Editorial

Addressing CART's TV issues

 by Mark Cipolloni
October 25, 2000

 

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Much has been written about CART's drop in USA TV ratings over the last several years, a decline from something greater than 2.0 to now just under 1.0 (a 50%+ drop).   Some blame the split with the IRL, and with good reason. The slide began the year of the split and its been downhill ever since. Dividing the Indy Car fan base had a lot to do with it. NASCAR's strong surge is another factor. There are a multitude of TV programs available to grab viewers attention, plus the general lack of leisure time in this booming economy, all contribute to CART's USA TV woes.

Luckily for CART, its overseas TV ratings have remained good; so on a worldwide basis the drop is not as severe as it might appear. That said, there are still some serious issues that need to be addressed by CART, issues that if addressed, would go a long way toward improving the TV package and, in the long run, the ratings. Not to let ABC/ESPN off the hook to easy, we also suggest improvements that are needed by them.

Suggestions to be addressed by CART

1. CART must schedule the season far enough ahead so they have a choice on TV dates and time slots. CART is trying to get the 2002 schedule out before the end on 2000 so this issue is being addressed.  However, the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, to name a few, all work 5 years ahead on dates.

2. CART must pick dates to support the promoters yet provide a strong TV package without major event conflict such as the Super Bowl, US Open, The Master, etc. Obviously there are only so many available weekends to race in a year, so it is not always possible to avoid a conflict, but there are things that can be done to avoid a Sunday afternoon conflict, such as running a race or two on Saturday night under the lights. It has worked fairly well for NASCAR and the IRL.  Saturday night TV ratings have been in the same range as other NASCAR and IRL broadcasts.

3. CART must do careful planning to match the race length to the time slots with 10 minutes before the event and 5 minutes after so TV can do interviews. Now how is this possible when one never knows how many caution flags there will be, or worse yet, red flags?  First, the time slot on TV must be 3.0 hours (except 500 milers which must be 4.0 hours). Then the race distance can be computed, based on previous race averages, to last 2 hours and 10 minutes. That leaves 10 minutes before the race, 5 minutes after the race and a 5-minute contingency in case of something unforeseen. And in addition, the CART2Day show should be broadcast right after the race, not before. This serves two purposes: 1) in case of a red flag, that time can be used for completion of the race. Hopefully the 10 minutes (5 + 5) we already suggested would be enough, but in the event the network (in this case ABC) had to cutaway to another commitment, the race completion could be shown on ESPN2, as a worse case scenario. Yes, some people don't get ESPN2, must most hardcore fans do (Networks reach 90 million households, ESPN 77 Million and ESPN2 70 Million.  By comparison, Speedvision reaches 23 Million).   2) CART2Day show could then be used as a race recap show with extensive interviews of drivers, team owners and key crew members, the post-race press conference ala F1, as well as a preview for the next race.

4. CART must absolutely put as many races on network as possible if they want to get good USA TV ratings. Doing #1 above will help that cause.

5. Start the schedule after Super Bowl Sunday and before the Daytona 500 to steal some of NASCAR's thunder. Race fans are starved for racing after the long cold winter and weather in much of the nation discourages outdoor activities (leaving more time to watch TV).  Auto racing TV ratings are always high in late January and early February so CART must run at least 2 races between Super Bowl Sunday and the Daytona 500. Some say the season should end by Labor Day because Football eats into auto racing ratings. That, however, is absolutely not possible because, with a 22 to 24 race schedule, there would have to be too many races on consecutive weekends to fit them all in. The crewmembers that have to prepare the cars would revolt, or the quality of the car preparation would suffer, leading to possible accidents and more attrition due to car failures. NASCAR ratings have not dropped that significantly during this fall football season, which just goes to prove, provide a good product and people will watch. CART, at least initially, will have to take the 'fall football' hit in USA TV ratings because 1) the rest of the world TV ratings are not affected by USA football, 2) CART fans prefer a 22 to 24 race schedule rather than an 18-race schedule. CART can't afford to lose the worldwide exposure by dropping 4 to 6 races.

6. Adopt an aerodynamic package that will produce better racing, and don't wait so long to make changes if you know you have a problem....NASCAR reacts almost immediately. We made a recommendation to produce better racing in this article titled 'Aerodynamics - CART's chance to make progressive changes'. Better racing directly relates to a better TV show. Boring race, boring TV. Exciting race, exciting TV. It's really rather simple.

7. CART must treat TV management as a partner, not an employee. Racing on TV is key to growing the sport.  TV is the primary connection between the  race fan and his sport. That is not true in stick and ball sports.   CART must make TV management feel respected. That means listening to their ideas, including them in meetings, and making them feel as though they are a partner in the pursuit of higher TV ratings. 

8. CART must reexamine event conduct to assure fan friendliness in areas like: 1) can the fans easily distinguish their favorite drivers car at distance. If not, rules should be in place to require the teams to have some distinguishing mark or color on the car and the car number should be large enough to read. CART should have a review team that can review an incident immediately during competition and impose penalties during the event. When was the last time there has been a change between the green flag and the checkered?  Stick and Ball sports assess penalties on the spot, not 2 days after the event.  Why not have a "referee" type with a microphone who could say " We are giving number 6 Andretti the black flag for running over his hose on the last stop.

