Rethink Complaints About TV Commercials

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For years, fans of the NTT IndyCar Series chastised ABC’s coverage of the series by saying ABC stood for Always Bad Coverage. I know because I was right there with them. We all cheered when NBC won the contract to broadcast the entire series through their family of networks, including the Indianapolis 500. But a lot of IndyCar fans are hard to please, and the honeymoon didn’t last very long.

First fans were screaming about NBC Sports Gold. For the past several years, fans had grown accustomed to a very minimalist approach to coverage of practices – a few cameras scattered around the track (some stationary) with the feed from the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network piped in. Now I think Mark Jaynes, Jake Query, Nick Yeoman and the others on the radio network do an outstanding job – but they are doing radio and not television.

NBC Sports Gold presented an opportunity to show every practice on the same level of quality as a race broadcast. It would have the same guys in the booth along with the same pit reporters as the race, along with the same production crew in the truck. Not only that, but you could watch qualifying live with no commercials. Each practice, qualifying session and race would be archived for subscribers to watch at any time.

In February, we learned that the price would be $49 for the entire season until the first race when it would increase to $55. I thought it was a steal. I was expecting the cost to be $100 to $150. When I found out it was only going to be $49, I was stunned. But that shock didn’t compare to my reaction to all of the griping that took place among fans. With all of the fuss, you’d think NBC was going to charge $4900.

After the initial wave of griping among fans, things died down to a low roar – that is, until the Month of May. That’s when fans realized if they weren’t NBC Sports Gold subscribers, they would not be able to watch practice all day every day in the week leading up to qualifying. Fans had gotten so used to the free low-budget production of Practice Week, that they were incensed that it was now only available to subscribers. By that time, NBC was offering a Month of May special – subscribe at any time during the Month of May and you pay only $39. That cost didn’t just get you the Month of May – it got you the rest of the IndyCar season.

But fans were digging in. They were going to prove their point and boycott NBC, as if that was really going to affect a multi-billion dollar company. All it really did was cause them to miss a week of practice, which proved to be very interesting.

By Wednesday morning of Practice Week, I was getting irritated with all the griping I saw on social media about evil NBC. I put up the following post on Facebook that created a minor firestorm: “I’m perplexed that some Indianapolis 500 fans think they are “entitled” to free live-streaming of practice every day”.

While the post generated a fair amount of ”likes” from people that agreed with me, the word “entitled” struck a nerve with some. But based on the comments I was reading, it sounded like fans thought their constitutional rights had been taken away. Some said I was cheerleading for NBC. While I disagreed with that, I thought NBC Sports Gold was a steal at the $49 that I had paid. I thought it was an outright gift at $39. FYI…with us past the halfway point of the season, you can now get the rest of the season for $25.

But this isn’t about NBC Sports Gold. All that was just to illustrate how some IndyCar fans just love to complain.

Now there’s a new complaint – commercials. While ABC stood for Always Bad Coverage, now the latest cry from IndyCar fans is that NBC stands for Nothing But Commercials. Seriously?

Every week, Robin Miller’s Mailbag at Racer.com is flooded with complaints about the number of commercials that NBC is running during a race broadcast – especially those that are run on Big NBC (over the air). This past week, Miller allowed one person to vent about the frequency of ads and then said it would be the last one he would print.

Motor racing is not like other sports. There are no scheduled breaks in the action. In baseball, the end of half an inning or a pitching change is a perfect time for a set of commercials. Basketball has many timeouts afforded to each team. If a team hasn’t taken a timeout recently, there are media timeouts built-in, anytime there is a whistle for a foul or the ball goes out of bounds. In football, there aren’t as many timeouts for the teams (only three per team per half), but unfortunately there are injury timeouts as well as replay timeouts. Consequently, no action is missed in any of these sports.

Racing is different. Obviously, the ideal time for a commercial break is during a caution period. But if there is a crash of significance, viewers first want to make sure the driver involved is OK and to see a replay of what just happened. Then, there are pit stops involved. In some races, the race outcome can hinge on a pit stop so that is not a great time to step away.

At Road America last weekend, there were no caution periods so they had to step away to run commercials during green-flag racing. Some said that NBC was running ads every two laps. I cannot confirm nor deny that because I still have not yet watched the race replay. One lap at Road America is almost two minutes, so it’s not like every two laps at Iowa, but I get the point.

Auto racing cost a lot of money to produce – a lot of money. A football or basketball game can only have so many different camera angles. I’m not in television producing, but I would venture to say that there were more cameras in use for the Indianapolis 500 or even Road America last week than for any Super Bowl, Final Four or World Series. Road America is over four miles in length. Do you know how much cabling has to be used for a track that size? I don’t, but I can’t imagine it’s a small price tag.

