Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wanna fix the Ratings? Then Fix the TV Product.

There is a type of study in the marketing research industry called an Ethnography study and despite the similarity between Latin root influences, they have very little to do with Willy T Ribbs.  Typically an Ethnography study looks to understand how consumers of a product or category interact with the product as they use it.  The goal being if you understand how your product is used or consumed, then you can design it better for those purposes.  Methodologies for these studies are more diverse than any type of marketing research I can think of, ranging from having study participants e-mail recipes, texting camera pictures of the product as it is being used or consumed, to having a person follow a participant around and actually watch a subject interact with the product (David, does any of this sound familiar?)
After having married into two nascar families (not at the same time mind you, the first experience didn’t end so well) and having bought a house from another, I feel like I have collected enough data to publish some information from an ethnographic study of nascar viewing consumption and broadcast interactions and draw inferences from it that has pertinence to IndyCar as well.
Sunday morning starts off with the pre-race show and opinions about them are split.  The wicked and evil of the world have these shows on as background noise as they go about their sinful ways Sunday morning, sleeping in late then farting around the house as they cook breakfast.  The good, righteous and saved of the world don’t watch them because they are at church.  Instead, the good and righteous of the world get their nascar fluff on espn during the week while secretly fantasizing about getting Mrs Briscoe naked and doing impure things to her which is why they have to go to church on Sundays so they can feel better about themselves.
Then the race starts, and all eyes are glued to the tele looking for the first lap melee.  Soon, after a couple tries at it, the race settles down into cars going around in circles at which point Y2k attention spans start to wander.  The older types start to doze on the couch and begin to snore.  Those under 18 wander off to another TV, one with a game console hooked up and begin to play games, occasionally racing related, more often however these games relate to gratuitous simulations of mortal violence.  Sometimes, if the weather is just right, they go out and play basketball. 
The 25 – 35 crowd is a little different, they tend to be more mobile and will have hopped into their pickup trucks and migrated to the lair of another herd member where they are joined by other members of the herd.  The herd congregation spot is usually the lair of the herd leader and it is often a basement or detached garage which is stocked with the following items:  A TV with the race on, a fridge full of Coor’s light and a pool table or a computer with a porn site loaded up – sometimes both (as was the case during the open house where I first looked at the property that is my current residence.  FYI if you are selling a house and are holding an open house, it means get the hell off the property, not just out of the house.  Going out to the detached garage, getting drunk while watching Tony go round in circles usually is detrimental to your chances of selling said house Bubba)  But I Digress.  In this environment, after the race starts and the cars are generally going around in circles, viewers tend to migrate to the fridge then either the pool table or porn loaded computer.
Then with about 30 laps to go something inexplicable happens, some instinctual alarm goes off in the psyche of all these racing enthusiasts.  They heed an inner call to return to the television set, nascar throws a yellow to bunch up the field and then the excitement begins anew until the checkered finally drops.
The gist?  Nascar events generally are marked by two race stages that are compelling and engaging to the consumer: the start and the finish.  The 2 hours in between are a disposable, filler portion of the broadcast that rarely engages the consumer. 
A flaw with the Neilson methodology that determines audience ratings or the set top data the satellite and cable companies collect to provide similar data, is that if the viewers leave the TV on to go do something else, the measurement methodologies still record that something is being “watched”.  Ratings do not show the dip in attentiveness that actually happens.  Credit Fox for recognizing this and calling out nascar to shorten up their races after making the same discoveries.
In some of the discussion that has ensued relating to the first 60 laps of Long Beach, it would appear that certain IndyCar fans have the belief that IndyCar is different, that the entire 5 hour broadcast window is or must be compelling must see TV and are outraged that a League vs drivers disagreement over double wide restarts robbed them of having a full rich 2.5 hour race experience.  Honestly during the middle portions of the race Sunday, I went outside fed the Ducks, spray painted some wooden easter eggs for a friend’s child and spent the rest of the time twittering.  Mrs JP attacked a 5” thick piece of Polyfoam with a 12” bread knife and hand crafted a replacement cushion for the love seat.  Other than Mike Conway muffing a pit stop, we didn’t miss much.
Audience “engagement” problems that plague nascar are issues with IndyCar as well.  I suspect that at some level this engagement issue is what has driven the attendance trends at IndyCar events.  Long Beach and St Pete draw well because when the race gets boring, there is more to do.  There’s plenty of Tecate girls clad in skin tight shiny blue spandex to purchase $8.75 beers from…and flirt with or gawk at.  At Nashville or Chicagoland when drivers are doing laps 50 – 150 trying to save fuel and stay out of trouble, attendees have nothing to do but sit in their seats and get bored.  Even if the finish is great, they go home thinking that they could have saved the $60 and watched the final 20 laps at home.  Indy is different than the average oval in that there is always Turn 3 infield and hence more like Long beach than Chicagoland. 
