Wednesday, November 9, 2011

TV Ratings vs. TV Production

This past Sunday, ESPN's coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from the Texas Motor Speedway attracted 4.7 million cable TV viewers. The TV rating number attached to that is a 3.4 Household coverage rating. To most NASCAR fans, that doesn't mean a lot.

As Sprint Cup Series TV ratings trended up late this season, some folks tried to tie the network covering the events to the increase. The suggestion was that a higher rating was the result of good production of the race itself. While that might be good in theory, it has little basis in reality.

NASCAR TV ratings are simply a scientific method of trying to measure the number of viewers or households that tune-in to a live sports event. The Nielsen Media Research company is the primary source of audience measurement information in the US.

The term "Nielsen rating" is the number that results from a combination of set meters, devices attached to TV's that record viewing habits, and actual viewer diaries completed by selected households. That is a viewer diary pictured above.

The system is far from perfect. This from Wikipedia: "In 2009 of the 114.5 total million U.S. television households, only 25,000 (0.021% of the total) participated in the Nielsen daily metered system."

Click here to view the Nielsen website and get updates on the company trying very hard to use updated technology to chase more accurate ratings. Click here for an article from TV industry website Splitsider about just how off-base the entire ratings system may be in today's world.

Sprint Cup Series TV telecasts are exclusive. That means that NASCAR has delegated only one TV network for each race. In other words, the only TV choice for NASCAR fans is to tune-in to the designated network or not.

Three TV networks cover the points races in the Sprint Cup Series. FOX, TNT and ESPN combine to produce hundreds of hours of racing from venues across the country. Each network has its own approach to NASCAR and distinct style of producing sports telecasts.

FOX is over the top with hype. Darrell Waltrip is everyone's big brother, dad or grandpa depending on the age of the viewer. "Ole DW" will hype anything for money. Digger, the COT and even pothole repairs at Daytona have all received that treatment. Who can forget the many years of DW pushing the fact that Digger t-shirts were available at the website. All of that while the race was under green, of course.

FOX leans heavily on a corps of pit reporters and analysts who are TV heavyweights. Steve Byrnes and Krista Voda could easily interchange with Mike Joy and Chris Myers. Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond work every weekend on the NASCAR trail and earned their stripes. Waltrip's "act" works because the other FOX personalities can deliver the goods.

TNT banks on being the irreverent partner. Kyle Petty is encouraged to voice his not politically correct opinions while Wally Dallenbach is basically a NASCAR outsider. Adam Alexander is still new in his position while the veteran pit road reporters enjoy snarky inside jokes as part of the telecasts.

The Turner agenda is not about NASCAR. TNT's six races are simply a vehicle to promote the Turner cable TV networks programming line-up. Veteran viewers still cringe at Bill Engvall Show mentions and the fact that Kyra Sedgwick was The Closer is permanently burned into many brains. The racing might be fun to watch, but for TNT the goal is network programming promotion.

ESPN is a mess. Five years into the current Sprint Cup Series TV contract the lead announcer has been changed three times. The original producer was arrested, fired and never returned. The telecasts are as dry as toast and through it all Tim Brewer is still explaining that roof flaps don't let the cars flip over.

While ESPN is good at hype and promotion, this network's agenda is quite clear. It is an approach the executives call "storytelling." Topics are addressed in the pre-race show and then reviewed throughout the telecast. Rather than strictly focus on the race, ESPN continually goes back to a script it prepared and faithfully sticks to it.

These three NASCAR TV partners don't speak to each other, don't particularly like each other and are owned by major corporations in direct competition with each other. To say that a change in ratings is tied to the TV production by these three parties just does not fly.

The only storylines fans want are the ones that concern the racing on the track and the personalities of the drivers. Rivalries, feuds, danger and fast cars bring Americans to the TV set. No one cares if Joy, Alexander or Allen Bestwick is calling the lap as long as cars are at speed, the racing is good and a feud is boiling over.

The fundamental stance we have maintained since 2007 was that the role of TV in NASCAR is to simply show the viewers at home exactly the same thing the fans in the stands are watching. Click here to read the "NASCAR TV Bill of Rights" complete with some sensational reader comments.

