The Current Television ‘Partnership’ of IndyCar: Back To Third Mistress Status

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One common recurring complaint from IndyCar fans and many participants as a group over the past twenty years or so involves a perception of increasing lack of respect accorded the series by its broadcast partners. IndyCar was long ago relegated to bastard stepchild status on ESPN as NASCAR and other stick and ball sports squeezed it out. ESPN was largely responsible originally for the rise of NASCAR following the network launch in 1979 because they made it featured programming during formative years. That was largely due to ESPN badly needing content.  In subsequent years the folks in Bristol (Connecticut) milked it for all it was worth up until they were over capacity with stick and ball sports.

What began as mutual fawning when IndyCar signed a ten year deal with Versus/NBCSN in 2009 has devolved into confused suspicion as both Formula 1 and NASCAR have been given obvious programming priority. The ratings for IndyCar on NBCSN are not bad in comparison to most things aired on that cable channel, but assuming they will rise because NASCAR is coming is questionable speculation at best.

Instead of complaining a determination is warranted of whether perception is reality in the way IndyCar is promoted and aired not only on the NBCSN linear platform but also on the web and in social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. The quasi-scientific method used to gather data involved paying a recent underemployed college graduate to DVR the channel for one week before an IndyCar race on NBCSN (Fontana) then count the number of promos devoted to any sport or channel cross promotion. The directive was to isolate a standard run-of-schedule time frame for each of seven consecutive days; 6:00am to 12midnight, with each day broken into six-hour pieces that do not necessarily conform to standard sellable dayparts but are chunked into easily digestible pieces for analysis.  The monitoring began Friday, June 19 at 6:00am and concluded Thursday, June 25 at 12 midnight.

On the surface using raw numbers promotion for IndyCar on NBC Sports Network does not look bad. IndyCar is the fifth most promoted entity on the linear channel. Over the course of the research week IndyCar was promoted 53 times; slightly less than once every three hours. NASCAR is the most promoted entity on the channel with 198 distinct airings of promos in the test period; approaching two per hour. Formula 1 promos aired 65 times making it the third most promoted entity. By the way the second most promoted entity was Tour de France. Neither NASCAR, Formula 1 nor Tour de France events air until the weekend after the IndyCar event at Fontana.

Raw numbers are misleading because they do not include branding promos for NBCSN, which aired 57 times. Approximately 25 of those contained NASCAR and Formula 1 messaging, and about fifteen more contained Formula 1 messaging without NASCAR. In reality NASCAR content bumps their total to 223, and Formula 1 to 105, which begins to dwarf IndyCar (and everything else). Plus you are more likely to find an IndyCar promo in a fishing show than anything else.

In terms of promotion and programming a better acronym for NBCSN might be ‘NASCAR Broadcasting Continuously Sports Network.’ It appears the entire NBCSN farm is being bet on their share of NASCAR. In television lingo three forms of secondary events; i.e., things visible on viewer screens at the beginning of or during program segments, are prevalent. Many refer to the first type as ‘snipes.’ Those are usually animated elements that air at the beginning of segments; e.g., a stock car zooming onto the screen in a cloud of dust promoting NASCAR on July 4th, usually followed by promotion for the Minions movie. These snipes were not counted (not primary events) but aired frequently. A second type is referred to as a ‘crawl.’ This is the element that at the bottom that scrolls sports scores and other promotional information. NASCAR on the 4th of July was heavily promoted in this way. In fairness IndyCar and Formula 1 also got such play, as did many other sports on the platform.

The third and most prevalent is what is typically called a ‘bug.’ Most networks have their logo superimposed in a corner of the screen, kind of like a watermark on a photograph. The NBCSN bug is placed in the lower right portion of the screen. During the test week, however, the bug also included a large NASCAR countdown day clock in most hours of the day; exceptions being paid programming like exercise shows and live events except programming such as Dan Patrick. Think about this for a moment. A NASCAR logo and countdown on screen during every minute of every program segment in most of the network programming. Combine promo volume with secondary events and the fact that in the majority of monitored six hour blocks NASCAR programming was aired for one to two hours each then repeated over and over. A valid conclusion is that NASCAR is promoted, either blatantly or subliminally, literally almost continuously on the channel.

Some people enjoy saying ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’ when referencing the preponderance of NASCAR content being force fed as the dominant programming on the network. That might be true if IndyCar was not essentially placed in a wake and urged to try and not drown. It is disconcerting when, as was the case with the last Formula 1/IndyCar weekend, Formula 1 programming (practice and qualifying included) was repeated twice, first in prime time, while the lone IndyCar re-air hit at 1:00am (both Eastern Time). Or this weekend when IndyCar qualifications aired on delay after midnight.

Why does this happen? That is a topic for ongoing debate. No iteration of IndyCar series management has ever truly mastered the art of effective self-promotion, marketing or meaningful content dissemination. That seems odd considering the title sponsor is as blue chip as they get. Yet the combination of IndyCar and Verizon cannot even move the needle with a cable television partner.

Part of the problem may be out of their direct control but appears to be another adverse self-created handicap by IndyCar. When the NASCAR-to-NBC press announcements were being made two years ago concern was expressed that Formula 1 and IndyCar would experience considerable de-emphasis. NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus disagreed, telling press members how the IndyCar deal with NBCSN is structured. It appears that IndyCar remains essentially tethered (like a dog on a leash) to ESPN on ABC. NBCSN appears to be a glorified babysitter. Lazarus claimed that NBC does not own the rights for IndyCar broadcasts, which are held by ESPN on ABC. As a result, Lazarus claimed, they are unable to do with IndyCar what they are with other sports. The deal is structured so that a limited number of over-the-air broadcasts, most notably the Indy 500, air on ABC, while NBCSN is the exclusive cable partner.

Those critical of current leadership for things like a compressed schedule and whacko event date changes; e.g., Fontana from Fall at night to late June on a Saturday afternoon, may have even more to worry about when actual NASCAR events begin flooding and re-flooding NBCSN air. If we believed IndyCar schedule making was difficult after least season we probably have not seen anything yet. How much of the IndyCar schedule will be determined by what NBCSN can squeeze in?

If lack of promotion on the network might seem troubling you may be thankful for what you have when checking non-linear NBCSN promotion. The paid monitoring project also included tracking of the NBCSN Twitter feed and NBC Sports Facebook site, which were tracked in the same manner as the linear feed. The NBC Sports web site front page was also spot checked in the middle of each six hour monitoring period for linked events.

First, Twitter: Fourteen sports were topics over the course of the week, including multiple tweets for NASCAR (22 times) and Formula 1 (3 times). For most of the week NASCAR promotion included the cover page. Number of IndyCar-related tweets: Zero.

Second, Facebook: Ten sports comprised post topics. NASCAR was second (behind the NBA) with 18. F1 received a couple. For most of the week NASCAR promotion included the cover page. Number of IndyCar-related Facebook posts: Zero.

Third, NBC Sports website front page: In terms of numbers for ALL other sports except motorsports, 1,015 clickable links existed. Four forms of motorsports featured clickable links: NASCAR, Formula 1, LeMans and IndyCar. NASCAR had a total of 241 clickable links. Formula 1 had 44. IndyCar brought up the rear with 2, that’s right, TWO over the course of the entire week prior to an IndyCar event and no NASCAR or Formula 1 events.

Draw your own conclusions, but the editorial stance regarding IndyCar seems obvious and profound. What will IndyCar brass do about it? History tells us nothing of substance will occur.

 

Tony Tellez

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