Wednesday, July 4, 2007

TNT's Not So "Wide Open" With Facts About Pepsi 400

This weekend, the Pepsi 400 will be run at Daytona International Speedway. It is one of the highest-profile NASCAR races because it falls during the week of July 4th. The race is going to be telecast on cable TV, and not on "over-the-air" broadcast network TV. The reason is because the Pepsi 400 is the centerpiece of the Turner Network Television TV package.

For some time now, TNT has been promoting this one race as "special." Unfortunately, they have not made the previous four NEXTEL Cup races telecast by them "special" at all. In fact, the amount of commercials and promos run in these races has been staggering. No matter how hard the announcers try, or how close the drivers race, there is just no defeating the fact that commercials do not allow racing to be shown.

Our friends over at do a breakdown of the commercials and promos inserted in the NEXTEL Cup events. In Loudon, TNT had 130 minutes of actual race time and showed 62 minutes of commercials in that specific time period. So, TNT filled almost one-third of the time during the race with commercials.

This weekend, TNT has a "special" solution for this problem. They are calling it "Wide Open Coverage" of the Pepsi 400. Their marketing information says they are "eliminating" national commercials and only three local breaks from the cable or satellite systems will "interrupt" their live coverage. Now, does this sound logical coming from a company who just used 33% of the previous race to show commercials?

What TNT has done is used a technical TV trick to shrink the picture of the Pepsi 400 on your screen. No matter what you do, it will not be "full screen" for the race. If you have seen a High Definition picture on your standard TV set, you understand what I am talking about. The "aspect ratio" of the video signal will be different, so your TV will have a smaller picture. This is the start of TNT's "special" coverage for you. Wait, it gets better.

Turner's own in-house Creative Services Unit has produced some "special" commercials that will be run during the race. They will appear on your screen in a "box" that allows the race action to still be seen. While this is great because it allows continued racing, what it does for TNT is totally free them from the time constraints put on by thirty-second commercials placed in two-minute commercial breaks.

That's right, the network that ran 62 minutes of commercials in 190 minutes of racing now has absolutely no limits on filling your "special" TNT screen with as many sponsor "messages" as possible. Well, now we certainly know why they called it "Wide Open Coverage." It is open season on NASCAR viewers, and there is no "limit" for the hunters.

One of the most fascinating elements of this issue is the fact that the ten national advertisers who are participating in TNT's "Wide Open Coverage" of the Pepsi 400 had to "pay to play." Each and every one had to buy all the other six TNT races, with their normal TV commercials, in order to be featured in the high-profile Daytona race. In other words, to get the big stuff you have to run adds in the junk.

And junk is just how TNT treated the NASCAR race at Loudon, with absolutely no regard for the race itself or the viewers. Fans basically had the race cut by a third by commercials once the green flag flew. The Daly Planet was swarmed with people actually helping each other with techniques to avoid TNT's coverage. This ranged from the DirecTV Hot Pass to the PPV in-car coverage to just putting the race on a DVR and watching it later. What a sad commentary on this season's TV coverage.

The big rumor floating around the town is that the "extra" adds placed in the early TNT races were included as "bonuses" for the advertisers who agreed to participate in the Daytona "special" coverage. In case the "Wide Open Coverage" becomes a "Big Fat Disaster," the network will have already run enough "make good" spots to be covered. Anyone who watched the Sonoma race on TNT knows just how quickly disaster can come to this network.

So, Saturday night good old Jeff Gordon will introduce the TNT "Wide Open Coverage" of the Pepsi 400 as a technical innovation that will hopefully change the NASCAR TV landscape. Bill Weber will handle integrating all the sponsor stuff into the race telecast throughout the entire event. Viewers may originally feel good about the fact they can continue to see the race while commercial elements run, but there is little doubt based on the earlier races that TNT will eventually wear even the most hardy fans down.

So, in TNT language, please enjoy your "innovative on-screen video box for branded sponsor content, vignettes, and animation." Also, enjoy your reduced picture size which Turner Sports President David Levy sums up this way: "We are producing everything in wide screen (format) and then shoving it into a standard (TV) format. We'll have space left at the bottom of the screen without losing anything, the fans just won't see Row 35." Is he kidding? TNT viewers won't lose anything?

Apparently, Mr. Levy did not see Sonoma where only the top two cars were shown finishing, and TNT left the air without even a top twenty final leaderboard. He must have missed Michigan, where the race ended twenty minutes early, so TNT decided to start a vampire movie instead of interviewing the drivers. Perhaps, he was on vacation for Loudon, where TNT ran over an hour of commercials in just over three hours of racing. This season, NASCAR fans watching TNT have already lost a lot.

It will be great if TNT's "Wide Open Coverage" of the Pepsi 400 proves to be a success. Unfortunately, their track record on these first four races in the TNT package does not just magically disappear because "they say" everything will be fine. TNT needs to step up not only at Daytona, but in their one remaining race in Chicago to salvage any kind of respect for their NASCAR efforts in 2007.

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