Fans in the stands are watching the best racing on the track among the lead lap cars regardless of position. The current Sprint Cup Series TV partners have never gotten that message. FOX loves Junior, TNT loves themselves and ESPN loves Carl Edwards. It's a pretty simple equation.

The Sprint Cup Series races have been on TV since the early 1980's. The original idea was to simply point cameras at the racing and let announcers describe the action on the track. Fans tuned-in and the sport grew. Rivalries, danger and speed made the telecasts.

Today the Sprint Cup Series car, fuel mileage races and aero tracks with little passing have altered the dynamic that originally attracted TV viewers. It's a different product on the track. Tire choices on pit road have replaced the chrome horn. The race off pit road is often the key to the win.

Solid TV production is important, but ultimately NASCAR TV ratings are driven by the product on the track. That is one reason we have tried to maintain a healthy distance from the ratings numbers as they came and went over the last five years.

Holding the current NASCAR TV partners to a high standard for TV production, good information and balanced reporting is still our goal. Throw in a good product on the track and a mix like that is ripe for the return of the fan base that the sport saw a decade ago when TV ratings were through the roof.

We invite your comments on this topic. To add your comment, just click on the comments button below. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.


Sam said...

JD in my opinion the reason ratings are lower is that Nascrap is trying to, well actually is, forcing the old dead IROC vision upon us. Spec cars, spec engines (well almost) is what is killing the sport. That and there is no longer a true feeder series to Cup like there used to be.

Also we are almost to the point of only having 3-4 owners that truly matter. Very much like F1. In my mind the N'wide series is a joke and the truck series is on life support almost. If the roots are sick the top layer isn't far behind.

All this being said, the TV 'partners' aren't helping the cause in any way, shape or form. But they are very much like the mainstream media today. Whatever they think sells, goes. It doesn't matter if it's a good product or if the main guy is actually worthy of all the attention.

Anonymous said...

25 years ago I was selected to keep a diary of what I watched by the Nielsen co.I only had access to ABC,NBC,CBS,and PBS.No cable.I watched NASCAR when it was on or
vhs tape from friends.I watched PBS more that any other cuz it was more interesting.Currently I have basic cable and really don't watch all of a single race.Pre race shows longer than the actual race,same lame interviewers with same drivers,scripted telecasts,Jr. this and that followed by Jr. commercials,ticker can't keep up without resetting,5 laps lost for every 10 shown,etc.
I've almost given up.VICTORY LANE and internet the next day tells me everything I wish to know.BTW, I recieved $1.00 for keeping the diary.

Buschseries61 said...

Bravo! Thank you for the well written piece describing the observations of many here since 2007. My favorite line is, "FOX loves Junior, TNT loves themselves and ESPN loves Carl Edwards. It's a pretty simple equation."

I'm sure your post will cause controversy, but are we expected to ignore these problems? NASCAR tried the head in the sand approach, and they are still catching up to the 21st century.

Tim S. said...

Right on, JD. Just because the pictures look pretty and we can see all the decals on the spec car doesn't mean we're getting a spectacular broadcast. We're not even getting a spectacular "show" because the storylines are alternately forced (crew chief conflict) or boring (All Jimmie No Matter What). I shouldn't learn as much about an event by following Internet timing and scoring as I would watching it on TV. But I often do.

Anonymous said...

Excellent recap. I no longer waste my time with the broadcasts being as bad as they are. I want to watch the race like a fan at the race track would and be kept informed of what is going on during the race. Pretty simple you would think. MC

Jonathan said...

JD Spot on, great article! Love it and its a shame it is the way it is but I guess we all have to accept it.

Going to Phoenix this weekend for the races and will make a point of it to watch the replay on Speed later on in the week just so I can see how bad the broadcast was cause I dont see it getting any better for ESPN in the next 2 weeks.

I dont see why we cant just get a broad understanding of how networks should cover the Nascar races. NASCAR should come up with a general lineup of what they expect from networks while they broadcast there product! It would come down to a 50/50 spilt a quality broadcast with whatever is needed to be thrown in by each network would be ok! I say keep it simple like Speed and you will have many happy! Heck Speed had me calling for more tracks like Martinsville to be added but after the ESPN cup race I couldnt wait for a mile and half track. its a stange topic all around but I wanna say thanks JD been waiting for this for a while and you came through and then some

Anonymous said...

