NASCAR Media Conference
October 7, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Herb Branham. Welcome to a very special NASCAR teleconference today. Exciting announcement on hand regarding our TV broadcast partners in the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup series season. Our guests today, NASCAR chairman and CEO, Brian France, chairman of Fox Sports, David Hill. David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting's distribution sales and sports.
And we have John Skipper, the executive vice president for ESPN. We're going to start off with some opening comments from NASCAR chairman and CEO, Brian France. Then we'll go to the media audience for questions. Brian, it's all yours.
BRIAN FRANCE: Thank you, good afternoon. We do have what we think is going to be a very helpful announcement today mostly for our core fans. Beginning in 2010 which is to get more consistent start times, and frankly, earlier, which will do a couple things for us. As our research has shown us that our core fans want to begin watching NASCAR a little bit earlier in the afternoon.
Sometimes that's counter-intuitive to traditional programming for sports. But nonetheless, in looking at the last couple of years we've been going later in the broadcast window, and we haven't been as consistent as we can. And that will certainly help us in the future.
Today, with the cooperation of all of our television partners, which is no easy thing to do because our season lasts -- It's the longest season in sports. It crosses over a number of different programming grids that each one of our partners had to work through to make available NASCAR events on these consistent times.
28 of the events for next year will be in the 1:00 o'clock hour. We'll start at 1:00 o'clock, which is -- so between consistency and earlier start times, we think we know that we're delivering what our core fan has been telling us for a while.
So I wanted to thank the group on the call today for pulling that off and working with each other to sort out a complicated thing.
The other thing I would make mention while I'm on the line with our valued media partners, is a little bit on the season. Because, obviously, we've got seven events left. We're deep into the Chase. Probably our most competitive so far. Last weekend as an example, of the 10 drivers who finished at Kansas City were in the Chase. So the drivers that are running the best, fueling it the best, are all competing hardest the Chase.
It's giving us a lot to think about, and a lot of fun racing and very competitive racing. So we're very excited with the remaining events left. We'll begin, of course, this weekend in California at the California Speedway. Looking forward to that. Then finishing, hopefully, with a lot of excitement, a lot of good racing down the stretch in south Florida in the finale in November, all on on ABC.
So we're excited about how things are unfolding in our version of the playoffs. With that, I'll turn it over to the media for any questions on the start times or anything else.
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you for the opening comments. We'll go to media for questions.
Q. Brian, can you talk about, people have been asking about this for a long time, the challenges to pulling this off, to working with the partners and getting this done and how you were able to do that? And what were the challenges to getting this pulled together?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well it was challenging, as I said earlier, because all of our partners have a lot of programming that they're concerned with, and it has to all fit in. There always can be different points of view as to what may work best for their particular network.
So I think making the case with everybody working together to get this wide across so many months of programming across so many different networks was not simple. But we did, and everybody certainly wants to drive ratings, drive interests. They want to accommodate the NASCAR core fan (Inaudible).
JOHN SKIPPER: We'd have to look at it. We have the last races. Next year all of the races will either be at 1:00 o'clock eastern, 3:00 o'clock for the West coast races. They will be at 3:00 o'clock eastern. Then the night races will be consistently at 7:30 p.m.
So there will be much more -- it will be very consistent. There will be three windows. An east coast window, a west coast window, and an evening window.
Q. Maybe hear from each of you. The first part would be how realistic growth do you have projected by going to that format? And then, secondly, I'm wondering if Brian could talk about the fact that the momentum ratings momentum seems to have faded a little bit with the start of the chase. Does that make you want to tinker at all with the format going forward?
BRIAN FRANCE: I'll let the other guys comment on the programming, then I'll follow-up with that question at the end.
JOHN SKIPPER: I bet you my friend David Hill and David Levy would agree with me. We're not interested in realistic growth; we're interested in unrealistic growth. I mean, I'll start off quickly by saying none of these things happen in isolation.
We believe this is one of the -- this is something very fan friendly that will help us. We believe to see some growth next year. We've all seen some signs. TNT had a couple of races up in the middle of the season. We've had four races up. So I do think we see some signs of growth that we'd all like to build on next year.
DAVID HILL: I think that we've started to tamper with something that we shouldn't have. And I'll put my hand up and say guilty. That what we tried to do was by moving the races later you get into a television terminology called cuts.
