A Closer Look at NBC’s IndyCar TV Schedule

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NBC released the 2021 TV schedule for the NTT IndyCar Series this past week. There were a few surprises, most of them positive. There was one that prompted questions from a few fans and a glaring omission.

First of all, there will be nine races on “Big NBC”, the over-the-air broadcast network. I cannot remember how long it has been since more than half the races were carried over broadcast TV, while less than half were on cable only. If you recall the previous contract between ABC and NBC; only five races were carried by ABC, while NBC was forced to carry the remaining twelve (or how many others there might be) on cable via NBCSN. NBC was forbidden to put any of their races on Big NBC.

ABC got to pick and choose which races those would be. In the recent years, it was usually the season-opener at St. Petersburg, the two races at IMS and the double-header at Belle Isle. So they really only had to visit three venues each year, minimizing what they had to spend. Their season was usually done by the first week in June – leaving the bulk of the season on NBCSN, with no possibility of any other races being put on network television.

There are those that are upset over the announcement that NBCSN will be shut down at year’s end and claim that NBC is being a bad TV partner by potentially moving several races to Peacock next season. I disagree. It is simply a sign of the times. Peacock has a lot of sports-related and non-sports related content. If you are a Comcast Xfinity subscriber like we are, you get Peacock Premium for free and it’s already loaded into your cable box.

Of course, I am assuming that NBC and IndyCar will continue their relationship beyond this season, since 2021 is the final year of the current contract. I hope that they do, because I personally like Peacock and it’s readily available. If ESPN were to get back into the picture, the only streaming option is ESPN+, with no free option and it has only sports-related content. If IndyCar was to go with Amazon Prime, Netflix or some other streaming option – there would be no possibility for network or cable access. The contract would have to be split up between partners, and I don’t think that’s good for anyone. So, my vote is to continue the relationship with NBC.

Assuming that is what happens – get used to Peacock. I’ll tell you why in just a bit. For those that have not seen the NBC schedule, I’ve included it below.

2021 TV Schedule

I am ecstatic that the season-opener at Barber will be on Big NBC. With the later start in April, the dogwoods and azaleas should be at their peak. If it doesn’t rain, it should make for spectacular TV viewing, combining beautiful scenery and what has become a very good race in recent years.

It makes sense that the two races at Texas are on NBCSN. The first race is on Saturday night and the Sunday race is late Sunday afternoon. Texas during prime time Saturday night has been tried and didn’t work out so well. I would prefer the Sunday race to be on network TV, but the late afternoon start should make for better ratings.

Once again, the double-header at Belle Isle finds its way onto network TV. I still find it odd that TV partners choose to put Belle Isle on broadcast network TV. Most know, and some take offense to the fact, that I don’t care for the street race on the small island in the middle of the Detroit River. Maybe if I ever went there in person, I’d like it better – but I think it makes for bad TV viewing, especially directly following the Indianapolis 500. But it has been promoted by Roger Penske for the past couple of decades, and I don’t see anything changing.

I would much prefer to see the next race at Road America on Big NBC. One of the best races of last season was when Felix Rosenqvist stalked down his future teammate, Pato O’Ward, to earn his first career IndyCar win. Road America is a massive and impressive venue, and is one of my favorite places to visit. Unfortunately, it will be relegated to NBCSN, after being on Big NBC for the last couple of seasons.

Wih the exception of Mid-Ohio, which will be on Big NBC; all of the races in July and August have been moved to NBCSN. You have to remember that for the second year in a row, NBC is forced to juggle things around because of the Olympics, which were postponed last summer.

That probably explains the item on the schedule that has prompted a lot of questions – the late start time for the Inaugural Music City Grand Prix. If you’ll notice, the starting time is listed as 5:30 EDT. Now, Nashville is on Central Time, so it’ll only be a 4:30 local start, but that is still kind of late. Daylight won’t be an issue, but it could be an inconvenience to those traveling to Nashville at want to leave after the race. The checkered flag will probably wave just before 7:00 local time. Those traveling back to Indianapolis that night probably won’t get home until well after 1:00 am Eastern Time. But again, a late Sunday afternoon starting time works well for ratings during the summer.

In September, the races at Portland and Laguna Seca are both on Big NBC, but the season-finale and crowning of the champion at Long Beach is on NBCSN. All three start at 3:00 EDT, meaning Portland and Laguna Seca coverage have the possibility of bumping up against Football Night in America on NBC. I was curious why Long Beach would be relegated to NBCSN. I thought maybe NASCAR was on Big NBC during the day, bumping IndyCar to NBCSN. But NASCAR is on primetime from Las Vegas after the IndyCar race on NBCSN. So I am a little perplexed why the IndyCar finale from Long Beach is not on Big NBC, but I’m sure there is a reason.