We learn less about what happens on the track from television than ever. If one doesn't attend the event in person, one must wait for the sportswriters to post their stories to learn what occurred during the race that day. Terrible. Television cannot be bothered with that activity-they are the stars.

52 yr. fan said...

Well said JD! It's a shame that the Media Group doesn't come up
with basic guidlines for the networks to produce a race. I guess it's too late since Brian
and NA$CAR have spent the money and NMG/Marketing group is only
looking for more of the "official
sponsors" cash flow.

Anonymous said...

Great article and comments. It's really so simple. Show us the actual race!

Garry said...

I will start with the biggest offender:Brian France. He sold the family's soul to the networks for money. Instead of his dad's approach of "it's my sport, you want to cover it,you pay me, and I might let you in the track." The mile and a half tracks.Enough said. The COT. Brian watched the Fast and the Furious and decided, "Hey, young kids like front valances and wings!" Brilliant! Except he forgot to ask the true NASCAR fan about what works. ESPN overloaded their plate at the dinner table, then proceeded to eat it all, and eventually threw up all over the place. David Hill. Again, enough said.

glenc1 said...

I got a Nielson survey a couple weeks ago. I did fill it out (and spend my $3 for dinner at McDonalds...), maybe I will get picked for the more in depth diary, or whatever they do these days. But I know the complaints have always been that they do not reflect a cross section of Americans. That argument's been around a long time. It is a pretty small sampling.

James said...

If NASCAR survives this network disaster it created, they will one day hear your words and say,"How did we miss that warning"?

When the France family finally wakes up, it will see that producing its own SHOW was the one point it failed to see.

NASCAR was made up of characters the likes of legends, that was the DRAW, now its about blantant hype and the show is about nothing the HARDCORE fan desires to watch, it is and has been a scripted cartoon, designed for the casual fan at best.

It appears the core base has been taken for granted, that we will watch anything NASCAR, WRONG!

Like the owners that orginally made up the garage, we can no longer give the time or the loyalty to a group more concerned about its own self interest.

NASCAR is no longer the sport of "EVERYMAN", it has become the sport of fools!

AncientRacer said...

Well written. Well said.

@Garry said:

Brian watched the Fast and the Furious and decided, "Hey, young kids like front valances and wings!

Actually the "wing" part is a fact; but it was Mike Helton who admitted as much and in print. When the wing debate was going on he said, quite bluntly, that NASCAR adopted them in no small part because the kids were putting them on their street cars.

As an aside, have you noticed no one has gone seriously airborne since the wing went away? Makes me think they never did a wind tunnel test on a car going backwards at speed with the wing. Just looking at the design screams there would be lift created in that situation.

I also agree with the spec. car thing. I hate the spec. cars. I want stock cars -- at least the sheet metal part of them. Then I could more easily convince myself there was some kind of relationship between them and what I might buy and drive.

Anonymous said...

You are a rank amature. ESPN has the best in the business working for them. They know way more about how to produce a NASCAR race, football game, or any other sporting event for that matter than you do.

The Mad Man said...

I'm guessing Anon 12:08 PM hasn't read your CV there JD. Must be a BSPN employee.

When it comes to the script, where is it actually coming out of? The network headquarters, NASCAR Media Group in Charlotte, or NASCAR HQ in Daytona? Because they all sure seem to toe the party line pretty closely and only show whatever or whomever NASCAR is hyping.

I remember when DW deviated from the script at Daytona contradicting the official party lines and the next broadcast he was kow towing to Daytona and professing many mea culpas for the previous week's contradictions of official policy.

As to the actual "presentation" of the races, can the ultra-tight shots of single cars and overboard use of gimmick shots like roof cams and in-car shots really be defined as "coverage"? The fans at home aren't seeing the action that's going on outside of the script unless there's a wreck. It's also rather hard to tell what's going on with the rest of the cars when we're seeing the camera shots jumping from the roof cam to the rear cam to the in-car cam to the Turn 1 cam, back to the in-car cam, etc. There's no smooth transition between them and sometimes it's an overload with all of these gimmick shots that takes away from what little racing we do get to see.

