Monday, October 1, 2007
Answering Your Questions About Sports TV Distribution
Since the long ABC and ESPN2 presentation of the NEXTEL Cup race from Kansas, there have been many emails asking the same fundamental questions about TV. Let me try to address some of them in the easiest terms to understand.
ABC is a broadcast television network. They transmit several "satellite feeds" to their local station affiliates. These stations then "downlink" or receive the feed and mix in their local commercials and promos. This is how they insert the ads for your local car dealers and promo the eleven o'clock news.
The station then sends this "program feed" to their big transmission tower, which broadcasts the signal over the air. This is commonly called "free TV." Anyone with a TV can see this signal without having to pay for cable TV or a satellite dish.
There are as many as four feeds from ABC sending programs to their local stations. This is because of the different time zones in the US. While the ABC national news might be on at 6:30 PM in the East, it would only be 3:30PM in California. So, they use the different time zone feeds to send different shows out across the nation. This way, the programs can be seen nationwide at the same times in each time zone. It has been this way for a very long time.
A cable sports network like ESPN or ESPN2 is very different. They send one signal out to the entire nation. If two teams are playing football at noon in the East, the same game is being seen at 9AM in California. When SportsCenter is on at 7PM in the East, it is on at 4PM in California.
The ESPN Network signals are "downlinked" directly by cable systems. There are no TV stations in this mix. The cable systems insert local ads automatically, which sometimes results in the sloppy appearance of the home town ads in your area. Its just the nature of the beast.
When ABC or another broadcast network televises a live sporting event, they plan a "window" of time for that program. This window includes the potential over-run of the event due to things like overtime in the NBA or extra innings in a Major League Baseball game. Some sports pose a greater challenge than others, with NASCAR leading the pack.
A NASCAR race on a broadcast network can be trouble. We have seen the Fox Broadcast Network wait many hours until an afternoon race resumed under the lights late at night. Fox made this commitment because they have a problem. While they have many regional sports networks, they have no national cable sports network. They have nowhere to go.
Only the combination of ABC and ESPN can boast a broadcast and cable connection that can do exactly what ESPN2 did for the Kansas race on Sunday. The cable network took over because the broadcast network was possibly going to run beyond the time allotted for sports, and was going to cut-into their East Coast primetime line-up.
Luckily, the Kansas track did not have lights for night racing. NASCAR was going to be forced to shut the racing down at sunset, and that certainly was a break for the TV groups involved. Not only did it allow ESPN2 a general understanding of when the race would be called, it also allowed SPEED to do its post-race Victory Lane program.
If there had been lights at this track, the race would have been run for the full length scheduled. That would have created a new scenario that all the TV types would have rather avoided. The good news is that the ESPN group had the facilities and manpower to handle a big network switch of this nature.
So, the race switched from a broadcast network to a cable network, which guaranteed viewers an uninterrupted telecast until the end. I hope this helped with a general overview of TV distribution, and maybe answered some fundamental questions that NASCAR fans had about Sunday. Thanks again for writing in to The Daly Planet.
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