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Editorial

The story behind CART's TV coverage in Europe

 by Scott Dryden
November 11, 2000

Editor's Note:  Mr. Dryden lives in Europe and has suffered through the CART TV nightmare firsthand.  In this article he gives us a firsthand view of how CART's TV coverage, or lack thereof, has gone from better to worse in two short years.

 

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In the past European CART Champ Car fans have been able to enjoy some of the best TV coverage given to the series in the world. Included in this was live qualifying and race coverage; even live action when American stations didn't carry it. This was all thanks to pan-European broadcaster, Eurosport. At the beginning of 1999 Eurosport signed a three-year deal with CART and everything was looking rosy. However, by mid-season cracks were starting to appear. 

Eurosport found themselves growing increasingly unhappy with their viewing figures. Despite considerable investment over the years, they were finding it difficult to attract advertisers. The problem was that despite better viewing figures than sports such as the World Rally Championship, companies were more interested in backing sports such as these due to their higher profile in Europe. Eurosport were then left stunned as CART president (at the time), Andrew Craig, demanded a massive increase in the fee Eurosport paid for Champ Car coverage. He'd already done this at the start of 1999, but this time it looked a step too far. A feeling of discontent began to grow at Eurosport's Paris headquarters. 

As the 1999 season wore on, things worsened. At the end of every year, there was an opt-out clause for both parties in Eurosport's contract with CART. After the race at Houston Eurosport contacted CART to inform them that they would be exercising theirs due to increased costs and lack of sponsors. Craig was unimpressed, stating, "They have not been a particularly successful partner in terms of selling commercial air time, and that's normally their problem." 

Another factor in Eurosport's decision was that it was known that Craig was planning on introducing a new approach to selling European TV rights in 2001. "What we need is tailor-made coverage, market by market," claimed Craig. This move would unquestionably increase CART's revenue from TV rights, as he'd be able to sell his products to a number of stations throughout Europe that he wouldn't have been able to previously. Eurosport's decision meant that he would have to introduce this policy one year earlier than planned. 

There were some attempts made to save the situation as far as Eurosport's coverage was concerned. A meeting was held in Monaco between Craig, ESPN International and Eurosport. The subject of sponsors for Eurosport's coverage was one of the main topics of conversation, as it had been in previous meetings over the years. "We helped Eurosport to find commercial partners (in the past) - not only once, many times," explained Craig. Unfortunately though no agreement was reached. In the end, Eurosport agreed to show one hours worth of highlights (for each race) on Wednesday evenings. 

So, life went on and in 2000 Europe moved in to a new age of broadcasting for Champ Car racing. Craig spoke about how this new strategy was a great improvement for European viewers, this is despite the fact that 69% of the countries who'd previously enjoyed Eurosport's live Champ Car coverage would be provided with nothing more than Eurosport's new Wednesday evening highlights program. Elsewhere, various deals were done with TV stations around Europe to show CART on either a live or delayed basis. 

The country, which probably has the biggest Champ Car fan base in Europe, was left out in the cold when the new deals were struck. Germany would only have access to Eurosport's highlights, angering many senior figures within Mercedes. Keith Allo (the man directly responsible for selling CART's TV rights) and Craig were unable to negotiate a deal with VOX, who were interested in covering Champ Cars. Craig laid the blame for this at the fact that the channel was bought out before a deal could be signed. "We were about to conclude an agreement with VOX, and VOX was bought by Murdoch," said Craig. 

The other main European market however found itself a little better off. Allo signed deals with two channels in the United Kingdom. British Eurosport (a UK digital and cable TV channel - separate from Eurosport International) agreed to show live and delayed coverage, whilst terrestrial station Channel 5 extended their deal, and this year showed coverage in the early hours of Tuesday mornings. However, things turned out to be far from perfect. British Eurosport struggled to fit Champ Car coverage in with its other live sports, whilst Channel 5's coverage was shown at too much of an unsociable hour to create much interest. 

One of the big problems with CART's new European TV strategy was that terrestrial stations weren't interested in showing coverage. Therefore, even when agreements could be reached, they were with pay-TV channels that could not be received by everyone. The great thing about Eurosport International is that it is a free-to-air channel. This meant that a lot of people who wanted to simply couldn't afford to watch CART live, even if they were lucky enough to be in a country with a TV channel contracted to provide coverage. A good example of this is British Eurosport's coverage in the United Kingdom. British Eurosport can only be received via digital or cable TV. For some people this would not only mean they had to incur the cost of the subscription, but also they would have to switch their TV source if they did not receive digital or cable TV already. 

An argument Craig used to justify the situation with Eurosport was that he believed, "it's quite shallow in its market penetration." However, recently released figures from the European Broadcasting Union seem to contradict this. They show that Eurosport can be received by a total of 230 million people across Europe. What's even more interesting is the channel's viewing figures for the recent Sydney Olympic games. They show that an amazing 120 million different people watched the games on Eurosport. In other words, over half the people who can receive Eurosport watched the Olympic games on the channel. 

It should be remembered though that Eurosport's Champ Car coverage wasn't always whiter-that-white. On the whole, their coverage during 1999 was fairly poor (albeit a lot better than what most Europeans get at the moment). They dropped their qualifying coverage and didn't seem to have the same commitment to broadcasting the races live. Of course, a lot of this was due to political reasons, but it's a reminder that sometimes their coverage could be far from perfect. 

There are a number of people working hard to bring back live coverage of Champ Car racing to Eurosport, and none more so than British Champ Car driver Dario Franchitti, who's popularity amongst European CART fans has ballooned to even bigger proportions than it was before, thanks to his efforts. When Bobby Rahal took over the presidency of CART from Craig he visited Europe to promote the two races that will be taking place there in 2001. He was said to have been surprised about the amount of complaints he received from people angry that Eurosport's coverage has been reduced so much. 

Franchitti spoke to him about the situation when he returned to America, and admitted, "I feel there is a good chance for us to get live TV coverage in Europe again now that Bobby Rahal's taken over. I've already put the word to him and we're working hard to get CART back on Eurosport for the whole of Europe, not just British Eurosport." 

The return of Champ Car racing live on Eurosport would be very welcome by nearly all European CART fans, providing the station is committed to the series. Some however worry that future Eurosport coverage would not be up to the standard it was during the majority of the 1990s, with an increased number of live sports for the channel to consider. You'll struggle to find any European CART fans though who don't agree that the situation needs to improve dramatically over what it has been this year, and with the efforts of people like Dario Franchitti, it might just do that.  CART has stated that they are addressing the TV situation in Europe in 2001.

Regards, 

Scott

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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