Finally, it was easy to watch a race again. Finally, it was enjoyable.
TNT's use of the "Wide Open" format that saw extremely limited full screen commercial breaks (for local purposes) and otherwise commercials shown side-by-side with racing action still visible was once again phenomenal. Racing television nirvana it was not, but it was heck of a lot closer than the atrocities committed by TNT during their broadcast of the Kentucky race.
Viewers didn't lose track of the action. Advertisers still got their play. It was harmony. It was flowing. And it didn't make me ever want to flip the channel.
It apparently led to TNT's largest rating for the Daytona summer race since 2008 – even if the jump was only about 150,000 viewers.
But yet TNT's Christina Miller – the network's vice president who said last week that, among other things, Turner's simulcast of the race on truTV was a patriotic nod to soldiers everywhere – told the USA Today that it isn't a concept the network will pursue for it's other five races.
The intelligence in not doing so is nearly debilitating, though that's largely because I'm not working in the interest of TNT's bottom line. For now, the network knows it can routinely sell advertising space at a higher price when they give the companies a full screen. Those ads (and a percentage of your monthly cable fee) make it possible for NASCAR, its teams, tracks and more to rake in billions from the current television deal.
It's the same reason FOX and ESPN only do split-screen late in some of their races. Money talks.
Striving to bring in profits when the accountants finish the tally is a noble and worthy task for any any network executive. But it's also an unsustainable trend when it comes to NASCAR fans.
How so? Well, I've got to think we've reached a tipping point with the casual NASCAR consumer and it's getting ever closer with the die-hard group. Why? Because the incredible amount of time spent on commercials – both full screen and in-race with things like lap promos – have relegated watching NASCAR to something rivaling late night informercials.
No, these opinions don't reflect those of NASCAR's television partners.
NASCAR's reached this point thanks to the power of social media, and more narrowly, Twitter.
Suddenly, fans have a voice when it comes to complaining about things formerly out of reach. Those people who shout about the ridiculous amount of commercials and offensive amount of Danica Patrick exposure aren't doing their social damage to the sport amongst their NASCAR watching friends. Instead, it's killing the idea of watching NASCAR among their followers who may tune in two to four times per season.
And even if the new hash tag campaign for Twitter works to steer the #NASCAR conversation in a typically positive manner, it doesn't completely do anything to delete that message.
It's those people, the extraneous folks who may not know the precise green-flag time on a given Sunday, that steered NASCAR's wild growth in the last decade. And it's that group that has fallen off of NASCAR's fan base since then. The casual fan is a little too casual these days.
So what's NASCAR to do? First, it should continue its process of improving the on-track product. It's something NASCAR has already started this season with rule changes that are aimed at improving the tone of competition.
But second on that list should be how that product is getting to consumers. You can improve the racing slightly – heck, even significantly – but if people are too annoyed by the presentation, they won't bother. The effort isn't worth it.
Any executive knows that a product has to go through a continual process of updates. Most are minor. But when that product is failing to sell like it used to – no matter the reason – that doesn't mean digging in the trenches and staying with the status quo. In NASCAR's world, that means that right now, during the negotiations about the future NASCAR TV package, Brian France and company need to be demanding side-by-side commercial breaks for over 80 percent of any given race broadcast.
There will be a cost involved, and it will drop the amount of money NASCAR will receive in its new package initially. But making those demands and forcing those concessions of its television providers, NASCAR will once again put itself as the defender of its fan.
Think about it. If France had announced this weekend that NASCAR had inked a new TV deal guaranteeing heavy amounts of guaranteed side-by-side commercials, plus easy to use streaming of all on-track sessions at every race, fans would have held a parade for him in the Daytona streets. Glass dashboards might have been celebrated, too.
With an energized fan base coupled with a television and online product that is innovative and easy to follow – just as if you were sitting in the Daytona stands – those casual fans would come back.
Improving the broadcast options certainly isn't a fix for everything, but it's certainly one that could galvanize the fan base in a good way. Before France puts his name on that new contract, it's a thought and conversation he needs to have. The sport, in today's digital and mobile environment, demands it.
NEUTRAL: The news about A.J. Allmendinger's failed drug test hit like a ton of bricks Saturday afternoon. Even today, it still feels wildly unimaginable. Let's just hope the situation plays out the best it can for all parties, whether that's a reinstatement of Allmendinger or getting the affable guy the help he may need.
HOT: It may not seem completely fair, but NASCAR is well within their rights and also making a smart move by suspending competitors for substance-related situations when there's ample evidence of a violation. I can't criticize that thought process – safety is too important.
NOT: At some point, the idea of cutting directly to a driver's in-car camera either as they hit something or immediately after will really bite one of NASCAR's television providers when a driver is actually hurt. ESPN was ultra-quick to make the jump during Danica Patrick's Nationwide Series crash, and TNT acted similar with Jimmie Johnson's hit.
It's an interesting shot, but it can wait.
HOT: That Tony Stewart just always seems to perk up and grab a win just when you've started to forget about him is kind of amazing. Suddenly, he's tied for the series lead in wins.
NOT: For my last television gripe of the day, I present a question: If you were a program director of a NASCAR broadcast, and one of the sport's mid-major drivers was removed from his seat just hours before the race, how long would you wait to tell your viewers?
TNT waited 11 minutes Saturday night to talk about Allmendinger's suspension. Pre-produced bits about pack racing and other feature items should never take priority. Give us the news.
NEUTRAL: Jeff Burton somehow finished second Saturday night for just his second top-5 of the 2012 season. His first one? A fifth-place run at Daytona in February. He has just two other top-10 finishes that came at Talladega and Bristol – backing up Burton's comments earlier this week that his No. 31 has been a slouch on the 1.5-mile tracks.
HOT: While his future remains in doubt at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano is currently qualified for the Chase with eight races left. Logano finished fourth with a previously-crashed Toyota Saturday night.
NOT: Glass dashboards won't build ratings or sell tickets. Instead, Brian France should be making declarative and definitive statements about how's he made improving NASCAR's on-track product his top priority.
HOT: France does get credit, though, for shooting down the idea of mandatory cautions in NASCAR – also known as Bruton Smith's Worst Idea Ever.
NOT: You want to know how bad Jeff Gordon's luck is? The guy was spun out in a crash that happened 150 yards behind him Saturday night. If it weren't for bad luck… well, you know the rest. That said, Gordon's 12th-place finish has him up to 17th in the point standings. That ties the highest position he's had all season.
HOT: I criticized James Finch for sticking with Kurt Busch after his incident at Dover. I still don't think it'll make that team appreciably better in the long run. That said, Busch's Nationwide win Friday night had to feel damn good for Finch. The best part of the victory lane celebration was the crew members behind him, genuinely thrilled to be up front.
Enjoy New Hampshire.
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