What Should NBC Expect in Year One?

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After one day of more or less hanging around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during practice, I’ve found one of the more enjoyable aspects is that it’s more laid back than it will be this weekend. That doesn’t just go for the teams and drivers, but for those of us in the IMS Media Center as well. That allows for a lot of time to do some serious “bench racing”; which is a term similar to “hangar flying” used by some pilots I know. If you are unfamiliar with either of these terms, it means spending a lot of time just sitting around with others and swapping racing (or flying) stories and opinions.

Yesterday, I was engaged in one of those sessions with someone who is indirectly connected to the NBC broadcast and will remain anonymous, but who did give me permission to discuss the following topic: How high is the bar set for NBC’s first telecast of the Indianapolis 500?

When asking that question, I’m talking everyone – the fans, the series and the network themselves.

Now that ABC/ESPN is out of the picture, I’ve tried to refrain from kicking that dead horse. But in order to set reasonable expectations for this weekend’s Qualifying and next weekend’s Indianapolis 500 coverage, we must first remind ourselves of the baseline.

Since the 2013 Indianapolis 500 snagged a 4.2 rating on ABC, ratings have been in a downward spiral for IndyCar’s premier race. Despite the hoopla surrounding the 100th Running in 2016, ABC could only muster a 3.9 rating for an event that used to bring a guarantee of well-above a 10.0. Last year ratings on ABC hit a record-low 3.1, down from 3.4 in 2017 – which was a previous low at that point.

ABC/ESPN’s lack of promotion was legendary. Except for their coverage for the IndyCar Grand Prix, I never recall seeing a single promotion for their coverage of the Indianapolis 500. I’ve got news for you. If you’re already watching the IndyCar Grand Prix – chances are, you’ve already got the Indianapolis 500 circled on your calendar.

We learned how serious NBC was in promoting the Indianapolis 500 back in January during the NFL playoffs, when we started seeing ads for the race billed as “Coming this May”. If you saw their coverage of the Kentucky Derby earlier this month, you witnessed a cross-promotion at unprecedented levels. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. interviewed Josef Newgarden and his fiancé Ashley a couple of hours before The Derby and Junior asked Newgarden what he could expect. Newgarden teased him (and us) by saying Race Morning was by far the best time of the month. I’m sure that was planned, but it cued viewers if they want to see something really special, they needed to tune in well before the green flag.

The Derby TV audience was the perfect platform to hype the Indianapolis 500. I am not a horse racing fan, but I always make it a point to watch at least one horse race each year – the Kentucky Derby. Why? Because of the traditions. I am probably not the only one that tunes in each year for that reason. There are countless people like me that watch events they normally wouldn’t simply because of the traditions involved and the long history behind each event.

I don’t follow the Big Ten or the Pac-12, but on New Year’s Day I will always watch at least part of the Rose Bowl – simply because of the traditions involved. Even if I care nothing about either team, I’ll always watch the World Series. Tennis used to be a big deal when I was growing up in the days of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Although I’ve completely lost interest in the sport today, I’ll always tune in for the Wimbledon Finals.

NBC has made the Kentucky Derby a must-see event. They do all-day coverage, first on NBCSN before handing it over to “big NBC” for all afternoon. After the race (and the judge’s disqualification of the winning horse), they hand it back over to NBCSN. They give the 145 year-old event the promotion and coverage it deserves.

After 18.5 million people watched the 1989 Kentucky Derby, viewership on ABC had sunk to a new low of 9.1 million by ABC’s last broadcast of The Run for the Roses in 2000. When NBC took it over in 2001, ratings jumped to 13.5 million – a 48% increase in one year. Since then, Kentucky Derby ratings have been solidly in the 14-16 million viewer range – in an age when TV viewers (and cord-cutters) have a lot more options than they did in 2000.

So what kind of rating does everyone expect this year’s Indianapolis 500 to bring?

Personally, I’m tempering my expectations. It’s hard to compare a two-minute horse race to a three and a half hour IndyCar race. This year, it was a sleepy rainy day in Nashville and I actually sat on the couch and watched about four hours of the Derby coverage on NBC, even though I wasn’t paying real close attention (or dozed) through a lot of it. But when the traditional ceremonies began, I was engrossed in it.

How do the coveted casual fans watch the Indianapolis 500? I can’t answer that because (a) I’m a hard-core fan and (b) I haven’t watched the Indianapolis 500 live on TV since 2002. If you’re reading this site, chances are you can’t answer it either. Casual fans don’t come here.

