Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Two Executives At SPEED Step Aside

The saga of the network now known as SPEED is one of the most interesting stories in cable TV history. This week the evolution continued.

It was called SpeedVision and was a business partner to the Outdoor Life Network when I came across it operating out of Stamford, CT in 1996. Bob Scanlon was the executive producer and ran the programming and production departments. Scanlon is now running the new Velocity HD cable network owned by Discovery.

The Speed Channel name came next when Jim Liberatore ran the show as the network transitioned to Charlotte, NC. Liberatore was interactive with the fans during a time when the network began searching for a real identity. Liberatore is now the president of the Sportstime Ohio regional sports network.

Hunter Nickell, shown above, arrived in 2005 after running the SportsSouth and FSN South networks for more than a decade. A good FOX soldier, Nickell helped negotiate NASCAR and Formula One programming deals for the network now simply called SPEED.

This week brought more changes. Here is an excerpt from a network media release:

"Hunter Nickell, the president of SPEED, is leaving the network at years end. Nickell will finish several projects with SPEED over the next few months and continue to explore opportunities within the FOX Sports Media Group. An interim replacement will be named shortly." Click here to read the full release.

So, just like that another page is turned in the history of a TV network still trying to deal with a unique combination of issues. For the past several years, SPEED was criticized for not having a NASCAR daily news program or a studio show on weekends for race highlights. In 2010, Nickell took a step to solve that problem.

Motorsports TV veteran Patti Wheeler was brought in to become the Executive Vice President of both the production and programming divisions of SPEED. Wheeler formerly ran TNN Motorsports for a long time and also headed up World Sports Enterprises, a company that produced motorsports of all types.

Wheeler got the Race Hub NASCAR news show sorted out and then went about creating the SPEED Center concept for in-studio highlights and news on weekends. Suddenly, SPEED viewers had an informative presence to pass along all the information on racing weekends of any kind. That concept may now be over.

Last week, after only a year or so on the job, Wheeler decided to step away from SPEED and her executive duties. Personal reasons were cited, but clearly there is an ongoing dynamic at SPEED right now that has the ground shifting under the feet of those still employed.

What is driving this upheaval is even bigger changes for SPEED's parent company out on the West Coast. Heading up the FOX cable networks is Randy Freer, an experienced executive who took this position in January of 2011. Click here to see Freer talk about sports subjects in a Jon Weinbach interview for Fan House.

Nickell was not a person Freer chose for SPEED. In the world of sports TV, it's common for changes at the top to affect those executives on a lower level. There is little doubt that the new man at SPEED will be hand-picked by Freer and there will have been an existing relationship already in place.

Freer also shook-up the FOX cable networks by hiring a friend of his to become the VP in charge of TV production. John Entz will be given the new job of overseeing the studio and on-site production for the entire FOX cable networks group. That is a huge job.

You can imagine that perhaps Wheeler was not very happy finding out that after working for 12 months revamping SPEED, she would suddenly have to answer to yet another Los Angeles-based executive in order to get things done in Charlotte.

All of this swings the door open for major changes at SPEED, but as we know with the television world the pace is not rapid. We documented the new line-up of "lifestyle programming" SPEED has purchased and is now in production. Click here to read about stuff getting blown up, people quizzed at the gas pump and searching for car parts in the Bronx.

SPEED at one time featured cars, planes, boats and motorcycles in equal parts. Then, it moved to European racing shows, World Rally Cars and a weekly night of motorcycles. Now, it continues to look like two rival fraternities slugging it out on the cable TV airwaves.

Friday through Sunday are dominated by racing with solid programming, good information and informed on-air announcers. Monday through Thursday, however, continue to be a hodge-podge of programming that has never been able to make any daypart work effectively.

Nickell championed shows like PINKS, Stealth Rider and Wrecked, the "reality" show about a family operating a tow truck service in Chicago. Ultimately, a lot of what Nickell put on the air looked like imitations of A&E, Discovery and truTV. He called it "lifestyle programming" but many motorsports fans called it garbage.

NASCAR has no financial investment in SPEED. At one time, NASCAR was a partner with the FOX cable networks group. That partnership was dissolved and other than the TV production from the tracks on weekends, the NASCAR Media Group is just another program provider trying to get SPEED to invest in new programming for primetime.

