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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: Breaking Down TNT’s Wide Open Coverage

For the second straight year, the Coke Zero 400 from Daytona International Speedway will be broadcast by TNT Saturday night using a concept called “Wide Open Coverage.” You remember last year, right? The split-screen coverage of commercials and racing action that had been so successfully used in the IRL – from a fan’s standpoint, anyway – finally came to NASCAR. Well, actually came back to NASCAR… but we’ll get to that later.

Anyways, the return of WOC got me to thinking: If this format that fans have been pining for so long worked so well in the IRL and, evidently, worked so well for TNT that they’ve brought it back for this year’s Daytona race – why can’t we enjoy it throughout the season? For answers, I thought I’d go to the source, and that source happens to be Jeff Behnke, the Executive Producer of NASCAR on TNT. Not surprisingly, I found that it all boils down to dollars and, well, more dollars. But as Kyle Petty said in our Athlon Sports Racing annual this year, “This is a business six days a week. It’s only a sport on Sunday, but it’s a business Monday through Saturday.” And for the networks, it’s a business on Sunday, too (or Saturday night, as the case may be).

I know this Fanning is a little different than what you see each Thursday, but I figure this will answer questions that you and I both have; and after all, isn’t this column about you, the fans? So, enjoy the short conversation I had with Mr. Behnke, and we’ll return to our regularly scheduled format next week – provided you guys and gals throw me some business.

Q: I can’t imagine that the feedback TNT received from last year’s “Wide Open Coverage” format was negative after so many viewers kept asking why this couldn’t be done in NASCAR. Can you tell us what the fans and advertisers’ reaction was to last year’s coverage?

A: I think the fact that we have 10 sponsors back on board this year – Coke Zero, Sprint, Viagra, Coors Light, Papa John’s, Subway, Toyota, Warner Brothers, U.S. Army and Hewlett Packard – will tell you right there that the advertisers overwhelmingly supported it, and thought it was great for their products.

The feedback we got from the fans’ emails, phone calls, and blogs was through-the-roof positive. The fans obviously wish that every race could be [presented] that way.

Q: How about this year’s coverage? Will there be any changes, or will this basically be a carbon copy of what we saw in 2007?

A: We’ve made some changes. Like in everything that we do, we take a look at it and see what improvements and tweaks we need to make. So, we’re going to be adding more information on the ad tracker, which is the bar across the bottom of the screen – specifically information about all 43 drivers. All will be represented at some point on the bottom of the screen.

We know that the two things that the fans are most vocal about in their viewing of NASCAR are the commercials and all 43 drivers. “Wide Open Coverage” gives us the opportunity to eliminate or to reduce dramatically the [number of] commercial interruptions, and gives us a chance to give more information about all 43 drivers.

Q: For a couple of years, we saw the IRL use a format very similar to this approach. NASCAR held a firm stance that it was open to the concept of using side-by-side commercial/racing viewing. However, as Ramsey Poston stated three years ago, NASCAR could never find the “proper solution” to some of the issues such a format presented. What were the “proper solutions” that allow TNT to use this “Wide Open Coverage” format?

A: Well, a couple of things: let’s go backwards first. TBS, or Turner Broadcasting, used to be a broadcaster of NASCAR. [Various outlets of] Turner have been broadcasting Cup races for 25 years now, and the Charlotte race in 2000 (Coca-Cola 600) was the first that Turner ever used the split screen – it was called “No Breaks Coverage.” That was the first run at this in motorsports.

This concept [“Wide Open Coverage”] is very, very different from what they do on the IRL [coverage] because we manipulate the screen to give the viewers more video at home. Also, the commercials that we’re running are originally produced-branded content that we produce ourselves for air. So, it’s two different concepts.

The third part, and to answer your question directly: What put it over the top to be able to do it are the sponsors. If the sponsors buy into it and the sponsors are on board with it, then we’re able to do it. It just has to be able to fit a certain financial model. Right now, we’re able to do it for the one race.

Q: And that leads me to my next question, which is for a fan like me who is uneducated in the world of television production and television advertising (I’m a print guy, after all) – why is this concept used in only one race?

A: The financial model. The way it’s set up with advertisers, you need a certain amount of dollars from the commercials to pay the bills. And right now, the financial model only allows for one race, because we’re changing the way that the race is sold.

Q: Is this a model that you hope to expand upon in the future to include other races?

A: We would love to, but right now we’ve only found a way to make it fit for the one race.

Q: With the advent of TiVo and DV-Rs, many viewers simply skip through the commercials anyway. It seems to me, again, as a uneducated TV guy, that this format is a way to give the advertisers more air time because of the larger contingent of viewers who are making the switch to TiVo and DV-R viewing. Does this make more financial sense to the networks and advertisers as that number grows?

A: Once again, our financial model will only fit for the one race. Down the line, I don’t know, but for now it only fits for the one race.