What is the TV Future For IndyCar?

Heading into the weekend, we got confirmation on what had been rumored since early December – NBC will shut down their sports network, NBCSN, by the end of the year. As you know, that could have a direct impact on the NTT IndyCar Series – assuming the series chooses to stay with NBC, when the current contract expires at the end of the 2021 season.

Since Barber will now be moved back from April 11 to April 18, so that it can be shown on Big NBC; nine of the scheduled seventeen races in 2021 will be shown on Big NBC, while eight will be carried by NBCSN. Assuming that IndyCar and NBC continue their partnership into 2022, where will those eight races go?

Right now, there are a lot more questions than answers.

As you can imagine, reaction was swift and varied. Since everyone needs a villain, most chose to vilify either Roger Penske or NBC – citing greed as the main reason for both. I don’t think it’s that simple.

The process that led us down this road started years ago – in 2013 to be exact. According to this article in Forbes, that was the first year that cable TV had more money in ad commitments than broadcast TV. Even in 2010, 105 million US households were cable subscribers, accounting for over 90% of TV homes. The Forbes article states that by 2013, the average TV household had access to 189 channels, but only watched an average of seventeen of them. Most of those seventeen were cable networks, such as ESPN, CNN, AMC, etc.

Cable TV was no longer where you went to watch re-runs of Seinfeld or Gilligan’s Island; nor was it limited to premium services like HBO or Showtime. Suddenly, iconic shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead were being developed for cable channels.

But after the early 2010s was when it all fell apart. You can sum up the rapid demise of cable in one word – streaming.

There was a time when streaming was nothing more than a mobile alternative for those times when you were away from home. You could watch movies or live TV on your computer or phone, but who wanted to do that? IndyCar fans enjoyed being able to stream Friday practice sessions of a race weekend, while at work – but those were about the only reasons that streaming appealed to most of us.

But the advent of streaming devices like Roku, Amazon Firestick or Apple TV, and then Smart TVs, changed the television landscape. If you had high-speed internet, you now had a lot more viewing options on that giant TV you had bought. Not only did you have access to tons of cable channels and all of the premium movie channels – you could now stream services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and You Tube – to name just a few. Now there’s Peacock, more on that later…

When the latest IndyCar TV contract was negotiated, we were told that if we wanted to continue watching practices, we would have to pay for it and subscribe to the IndyCar Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Fans that had been used to watching practice for free on You Tube or IndyCar.com were incensed. The trade-off was that instead of watching a very basic broadcast with limited camera-angels and the IMS Radio Network piped in; fans received a full-production broadcast on par with the race itself.

Personally, I loved NBC Sports Gold. For around $50, I had access to the full content of any race weekend – without commercials. I also had the option of watching Qualifying on NBC Sports Gold, even if it was being shown live on NBCSN. I was getting the same broadcast without being interrupted by a LiMu Emu commercial. That was worth the fifty bucks a year, right there.

The first year of NBC Gold, I had to watch it through my Apple TV connected to my television. The second year, my Comcast Xfinity added the NBC Gold App directly to my cable box, eliminating a few steps with different remotes.

But most fans didn’t like it and they pushed back…hard. It almost seemed like they felt they were entitled to a free broadcast. I got into a couple of battles on social media, when I used the word “entitlement” – but that was the way fans were coming across. I simply saw it as a sign of the times and the way things were heading. Friday’s announcement validated my thoughts on it.

As I said earlier, the cable industry peaked in the early 2010s. According to the Forbes article and this National Interest article written last September, cable subscribers have dropped from a high of 105 million to what was expected to be as low as 77 million households by the end of 2020. While that is a significant drop since 2013, three-fourths of that drop occurred after 2017. Even scarier for the cable execs is that in 2020 alone, they lost 6.6 million subscribers. That’s over half a million households each month – and the free-fall continues to accelerate. Roger Penske didn’t cause this.

Cord-cutting is a phenomenon that the media conglomerates were slow to act on. Our cable box now has several of the streaming apps that we use, hoping to stem the tide of the cost-cutters and give cable subscribers a reason to stay. I think one reason we get them is because Comcast is also our internet provider.

