony Kanaan held off Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal for the last podium spot. And the ABC/ESPN broadcast of the race did a pretty good job of making sure the viewers knew those things were happening. After all the commentary bashing the ABC/ESPN coverage, that was good news.
But the fact is watching a small oval like Iowa Speedway in person cannot be simulated on television. The tight shots seen on television rob the viewer of the perspective from the stands. Following multiple battles on the track at the same time is what makes Iowa exciting. You can see the passes being set up laps in advance. As you wait for one pass to be set up, you can watch another pass being made. From any seat in the house, you can see the whole track and every bit of action on it. Television, for all the bowing and scraping we do to the ratings, just doesn’t do justice to a track like Iowa.
Televising racing isn’t easy. An 18 second lap at Iowa often had five cuts. That required the director in the trailer to do many things at once: watch multiple feeds to decide which battle to follow, determine when to cut from one camera to another, decide which replay to show, and inform the announcers exactly what was happening and what was getting ready to happen. Easy it’s not.
Even though I’m usually rough on the ABC booth, Marty Reid is actually getting better. At least he’s amping up the enthusiasm. The funereal presence of Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear still don’t do it for me, though. The boys do get emotional during close racing, emitting the occasional “ooh” and “wow” to let us know how tight the racing is. They do understand what’s going on. As vapid as their presentation is, they get the facts right. It is obvious that this booth is not going to connect to the demographic that IndyCar is looking to attract. And I don’t think that ABC/ESPN really cares.
ABC and its political master ESPN do not really need IndyCar to be a big deal. All they need is to own the Indianapolis 500 and for it to continue to be a pretty big deal. I’m going to go all conspiracy theory here, so bear with me. ABC owns the network broadcast rights to IndyCar. That means they are the only non-cable network that can put IndyCar on TV. In other words, NBC gets the leftovers. Without the Indy 500, NBC Sports inherited a racing series that, while offering the most versatile and exciting racing on the planet, does not offer the most famous race on the planet. Yikes.
ABC was allowed to cherry-pick any races they chose, and in addition to the Indy 500, they picked Detroit, Texas, Iowa, and Pocono. Shrewd move. If IndyCar had any success with the fans before the 500, ABC benefited. Any subsequent interest would be to ABC’s benefit, too, since they had four of the next five races on the schedule. In case any of the races after Indy were spectacular, ABC wins. The cherry on the post Indy 500 sundae would be keeping NBC’s cable sports network, NBC Sports, from gaining any traction with viewers. ABC/ESPN will brutally deny a start-up cable sports network ANY success with a partner, particularly if that cable network has a broadcast network connection. Dividing IndyCar benefits ABC/ESPN. IndyCar unified on NBC/NBC Sports can potentially hurt ABC/ESPN. What happens to IndyCar beyond the 500 is unimportant to ABC/ESPN as long as it doesn’t help the competition. ABC/ESPN does not want to see NBC/NBC Sports have the success with IndyCar that they had with the recently completed NHL Stanley Cup Final. The hockey games bounced between the two NBC networks and prospered. The IZOD IndyCar Series could help NBC’s fledgling sports network, but this will not be allowed to happen. With both networks locked into contracts with IndyCar, the intentional dysfunctional relationship of the series and its television partners will continue.
To prosper, the IZOD IndyCar Series eventually needs to be on one family of networks, preferably one that does not have a NASCAR contract. That severely limits the players, doesn’t it? IndyCar is the awkward sibling. Because of the success of the Indy 500, it can’t be disowned, but the networks don’t really wants to spend much time with it. So IndyCar continues its lonely existence away from kith and kin, dreaming that one day a network family will adopt this poor, orphaned series.
Great points. Some folks (Curt Cavin, maybe? I can’t think of where I most regularly hear this) say that IndyCar benefits with having two network partners, in that you get attention from both. I’m a little more dubious on that. What I think you get are one partner (NBCSN) who doesn’t get all of the biggest/best/most visual events and therefore has limited power to draw in casual viewers, and another (ABC/ESPN) who gets the big events but doesn’t care enough about the rest of the schedule to even bother to post winners on the ESPN bottom-of-screen crawl (which would cost them not even one thin dime, but could, in theory, encourage people to tune away to another network, so NO THANKS!).
To my mind, the difference between getting 0.7s and 0.8s on ABC/ESPN and 0.2s and 0.3s on NBCSN can’t make that much difference in ROI to the sponsors within IndyCar right now (they’re probably getting their bang for the buck in B2B deals, or some other way that’s not as apparent to those of us outside of the paddock and/or boardrooms…the bad ratings are not a new thing, so there’s got to be some reason Target, Verizon and the others stay). IndyCar would be better off (not that they can do this for several more years, since they just re-upped with ABC last year) putting all of the content on NBC/NBCSN, getting them fully invested in becoming “America’s Home to Open Wheel and Non-NASCAR Racing”, trying to get Indy and maybe the other two Triple Crown races (for starts, with more down the road) on NBC Proper, and growing with NBC from the ground up (as you point out, Mark, the NHL literally just did this exact thing within the last 5 years). Perhaps Mark Miles can figure this one out, but I’m not holding my breath that the contracts can be wriggled out of. Fingers crossed that something can be done…
Night races are nothing new for IndyCar or TMS, but having the Firestone 550 featured on one of TV’s “big four” networks is a coup for a form of motorsports looking for new ways to reconnect with its fan base.