Keith said...

The only way I could agree with you regarding the ratings, which are trending up, is if you hold the same position if the ratings are trending down. I don't believe that you have been true to this position.

I have noted in the past, particularly with regards to ESPN, that you implied that the ratings were dropping and the race production was bad, therefore one caused the other. Calls for ESPN to change their production due to the fact that legions of fans and viewers were watching football instead of racing were voiced in this blog. The Nielson ratings proved your point, or at least you implied that they did.

Nielson ratings may not be perfect, but it is the industry standard. Also, it seems disingenuous to embrace it when it works for you, and then dismiss it when it doesn't.

As we all learned in school, correlation does not mean causation, so the rise in viewership may in fact not be due to ESPN, but then again maybe everybody doesn't enjoy the truck race telecast as much as you do and have come to enjoy the professionalism of the ESPN crew.

Anonymous said...

The numbers are indeed interesting. Regardless of the ratings fluctuations, look at the viewers. They have not increased over the last five years, and in many cases have decreased. As we all know there are more people on the planet I find that quite telling.

As to why I dont know. There are plenty of things to point to, little racing, constant and obvious shilling of any and everything, cars and technology out of step with the times, etc.

But maybe its just like the favorite TV show that you no longer watch. Just run its course.

BostonGuy said...

If Nascar would wake up and offer RaceBuddy for every race I'd never bother watching cable race broadcasts again. Racebuddy + MRN/PRN is perfect... and I'd pay good money for a subscription to that.

As for the coverage these days: I watch Nascar on Fox and TNT. I just can't stomach the ESPN coverage.

Daly Planet Editor said...


In 07 and 08 the ESPN attempts at Cup telecasts absolutely brought a response from me that shoddy production played a role in decreased ratings.

My point in raising this issue today was to offer that the slight upturn in 2011 ESPN ratings, prior to TMS, was a result of on-track action and driver storylines.

As it is their right, ESPN has continued the same style of coverage this season. To suggest that this contributed to higher ratings in my opinion makes little sense.


GinaV24 said...

Great article, JD.

You hit all of the essential points as to why my interest in NASCAR has waned. I used to watch every minute of NASCAR programming I could find on TV, even went out and purchased first an XM radio setup (stupid move on my part considering that NASCAR then went to Sirius instead), bought the new Sirius setup and subscription. One year we went to 18 races and I seldom missed on on TV.

FF to 2007 and the new TV contract, the "new" car, and the Chase and it is a totally different story for me. I seldom if ever watch practice, I cancelled my Sirius subscription - for several reasons - 1 because I really didn't enjoy the NASCAR programming any longer - I felt as if those personalities were rude and condescending to the fans and they stopped carrying qualifying. I don't need to pay for radio in my car - I listen to over the air stuff.

This past season we went to 7 races because IMO I only go to tracks I like. During the summer, if I'm around, I'll watch but I don't change my life around to make sure I'm in front of a TV.

Fox's coverage has the advantage of being on during the "winter" for me here in NJ, so I tend to have the race on but it isn't because of DW, rather it is in spite of him. The TV is usually muted and I use Trackpass (which I again pay for) to follow the race since I know what is going on without poor camera work or booth babbling.

I like TNT's coverage best but they have the worst tracks on the schedule AND are on in the summer - I'm not staying inside on a pretty day for race coverage any more - not when I can find out all I need to know in the last 20 laps or via the internet.

ESPN is the big fail. They have the chase - whoopee - that's a two edged sword for me as a fan. Again, I don't stay home for races on TV any more. ESPN wants to follow their script and show me one car at a time as they talk about it. Uh, no, that's NOT why I tune in for the race - that works for practice and qualifying, for the race, I want to see the action on the track.

the chase is an I don't care event for me. I tune in to watch the race, not what is happening to a certain set of drivers. Obviously I have my favorite, but I like to know what is going on for the whole race.

All these new concepts, the chase, the COT, the new points system and TV coverage have all resulted in LESS interest on my part, not more.