What is the glaring omission? Qualifying Weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

There was no mention of Qualifying Weekend on the schedule or in the press release. Some fans speculated that NBC would not cover it at all. I find that highly unlikely, especially since NBC is going to already be there on both sides of the Qualifying Weekend. Plus, it’s a good way to promote the race just one week away.

I e-mailed a couple of people I know with NBC to see if they could shed some light on the omission. Both said they knew nothing, but felt certain that NBC would be covering it.

Of course, my mind has started whirring on this topic. The conspiracy theorist side of me was hoping that IMS is changing the qualifying format that has been in place since 2014, with Pole Day on Sunday. Being the traditionalist that I am, I’ve always thought Pole Day belonged on Saturday. If they were going to change the format, they would announce it in a stand-alone press release, not through the NBC TV schedule announcement. Most likely, that is not going to be the case.

I was also thinking that they may put all of the Indianapolis 500 Qualifying on Peacock this year, just to give fans a taste of it. That may still be the case, or at least the mid-afternoon slow time on Saturday.

One of my NBC friends theorized that NBC just hasn’t finalized what they are going to do for qualifying. None, some or all of Qualifying could show up on Peacock. What they do depends on car count. If only thirty-three cars are entered for the race, there is not going to be any drama before the Fast Nine, because there won’t be any bumping. If there are thirty-five cars or more – that could decide how NBC chooses to cover Qualifying Weekend. If I was a betting man, I would bet money that at least a portion of Indianapolis 500 Qualifying will be on Peacock this year, along with all of practice.

In the old days, you hoped against hope that ABC would pick up an additional network race. A few times they did, but that was a rarity. More times than not, the TV scheduled revealed more disappointment than anything. This year, with nine of the seventeen races on Big NBC and six of the first eight on network television; NBC has given us a pleasant surprise. I just hope this is a relationship that will continue beyond this season.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “A Closer Look at NBC’s IndyCar TV Schedule”

  1. Brandon Wright Says:

    I was planning to come to the Nashville race until I saw the start time. No way I can get home at a decent time and make it to work the next day. That’s unfortunate, I was really looking forward to visiting Nashville again.

  2. I never liked seeing qualifying for the 500 included in the race television schedule. I’ve always thought it is a separate event from the races and perhaps NBC is finally treating it as such.

  3. Just 2 races in July it’s the middle of the summer! I am still just not really impressed with the schedule this year. Someone pointed out NASCAR will have had 11 races before IndyCar gets started. April 18 seems like forever and of course it’s all over by NFL football season.

  4. Davis Brewer Says:

    What happen to the surveys at the end of your articles ?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The finale at Long Beach is not on big NBC because it runs up against the final day of the Ryder Cup golf tournament. For all of its prestige, Long Beach has not been on network TV since 2007, when it was a Champcar race. Its spring date usually and unfortunately ran up against the start of the NBA or NHL playoffs, which require a lot of TV time from ABC and NBC, respectively, in their early rounds.

    I would think Indycar, for sure, and probably NBC too would like to see the 500 time trials on big NBC if possible. The qualifying broadcasts generally rate at or above the average rating that non-500 races draw on network TV. That said, they would probably be among the series’ top performers on cable or Peacock too.

    I would argue that Texas on primetime network TV worked fine from a ratings standpoint, both last year and in 2013. Yes, they did not produce groundbreaking TV ratings or viewership momentum that carried through the entire schedule, but both of those things are tall orders for a single race broadcast. The primetime network Texas races did produce Indycar’s best non-500 TV ratings in both 2013 and 2020. They did not outpace the other network broadcasts by enormous margins, though, but that should not be surprising. For all of the prestige that primetime network TV slots carry, they don’t generally produce much of a ratings premium across the world of sports. Even the NFL’s Sunday primetime broadcasts typically trail CBS or Fox’s late afternoon game(s) in the ratings.

  6. I just hope the relationship with NBC (whether it be network or Peacock) continues for years to come. Their coverage is infinitely better than what ESPN and ABC subjected viewers to.

  7. It is a relief that half of the races will be broadcast on the (I guess I cannot call it the big Peacock anymore) network. At first I was miffed that the finale in LB was not on the network, but at least on NBCSN we might actually have more of a post race than last year. I am just happy it looks like we will be racing the full calendar. And there will be fans in the stands.

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