9. CART should develop a formal and timed post race press conference ala F-1 so TV can broadcast this to the fans on the CART2Day show immediately following the race if necessary (see #3 above). The key here is 'timed'. The post race press conference must take place within 20 minutes of the race ending and last no more than 10 minutes so it is done before the CART2Day show ends. That means drivers must get to the podium, do the National Anthems, present the trophies and spray the Champaign. The endless exchange of sponsor hats on the podium is much too long. Yes, sponsors need exposure, but the hat dance will need to be shortened to just 2 or 3 exchanges.

10. Get the message to the major daily newspapers and not just to the racing publications. One might ask how this will improve TV ratings?  Local TV sportscasters base their weekend assets (i.e. tape machine allocation) on what they read in the dailies on Wed / Thurs as that's when they must put their facilities requests in to the editors.   It's quite simple; more media exposure means more fans. Currently you would be hard pressed to find CART mentioned in most daily newspapers, and then only as a paragraph or two, i.e. as an afterthought behind the lead NASCAR story. NASCAR is beating CART very badly in this area.

11. CART must not demand the last timeslot on Sunday afternoons so they won't go head to head with NASCAR, then blame TV if they run into local news and get chopped off. We think our suggestions above will alleviate this concern.

12. CART must provide a functional and accurate scoring system and not depend on TV to do it. Since taking the timing and scoring in-house, the results have suffered and the kind of information provided is not as useful as what we see during NASCAR events.  CART dropped Swiss Timing last year because they wanted too much money.  Once again a decision was made based on marketing instead of what's best for the fan.

13.  CART must promote the drivers and help to make them household names.  We bet a large majority of NASCAR viewers tune in to cheer for their favorite driver.  This one is hard to do, but more CART TV advertising featuring the drivers would help.

Suggestions to be addressed by ABC/ESPN

There are always more than two sides to every problem, which is the case here. CART must do its part, but TV must do theirs.

1. CART TV producers must secure better budgets to add techie stuff to the broadcast as we suggest below. Many viewers are intrigued by the sophistication of CART Champ Cars and the TV should keep pace. 

2. Install a rail mounted pit cam at every race, a camera that rides along a rail directly behind and above the pit stalls to film the pitstops. This camera should be remote controlled, tilt, pan and zoom, and move fast from pit to pit. The overhead shots would be spectacular. This should be portable and moved from race to race.  A Sky cam is also good. It's a cable tracked camera that could travel over any point in the pits.

3. Use at least one more pit reporter during the races.  What's Bill Webber and Jerry Punch doing after this season now that ABC and ESPN lost their NASCAR contract?

4. Install overhead cameras on more turns. Install gib cameras on more turns. These are used at some CART road course events. They are cameras mounted on long arms that can move up and down through 45 feet and traverse a 300 degree arc.  Also, the audio coming from the cameras to the viewer much be better. Champ cars sound great. That is not captured on TV. Watch a F1 broadcast and listen.  Why don't we see surround sound added as soon as possible?

5. Do double camera coverage on key turns 

6. Develop or buy transponder cameras for close tracking of cars, i.e. the camera would lock onto the car's transponder and follow it automatically. This would be remote controlled.  It also permits a quick move from one car to another.  One such system called Navicam, created by Admirantys, can be fitted on selected cars with the equipment to bounce the signal off a GPS satellite, which then activates a computer-controlled camera at the track. The camera then provides high-quality panning images of the car, even at high speed, which provides more exposure for the sponsors on the cars as well as showing the ability of the drivers. The system can automatically follow the cars around the track.  The ALMS is using this system for its final race of the year in Adelaide, Australia.

7. Move to HDTV as fast as possible.  Take advantage of not only the quality of the picture which will aid sponsor recognition, but of the multiple audio and data channels HDTV offers.

8. Do more parallel shows - coverage on the Internet and possibly just onboard shots on another station such as ESPN2. Of course this would hurt the network TV broadcast ratings somewhat unless the combined rating would be counted. 

9. Work on better pit and crowd audio. We suggested better audio from the turns in #3 above. However, did you ever hear a Champ Car scream out of the pits? What we hear on TV now doesn't do it justice. And what about the Colombians or the Mexicans cheering in the grandstands? We hardly ever hear them on TV.  At Laguna Seca the CART TV crew started adding a third RF hand held camera to try to capture such sight and sound.  Much more of this needs to be done.

10. Us more robotic cameras in difficult places.  Currently this is not just an expense problem but CART has been reluctant to allow some locations at all.   Avoid the long zoom lens shot whenever possible.  They lose the sense of speed.

Conclusion

Will all this solve the ratings problem?  What makes good ratings is what's on the screen not so much the way it gets there. The production reflects the product. If a race is good TV is all over it.  If it sucks the assumption is TV screwed up.  However, the production is not yet where it needs to be either.

CART TV isn't capricious. Every bit of coverage is carefully thought out. When CART coverage is compared to "other better coverage", it would be good to remember that in the past 7 years CART TV has twice changed talent, been produced by every production crew doing auto racing for every network, and tried every idea CART management had. Ratings come from what's on the screen. What's on is CART racing. When it's good, TV is too.

While the gross CART ratings are down, they follow a general downturn in all TV ratings. The advertisers don't count gross as much as the demographic rating.  Here CART is solid.  NASCAR reaches a lot of beer drinkers and t-shirt buyers. The "bubbas" as NASCAR insiders call them.  CART reaches people with a much higher disposable income. That's more important than gross.  Remember too the ratings don't count VCR viewers. If you watch your CART racing on tape it will never figure into the system. The ratings need be more realistic.

The next CART President needs to understand all the above, and always put the best interest of good racing and the fans foremost. If he puts the stock price of CART ahead of racing, he will fail himself and CART may fail with him.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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