We are old, and we have no plans to leave Comcast. But they, and their competitors, as well as the cable channels themselves have created this mess. ESPN, TBS, TNT and the like realized what a cash cow they were sitting on, and could not resist the urge to put the squeeze on cable companies, who in turn passed the costs on to their subscribers.

For years, cable subscribers made it clear they wanted an a la carte approach to their cable lineup. As a sports fan, I really had no desire to pay for the Lifetime Channel or the Hallmark Channel. And channels that were once good years ago, were now showing garbage. TLC once stood for The Learning Channel. Somewhere along the way, they lost interest in learning and devolved to showing Honey Boo-Boo. Yet, I had to pay for that channel even though I never watched it. That was part of the arrogance the cable industry showed for its customers – that and setting the bar to a new low in customer service.

The cable industry is now hemorrhaging subscribers and it shows no signs of stopping. Younger viewers that grew up watching sports and news on their phones, consider cable TV as something comically outdated – like 8-tracks. The Progressive Insurance commercials where the guy teaches people not to become their parents, will probably devote a scene to cable TV sooner than later.

Personally, I like my Comcast Xfinity cable service. It rarely goes out, the picture is incredible and there is nothing we are missing out on. They frequently and automatically update their service with the latest technology and offerings. Their customer service is still terrible, but fortunately – we rarely need it. It is overpriced, but that’s due to all of the channels I don’t want.

What I like most about it over streaming is that I’m lazy. I would much prefer to randomly go through the channels or the onscreen guide to see what is on. If I didn’t have cable, I would have to open each individual app, then close the app and go to the next one – just to see what is on. I see that as a pain and an inconvenience. And to have access to the same content that we do watch regularly, I think we would spend as much, if not more money on each individual streaming app. We would also be subject to our internet, which tends to go out a lot more than our cable. So even though we do use streaming on a regular basis, it’s only in addition to our viewing habits, not in place of them. So being as old as we are, I don’t ever see us cutting the cord, unless we are forced to.

There have been a lot of opinions tossed around this past weekend on what IndyCar should do. Some say to go back to ESPN. Seriously? That’s like re-marrying your ex-wife. What will be different the next time around? Not much, is the answer.

Others say to approach CBS or FOX, while others say to try a new cable outlet like TBS, TNT or even WGN. Some say IndyCar should strike a deal with You Tube, Hulu or Amazon.

I think it’s only a matter of time before CBS shuts down their inferior sports network, and FOX’s FS1 seems content with their NASCAR content for the first half of the season. Going with another cable option like TBS, seems like it would end much like it did with NBCSN.

Surprisingly, Roger Penske nor Mark Miles have not called me and asked me what IndyCar should do. I’ll save them a phone call and put it out right here.

My opinion is that IndyCar should do whatever it can, within reason of course, to stay with NBC. I think they are ahead of the curve on this and they will set the course that the other media conglomerates will follow. They have already done the math on this and they see fighting the cord-cutters is a losing battle. It may help that NBC is owned by Comcast, so they probably have a clearer picture of what the future holds.

If NBC can strike a deal with the NTT IndyCar Series, I can still see some of the biggest races on Big NBC, but they still have other outlets – most likely the USA Network, which is actually in more households than NBCSN. That is where NBC will start shifting some of their NASCAR coverage to this fall. I’m just not sure where in the guide USA Network is, but we do have a voice remote so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. And if a race runs long and into the next window – they can always shift it to CNBC, which shouldn’t be too busy on a Sunday.

