Sunday, July 5, 2009

TNT's Wide Open Coverage: Fantastic!

by M Roberts

In the aftermath of the spectacular ending to Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, not much has been said about the fantastic “Wide Open Coverage” TNT offered to NASCAR fans home across the country.

Saturday’s race was the third straight season TNT has offered the coverage of the summer Daytona race as a means to give the fans uninterrupted coverage of every green flap lap during the race.

In 2007 and 2008, despite the attempts, TNT missed a combined 12 green flag laps. On Saturday night, TNT didn’t miss any. We viewed the entire race uninterrupted and it was wonderful.

Much to the dismay of NASCAR fans everywhere on a normal week, there is nothing more irritating when watching a race that goes to commercial and when they finally come back, the announcer says, “While we away, we have a new leader” or “While we were away, a big crash on turn three”, and that’s after they go through thirty seconds of sponsors on graphics leading back into coverage from the break.

Unfortunately, the ’Wide Open Coverage” is a one race and out deal with Daytona. The deal was struck as part of the original NASCAR negotiated package deal with the networks, which at least shows NASCAR understands their fans wishes. However, going back to the standard coverage is like letting someone drive a new Mercedes for a day and then telling them to go back and enjoy their daily routine in a Pinto with no air conditioning.

The real question is how did this standard coverage with commercial breaks going on during live action begin, and how has it been allowed to go on for so long. NASCAR remains the only major and minor sports broadcasted on television that goes away while play on the field, court, track, course, or pitch is live. Bowling and Darts get continuous action, why not NASCAR which is paid a little bit more for their coverage?

The theory I come up with most, beyond the obvious of NASCAR being paid heavy to litter the races with commercials, is that all the other major sports were around when television made it’s sports debut in 1939. Fans were delighted to be able to watch every play from their home and the few networks there were made it a point to get better each year with their coverage.

Fans got used to the coverage and then sponsorships got on board with a product that was already in place and set by the Networks.

NASCAR came on board to network TV with only a few laps being shown of each race on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was a concession that NASCAR was glad to make just for the coverage and exposure.

Then came the 1979 Daytona 500 on CBS which became the first Nationally televised race from start to finish. Again, NASCAR was happy to just be there and made concessions with their product for the sake of coverage. They didn’t have a lot of leverage.

After the great returns of that race with a fantastic infield fight between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarbrough, NASCAR was on it’s way with the Networks.

The first major Network deal began with a $2.4 billion six year deal beginning in 2001 and that was followed by a gigantic $4.6 billion eight year deal that currently exists. Through that whole time span, the Networks crammed more commercial breaks than ever to get the most out of their deal. They marketed NASCAR fans loyalty to sponsors everywhere with pie-chart comparisons to other sports about brand loyalty and it worked.

Prior to the big contract deals, NASCAR coverage still had commercial breaks while racing was going on, but not like today. ESPN and The Nashville Network did nice jobs on their coverage and gave the fans more live racing, but NASCAR wasn’t getting the big bucks from them.
So essentially, NASCAR’s growth and desire to get the big money diluted the coverage for the fans and they were fully aware that their product wasn’t going to be properly covered.

With the way the current ratings have decreased all season long in 2009, It’s likely that more concessions will have to be made in order for NASCAR to better their last contract with the Networks.

The one hope NASCAR fans may have for better coverage is the rating results from Saturday’s Daytona race. The last two seasons of ratings from TNT’s “Wide Open Coverage” have risen from a 3.7 share in 2007 to a 4.5 share in 2008. If the trend continues for the cable network after Saturday’s race, which had a drama filled ending, some of the suits at the Networks may take notice and say this is the way to future success in covering NASCAR and a win-win for the fans and sponsors.

If the NASCAR fans hold to their stereotypical loyalty for the ten sponsors of the “Wide Open Coverage”, that coupled with ratings increase could see changes in how NASCAR is covered.

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