So obviously, the later you move it, the more cuts there are, the greater chance you have at ratings. However, what we've found, and our research and NASCAR's research is that the great thing about this sport is it's wonderful, wonderful traditions.
So we realize that even though we're artificially trying to goose the figures, that it wasn't doing us any good whatsoever with that core fan that created this sport and turned it from a regional sport into a major national sport.
So we all talked and I expect the ratings to probably drop next year. I think what we're all interested in is not short term, but long-term growth.
I think that a season, the fact that the fans realize that the racing is going to be on 1:00 o'clock, 3:00 o'clock or 7:30, and the Daytona 500 will be starting at 1:00 o'clock, that the growth will start to come.
We're not in this for the short term, but we are in this for long-term. We believe firmly by making this move, it's going to give us long-term ratings growth, because we're giving the fans what they want.
DAVID LEVY: I'll add one thing to that, the fact that we all know in this business no matter what programming you put on, if you have a viewing and destination time, in the long-term that's going to be beneficial.
We looked at that as a long-term play. And we know that the hard core fan, the NASCAR fan is there because one of the businesses that we manage here for NASCAR is NASCAR.com.
In fact, those uniques are up year over year. So we know that the hard core fan is there. They're watching it on multiple platforms, and we think this is the start of something that will be beneficial long-term which is a destination of time.
Q. Brian, can you talk about the Chase format and whether you think it needed any other work?
BRIAN FRANCE: We have been looking at it. We're always looking to see if there is an enhancement. But I actually think it's working better than it ever has from a competitive standpoint. In terms of how many people are trying to get in it in Richmond? How many drivers were at stake? How it's unplayed every week?
It's been a different sort of, you know, dominant or somebody that's driving and looks like they're going to go on a run. Then the next week pops up, and now it's Tony Stewart as an example. There's 100 points or less separating 1 through 6.
So we've got to let this play out. There is no question, that sports is different by story lines. Interesting things that are going on with the action on the track. We're pretty confident that we've got them.
It can be difficult for us to get the perfect formula. But we think we have a very good formula in terms of the racing, the balance of the racing action. And we want to let that play out. David touched on something, David Levy, which is true.
You know, we all have to understand that there are a whole lot of places to get and consume NASCAR content and all sports entertainment content. That whole landscape of the digital media age is upon us. So counting traditional metrics in isolation in today's environment, well, that won't work either.
But we want to do the point is in the future, we're pretty confident that we've got a very good model. We're excited this year to see that play out and get some national media traction if Jimmie Johnson is close to winning four in a row, as an example, which he is right now. Or if Juan Pablo Montoya kind of keeps doing what he's doing, we'll have a pretty interesting go of it here in the final seven.
Q. Brian, can you tell me where you got the facts and figures from the fans? Was that some sort of ongoing study by NASCAR?
BRIAN FRANCE: It's both. I think our TV partners have their own way that they can look at data from their own broadcast. David Hill is right though. It does on -- what we have found goes a little bit against the traditional assumptions that are made.
But we also have what we call our fan counsel, which is pretty unique. We have 25,000 dedicated hard core fans that we communicate on a weekly basis with. The feedback was pretty clear. The earlier start times fit their lifestyles, watching and viewing habits, better than the later ones.
And that's, as I said earlier, a little bit counter intuitive. That takes everybody some time to look at that and sort that out on their own. I'm pretty pleased that everyone has.
Q. For Mr. Hill, the Daytona 500, since you guys came on board, it seemed like the starting time got later and later and later. And I was told it was because you were trying to include the West Coast audience. Did you have to give up that later starting time sort of begrudgingly in this case?
DAVID HILL: Not at all. When you questioned you brought up about the research is that obviously we call our viewers all the time and constantly. It's run by Bill Wanger. And he and his staff will get a whole bunch of stuff and issues in every sport we do. The start time issue is something that they isolated and started asking questions in the core markets. And we started talking with NASCAR, and then Johnny Skipper and Dave Levy got involved, and we all started chatting about it.
The main thing about this sport, it's 60 years old, but it's got a tradition like it's 500 years old, and you don't mess with that. And as I said before, that was what we did. We will try to involve the West Coast, that's for sure. But if we're going to be true to the fans, we've got to start somewhere, and the start is at Daytona 500 and that's that.