I’ve heard some fans say that they expect this year’s Indianapolis 500 to double in ratings, with all of the promotion that NBC has been doing. Seriously? I’m thinking that if ABC got a 3.1 last year, that we should hope for a 10% increase and a 3.4.

When I said that to my NBC friend, he grimaced. He said he was afraid that NBC may have set their expectations, way too lofty. With all of the money they are spending on promoting this year’s race, he’s afraid that anything short of a 4.0 (a near 30% increase in one year) may be a disappointment. He stressed to me that he has heard no goal or expectation from his bosses, but with all of the effort they are putting into this year’s race broadcast – he fears they want results this year, not in 2020 or 2021.

In my opinion, that’s not realistic. Even though they increased their Derby viewership by 48% in one year, that was a different sport and a different era. I hope I’m wrong, but it seems to me that a 10% increase in their first year should put a smile on the faces of most NBC executives. After all, they would be reversing a five-year trend of sinking ratings. At that point, I would think that any increase at all is a win.

Auto racing in general is losing popularity. While last year’s Indianapolis 500 ratings were at a record-low, their 3.1 rating was much better than the 2.3 that NASCAR got for the Coca-Cola 600 on FOX that evening. In fact, the 35% comparison in ratings was the largest win for the “500” over the “600” since 2000.

That shows just how far auto racing is sinking among TV viewers. What is even more alarming is that last year among adults in the 18-49 demographic, the Indianapolis 500 only had a 0.72 rating, which was down 23% from 2017’s 0.94. That means that almost three-quarters of last year’s Indianapolis 500 viewers were over the age of fifty. Translation: Indianapolis 500 fans are dying off and they are not being replaced. That is a startling statistic, which makes you fear for the survival of the event as we know it, beyond the next fifteen years.

NBC’s mission is to differentiate IndyCar from NASCAR, another of their properties in the second half of the season. They have made the Kentucky Derby cool again and they seem intent on doing the same for the Indianapolis 500.

I am usually one to say that change is bad, but I am not one to remain down a path that isn’t working. I also follow the idea that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. IMS President Doug Boles has done a masterful job in his tenure, by making the Indianapolis 500 a near-sellout since the complete sellout for the 100th Running in 2016, and making it relevant again in the Indianapolis area. But it takes a creative broadcast partner to convey that nationally. Whatever ABC/ESPN was doing (or wasn’t doing) wasn’t working. A change was long overdue.

Many people have complained that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. doesn’t belong on next week’s NBC telecast because he is a NASCAR driver that has never been to the Indianapolis 500. An even greater number is incensed that Danica Patrick will also be there – simply because she doesn’t really have a love-affair with many fans. Others have chimed in that Mike Tirico has no business being on the broadcast. This may surprise many of you, but I think fans are wrong on all three counts.

Keep in mind that these three will not be calling the race. That will still be handled by Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy and the usual cast of characters from NBCSN. The Tirico, Earnhardt and Patrick crew will be in a separate location and have different roles.

I am a huge Mike Tirico fan. In my opinion, his voice and presence gives credibility and a big-time feel to each event. For ten years, he was the voice of Monday Night Football. This past season, he manned the studio desk of NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Most believe he will take over broadcasting SNF’s games whenever Al Michaels decides to hang up his microphone. If you saw him hosting the Kentucky Derby a couple of weeks ago, you know how flawless he was.

Tirico is a throwback to the announcers that can cover an array of sports without giving the slightest hint that a specific sport may not be their specialty. From what I hear, Tirico works harder to prepare and understand a sport than anyone else in the business. As an added bonus, he wasn’t told he had to host the Indianapolis 500 – Tirico sought it out. He wanted to do it. I never got that feeling when Brent Musburger was in a similar role with ABC. It always came across that this was an assignment he dreaded and it showed in his preparation.

As for Dale Jr, and Danica who will be alongside Tirico during the race – I have no problem with their presence. Despite his NASCAR background, Dale, Jr. is a racer who appreciates tradition. He is also very well-liked and respected in the racing community as well as with fans. He will likely bring some NASCAR eyes to the telecast. Although she was polarizing among hard-core IndyCar fans, Danica moves the needle with some casual fans. She may bring in a few extra viewers. While hard-core IndyCar fans may not like her being on the broadcast, I seriously doubt she will keep any fans away.