I saw the NBC compound at Road America. It’s huge. It’s almost like a small city set way off from the main straightaway, mostly out of sight. There’s a lot more to it than the guys in the booth, the pit reporters and a couple of camera operators. There is a whole team of technical supervisors and production engineers doing all types of behind-the-scenes activities to bring us what appears to be a seamless presentation. And not only do these people have to be paid, they need to be housed in hotels not that close to the track, fed and provided transportation to the track for several days to do set up and take down, as well as their normal duties during broadcasts.

Oh, and did I mention that they had a helicopter to deliver aerial shots to the viewers at home? I don’t think the helicopter and pilot were provided at no cost to NBC. Multiply this by fifteen venues and eighteen events (Seventeen races, two at IMS, two at Belle Isle and Indianapolis 500 Qualifying) and you can see how this is a very expensive proposition. And that doesn’t even consider the rights fees that NBC paid to IndyCar for those exclusive rights for three years.

NBC seemed ecstatic with the ratings they got from Road America, but it was still only slightly over 1.1 million viewers. Sponsors aren’t going to pay a huge premium for individual ads with a TV audience of around one million (or less), but NBC has got to make money somewhere, so they run a lot of ads.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been very happy with the quality of most of the IndyCar broadcasts this season. NBC seems happy to have IndyCar and they pulled out all the stops to promote the Indianapolis 500. They have also done a good job at promoting all the other races. Now that NASCAR is moving to NBC for the rest of the season, I see that as a good thing and not a bad thing. NBC has a vested interest in IndyCar succeeding, so they are going to use NASCAR as a platform to promote IndyCar. I did not see yesterday’s broadcast from Chicagoland, but if they didn’t promote IndyCar yesterday, remember that it’s still two weeks before their next race.

Would I like to see commercial-free race broadcasts? Of course I would, but that’s not realistic. Even if they offered it on NBC Sports Gold, it would cost a fortune to offset what they would be losing in ad revenue.

I have no idea what NBC paid IndyCar for the TV rights to broadcast their races for the next three years. Nor do I have any idea what their break-even point is with the rights fee coupled with the cost of delivering a high-quality broadcast. But NBC did not bid on the rights package to lose money. NBC is not a non-profit group doing this because it makes them feel good or to promote IndyCar for free. They bid on the rights for the sole purpose of making money, and I have no problem with that. In fact, I want NBC to make a lot of money broadcasting IndyCar races, because the TV contract will be up for renewal in about two and a half years, meaning that negotiations will probably start less than a year from now on the new contract.

I want NBC to be thrilled with what they have gotten from their IndyCar broadcasts, so that they will be eager to bid on the next contract.

If NBC chooses to pass when the contract is up for renewal, who do you think will be there to save IndyCar? ABC/ESPN? I seriously doubt it. Their current NBA and NFL Monday Night Football contracts have left ESPN hamstrung. And although business is business, I’m not sure ESPN is ready to come back so quickly to a fan base that rejoiced at their exit just two years ago.

No, most likely IndyCar would be reduced to something along the lines of Motor Trend TV, which I didn’t even know we had on our cable package until the 24 Hours of Le Mans a couple of weeks ago. If you think it’s tough to grow a racing property in this environment, try doing it when all of your races are on one of the more obscure channels on cable.

I am certainly no cheerleader for NBC, but I have no problem with any moves they have made for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. I think with a little belt-tightening, most fans can afford the $39 they started charging for NBC Sports Gold heading into the Month of May. Heck, if you wanted to be dishonest about it – split the cost with a friend and share the account and password.

But so long as we get to still see action in the side-by-side window during commercial breaks, I’m happy with the amount of commercials they are running, so long as it keeps NBC happy with their investment. And for those breaks that are not side-by-side, those are for your local NBC affiliate (or your local cable provider) to sell air time and for them to make money also. NBC doesn’t have the ability to create a side-by-side window for local commercials.

So at the risk of sounding like I’m on the payroll for IndyCar or NBC (I’m not), when you’re griping about the frequency of commercial breaks on the IndyCar broadcasts – be glad that NBC is able to sell all of that air time. If they weren’t, in a couple of years we may be watching IndyCar races on Public Access Television – in between coverage of your local city council. Then, imagine how much complaining there will be.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Rethink Complaints About TV Commercials”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I will be a cheerleader for NBC. They do an awesome job!

  2. madtad1 Says:

    When the commercials come on, just mute the sound and go to the radio commentary on the IndyCar app, then switch back once NBC goes live.

    I swear IndyCar fans are only happy when they are unhappy.