The bottom line is that SPEED moved lock, stock and barrel to North Carolina to get more NASCAR content on the network in whatever form possible. Now, the challenge facing the senior executives at FOX in California and whoever steps into the new SPEED role is to once again try and define what programming model makes sense in these tough economic times.

Either SPEED is going to use the NASCAR Media Group (NMG) to generate new ideas for programming or we are going to see yet another shift further away from actual racing and motorsports. It's gotten so bad at NMG that company has actually been producing college football content in order to generate some revenue.

In the backyard of NASCAR, with the incredible happenings we have been seeing in the sport this year, there is absolutely nothing new on the table for SPEED from NMG. Not a reality series, interview program or morning talk show. None of the existing Sirius weekday radio shows are on TV, including the one done from the Hall of Fame.

We will all find out together the agenda of the new management group at SPEED when they are in place. In the meantime, we can just once again think about what could have been and hope that a robust and diverse motorsports and racing network has a place on the cable TV dial.

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


Brandon Mudd said...

Interesting stuff. This could either be a defining moment for the channel or just new faces dishing the same party line. Dump the reality garbage & show racing. I don't care if it's figure 8 busses at Illiana Soeedway, show it. That channel should be devoted to racing in all its forms, period.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of the "reality" shows, at all. I would rather watch nothing than watch old youtube videos or someone get asked questions at the gas station, but unfortunately it seems that those shows attract more viewers than the NASCAR oriented shows that they replaced.

Jonathan said...

I have a GREAT ideal for Speed! More Nascar its plain and simmple! TSN (the ESPN of Canada) carries the Nascar Canadian Tire Series..... Well just like the NFL network plays the Canadian football league during the NFL off season, Speed should do the same with Nascar. If the Truck Series gets good ratings I feel the NCT Series would hold its own when there isnt any other Nascar on TV. Also some classic Nascar races on Sat and Sun would do much better than the crap they run now!!! Then throw in some current Nascar news type shows and Speed would be an instant classic!

earl06 said...

The ship sailed years ago and now it's going over the horizon. FOX will probably rebrand the channel and only use the SPEED logo for what little racing remains. Good luck and

Robert Powell said...

The scripted reality shows were hard to watch. They could serve the sport much better if they did a weekly show "behind the scenes" of an entire race team. When Kyle Busch did it on a smaller scale for ESPN, his pop numbers went through the roof. I can't imagine why a team wouldn't be interested in it and it's a sure winner for the network.

Anonymous said...

I am sure the change will result in further regression from auto sports and more reality tv. maybe one of the up and coming sports channels (vs?) can offer more racing programs..

Delenn said...

I feel this is either going to be very good for fans (ie dumping the reality shows) or very bad for fans (even more reality shows and less racing).

Could Speed become Fox Sports Auto?
In the UK, we will have Sky Sports F1 HD from March.

Anonymous said...

It would be hard for the current iteration of Speed to be worse. Well, take away what little racing is left on it, and I guess it could be.

After suffering through years of garbage like "Dinks", Dangerous Drives, Wrecked, game shows, I have had it. The non-racing content is horrible. All of it.

Roland said...

The only good thing Hunter Nickel really gave us was Pinks and Pinks All Out. I, and a lot of people really miss that show. It was fun to watch on TV, even funner to go to. I really hope that show can be brought back. The crowds at the track for All Out were phenomenal.

The only new lifestyle show thats half decent is American Trucker, but in small doses because the host really gets on my nerves. He's a little over the top. But the content of the show is pretty good.

I think American Chopper reruns would be a great fit for this channel. I would love to see some of the early episodes again, when the show was about building bikes and not family drama. Give me some Monster Garage reruns and revive Biker Build Off and now you got something.

But most importantly I want somebody who cares about racing. I want to see the Chili Bowl, the Snowball Derby, and other great late model races. We need something like NBS 24/7 or NASCAR Drivers 360. Those shows were great.

