Yesterday I started a little series on my thoughts on how to fix NASCAR to make it more exciting. I discussed Double-File Restarts, Qualifying and Track Safety. This is the continuation, dealing with television coverage.
NASCAR did a great thing in 1999 when they got all the Sprint Cup races on three networks, Fox, NBC and TNT. Other than the swapping back and forth of the Daytona 500, you would have one network for a stretch of races with consistent coverage and you didn’t have to flip around to different channels to find the race. The networks themselves did a great job by contracting former drivers and crewchiefs to do the play-by-play and color commentary. This wasn’t new, as I remember Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons calling races when I first started watching racing back in ’89 and ’90. Hiring people from inside the sport gives the viewers a perspective similar to that of the drivers in the cars and they likely would make their interviewees more comfortable. The coverage was swapped around a little bit in 2007, dropping NBC for ESPN/ABC, but it didn’t suffer any.
One thing that fans complain about is the commercials. There’s a lot of them. I don’t mind having commercials, but the problem is that car racing is not like other sports. Most of the time there is action, whether it is on the track or in the pits. You don’t want to throw a commercial while the cars are racing since you don’t want to miss a pass among the leaders or a live wreck, so the caution laps are the alternative time to show them. Unfortunately, most of the cautions are also used for pitstops where sometimes the race is won or lost. NASCAR has shied away from doing the side-by-side windows that ESPN used for the Indy 500 this past weekend. A few reasons why they can’t do it have been mentioned before on the web. TNT tried some wide open coverage last year at the Coke 400 and while I think it’s great, it still needs work. The biggest reason that NASCAR says it hasn’t done it yet is that it is in the hands of each of the networks. Since they don’t work together, there is likely never going to be a uniform side-by-side commercials. That’s fine with me. Each network should try their own methods of giving us the action during the commercials. Like NASCAR does with it’s rules, the networks should tweak it each week and figure out what works the best. Fans will comment on what they like and even if the networks start with widely different methods, they will move closer together as they learn what the majority wants.
The last thing I want to talk about in regards to the television coverage–start times. It seems each year that the races start later and later in the day. My family used to be able to go to church at 9am pacific and get home in time for the green flag to be thrown. The race would be over in three or four hours and the rest of the day was open for whatever. With the later start times, I’m finding that I either lose the day for other activities or I record the race and forward through the commercials later. I’m sure the sponsors don’t like DVRs, but they can be a great friend to the race fan who finds most of today’s races full of boring.
The other thing that is not great is the actual green flag times. The networks give us a coverage time, say 1pm Eastern. More often than not, the actual race green flag time is over an hour or more after that. I don’t mind a few hours of prerace coverage. Sometimes I’ll turn on SPEED channel when I wake up just to see what they’re saying and leave it in the background while I do things around the house. If you really want to get your NASCAR fix, it’s there and it’s great. However, when a network tells me the time they’ll start their coverage at a specific time, I expect the green flag to be no more than 25 minutes after that. It doesn’t take long to go over the important news of the week and the points to keep an eye on during the race. If the networks want expanded coverage, then make it a separate pre-race show. Sometimes I’m in the mood for an extra helping of NASCAR, sometimes I just want the ‘meat and potatoes.’ I’m stuck either way. I’m too much of a fan to not watch the race. It’s the casual fans who will grow bored of the details waiting for the real show to hit the track.