Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Split-Screen Commercials Come To The Chase
Update 5/24/11: This is a repost of a recent column by request. Comments still open.
Five years of asking why. Five years of missing one-third of the racing action. Five years of angry network executives, PR reps and NASCAR all blaming each other. Five long years of excuses.
The issue is how to solve the sagging ratings for the Sprint Cup Series telecasts. While each of the three TV networks involved produces the races differently, they all share one common problem. A heavy advertising load in a sport that cannot pause for commercials.
The solution seems simple. Use existing TV technology to show the commercial in one video box on the screen and keep the race in another. Fans stay because they can see the racing, but absorb the video and audio from the commercial.
The reality is anything but simple. Stepping into something new that directly affects a multi-million dollar TV revenue stream is like walking across an iced-over pond. It may prove harmless, but most folks would rather someone else go first.
Last week in Dover, FOX ran a single commercial break in the split-screen format. Nothing was mentioned about it in the telecast, it just came and went. Well, the fans noticed and so did the media.
FOX admitted it was an experiment. The following Monday, the NASCAR Fan Council survey came to members with a video of that experiment and lots of questions about what NASCAR fans thought about split-screen commercials. Something big was going on.
Tuesday morning, completely out of the blue, ESPN dropped a little bombshell. The network will use its own version of the split-screen, called ESPN Nonstop, for the second half of all ten Chase for the Championship races.
A picture of that format is above. Click here for a video of just how the transition to commercial happens. Notice that the "header" with all the graphics and the ticker stays consistent while the commercial and live racing action go side-by-side.
There is no word on whether FOX will use any split-screen breaks for that network's remaining two races. A TNT spokesman said that this year five of the six races in that network's package will have full-screen commercials. The July Daytona event will once again have "Wide Open" coverage that features split-screen commercials.
ESPN Nonstop was created in 2005 by the network to solve the very same problem in IndyCar races. Since 2007, when ESPN returned to NASCAR, the network has repeatedly said it would like to use this format but was contractually obligated by NASCAR to show full-screen commercials. Apparently, things have changed.
This finally opens the door to the type of substantive change that has been stalled for years and affecting the sport deeply. Technology is hurtling along at break-neck speed while NASCAR has continued to struggle with innovation inside the telecasts.
There is no going back in sports TV. Once something is tried and works, it becomes part of the landscape immediately. Moving to split-screen commercials for even a part of the Chase races means the pressure is now on for all three Sprint Cup Series TV partners to use this full time in 2012.
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