When Speed Center started I hated it. Adam was LOUD and it was annoying having all those Speed Center interruptions. But the last couple months the show has been very solid. Adam got comfortable, Ray brought his expertise to the table, and the set/graphics are really frickin cool. I want to see that show stick around in its current form. Race Hub, well I dont watch that, but a lot of people do, so I hope the new president will recognize that and keep it around.

I await with great anticipation to know who it will be and what they will bring to the table. It could make or break this network.

Bill said...

Well written article, JD, and thanks for the information.

Earlier this year, "the Car Show" host Adam Carolla referred to the channel that picked up his show as "deep cable." I have to include "expensive cable" as SPEED on Directv is only available on its priciest tier.

That doesn't make sense, does it. Save for the actual motorsports coverage, the most lowbrow programming on TV is only available in its most costly package. They could at least have a show called the "The Most Ludicrous Shenanigans in a Rolls-Royce" or something.

Fox California must be racking their pea-sized brains, trying to figure out what to do with a channel that has good ratings during NASCAR weekends, but falls on its face for the rest of the week.

They're bound to know that this current package of trash isn't the answer, but Nickell may not have had been given any dollars to work with either; hence the reason we see filler shows so bad, that not even "Superstations," TBS and WGN would put them on at 4 am.

Either FOX shutters the network from Monday through Thursday, then shows motorsports all weekend, or someone needs to take the risk, infuse some serious cash, and produce their own high quality shows, and also partner with NMG for some NASCAR themed programs.

Regardless of their decision, the 2012 programming package as it stands will do nothing but push viewers farther away.

Buschseries61 said...

It’s a sad story I grew up watching. SpeedVision came around when I was just entering my teens. It had cars, boats, planes, and motorcycles – really fun programming. Then things got even better with Speed Channel. NASCAR had a bigger presence, and I loved watching shows like Back in the Day, Inside Winston Cup & NBS 24/7. Although not on Speed, Totally NASCAR was a fixture in my life. I remember watching the World Rally races with fascination weekend mornings, as well as ARCA, ASA & Hooters Pro Cup events at tracks I’d never seen before in NASCAR. I remember Grumpy Dave’s Motorcycle Tuesday nights I sometimes watched.

SPEED began to jump the shark in 2005 when Totally NASCAR moved to SPEED and was canceled for the failure NASCAR Nation. Allen Bestwick and Johnny Benson were fired from Inside Nextel Cup. ASA, Hooters Pro Cup, & other divisions disappeared. TWIN collapsed and was canned. SPEED only shows ten ARCA races a year now. There were some great additions like NASCAR Confidential and Pit Bull, but those were quickly canned for NASCAR Smarts and The Racing Chef. Now the same reality garbage that can be found across the other channels pollutes SPEED’s weekday programming. All grown up, the current SPEED is nothing like the original SpeedVision that started it all for me. But I’m afraid it won’t get better as racing is suffering across the divisions. It’s sad that Nascar Media Group has to cash in on football to survive. Clearly, there are different opinions on the tv contract than Brian France’s view that the tv partners are doing an excellent job. When Jayski.com is leading NASCAR’s offseason coverage as we enter 2012, there is a major tv problem.

KoHoSo said...

It's gotten so bad at NMG that company has actually been producing college football content in order to generate some revenue.

That's the line that really struck me in the article. NMG has shown great potential in what it can turn out. What a shame that Fox won't use them more and that NASCAR won't work harder to find an outlet that will show thei work...unless there's something in the works with Velocity that we don't know about yet.

Anonymous said...

I used to watch Court TV on a regular basis. I did not watch the live/taped courtroom activities but liked the programs that dealt with broader issues or overviews of significant cases. When I heard that Catherine Crier was being fired and Star Jones was being hired, I knew that Court TV was moving away from my interests. That was at the same time they announced the name change to Tru TV. I haven't watched it since then.

I wish someone at Fox would have the decency to change the name of Speed channel to something that fits its programming. As long as it bears the Speed name and its heritage, people like me will keep wishing for the good old days of motorsports programming. They should change the name of Speed as someone did to Court TV, and it would make it easier to say good bye and stop hoping for a return to the past.

Mule said...

