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New CART TV deal - don't put the CART before the horse


 by Mark Cipolloni
August 15, 2001

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While certainly on the surface CART's new TV deal appears very weak compared to the deal NASCAR has with FOX and with NBC, and already the doomsdayers and naysayers are running rampant on the discussion forums, lets not put the CART before the horse just yet, especially when we don't have all the facts and details of the final agreement.

As Joe Heitzler told me several weeks ago, "frankly Mark, CART doesn't have a lot to sell right now.  We are going to have to prove ourselves by turning this ship around first."  We were aware that CBS would only broadcast seven races per year, and that CART would have to continue in the current time-buy situation they currently have whereby ESPN buys time on ABC for about 50% of the races. The rest are shown on ESPN.  

Similarly, with the new deal, Speedvision, owned by FOX, will buy time on CBS for up to seven races per year, and air the remaining races on Speedvision.  However, currently Speedvision is available in less homes than ESPN, so on the surface it appears CART is in a worse situation than it currently is.  Or is it?

While we still don't have all the details of the final deal, there is some potential good when you start to look under the hood.  We will list them in no particular order:

1.  In the USA, we understand that CART will have far more programming hours than it currently does.  Therefore, even though TV ratings for the races shown on Speedvision will be lower than those currently shown on ESPN, because there will be a lot more 'specials' and pre and post race air-time, the cumulative number of viewers may in fact end up being larger than CART currently has.  We don't know, but we believe there will be special weekly shows like Inside CART that are produced by noted TV and movie producer Arnon Milchan.

2. CART gets nearly 1 billion worldwide viewers per year for all its races.  The possible small drop in the USA numbers, already pretty low, will hardly affect the annual worldwide numbers, which of course we assume CART will make clear to all the sponsors.  But there's more....

3. CART feels that by doing the production in-house, or hiring another firm to do it (we hear FOX's NASCAR crew will do it), that they will have more control and do a better job than ESPN did.  That of course remains to be seen.

4. RPM2Night remains primarily a NASCAR2Night show even though ESPN lost out on the TV contract to FOX and NBC.  They apparently find value in helping their competitors succeed.  It remains to be seem whether, as we have suggested for years, CART has negotiated a deal whereby there will be an equivalent 'CART2Night' show, whereby CART teams and CART drivers are in the news every night.  This is sorely needed if CART is to grow their product.  CART drivers and team members have to become household names, just like NASCAR's has, and that has been done by having them on TV every day, largely through RPM2Night and other 'special' NASCAR shows.  Recently behind closed doors, Heitzler had a meeting with the drivers, and although we do not know all the details, we do know he briefed them on what he plans for them for next year in terms of his promise to make them household names. It's possible, that if a nightly show is planned, he has stressed to them just how important it is for them to make themselves available regularly.

5. If all CART races get rebroadcast more times, that will also have a cumulative affect on the overall TV ratings.  We hear CART will get triple the number of programming hours.

6. Since Speedvision is not shown in as many homes as ESPN, CART should have considered simultaneous broadcasts on Speedvision and FX or FOX Sports Net.  Cumulatively the ratings would have been as high as ESPN alone.  It should be noted that Speedvision does not currently participate in the Nielson rating system, so if that continues, we won't have a good handle on how good or bad CART's ratings are.

7. Because, as we have stated ad nauseam, CART gets far more TV viewers outside the USA than in, how well CART's broadcasts are distributed worldwide with its new TV partners, will ultimately determine whether in fact CART's sponsors will get more value than they are currently getting. We will use F1 as an example.  All their races are broadcast by Speedvision here in the USA and their ratings are probably nothing to brag about.  It's the worldwide ratings that bring in the big sponsor dollars because they dwarf just the USA ratings.  As we understand it, Arnon Milchan's New Regency company will have the international TV rights.  It will be incumbent upon them to do a good job getting CART broadcast on good outlets in all the countries worldwide.

8. Because FOX bought Speedvision and was going to make it an all-NASCAR outlet at one time, it's likely NASCAR will still get a lot of programming hours on Speedvision.  This will cause a lot of NASCAR fans to request Speedvision, and therefore, grow the number of households that get Speedvision.  Over time, CART will benefit from this.  

9.  Because Speedvision is a 100% motorsports company, they are focused on succeeding in motorsports.  They are not distracted with anything else, like football, baseball, the world basket weaving championships, etc.  This may prove to be a benefit going forward.  Everyone who gets Speedvision loves it.  Doesn't that tell you something?  The same can't be said of CART's broadcasts on ABC/ESPN.