  3. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    In the UK, we get the races ad-free. Not, I suspect, out of the goodness of Sky Sports F1’s hearts, more likely they’re unable to sell the space on the strength of 19,000 viewers.

    I do often think during those long stretches of silence during races (Sky, unlike BT Sport, haven’t ponied up for home commentators to fill in) “Oh dear. I wonder what the dudes on Trackforum are typing about this now.”

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    I watch commercial-free Indycar races for free on Youtube. Mind you they’re on a tape delay ……. and in Portuguese ……… which I don’t speak …

    But any port in a storm these days if you’re not American.

  5. While I agree, and I’ve never been one to complain about commercials and scoff at those who do complain about them, there has been a noticeable increase in commercial breaks during the IndyCar races this year. I’ve not quantified it but it certainly feels like there’s about 30% more ad breaks then there used to be. I saw someone on Twitter (can’t remember who) did a break down of the Road America race and there was a long stretch where about every 3-4 laps or so there was an ad break which is a bit much.

    That being said, when you’re lucky to get a half million viewers they’ve got to make their money somewhere so it is what it is and I’m not going to complain.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    One thing I think really frustrates a lot of viewers is how many commercials are repeated during the broadcasts. Not that folks “enjoy” a variety of commercials so much as that repetition of commercials, many of which were particularly annoying the first time around, makes them additionally annoying. In years past it was the bearded Verizon snarker, this year the worst offenders seem to Microsoft’s pony-tailed podcast producer and the inexplicable continuation of Chevrolet’s “real people, not actors” campaign which has never been anything but actively hated by the American public. I lived through the Champ Car-Bridgestone “wheel goes ’round” days, so I can probably take anything thrown at me, but I know not everyone received such immunization.

    Something I often hear and particularly do not care for is comparing the NBC broadcasts with ESPN’s Formula 1 broadcasts, which are commercial free. It is nice that ESPN does that (which they only did after fan outcry during the boondoggle that was their first race weekend). They also don’t spend a dime on production, talent, or (reportedly) the rights to broadcast the series itself… allegedly because this is all a precursor to F1 going behind a paywall in the US. NBC would show many many fewer ads if they were not spending any money to broadcast IndyCar, but they are and it is money that the series very much needs.

    Pretty much all media these days is a tug-of-war between consumers hustling to avoid ads and content providers trying to make ads unavoidable. It is a war that will likely never end because neither side, on the whole, is ever going to be altruistic. Consumers content with as little cost as possible (often to an unrealistic point)and providers like profits.

    • Of course the main reason for no commercials on ESPN’s F1 coverage is because Mother’s Car Polish bought all the ad slots and then chooses not to run ads. That combined with ESPN not paying anything for the rights to air the race make this not even close to an apples vs. oranges deal when comparing to NBC and IndyCar. Like you, when I see people trying to make that comparison I just stop paying attention to them because they’re clearly not educated on the matter and it’s likely that any attempts to educate them would prove futile.

      At least the Microsoft girl is super cute…… 🙂

    • Randy Holbrook Says:

      You nailed it Skink!

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    We have seen and experienced technology as always evolving.

    It is no different with motorsports coverage……… listening to the radio broadcast of Indy 500, then tape delayed television broadcast of the INDY 500, …….waiting a month for the next issue of Road & Track, a week for the arrival of Autoweek, ……….

    Cable feed coverage back to the Control Room Center and aerial coverage using helicopters, etc. are but two examples which are outdated as technology replaces what is considered today as redundant & antiquated.

    “Doing more & becoming more efficient with less ….. equipment, staff, travel/lodging/meal expenses; while at the same time technology creates new employment opportunities and a timely, quality product to sell to your clients…………..

  8. We can come up with whatever excuses or justification we want. There are a tremendous amount of commercials. If NBC needs these many commercials to make a profit, maybe they made a bad deal.

  9. as posted previously, it is not the total number of NBC commercials,
    it is “packing them” in the last few laps. personally, i would accept
    MORE commercials in order to get the last 10 laps ad-free.

  10. Commercials have been integral to American television from the beginning. I have no complaints. I prefer NBC with ad breaks over Sky Sports passionless ad-free coverage.

  11. I feel we’re very lucky to have NBC as our broadcast partner. Is it perfect? No, but it’s so much better than what we had before. The broadcast crew is far superior to anything that ABC ever offered us. And the Gold package is worth every penny!

    As for the amount of commercials, that is just life in the 21st Century. I don’t see the future with ad-free sports without paying an exorbitant cost. I am curious on how much Sky Sports is going to charge for F1 once this relationship with Mothers ends.

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