And then there is Peacock. What is Peacock, you ask? That is NBC’s new streaming service that launched in July 2020. There is a free version that has a lot of content to old NBC properties, along with movies and such. For $4.99 a month, you can get Peacock Premium; which has significantly more content and live sports. The first time we actually watched Peacock was over the holidays, when Susan introduced me to Yellowstone – which I found addicting to watch. I learned this weekend that as a Comcast Xfinity subscriber, we may actually get Peacock Premium for free – but don’t hold me to that. I don’t know if Yellowstone is available on the free version or the Premium version, but watch it if you can. I highly recommend it, but I digress…

Why am I discussing Peacock? Because there is some talk that some or many IndyCar races may move to Peacock if NBC and IndyCar maintain their relationship beyond this year. Already, we have heard that NBC Sports Gold will be going away for this season, and fans will have to subscribe to Peacock Premium in order to get what we got with the IndyCar Pass on the Gold app. I know there will be plenty of balking at that, but it is a bargain compared to NBC Sports Gold. Instead of paying $50 (I actually paid $60.36 last year with Tennessee tax thrown in), you can pay $4.99 per month for only the seven IndyCar months, and then cancel – at least theoretically. That would be roughly $35 per year. Even if only one race per year is shown on Peacock, that is a race you won’t see.

I read a lot of squawking over the weekend, about the possibility of races being shown on Peacock. There is a myth that it will alienate older fans, who don’t understand streaming. I am 62 years old and never owned (and rarely used) a computer until I was 40. I don’t consider myself “tech-savvy” by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t see what there is to not understand about streaming. One person on Facebook, who is about half my age, said he has no luck with streaming services and will not use Peacock. I responded to him saying that if “no luck” means he can’t figure it out, then he had better take a crash course, because this is the way everything is headed.

Most readers of this site know I live by the credo of Change is Bad. I resisted the internet in the 90s, because I initially saw it as a fad. But by 1998 I could tell I was about to be left behind, so I reluctantly jumped on board the fast moving train. It’s a good thing I did because it has changed not only my world, but our world. There have been a lot of good things to come from the internet, but it has produced a lot of horrible results as well.

Streaming is one of those horrible things. While I enjoy my streaming apps, I don’t like being pushed to subscribing to more apps, simply because millennials don’t like and can’t afford cable. But the truth of the matter is that this is where the future of TV is headed. The NFL put their toe in the streaming waters this past fall, when they broadcast a couple of games on Amazon Prime. There will be more of those to follow.

By staying with NBC, IndyCar will get their fans acclimated to the streaming world of Peacock earlier than other sports on other channels. There is already Disney+ and ESPN+. NBC Sports Gold was a stop-gap until they got Peacock up and running. This will be happening to many sports and broadcast partners in the coming months and years, it’s just happening to IndyCar and NBC now.

Don’t blame Roger Penske, Mark Miles or NBC for this mess. It is just the rapidly changing world of how to get our viewing content.

So while I like my comfortable world of cable TV, I know it isn’t here for the long haul. I’d like to think I have at least twenty years still left in me. If I do, there is no telling how I will be watching sports when I’m in my eighties. Change is Bad!

George Phillips

14 Responses to “What is the TV Future For IndyCar?”

  1. Well from my point of view, I’ll be interested what happens with the International rights. We watch via SKY in the UK on their F1 channel. We get qualifying and the race live. They’ve certainly got space and their is rarely a clash because of time zones. I wonder whether their contract to show goes past 2021?

    Here in the UK, Amazon has jumped right in with live sports [Tennis, soccer, rugby etc] and I could see it appearing there as a carried stream. Unlike Netflix, they charge for some of their services over and above the monthly subscription. To be fair, their rugby coverage is pretty dreadful but it’s early days.

    I hope IndyCar don’t forget us!!

    • Totally agree Trevor. I’m a UK viewer and subscribe to SKY for the sole purpose of watching INDYCAR so am hoping it doesn’t go away.

    • Well its the sign of times, Indycar should go the route of streaming with any option they have to be shown on TV when possible. Isnt F1 moving Amazon Live streaming? Indycar should too

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I’m surprised that I have not read more about NBCSN being shut down as being a big domino falling in the television landscape. While several prominent cable networks have been effectively shut down via rebrand and reprogramming over the years, few have been completely shut down, losing their space on the channel list. NBCSN is one of the most prominent networks to EVER be shut down in this way, though I expect we will see more being shut down over the next few years. That the network is being shuttered despite holding the rights to multiple mid-tier sports properties (NHL, EPL, NASCAR, The Olympics) is especially telling, at least of the direction and speed at which NBC/Comcast intends to move.

