Thursday, September 6, 2012

TV Negotiations Suggest Rebranding Of SPEED

It was back in April when the Sports Business Journal first raised the possibility of the new management team at FOX Sports making some changes to SPEED. The FOX team had previously taken the outdoor and extreme sports network FUEL and turned it into a network full of boxing and mixed martial arts. Clearly, this group is about advancing their own agenda. Click here to read the original story.

Monday, word came from several sources that the ongoing TV rights negotiations over Major League Baseball had revealed some more details of the FOX plan. Click here for a story from our friends at Sports Media Watch. This is the first time that plans for a new FOX cable sports network have been revealed as part of a negotiation for TV rights.

In other words, FOX had on the table an offer to host a significant amount of MLB content on a network not yet in existence. The popular theory is that this mystery network is SPEED. That would help to make sense of the fact that SPEED continues to offer Pimp My Ride shows from many years ago and other dated programming. The network seems to simply be riding out the existing TV contracts and waiting for the change to come.

SPEED's multiple personalities are well known by motorsports fans. Once a thriving network deeply invested in racing of all kinds, the network took a hard left years ago when it came to weekdays. The term "automotive lifestyle programming" came to mean cheaply scripted reality shows that continue to this day. Most have been nothing short of disastrous.

At the same time, Friday through Sunday on SPEED continued to deliver some of the best motorsports coverage ever seen on television. Formula One, NASCAR and sports cars are among the series that have thrived in this environment. Weekends continue to be a hotbed of racing on SPEED.

The network's former president came from a regional sports network, an RSN. That environment is quite different than a high-profile national cable network. SPEED never developed a weekday morning show, never chased a noon news program and never established weekly shows that supported the various motorsports series shown on the network. All NASCAR programming not originating from a track was eventually cancelled.

The only current NASCAR weekday offering, a show called Race Hub, is said to have resulted from NASCAR forcing SPEED to produce that series in exchange for exclusive rights to the Hall of Fame inductions and other coverage. For many years SPEED executives had stubbornly declared no one watched TV for NASCAR content on weekdays. Race Hub was thrashed together in days.

While most believe it will be SPEED that is rebranded, reporter Joe Flint at the LA Times believes that FUEL may be the network to become FOX's version of ESPN. Click here to read his take on the subject and the baseball negotiations. Most believe, however, that SPEED is the network that will go away.

All of this comes because FOX missed the train long ago on starting a national cable sports network. Back in the mid-90's, FOX purchased a group of regional sports networks and one 24 hour stand-alone network that operated under the Prime Network banner. Instead of pushing ahead nationally, FOX chose to operate the regional networks and used the renamed FOX Sports Network (FSN) to provide additional programming to them.

These days, FOX Sports finds itself fighting at a disadvantage. ABC pairs with ESPN, CBS now has the CBS Sports Network and NBC changed VERSUS into the NBC Sports Network. That gives each of those parties an opportunity to spread sports programming between broadcast and cable networks. FOX desperately needs the same to remain viable in negotiations for sports properties.

SPEED's production facilities and administrative group are located in the Charlotte, NC area. The remainder of the FOX Sports cable networks operate from Los Angeles, CA. The best case scenario for the Charlotte-based employees would be for that group to continue to originate the motorsports studio shows like Race Hub, SpeedCenter and Wind Tunnel.

In today's digital world, SPEED also has a thriving website and a broadband channel that carries additional motorsports programming. If these two projects are allowed to continue when the network itself is rebranded, the impact to the remaining motorsports programming may be minimal.

The other side of the coin is for FOX to simply close SPEED and have NASCAR Productions, the in-house TV arm of NASCAR, produce all the NASCAR-related programming. The sanctioning body has a studio, production facilities and and an experienced staff already in place at the Hall of Fame building in downtown Charlotte.

In talking to friends involved in sports programming, it was pointed out to me that motorsports events directly conflict with many of the sports properties that FOX Sports has been chasing or already owns. The bottom line is that when and if SPEED goes away, it is doubtful that the wall-to-wall coverage of NASCAR practice, qualifying and racing will remain intact on the new network.

It seems that the only real question is when this change will take place. The current TV contract between FOX Sports and NASCAR ends at the conclusion of the 2014 season. But, that certainly would not prevent FOX from changing the network name and other programming content on SPEED next year. It would just mandate that the current NASCAR content continue.

As negotiations take place on other key sports products, we should continue to get a clearer picture of what FOX Sports plans to do with SPEED and when the FOX Sports 1 cable network may appear on our channel guide. As we always say, the only thing constant in sports TV is change.

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