Aftermath, Chicagoland: Stuck At Home, Our Writer Discovers Unwatchable TV Broadcast

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 08: Fans fill the grandstands during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 8, 2010 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

It's not the quality of the racing that's making people tune out – it's the TV broadcasts themselves.

To those inside the garage, NASCAR's television ratings decline has been somewhat of a mystery.

The ratings are nothing what they were at NASCAR's peak in 2005, and everyone has a different theory: Drivers didn't show enough personality. The racing wasn't as interesting. Fans were confused by non-standard start times. People have shorter attention spans these days.

But this season, nearly all those issues seem to have been addressed. Yet the ratings have still dropped in many races compared to last year.

Until Saturday night, I didn't really understand why.

Many fans have yelled and screamed and jumped up and down, insisting you knew the answer all along: The TV broadcasts are unwatchable.

I didn't believe you. I figured, "OK, there might be a lot of commercials and you might not like what some of the broadcasters say, but c'mon. It can't be that bad."

It is. Saturday night's broadcast was that bad.

I'm not sure the executives at NASCAR understand this. Like me, they're at the track nearly every week and don't rely on the TV broadcasts as their primary source of information. I didn't get it; they probably don't, either.

So to recap, what TNT gave the fans was basically this: Commercials, commercials, commercials, a few laps of racing, commercials, commercials, commercials. Then the broadcast would come back on, play-by-play man Adam Alexander would say, "While we were away..." and TNT would show us the important moment we missed.

From the replays, it looked like there were a few exciting moments. We just didn't get to see them until later.

Don't tell me it was a boring race so TNT had nothing to show. Whether it was boring or not, as a viewer I wanted to see the freaking race. But I don't feel like I really did.

If you're a fan, you may be reading this and smacking your forehead while saying, "DUH!" Apparently from the comments I see every week, it's like this all the time.

Well, I apologize. I didn't get it before. Now I do.

Unless you're truly hardcore about NASCAR, you can't just sit there and watch the race from start to finish. Casual or even semi-interested fans would be turned off by the broadcasts.

When I was only part-time on the NASCAR beat from 2004-06, I used to sit at home and watch every race. And I enjoyed them.

But as I sat there on Saturday night, I thought, "If I didn't have to watch this, I'd turn it off."

That was discouraging, because if I felt that way, I'd imagine many fans did, too. Except they probably did turn it off.

What's frustrating is all this time I've been thinking the declining ratings had much to do with the quality of the racing. It really doesn't. It's the quality of the broadcasts which are supposed to show the racing.

Look, I don't know anything about TV. I don't have any suggestions to improve camera angles or have ideas on how the analysts could be better.

All I know is that as a viewer, I didn't enjoy watching the race. The TV broadcast didn't make me want to come back next week, or even finish the race I was already watching.

It reminded me of a school cafeteria: There's only one option on the menu – and it's not good – but the lunch lady smirks and says, "You'll take what we give you – and you'll like it."

As I whined on Twitter about the quality of the broadcast, fans repeatedly tweeted, "Uh, it's like this every week. What are you so upset about?"

But some offered suggestions to improve my experience.

Jeff, have you checked out RaceBuddy? Do you have DirecTV HotPass? Have you used NASCAR.com's TrackPass?

I appreciated all the suggestions, but no. I just wanted to turn my TV to the channel the race was on and watch the friggin' cars go around the friggin' track. Is that too much to ask these days?

Believe it or not, I'm typically cautious about publicly griping about excessive commercial breaks, because TV is a business and they have to make money. Just like me and others in the media, they rely on advertising to do so.

But Saturday night's broadcast was just unbearable. It felt more like the racing was a break from the commercials than the commercials were a break from the race.

The TV people often say this: Well, we show about the same amount of commercials per hour as a primetime network drama or reality show.

That may be true, but the fact that it seems like way too much is evidence the current model is broken. It's absolutely broken.

In a year where ESPN shows World Cup soccer games commercial-free (some of which have outdrawn races in ratings, by the way) and IndyCar Series telecasts have "side-by-side" coverage during their events, it's perfectly fair to ask why NASCAR races can't be the same way.

There are some very brilliant and creative people in the TV world. So get on it.

The TV executives have repeatedly told us that side-by-side broadcasts won't work in NASCAR because advertisers spend big money and want the full screen to get value for their dollars.

Well at some point, some TV guy with a backbone is going to have to stand up and say, "You know what? We're doing side-by-side coverage to help make the sport more watchable – and improve our ratings. Advertisers, if you want to leave, go ahead."

And you know they won't leave. Call their bluff. Do you really believe Nationwide and Toyota and all those other advertisers who spend so many millions every week will say, "See ya! We're not going to pay for our message to go to NASCAR fans if it's only in a little box."

They may not like it, but they'll do it. And the fans will appreciate everyone for it.

Another option is for some company to brand a portion of the broadcast to make it commercial-free.

Personally, I think that would be wildly successful. Let's say Nationwide uses the money for all those "You and me both, Junior" ads and tells the network that it wants to sponsor the final 50 laps of the race to ensure they are commercial free for fans.

NASCAR fans, who are smarter about marketing than fans in any other sport, would say, "WOW! Nationwide is awesome! We will show our appreciation by signing up for their insurance!"

And even if they didn't, wouldn't you agree that branding a commercial-free portion of the broadcast would be a far more effective way of getting business than cramming Tony Eury Sr. down everyone's throat five times a race?

For those decision-makers from NASCAR or the TV networks who read this, you may be tempted to dismiss this column as the typical gripes you hear every week.

But I challenge you to do this: Sit down and watch a NASCAR TV broadcast from start to finish without fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks.

You may discover the same thing I did: As it turns out, fans don't just complain for the sake of complaining after all.

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