Some fans are still squawking over NBC Sports Gold, which has now been discounted to $40 if you buy it in May. If you are able to access this site, you are able to access NBC Sports Gold. The first six hours of Saturday’s qualifying is going to be carried exclusively on NBC Gold. This is eventually going to become the norm for most sports, so do yourself a favor and cough up the forty bucks, not only for the Month of May but the rest of the NTT IndyCar Series season. I paid $50 in February and it’s the best fifty bucks I’ve ever spent. Now you have the chance to get it for ten dollars cheaper.

We already know that ABC had a one-hour pre-race starting at 11:00am EDT and the green flag flew around 12:10pm. NBCSN will have two hours of pre-race beginning at 9:00am before handing it over to NBC at 11:00am. NBC has moved the green flag back to 12:45 in order to have more than an hour and a half pre-race on the main network. Then, after a thirty minute post race on NBC, it switches back over to NBCSN for an even more extended post race. All in all, it accounts for almost twice as much Race Day coverage as ABC provided.

I am looking forward to catching all of the replays of this weekend and next weekend’s telecasts. By the time I watch the full race broadcast, I’ll already know what the ratings were. But I’m interested to see what NBC does to enhance their telecast over what ABC has done besides almost doubling the coverage.

So I’ll throw out the two-pronged question to you. As a fan, what kind of rating are you expecting this year’s race to earn? Also ask yourself what you think NBC should be happy with. in their first year to broadcast it. I’ll be curious to see your thoughts.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “What Should NBC Expect in Year One?”

  1. I’m setting expectations low and hope the ratings exceed them. What i really hope NBC does is not have any commercial breaks during the pre-race ceremonies. That by itself will be the biggest improvement from ABC.

  2. Thinking modest gains, but number 1, I am hoping for a clean finish! I think a lot of people have a bad taste still from the Kentucky Derby, if some of those fans come over I want them to see a controversy free race!

  3. A 10-20% increase would be a solid showing in my opinion.

    Top tip: While you’re wandering the track during practice pull up NBC Gold on your phone and put your earbuds in so you can listen to the coverage while you watch. At least on the iPhone the app will still run audio in the background (you might have to swipe up and hit the play button once you exit the app) so you can still do your normal phone activities without interrupting the audio feed.

  4. Jeremy Williams Says:

    I’m optimistic that there will be a pretty sizable jump in ratings. I think having Dale Jr. and Danica will bring in more viewers. The increased advertising for the race has been great to see. As a fan, I started getting excited when I saw the first commercial in January. I usually start getting excited at the start of the racing season in March.

    Thank you for stopping to talk to me a few minutes yesterday at the track. It was a great pleasure to meet you.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    As Robin Miller has often noted, race fans are never happy unless they are unhappy. As for me, I am happy that Danica, Dale Jr., and Mr. Tirico will be involved in the NBC broadcast production of the 500. I hope that the “homage” will once again be included as part of the pre-race ceremonies. I think ratings will go up in proportion to the quality of the broadcast and I expect that to be excellent based on what I have seen thus far.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    To be fair on the 18-49 TV ratings, those not counted in that rating are not necessarily age 50 and over, viewers under age 18 are counted as well. The networks undoubtedly have a detailed breakdown of their viewing demographics.

    NBC’s hopes are ambitious, but they are off to a nice start with the Indy GP, which was up 29% in rating, 37% in total viewers, and 22% in 18-49 viewers over last year’s ABC broadcast. I will be curious to see NBC’s Sunday qualifying broadcast rating versus last year’s ABC Sunday qualifying rating, the 500 qualifying broadcasts were ABC’s most consistent ratings performers in the last few years.

    My favorite reaction to Dale Earnhardt Jr. joining the broadcast was from a fellow in the Racer comments section who posited it was ridiculous for Indycar to allow it as NASCAR would never allow an F1 driver on to the Daytona 500 broadcast… a broadcast that David Hobbs was on for nearly 2 decades with CBS.

    • Also, 18-49 is the group that’s most likely to be streaming it or watching it later on the app. Not sure if/how those figure into the ratings but I’d guess there’s a decent chunk of people watching the race that did not tune into NBC.

  7. I wish NBC the very best in its ratings. I am already very pleased with the NBC Gold service. And I just set up all of the NBC and NBCSN for the weekend. Wow! I may fill up my DVR.

  8. what kind of rating are you expecting this year’s race to earn?
    Also ask yourself what you think NBC should be happy with.
    A. 2.8 (using The Price is Right rules).
    B1. should be: 3.0.
    B2: would be: 3.6

    assuming, of course, a start and finish in the allotted broadcast slot.
    also: “…three-quarters of last year’s Indianapolis 500 viewers were over the age of fifty. Translation:”…major medical advertisers
    will dominate.

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