With Patty Wheeler stepping away and the West Coast pulling the strings, I hope I'm wrong, I don't see SPEED adding any Nascar relevant programming. I don't see the West Coast being that keen on Nascar as it is.
With as many different forms of racing that there is, there's more than enough for a channel called "SPEED" to cover. They just don't do it. They've lost their way with Nascar programming.
Only plus for me is 1 less tier on my Time Warner bill.

Anonymous said...

some of those reality/lifestyle shows help keep the network in business. the ratings for "dumbest stuff" are off the charts.

would love to see a couple more racing/nascar shows from nmg or elsewhere, but in the past those shows simple just don't rate.

nan said...

If they go back toward the Speed Vision model that would be great. Real racing, real behind the scenes shows, real news.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon, to say ratings for "Dumbest Stuff" are off the charts is incorrect.

The ratings for the intial airing of those episodes were higher than what SPEED saw when re-airing other post-produced product.

The decision is whether SPEED is in or out with motorsports on the Monday through Thursday timeblock and can they develop daypart programming like the other major cable networks.


GinaV24 said...

Other than RaceHub, I don't watch any programming on Speed. I'm with Brandon, dump the reality garbage and show me racing and I'll turn the channel back on.

Having another LA based exec who is a "friend of" the new guy running things doesn't make me think that will happen any time soon.

Plus even the NASCAR based shows have become less must see TV for me. I'm not interested in shows like trackpass as much because it has become too much about the people who are moderating (an overabundance of Waltrips) and less about the guests or content.

Like NASCAR, IMO, Speed needs to get back to the basics - show the fans racing - all forms - and see if they can rebuild their core audience.

MRM4 said...

It's pretty simple what SPEED should do - add racing programming to the Monday-Thursday lineup. There are plenty of other racing series other than NASCAR that could be showcased and get better ratings than the garbage that's on there now.

Take a page from the old TNN and old ESPN playbook. Show a variety of racing that generates interest in other forms of racing. Have each night be a theme for a particular brand of racing. Have one night be nothing but dirt racing (sprint cars, late models, big block modifieds), have another night of racing showcasing future stars of racing, have a Thursday Night Thunder type program showing live racing in other forms of racing.

I never watch SPEED from Monday through Thursday unless there is a truck race on one of those nights. As long as the "reality" shows continue, I will continue not to watch.

Anonymous said...

It is commendable that most people on this site -- it is a NASCAR & motor racing site after all -- are passionate about racing and having the sport shown on a cable network every day/night of the week.

Now, let's get real with the economics here: Outside of the NASCAR races themselves, and a few practice and qualifying sessions, F1, and maybe Supercross and Grand AM, racing does not get enough eyeballs on television. It's that simple.

God bless you for wanting obscure racing on television, but they do not rate!

Which is why outside of Fri-Sat-Sun, you have to develop reality type series. Most fail. But some do break through, like Pinks, Wrecked, Dumbest Stuff, etc. These shows get ratings, and much bigger ratings than the obscure races you all are talking about.

So get with the program, and understand that Speed is in the business of getting ratings=profits.

KoHoSo said...

Anonymous 4:36...

You make excellent points. Many here including myself have said similar things when it comes to what we would all like to see balanced out against a company's right and need to be as profitable as possible.

The frustration comes because most feel like we have been given the old bait-and-switch on content and are tired of every single channel programming to the 18-35 year old male demographic while those of us now beyond that age are not ready to start watching nothing but Matlock.

After all, look at what has happened in the cable/satellite landscape. We used to have a music channel that played music, a history channel that ran history, an arts channel that featured arts, a learning channel where one could learn something, and a racing channel that showed racing. Almost all of that is gone now and has been replaced mostly with pseudo-reality programming that is not real and, in many cases, features the worst sides of humanity.

Still, you are right. Some race at a local short track won't pull in the same rating -- or, more correctly, the same rating from the key demographic -- as some show like Speed runs now. I just wonder how much more channels can keep slicing up the same finite pie as the rest of us lose interest and even "cut the cord" -- not to mention how much longer NASCAR can afford to "go black" for three months with no support from Speed and no care from ESPN.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 4:36PM,

You are apparently oblivious to the fact that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL all have fulltime dedicated cable TV networks serving their fan bases.

