Voices of Speed: The Enthusiasts' TV Channel Goes Dark
Started with a $100 million investment, Speedvision originally broadcast to 3.2 million homes. On its first day, founder Roger Werner sat with his small team in the control room overlooking the harbor in Stamford, Connecticut. “We were all extremely excited about it. Personally, I felt that we had realized a dream, a dream rattling in the back of my head for a decade or so. We could create a channel for guys like me, an electronic campfire for gearheads and speed freaks.” The key to the success of all incarnations of Speed was the passion of the people both behind and in front of the camera. That fervor fed the spirit that defined “our” channel.
But on August 17, that channel went dark. Owner Fox will replace the red Speed logo with the blue branding of Fox Sports 1 (FS1), a 24-hour multisport network that will go head-to-head with ESPN. FS1 will operate under the mantra of “bringing the fun back.”
In terms of motorsports, you will still largely be able to get your fix on FS1 and Fox Sports 2 (formerly FuelTV) via much of the same Speed programming. But save for coverage of the Barrett-Jackson auctions, the non-racing components of Speed are no more, including Wind Tunnel and the highlight show Speed Center, two of Speed’s signature titles. Their 179,000 and 157,000 weekly viewers (as tabulated by Nielsen Media Research) on Sunday nights were not sufficient to ward off the axe.
The demise of Speed was purely economic. Earlier this year, Rupert Murdoch split his media empire into two separately traded public companies; Speed was parceled off to the newly formed Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc., where reinventing the channel as FS1 will be a key earnings driver, as will bundling FS1 and FS2 in contracts with content providers. Speed’s built-in reach of 90 million subscribers made the decision something of a no-brainer. Laura Martin, an analyst with Needham & Company, says that Speed’s monthly 25-ish cents per subscriber charge can be raised to nearly a dollar with the Fox Sports channels, “and that looks like a good deal to the cable operators, compared to the $5.00 they have to pay ESPN.”
For many viewers, though, the final straw came on February 11, 2002, with Speedvision’s rebranding as Speed Channel. It was then, some months after Fox exercised its rights to buy out other partners for $750 million, that the channel began to emphasize NASCAR programming; more than 65,000 people immediately signed a petition to minimize so-called “NASCRAP.” The eclecticness of Speedvision—not the wall-to-wall stock-car racing of Speed Channel—is what had attracted viewers like Jay Leno.
“You could see one of Alain de Cadenet’s Victory By Design videos, and then you would see the rare footage of Frank Flockhart Speed Car,” says Leno. “I liked the randomness of it. I like things that roll, explode, and make noise. I just like the fact that I learned something I didn’t know. Like, ‘Here’s a documentary on Corvairs, let me watch that.’ That was kind of cool.
“Now, when it went to Speed [Channel], it just became all NASCAR. That’s great, if you like NASCAR, but I’m more interested in the automobiles, the engineers, and the designs, and the personalities. That’s really when it lost me. It became, ‘Here’s some stuff going fast. More from Steve Mayer at Car and Driver