Q. David Hill, you mentioned projection ratings drop a little bit for next year. Can you explain why and how much you project it might drop next year and if that will also be a factor of the Winter Olympics? And what you expect to see when you talk about looking at long-term growth down the road.
DAVID HILL: Are you familiar with the Roman form of divine nation? It involves killing a chicken, and then looking at the entrails. And the great Roman Empire used that to base their decisions on whether to go to war, whether to go to peace, what have you. I've got a cage of chickens in the corner of my office, and that's what they're telling me.
I made it up. It's a gut feeling. I think that any time you do something new. Obviously, we don't want the ratings to go down, but my feeling is because it's another change to the time and we've got to get everyone used to it, and I really think that I've got a couple in the shorts.
I think for David and John they're going to reap the benefits from the regular starts. I think what you're going to see is an increase in figures for the Chase next year because of the consistency of start times.
I was joking about the chickens. There were no chickens harmed in the projection of the ratings.
JOHN SKIPPER: For clarification, it's your entrails, not chicken entrails.
BRIAN FRANCE: I've been to David's office. You don't have chickens in your office.
Q. About a year ago with the Phoenix race, I know it was a rain delay that race that kind of pushed things back. And you have the channels switch. I know the earlier start time looked like that will help for down the road. What about for this year and their assurances that something like that will be avoided and what will be done if something like that were to happen again? And my second question was the announcement of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the date on that. You guys selected a broadcast partner for that induction ceremony at this point?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, let me take it for a couple things. One is what's left out of this discussion is the tracks also had to, from a start time, had to accommodate into this new schedule. They have their own challenges and issues that they were working through. So I want to thank the tracks as well.
The Hall of Fame, you know we've said next week we're going to be making some announcements on that, and that is next Wednesday. So I'll reserve any announcements to next week, so that's where we are.
Q. What about the Phoenix situation, being able to avoid something like that?
BRIAN FRANCE: The last thing that our network partner wants to do is leave the network that they're on. They know that's problematic. And every once in a while there can be a set of extraordinary circumstances that might happen, and I won't speak for John Skipper who has the final events on ABC.
But there certainly are scenarios that could happen, and I know it's the last thing that they want to happen. But I guess it is possible.
JOHN SKIPPER: It is possible, but it's highly, highly unlikely. We are sensitive to what happened last year. We would not want to repeat that scenario. We have some protocol going forward. I'm not going to detail it here, but we do not want a repeat of that situation. It didn't serve the fan well.
Our partners at NASCAR were quite -- were terrific in sort of understanding that we did what we thought we had to do at that point. We don't expect it to happen again.
Q. Just to clarify for fans the start times. Is this when the green flag is going to drop or the pre-race show starting?
DAVID HILL: It's the invocations. The invocations start at 1:00, and the pre-races start at midday. So we'll be on at midday or noon, depending on where you grew up and what school you went to. Or for those who didn't go to school, 12:00 o'clock, and then the invocation at 1:00. The green flag is probably 15 to 20 minutes after that.
Q. You come from covering everything around the world and a little bit of F1 before you came over here. Many years ago Bernie Ecclestone had a standard time for the F1 race. Did that ever occur to you guys when the contracts started with NASCAR, eight, nine years ago?
DAVID HILL: I've actually done a heck of a lot of F1. And Bernie's problem is because he has races coming in from around the globe.
Q. But the non-flyaway races. The ones on the continent tended to start 1:00 or 2:00 o'clock every week or every other week?
DAVID HILL: 2 o'clock every other week or whenever he ran them. No, no. I expunged all thoughts of Formula 1 when I met Bill France, Jr. I then had a new leader. Lot taller and just as funny as Bernie was.
Q. We've seen the ratings have dipped a little bit here, and I think the blame, obviously, can be leveed against the competition. It's tough to go up against the NFL. We can make great ideas of maybe moving some races during the Chase to this Saturday night. Have you guys talked about that idea? The possibility of more races on Saturday nights into the Chase? And I guess for John, the difficulty that that would be for you guys to balance all your other programming?
BRIAN FRANCE: Of course we talked about it. There are lots of issues. Saturday night from a level standpoint, I think it's the lowest night on television. It comes with other issues and you would still have college football which is pretty strong programming. So there's that.