    I’m not sure what exactly the demand for Indycar will be for their next TV contract, but they may be in the unenviable position of having to weigh a deal with the greatest (if limited) monetary benefit to the series versus one that provides the widest exposure for sponsors. Races exclusively on on-demand streaming services, even if they are on one of the top 3 (Netflix, Amazon, Disney), will probably be a very unappetizing proposition for teams and their sponsors.

  3. Get Netflix or Amazon to create a Drive to Survive style show around IndyCar

  4. So much for NBCSC being the Motorsport network as NBC acolytes have been telling us the last couple years.
    By sheer coincidence I got rid of my cable two weeks ago and live too far to even get NBC., etc Right now I don’t feel the need to add another streaming service to the several I have or something like YouTube TV (a few decades of recording tv shows and movies to watch now I am retired). I like IndyCar and other race series but I can live without them. Good luck to The Captain

  5. This reminds me of when Speedvision then turned to SpeedChannel ended. There was not morphing into something else it just came to an end. The work NBCSP has done with IndyCar has earned them plenty of credibility to carry IndyCar forward to the next platform which appears to be Peacock? Wth? IndyCar after the Paul Page, Bobby Unser days has taken some horrendous turns. IRL days. All I have to say is ABC, or ESPN, or Spike, NBC has given IndyCar the best coverage overall that I have seen in my 40+ years of watching IndyCar racing. This is just the nature of things. I hope the excellent coverage continues and does not digress in this transition for IndyCar’s sake.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Speed Channel/SPEED did not really end, its spot in the channel lineup was used to launch Fox Sports 1/FS1. There was even a little ceremonial signoff with Mike Joy at midnight when the switchover happened, which I actually stayed up and watched just because I was curious if they would do anything like that. FS1 also carried on several broadcast contracts that were signed under SPEED, which is part of why they continue to hold exclusive broadcast rights to NASCAR’s Truck series and All Star race.

  6. IndyCar should get a deal with YouTube to stream the races for free and get races like Long Beach, the 500, and the season finale on ABC

  7. jollinger Says:

    I voted for OTHER. I don’t have cable and quit the satellite in disgust years ago, so ideally I’d like everything on broadcast–even with the damn LiMu commercials (the mute button on the remote still works). Broadcast lets me watch from any TV in the house, even the dumb TVs, and I can catch it with the DVR and time-shift if I need to. I’m also not going to miss anything if my internet goes out, which is a common occurrance.

    My fallback position would be a streaming service for a fee, but one that isn’t part of another service I may or may not want. I don’t want to pay for a cable service and then pay additional fees on top of that. I don’t want to sign up for Netflix or Prime or Hulu or whatever, just for the opportunity to pay another fee for Indycar. Just give me direct access to the stream and I’ll pay one fee.

  8. Mark Wick Says:

    I haven’t had a TV for more than 10 years. I haven’t had cable since ESPN had only one channel and only had programming three nights a week.
    I follow IndyCar on line and it is the only sport I follow now. If I can follow IndyCar via the internet, I will. If not, as I enter my 70s, I have many other interests.

  9. I agree that there may come a time when all we have is streaming. I will be moving to Peacock Premium (probably with ads) before the start of the season. NBC has done well for us and is much better than ABC ever was. It is interesting how many of these services do not work on what you currently have for equipment. I bought an Amazon Fire Stick to watch Gold. Peacock Premium doesn’t run on Amazon right now. And then I wanted another service and had to add Amazon Prime to receive access on the Fire Stick. It is the sign of the times.

    BTW I still mourn my Sundays without Speed TV and as far as I am concerned it died that night when FS1 was born.

  10. Davis Brewer Says:

    Penske owns IMS productions and the timing might be right to keep this all in house and not be at the mercy of no networks other than to by air time for ads promoting your product .Build a state of the art studio at the IMS .I would not go long on the NBC peacock platform might need it for a couple of years ?

  11. Mark Hamilton Says:

    I currently subscribe to Cox cable. Peacock Premium is free with my current subscription. I signed up yesterday.

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