Screen capture of the FOX version of side-by-side coverage which surfaced in the closing laps Sunday from Dover
(Courtesy Randy Peterson)
In the span of a couple of days thousands of NASCAR fans had their dreams come true.
Those who have longed for Sprint Cup races to include side-by-side coverage during commercial breaks so as not to miss any of the race action got their wish this week.
Out of nowhere FOX went to its last break during Sunday’s Dover race in a side-by-side format that immediately blew up the Twitter world with race fans who could not believe their eyes. On one side of the screen the racing action continued while a stream of commercials ran concurrently on the other.
Conversation about the concept dominated the NASCAR world since Sunday night until another bomb was dropped early Tuesday with ESPN’s announcement of “NASCAR NonStop,” its version of side-by-side that will debut during the Chase in September.
In the second half of all ten Chase races that will air on ABC and ESPN, commercial breaks will feature the marriage of action and advertising sharing the screen allowing fans to keep up with what’s unfolding on track.
It’s a concept ESPN is actually quite familiar with and one the network created with its IZOD Indy Car Series coverage. It’s still used today in the handful of Indy Car telecasts the network has and is also in play on the series schedule aired on Versus.
Since it debuted, NASCAR fans have clamored for it but it wasn’t an easy process for the format to migrate over to big time stock car racing.
With all due respect to the open wheel world, Indy Car telecasts don’t generate anywhere near the ratings and subsequently advertising dollars in NASCAR. When numbers like .2 or .3 come back on the ratings side as they do in Indy Car racing, it’s a lot easier to persuade sponsors and networks to try things as radical as side-by-side coverage.
NASCAR’s network partners as well as the corporations who underwrite the telecasts with their commercial dollars have not been as open to the idea - until now. The argument has been that advertisers want the full attention of the viewing audience during commercial breaks to ensure the biggest return on the hefty investment.
Obviously splitting a screen creates the possibility for distraction away from an advertiser’s message with the viewer still locked into the race action even while the commercial runs. With FOX, ABC/ESPN and TNT charging hefty advertising rates for their NASCAR telecasts, it’s a hard sell to ask a sponsor for potentially only half of an audience’s attention.
But it appears that iceberg has melted some and perhaps the sagging television ratings NASCAR has endured in the last few years is playing a part.
While commercials won’t be eliminated by any means, allowing the fans to see all of the action while not being jerked away by a full break may actually increase the audience over time.
The reaction to FOX’s surprise use of the side-by-side concept on Sunday has been overwhelmingly positive from fans. ESPN’s subsequent announcement of its Chase plan has been equally trumpeted as good news from NASCAR Nation.
The maneuvering comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which continues to hurtle closer to the next round of television contract negotiations. The current pact expires in 2014 and for NASCAR to get anywhere near the nearly $5 billion it received from FOX, TNT and ABC/ESPN the last time around a couple of things are going to have to happen.
One is a ratings increase, which is on the right path this year with a trend slightly higher than a year ago but is still far below the numbers the sport was generating only a handful of seasons ago. Stories like Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith pulling off upset wins, Dale Earnhardt Jr. contending again, veterans like Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth returning to victory lane and “Boys Have at It” sparking feuds like the one between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have helped the TV numbers some through the first eleven races of the season.
But the new deal will also have to include some room for creativity and expansion, something the current contract does not. Ideas like side-by-side coverage are just a first step. Additional revenue streams from online and digital content availability will also be a giant negotiation point this time around.
NASCAR can’t afford to back itself into a corner like the sanctioning body did with Turner the last time through, basically signing every bit of digital content rights away to the company and locking out all other broadcasting partners – both radio and television – from creating anything inside the streaming or online arena.
The ever-changing technology landscape continues to evolve and fans demand 24/7 access to all sports content, something NASCAR cannot provide right now for a variety of existing contracts and agreements.
Perhaps the side-by-side coverage is the first step in bringing the NASCAR closer to being on par with other professional sports, all who have the luxury of built-in timeouts and breaks for commercials to run.
NASCAR does not but should appears to be on the right track for finding a solution fans will embrace.
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