And the thing is, if I were a new fan and tuned in to watch a race on TV, I'd be bored out of my mind and never ever waste the time or money to go to a race.

Troy Hotton said...

My wife and I watched the fall Richmond race live, it was a tremendous show, lots of passing action including Kevin Harvick passing the top 4 cars on the third to last restart.

According to my Dad (I must admit to forgetting to tape the race) ESPN didn't show that restart, ESPN didn't show much of anything. Apparantly it didn't show Robby Gordon's guys working over half the race to get his car back out.

I had been told long ago that the problem wasn't the racing, it was TV. I don't doubt it now.

Dot said...

Bravo! JD, take a bow. Great column. Sadly, only we here can relate to what you're saying.

Are they counting DVR recordings in the numbers? I know people record the races to FF through the ^*@$.

I learn so much more while on Twitter than what's on TV during the race. I fill in the blanks for my roommate.

This is my fave sentence too, "My favorite line is, "FOX loves Junior, TNT loves themselves and ESPN loves Carl Edwards. It's a pretty simple equation." Summed up well.

A little OT, but since when did BSPN dumb down football? I just happened to catch a few minutes and saw graphics on the grass. Glad at least the other sports viewers are tortured like us. LOL Do they have their version of Tim Brewer too?

Roland said...

How bout JD bringin the heat!!!

The argument that better production increases ratings is lunacy. If there was a correlation between better production value and ratings then our sport would be relegated to 30 minute highlight shows at 3am on RFD TV. The ratings are directly proportional to interest in the sport.

Thats where the production comes in. Nascar has experienced an incredible decline in popularity since 2008. The casual fans the sport reeled in since the mid 90's (Im talking fans that maybe go to a race every now and then but dont watch every race on TV) got bored with the COT, and found better use of their time and money after the economic meltdown. My point being the only fans that are left are the diehard watch every race kind of fans.

These fans want broadcasts where technical information isnt presented like sesame street. These fans want broadcasts that arent scripted like a soap opera. These fans want to see 10 cars in a shot, not 1. ESPN is broadcasting the races to a demographic that simply isnt there.

ESPN has listened to criticism, Marty Reid was removed, Rusty was removed from the booth, and side by side commercials have become reality. Fox has never listened to criticism. They simply refuse to believe fans dont like their shtick, which is incredibly insulting to the fans. TNT is the best of the 3 partners, but still have flaws. For the record I think Wally D is the best analyst between the 3 networks.

All we can do is do what weve done since 2007, hope for change in 2014.

Anonymous said...

Something Very Interesting...
Ratings go down and JD & His 10 Angry Ants claim:
"All because of Bad Production"
"Must be Play by Play"
"Must go Side by Side"
"Must get RaceBuddy"
Ratings go up:
"Nothing to do with Production Decisions"
Are you people so angry that you can't even take a second to pat yourselves on the back.
I have indeed read JD's CV card and I see someone who had a blossoming career at the company he now spends every second of his life complaining about. I am left to wonder what must have happened so many years ago in Bristol. Other thing I notice Is he worked with Bestwick, the only one he praises.
All very interesting. I assume this post will be up for 8 seconds.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon, you missed the point. All 3 networks are in the telecast mix.

This is not an ESPN issue. It just happens the PR claims of higher ratings being driven by TV production came recently.

There is no professional sport on the ESPN TV networks that is as poorly produced as NASCAR.

At times, it has been laughable.Now, with AB at the helm it had potential for change. Nothing happened.

Star driven agendas focused on a handful of drivers has left the fan base alienated. Carl Edwards presence on the network is unfair and biased.

I departed ESPN over 20 yrs ago with a nice little party. There was no better training ground for sports TV. These days, I wonder how a media company so big can screw up guys turning left in a sport it helped to pioneer.


AncientRacer said...

@Anon 6:03

I am Ant #18 (or #24 when #18 is unavailable)

Well. That is interesting, but I believe you pretty much just described ---- Keith Olbermann.

Full Disclosure: I know KO, but have never met JD.

There is no shame in feeling biased against Bristol.