Then you have the host track who may not want to run it at night. So David Hill said traditions, and we have a lot of traditional things that happen in terms of Sunday afternoons that worked quite well. So we're not, obviously, when the ratings go up or down, you're taking note of that. We are, but we're not going to make any big, rash changes to try to chase that. We'll just keep building our story lines and try to look at good racing.
JOHN SKIPPER: We could find times. We do have some nationwide races Saturday night, the Richmond races. We have multiple networks. But I don't think there are any plans to move to more Saturday night races, but we talk about everything.
Q. Do the earlier start times, does the fact that rain outs and the potential maybe to get a race in factor in the all? And for John, can you just talk about how this set time schedule and how it impacts you trying to schedule college football in the fall?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, sure it will give us more flexibility if rain should occur. We did have, especially earlier in the year, quite a bit of challenge with rain. So having more daylight, more time to get events in, because that definitely will be an added benefit. Certainly wasn't the reason that we all did this. But it will have an added benefit.
JOHN SKIPPER: In terms of scheduling college football, that's much more of a nationwide -- nationwide matter. We've worked with NASCAR with our partners at the conferences, and we've got a lot of windows and multiple networks. So we've been able to -- it's be been a big issue. And the new start times on Sunday have no impact.
Q. When you get right down to it, how much of the ratings decline blame should be placed on the uneven start times and how much of it should be placed other places?
DAVID HILL: Well, if we knew that, our lives would be a lot simpler, wouldn't they?
JOHN SKIPPER: But they'd quit paying us. You know, it's just one of -- I don't think any of us know. We all believe this is one thing we could coalesce around that we know that fans like. We believe it will help us. We're always in the middle of things that we think. We're laughing about David's entrails, but, you know, these are all gut calls at the end of the day.
We listen to fans, we all talk about what we think is best. Ultimately it's NASCAR's call. We hope it makes the ratings go up.
DAVID LEVY: The bottom line is right now the television consumer has more choices than at any time in the history of man.
JOHN SKIPPER: Until next year.
DAVID LEVY: Then there will be something else that comes along, John's exactly right. So if you ignore the fan and you don't -- you don't do what is very old-fashioned customer service, you do that at your peril. And we just think we're making life simpler for the ardent fan, it's as simple as that.
BRIAN FRANCE: And going back to what we said earlier, appointment viewing works for all programming. Sports, regular programming, entertainment programming, so this is a gut call to say it's probably going to help and work for this as well.
JOHN SKIPPER: The only other comment I'd make is there's not anybody on this call satisfied until the ratings go up. We're looking, you know --
DAVID HILL: Amen to that.
JOHN SKIPPER: Yeah.
Q. I'm wondering where things stand on discussions on shortening race weekends next year into two-day shows? And I'm wondering if the gentlemen representing the networks are in favor or not in favor of shorter weekends?
DAVID HILL: What is the question?
Q. Going to two-day shows next weekend?
DAVID HILL: Two day shows?
BRIAN FRANCE: Let me just say that that comes from a cost discussion that we have on -- we're trying to save the teams money in their annual budgets. We have cut weekends back some from time to time. We're not cutting races back and not shortening those. You've got to remember qualifying, practice, is good content. It actually rates fairly well for all of our partners.
So there are other ramifications other than just saving the teams money on a given weekend. Which is why, if we were going to trim back the amount of time that the team spent at the track, there is an impact.
It's also promotionally difficult for the tracks themselves that are trying to build interest for the weekend in their local market when there's not practice and activity at the track.
So there is lots of thinking that goes into whether we would pull back the time on the track.
Q. Anything from the gentlemen from the network? I know it does affect programming. Is that something that the networks would be opposed to?
DAVID HILL: Two day shows?
Q. Yes. One less day at the racetrack.
DAVID HILL: No.
DAVID LEVY: No, not at all.
Q. Okay, thank you.
DAVID HILL: By the way, it's actually better for us, because we don't have to extend the other time for the crews doing the set-up. It's a huge set-up.
So the fact that we can't do anything while the track's hot. So the call of the cooler the track, the closer to the weekend, the better it is for us.
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you to all our gentlemen who joined us today. Great announcement. Have a good afternoon.
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