What Can NBC Sports Do Differently in 2015
With Fox Sports agreeing to take the last remaining races and extend to 2024, the NASCAR TV rights contracts have been completed for the next decade. The first half of the season will be on Fox (both the network and new Fox Sports 1 cable channel), the second half on NBC/NBC Sports. It's safe to assume that with Fox we will receive more of the same over the next ten years. With NBC, however, there is an opportunity to truly change the way networks cover the on-track product. A few changes might make a significant difference and encourage the fans at home to both tune in and stay there.
It's a given that the actual racing product will be basically unchanged. The Gen 6 car will be in year three and all of the kinks should be worked out in full by then. Yet it will still be early enough in that car's tenure that it's unlikely to be on the chopping board. That means all of the current complaints, particularly around “clean air” and single-file racing will probably all still be there. Solving the aero concerns would make for greater all-around racing (and higher ratings) but that's something the TV networks both can't control and shouldn't count on.
Control the controllables. It's an old corporate mantra and is something that NASCAR's current TV partners seem to have forgotten. What falls into that category for NBC?
Going To A Race? You'll Need A Race Radio
More in-team communication. One of the great aspects of watching the RaceBuddy coverage in concert with the TV coverage is that you get to hear real-time communication between driver and team. Much of it is of the, “clear right, clear low” variety but there are also regular nuggets of gold. You can get a great feel for where the race is going just by hearing teams talk about where they're tight, where they're loose, what they see other people doing. This is particularly true leading up to pit stops, where the teams are trying to squeeze that last bit of information out of their drivers before deciding on upcoming changes.
Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!
BP Is Badly Missed
New faces in the booth. NBC has almost two full years before they broadcast their first race. A good chunk of that time should be spent identifying and training someone they believe can add to the television broadcast instead of detracting from it. Lead announcer likely will not be a problem; there are a number of good choices out there depending on which way NBC wants to go. Could they try to bring in Mike Joy, providing a single voice for NASCAR play-by-play from Daytona or Homestead? Will they try to bring in someone relatively new like ESPN's Allen Bestwick, who only began broadcasting from the lead chair in 2011? Either way, opportunities abound.
It's the color commentary position that remains a problem. Since Benny Parsons tragically passed in early 2007, NASCAR has lacked a secondary voice in the booth that could match him. Benny brought just the right balance of humor and serious thought. Who else could make, “Cue the Duck!” a catchphrase? Fox has made little effort to shake up its booth with virtually the same faces since 2001. Darrell Waltrip has become a caricature of himself and has a vested financial interest in the things he pushes so hard. His fawning comments on Danica have infuriated a fanbase and sometimes border on 'Old Man in a Windowless Van' territory. Larry Mcreynolds isn't bad but he's not the vibrant personality needed; he's better suited to being a “tech garage” type explaining the cars on cutaway segments.
Is Wendy Venturini The One?
ESPN's commentators, if possible, have been even worse. By regularly bringing in people still actively involved in the sport, ESPN has created the appearance of an enormous conflict of interest. Brad Daugherty is co-owner of the #47 Sprint Cup team. Rusty Wallace owned a Nationwide year and still owns the Iowa Speedway that the series visits twice a year. Ray Evernham owned a piece of a Sprint Cup team until late 2010 and after that was a Hendrick Motorsports employee for some time. In short, nearly every lead voice had a vested interest in some aspect of the on-screen product. What possible incentive would these men have to speak critically about NASCAR when they could easily be penalized on the back end for those comments?
The last paragraph also identifies a huge hole in the coverage. “These men.” NASCAR has never had a woman work as a part of the broadcast booth. They are pigeon-holed as roving pit reporters, throwing on a network-branded firesuit to smile for the camera. Yet the work of Wendy Venturini on Speed, Nicole Briscoe on ESPN, and Krista Voda on Fox (among many others) tells me that the time has come to break down that wall. NBC has nearly two years to identify who that person might be and prepare her for the role. Would she receive a great deal of criticism from some corners? Sure. If she isn't tough enough to handle that criticism then she wasn't the right choice in the first place. I think any one of the three women above could hack it (as could others) and the benefits to NBC would be enormous.
Nicole Briscoe Also Merits A Look
Split Screens for Every Race
Split screen coverage. ABC/ESPN pioneered the use of split-screens as a part of its IndyCar coverage. NBC continued this feature when they took over the IRL television rights, enabling fans at home to keep up with the action even during a regular commercial break. All three NASCAR partners experimented with the idea at times but none has made it a full time feature of their race broadcast. ESPN has come the closest, using their "NASCAR NonStop" coverage during the second half of Chase race broadcasts. The benefits seem obvious; fans are far less likely to change channels watching live and less likely to fast forward if watching on DVR. Perhaps Fox and ESPN couldn't sell their advertising partners on the concept. If so, the hope here is that NBC's sales team has a better pitch because this is something that could be done immediately.
EDIT:The above paragraph, as originally written, incorrectly identified NBC Sports as the pioneering network behind split screen coverage. A sentence has also been added identifying ESPN's NASCAR NonStop coverage. While not active for every race (or for the entire race broadcast), it provides a great benefit to fans watching during the Chase.
We're not all newbies. One mistake made by Fox, ESPN and NBC (on the last TV contract) was to assume that the vast majority of viewers were watching a race for the first time. This might make sense early on, particularly when visiting a new track or after a major technical change. But several years in viewers are still treated as if season race #30 was the first time they'd ever encountered the draft. At some point (particularly as ratings are going down instead of up), it's ok to go a little bit deeper into the technical well. Give viewers a deeper peek into the crew chief's toolbox. Treat us like we've been there before; after all, looking at current demographic ratings trends, we HAVE been.
No pre-race concerts. Fox has been a greater offender in this department but TNT and ESPN haven't been guilt-free. Fans aren't tuning into a race broadcast before the race to see a washed-up musical has-been. That's probably the fastest way for the remote to find my hand before a race starts- and it's something that often leads to missing the early portion of the race as a result. Pre-race coverage should be exactly that- an examination of the upcoming race that provides insight on what we're about to watch. You don't see musical warm-up acts on Sunday NFL Countdown or NBA Warm Up. We don't need them on NASCAR's equivalent.
Certainly there are other small things NBC can do to set itself apart as a NASCAR race broadcaster (comment below on what you'd like!). NBC will essentially be starting with a fresh slate; the last time they broadcast a race was 2006, nearly a decade before their 2015 re-debut. The changes needed to make a difference aren't large and they have time to prepare. Hopefully they seize the opportunity to raise the bar as a television partner; both NASCAR and its fans have been waiting for someone to do that for years.