10. Because of ABC's allegiance to the IRL and the Indy 500, staying on ABC/ESPN would mean CART playing second fiddle to their main competitor. As we understand it, ESPN's offer to CART bordered on ridiculous.  Would you sign a deal like that?

11. TV ratings are down for most sports (except NASCAR of course) because more and more people are getting their information via the web these days, and there are far more programming choices because of the proliferation of Cable TV and Satellite TV.  CART's TV ratings will grow if it can make its product more popular.  More programming hours will help, now lets see if CART can rise to the challenge of actually promoting their drivers and their series and gaining new fans through better entertainment.

12.  NASCAR's new website is an example of how to deliver better entertainment and information value to your fans and sponsors.  Can CART rise to that challenge?  Will they find a company to do their website as well as NASCAR's is done?  Is that part of the new deal?

13. It remains to be seen whether or not Bob Varsha will be back in the booth for the CART races, but since he now works for Speedvision, it would not surprise us.  We have a lot of respect for Bob.  He would serve CART well.  Ironically, back at CART's Spring Break in Fontana this year I sat with Bob and the rest of the Speedvision folks one evening during some awards presentations, and we talked a little about CART's TV contract.  At that time no one was guessing that Speedvision would get the CART contract, but they told me they would very much like to land the deal.  Well it looks as though they have.  CART will be an important undertaking for them and will likely bring them their highest TV ratings to date.  I believe they will give CART a lot of attention.

14. Rupert Murdoch owns FOX and Speedvision.  He is very aggressive and when he wants to do something right, he does it......note how well they jumped into NASCAR.  But more importantly he's very big worldwide.  He's the "Goldfinger" of Publishing and TV. He owns Star TV out of Hong Kong, SKY TV in Europe and he 's trying to buy "Direct TV" also!  He owns the LA Dodgers, The NY Post, The SUN, 20th Century Fox Studios, The Times of London, TV Guide, and book publisher HarperCollins.  He even owns the Manchester United Football Club in England. One of the biggest and most popular in the world!  He is a resident of LA.....right down the road from Joe Heitzler.    Where do you think Arnon Milchan is from?  Where did CART open its new Entertainment office?  Are you starting to get the picture?

15.  CART wants to race in China, right?  Murdoch also has a long record of kowtowing to China's dictatorship, including yanking the BBC's World Service Television from the China beam of a News Corp. satellite. Murdoch later conceded to the New Yorker, "The BBC was driving [the Chinese regime] nuts. It wasn't worth it."  How well do the Chinese like Murdoch?  Back in March, Murdoch's 28-year-old son, James, who just a few years ago was best known for starting an indie record label in New York after leaving Harvard, gave a policy speech at the Milken Institute in Beverly Hills, Calif. With his father in attendance, James, now in charge of News Corp.'s China initiative, leveled a blistering attack against Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government after 10,000 of its followers protested in Tiananmen Square two years ago. Murdoch labeled Falun Gong a "dangerous" and "apocalyptic cult" that "clearly does not have the success of China at heart." He also chastised the Western media for painting a relentlessly negative picture of the Chinese government by focusing too often on the topic of human rights violations.  According to the Los Angeles Times account of the speech, Murdoch "startled even China's supporters with his zealous defense of that government's harsh crackdown on Falun Gong and criticism of Hong Kong democracy supporters."  Can Murdoch help get CART a good deal in China?  You bet he can!

16. The bottom line - If he seizes America's satellite TV market as he is trying, über-mogul Rupert Murdoch will rule the airwaves on earth and in heaven. Convinced it's the answer to his cable competitors (most notably AOL Time Warner), as well as the foundation for the coming interactive television revolution, Murdoch has staked his News Corp.'s future to satellite TV. That's why the DirecTV deal, already nearly a year in the making, stands "as one of the most important of Murdoch's career.  Is Heitzler aligning CART with Rupert Murdoch?  You bet he is!  We could think of worse things.

While based on the facts leaked so far, it appears CART's new TV deal leaves a lot to be desired, lets not put the CART before the horse until we hear all the details of the deal. The CART owners we had spoken to who were briefed on the new deal, seemed happy with it.  But ultimately it's the sponsors and fans that must like it.  Meanwhile, if your cable outlet doesn't provide Speedvision, you had better start thinking satellite dish.  If Murdoch prevails, it may end up serving you quite well.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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