I've been in scripted for eons (it seems), live in poitics (for eons as well) and a race fan since the age of 8 in the upper mid years of the 1950's. In one you get unlimited Mulligans. In the other One-Shot.

Sports, like politcs live, is One-Shot.

There is a right way to do a sport -- which may always be improved upon -- and any number of wrong ways.

Motorsports requires coverage that pleases the existing fan and draws new fans. Such coverage is not being provided now. Period.

May I see your Vitae?

Oh. I thought so.

Anonymous said...

I see that you are still a Faux\Ivory Tower pitchman.

Faux and the Waltrip\B.France connection has further ruined an already rotting dynasty.

The Nascrap corruption crash has made it a prime time for the start of a new racing series. I hope the right people come forward.

Anonymous said...

I was actually at that "Going Away" party 20 years ago, and though I would love to reveal myself, I kept my job in Bristol...and hope to retire soon.

The point is though it is fun for us to read this site, and hear the "If NASCAR survives this Network Disaster" type comments...There are 3-4 Million people returning to watch each week, and as far as I can tell there are maybe 20 people returning to the TDP each week. Most of whom I assume are Industry Insiders (Radio folks who never got there shot at TV, ESPN folks who did not get hired at FOX, and etc) taking anonymous "Pot Shots" at each other. Ironically many of these people are probably eating lunch with one another today in Phoenix.

A quick Web Search will prove that there is a Daley Planet for every sport, even Woman's Softball, usually run by a "retired" insider, and I can tell you first hand that the producers and directors up here in Bristol do obsess on
these sites. Look at DeadSpin. But never the less "Imperfect" rating systems or not the Advertisers and more importantly the fans are there in significant numbers and NASCAR as with all sports will survive without the few who claim the will never watch again. Though they seem to
each week, and we love them and you too JD.

MortonGroveDon said...

Storyline.....Thats an interesting word. It seems more and more lately on sports coverage onmany outlets there is a need to develop one. The basic coverage of a race soon takes a backseat to the desire to cover the story the TV Show has dveveloped. This usually comes as a loss for the viewer. It could be a simple as missing a restart, or never finding out what really happened to your driver til after the race is over. As a fan that now attends a race at least once year, I dont ever find myself walking into the stands with an agenda or a storyline. of course Im not having to sell what I want to millions of viewers and to sponsors who are paying the bills. People that I know who maybe attending their first race askme for advice "who should I watch when Im there?" Now as one who doesnt wear a scanner anymore (just found it got in the way of hearing what I wanted to hear, the engine roar) I tell them to follow their driver, or to just watch the lead pack of cars. I would never tell them to watch a feud that started several weeks ago, or to watch a driver they might not like. Sometimes it seems to simple to think like a fan. I am cutting back the races I watch next year, I wont be running the fantasy league I had for several years, and getting all excited just to have the TV show me what Im not interested in just finds me going channel surfing. I will listen toit more on the radio. I appreciate what race buddy does but I dont want to sit in front of my computer all day Sunday. The amazing part is I look forward to the Truck Series and to waking up at 5 in the morning to watch an F1 race. I tried to keep caring about Cup racing on TV, it just seems the networks dont seem to care about me.

Anonymous said...

Though it is fun for us to read this site, and hear the "If NASCAR survives this Network Disaster" type comments...There are 3-4 Million people returning to watch each week, and as far as I can tell there are maybe 20 people returning to the TDP each week. Most of whom I assume are Industry Insiders (Radio folks who never got there shot at TV, ESPN folks who did not get hired at FOX, and etc) taking anonymous "Pot Shots" at each other. Ironically many of these people are probably eating lunch with one another today in Phoenix.

A quick Web Search will prove that there is a Daley Planet for every sport, even Woman's Softball, usually run by a "retired" insider, and I can tell you first hand that the producers and directors up here in Bristol do obsess on
these sites. Look at DeadSpin. But never the less "Imperfect" rating systems or not the Advertisers and more importantly the fans are there in significant numbers and NASCAR as with all sports will survive without the few who claim the will never watch again. Though they seem to
each week, and we love them and you too JD.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 8:51PM,

There used to be 7 million watching. The big difference between then and now seems to be ESPN. Huh.