Big time racing has settled into an event with the format of:  start, finish and a 2 hour scheduled nap in between.  The race strategy is pretty predictable for these events.  If you have agood car and lead, the  run way and hide Will, save fuel if you can. If you got a good car and are near the front, keep your nose clean and make your run late after the last pit stop Dario.  If you have a good car and start further back, then Tony start punking the also rans in the back but don’t expect the TV to notice until you have moved up at least 10 spots.  If you got a lousy car JR, hope you can figure it out and hope you can fix it in order to make a run late, otherwise, let Helio and Viso gain you some positions.  The point is, double wide restarts or not, unless you are named Helio Castroneves, there is no incentive to do anything stupid early or in the middle for the cars the TV has the camera on.  The format encourages predicable boring race strategies, exacerbating the problem.
Diehard fans are probably outraged at this point talking about how people should appreciate the finer nuances of pit strategy, fuel conservation and tire management.  But the casual fan is like the Honey Badger, they don’t care, frankly they don’t give a shit.  I have asked a number of casual sports fan friends of mine what they hope to see in a race and it almost always comes down to three things:  The big one; A late pass for the lead; and someone they’ve heard of winning the race.  In reality this is all SportsCenter has taught them to expect, so when they see an hour and a half of race “filler” that seems to serve no purpose they move on and if they find Tiger on a run or derrick Rose en Fuego, they don’t come back.
Racing events on television need to be blown up and recreated and re-imagined as to provide more must see content.  The filler must be flushed.  Probably no other racing series has a better format for television than USAC or WOO sprint events.  Heat Races, followed by more heat races followed by a Final race for all the marbles.  Sprint car racing triples the green flag starts and checkered flag finishes and disposes of the disposable in between.  SO why, you ask, are these events not the hottest thing on TV?  Simple, Two things:  Going around in circles and Dirt.  Nascar and Supercross have shown you can get away with one or the other and be successful, but combine the two and you have something that mainstream America will never see as more than a primitive slop exhibition put on by uneducated hicks. 
Sorry if I offend you, I am not here to make friends today…
This same basic format works quite well for sports other than auto racing.  The recent revelation of the winter Olympic games has not been the inclusion of new extreme sports for the teenies in the audience.  The new crack for Olympic viewers is Short track speed skating.  If you are familiar with the sport then you know – it is organized just like a sprint or midget race.  Heats with about half the participants of each heat moving on until there are 4 skaters left for all the marbles.  Every heat is important and has tangible consequences.
You want to create made for TV racing events that will draw in new viewers and grow the ratings number?  Then drop this into a 5 hour IndyCar broadcast window:  Two heat races where the field is split into balanced groups based on odd and even placements from qualifying.  Run 25 laps on ovals and 10 on road circuits, no pit stops, pay a small loading of championship points.  Then roll out the lights cars and let them have their moment, perhaps shorten their event a little.  Then finally, roll out the top 10 from each of the qualification races and run a race long enough to mandate a fueling pit stop, make tires degrade quickly enough that teams and drivers contemplate extra stops to gain an advantage.  On a road course roll out a new compound that was not available in practice, quals or the heats.  Challenge drivers, teams and engineers to adapt or be left behind.
An event like this makes every lap relevant and important, there are no “Fuel saving” or “keep your nose clean” laps anymore.  Drivers race every lap hard.  Fans watch the whole event because everything presented to them has tangible consequences that even a novice fan understands.
Radical? Yes, but as long as the .27 ratings continue, the closer we get to pulling the plug on IndyCar.  Every race?  No, traditional long form endurance runs like Indy can still be part of the schedule as they provide variety from week to week.  A new idea?  Nope, I imagine the Texas two step in June is a trial balloon for something like this and I would imagine league and network researchers will be comparing the minute by minute ratings for this event to other events in order to see how engaged the audience stays.
At this point despite what everyone else might suggest, new cars, more Americans more underdogs aren’t going to save this thing.  Redesigning your on air product to be consistently more engaging to the viewer is the only thing that will…


  1. Apparently comments were down earlier but I received this via e-mail from Redcar....JP

    I wanted to tell you that I thought you had a very original idea in regard to reformatting the way Indycar races. Everyone is debating oval vs. twisty or American vs. non-American or what kind of new car will save the series, but I've never heard anyone put forward the idea to change the way they structure the races themselves before and I think it's an original and interesting idea.

    Anyway, enjoyed the blog today.

  2. After some consideration, it does seem like something that should be utilized more often. In the past, I have wondered why it would be so hard for friends of my who are fans of other sports to give auto racing a chance even though, at least in the case of Indy car racing, the total length of time from green to checkered is shorter than a football or baseball game. What you mentioned in the blog post makes plenty of sense. In those sports, there are bursts of action followed up by defined rest periods whereas in a typical race, the time investment is basically continuous. Also, those bursts seem to have more importance to them for fans of other sports than a single lap does for those same fans. Your idea seems to bridge that attention gap which could be a boon.

  3. I really like the idea! A1GP tried this to a degree, having a sprint race followed by a longer feature race. Of course, that series didn't survive, but it wasn't because of its racing.

    I like your notion even better with two heat races and a feature race. ...gotta have an LCQ, though!


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