The question is not whether to schedule other forms of racing. The entire reason SPEED moved to Charlotte, NC where no other national cable sports TV network is based was to become the NASCAR TV network.

Over and over again failure to recognize this brand and the partnerships that can be formed have put SPEED in an awkward position.

Only by embracing NASCAR as the programming "umbrella" and then moving to allow other motorsports to be show within that framework will the network finally get it right.

It's time to dump the junk and get real about motorsports on TV.


Anonymous said...


You are missing the point too.

NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL all have their own networks because they own the content and broadcast events. I would venture to say that if the leagues charged themselves for the content, they wouldn't make any money and would have to rely on viewing generating content like speed has during the weekdays.

w17scott said...

Mr Editor -
Time indeed to 'dump the junk' and call O'Hare Towing' to drag SPEED off to the scrap yard ...sadly, it appears the addition of Patti Wheeler was not made with the intention of making positive changes ...ergo, she has bow left ...in retrospect, David Hill continues to wallow in ESPN envy - all hat and no cattle ...I'm looking forward to what comes of NBC Sports/Versus and Velocity (which I haven't seen yet on DirecTV) with regard to NASCAR programming ...for gosh sakes, even WWE has iy's own channel ...interesting that CBS picked up the Chili Bowl, even as a delayed broadcast ...I was fortunate to be there for the 1st running of this great event ...nothing to warm a cold Oklahoma night like a noisy and packed Tulsa (Fairgrounds) Expo Center and hot, hot, hot sprint car racing

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon, when you have NMG with no cash flow doing college football and SPEED struggling to fill four days of content, I don't think the correct resolution is hard to figure out. Partnership.

Buschseries61 said...

"The frustration comes because most feel like we have been given the old bait-and-switch on content and are tired of every single channel programming to the 18-35 year old male demographic while those of us now beyond that age are not ready to start watching nothing but Matlock."

Thank you. It's really sad that productive television is being replaced by the downward elevator of stupidity to chase profit. Rather than develop a passion for something productive, our demographic is presented with scripted arguments, physical violence, freak shows, and cheap laughs. SPEED's highlight 'Dumbest Stuff on Wheels' features human stupidity and injuries - but it makes a profit. Meanwhile, the men and women that do this the correct way for a living are ignored Monday-Thursday except for taped Monster Truck shows.

This is just a downward spiral for motorsports. Teams need funding to run, sponsors want eyeballs and cameras when paying out money, and television (the link in all this) is chasing the next stupid act to introduce to viewers. There is no room to grow in this cycle.

Anonymous said...

Daly Planet Editor,

I am absolutely not oblivious to the fact that the other major sports leagues are basically 24/7 covering their own sport with their own cable networks.

However, a significant difference is that NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL all air actual LIVE telecasts of their games. Those telecasts draw ratings that are significantly high enough to support the measly non-ratings that they get on the other days that they do not air live games, those days when they rehash everything to death, and when they re-air games, coaches shows, etc.

Take the NFL Network. Outside of its pre and post game coverage, the Thursday night games in Nov/Dec, and the Draft in April, they do not draw ratings.

Now, looking at Speed, they do not have the Cup nor Nationwide Series. So they don't have the "NFL game" caliber ratings to offset obscure racing coverage ratings.

So your comparison of Speed to NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL doesn't hold.

If Nascar started its own network, or joined Speed in a network, and put top-tier racing on the network on F, Sa and Su, then yes, M-TH they can put on your dad or your mom's backyard racing league in primetime.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon, that argument just does not hold water.

None of the current pro sports cable nets was built to feature high-profile events.

The idea was to use the revenue from events on other broadcast, cable and regional networks as the foundation for operating.

The same would be true with a NASCAR network. My feeling is that expanding the type of offerings we see now on SPEED from the tracks Friday through Sunday would be the first step.

Other than perhaps the trucks, there would be no need to have any Cup or NNS events on a NASCAR TV network.

The idea is to define dayparts, a task that SPEED was unable to do as it was formed on a regional cable network model by Mr. Nickell.

SPEED runs infomercials in the AM and throws away the morning daypart as worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Simply engaging the NASCAR fan and then welcoming in fans of other motorsports would create a synergy no other nework could capture.

The model worked and that is why SPEED was moved to Charlotte. It was NASCAR that blinked and allowed the deal to fall through.

It time to make it work or walk away and go back to LA.


Anonymous said...

Well said Anon. Just look at what channels have to pay the NFL to show highlights. It's an insane amount of money! NASCAR only has 36 races per year (not enough "games") to compete. The NFL has teams that have sold out games for decades. Heck, the Broncos have sold out their home games for over 40 years.

We all love NASCAR, but we are just going to have to be happy with what we have. Some of the races only had 50% capacity in the stands (contrary to what NASCAR will admit to).

No one here likes SPEED's format these days, but they are in business to make money. And having a partnership with NASCAR would be a money-losing proposition since NASCAR no longer gets the ratings.

Vicky D said...

Well I think Race Hub is a much better broadcast than Pinks, Pass Time, or whatever reality tv show they telecast. With these changes I wonder if during the racing season we'll see better Nascar shows. Oh well, guess we don't have any say in the matter!

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 8:08PM,

NASCAR does not get paid for TV ratings.

The NASCAR TV partners paid rights fees directly to NASCAR for an eight year contract.

None of those fees depend on ratings.

The sanctioning body has a fixed amount of revenue from TV that is at the heart of this issue.

An active partnership with NASCAR and FOX Cable Networks will allow a new approach that can echo the 24 hour cable nets now operating for the other major pro sports.


Anonymous said...

I understand all of that DP. What I am saying is that the reality is it is not worthwhile for SPEED to show more NASCAR content when they can make more money with cheesy "lifestyle" programming that appeals to people 35 and younger. I'm 39 and rarely watch SPEED except for Wind Tunnel and Speed Center. Why do you think ESPN shows NFL highlights 24/7 ? It is because that is what the majority of sports fans want to see. Heck, once NFL season begins, MLB even takes a backseat to the NFL.

Look at how the NASCAR HOF and NASCAR tower has bombed.

And I'll say this: I would be VERY surprised to see the truck series still around after 2014 or 2015 at the latest. Brian/Bill France Jr. have literally ran NASCAR into the ground by abandoning the tracks that made the sport. I have always been of the opinion that there is no reason why we should be going to the same track twice per year except Daytona.

Brian France would never admit it, but his constant tinkering with the points system may have gained a short term boost in ratings, but it is at the expense of the series' legitimacy.

Rant = off

bowlalpo said...

JD, I saw that NMG produced the "SEC Storied" show on ESPN's family about the 1992 SEC Championship (I was shocked to see this in the show's opening).

I DVR'd a later airing after watching the last 20 minutes by accident. It was so good, I wouldn't mind NMG doing other documentaries, regardless of the sport being covered. Yes, "The Play That Changed College Football" was excellent, but then again, so were NBS 24/7 and Behind The Wheel, etc.

Why can't NMG be the NFL Films of racing instead of the NFL Films of the Southeastern Conference? Is it only because SPEED will not give shows like this the time of day and instead give airtime to profane imbeciles like Adam Corolla?

The CBS Sports network runs the same talking-heads shows 20-30 times in a week, and I'll bet that the new Versus will choose/be forced to do the same. Any chance that NMG productions ABOUT RACING could get a foothold there?

Anonymous said...

For those who miss the old Speedvision, check out Velocity Network
It is awesome

Daly Planet Editor said...


SPEED is owned by FOX. NMG is owned by NASCAR. Currently, NMG has a big contract to produce the shows from the tracks on weekends for SPEED.

From RaceDay to Victory Lane and all the practice and qaulifying, NMG gets paid.

While we might see a clear need for additional NASCAR "support programming" during the Monday through Thursday time frame, SPEED only gave us "RaceHub" over the past two years.

SPEED has cancelled every single well-produced and inventive NASCAR TV series brought to them by NMG. The list is long and NMG has nowhere else to go.

If SPEED does not wake up and smell the coffee pretty soon, NMG may be producing the shows from the track for a stand-alone NASCAR Network and SPEED will be wondering what the heck happened.