• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, September 06, 2010

HOW TO FIX THE IRL ON VERSUS

Once Upon a Time . . .

Those famous four words represent the most important change Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard must insist on if the Versus TV ratings are to be anything other than an iron boat anchor chained to the collective ankle of his series, its corporate partners, and team owners.

Let me put it another way: What you need, Randy, is a STORYTELLER.

That is, to my semi-trained eyes and ears, the most obvious problem with how Versus presents the Izod IndyCar Series. It's also the most fixable.

Before further explanation, let me establish my bona fides for opining on this subject.

In December 1980 -- one month after becoming CART's first communications director -- I was in New York City to meet with ESPN. Those talks led to the first TV deal between the two, with a debut at the Milwaukee Mile the following June, which happened to be ESPN's first live major race production. It also so happened Bob Jenkins called the action and Terry Lingner produced the show -- now both working the Versus events. In subsequent years, I had a few chances to help Bob out in the broadcast booth and once even faked my way through as an in-truck pit producer for a Lingner-produced ESPN NASCAR race at Michigan. Before the 1983 season, I was the second end of CART Chairman John Frasco's pre-determined good cop/bad cop act in negotiations with NBC for exclusive rights to all CART events -- which were sold for $1 million. As a PR rep, I dare say I spent more serious time in TV compounds and production trailers than anyone in a similar position, offering stats, story lines, feature ideas and soaking in a sense of what the announcers and production people were thinking and what they needed.

With that said, I'll go on.

Versus' basic production philosophy is to offer straight race coverage. It's the opposite of NASCAR on Fox, the home of Digger, the Hollywood Hotel, Slice of Pizzi, and Boogity, Boogity, Boogity. So, on paper, I have to applaud the approach.

Except, given the cold-hard realities of today's IndyCar series, it's fundamentally flawed. If, using Bernard's own estimate, the ICS hadn't lost 15-20 million fans in the IRL-CART/Champ Car debacle, a down-the-middle, gimmick-less production might work. The sad truth is there are no longer enough hard-core IndyCar fans to allow for such production purity.

To remain relevant and viable as a corporate sports marketing vehicle, the series desperately needs to attract new viewers. To do that, it needs to be more appealing, to draw-in those now obviously not tuning-in or clicking away as soon as the vanilla pre-show starts.

How? Storytelling! IndyCar is a vibrant sport that demands to be presented in bright colors, not the grayscale it's currently getting.

The by-rote droning-on about points and black vs. red tires and fuel strategy mixed in with all-too-predictable interviews isn't getting the required results (read that: ratings). For way-too-long the commentary has emphasized tire choice and half-a-turn of front wing (boring to all but the true believers) over the human drama. A perfect example came at Chicagoland, where by-far the most compelling story -- a Sarah Fisher crewmember battling ALS -- wasn't mentioned until about 30 minutes in. (Those potential new viewers were long gone.)

Bernard seems willing to consider innovations, so here's how I'd open each show: With a The McLaughlin Group style pundits panel, quickly debating the 2-3 most important (and lively) issues of the day. (To present a real image of credibility, the panelists should not be dressed in Izod series shirts.) Making this format work would require a strong moderator, one able to keep control, and cleanly move from topic-to-topic. I'd then get into the more-standard elements, then cut back to the panel for their pre-green flag comments. Depending on race length and oval vs. road course, it might be possible during long yellow (and certainly red) periods to return to the Group. And, we'd want to hear their post-race ravings.

(By the way, when the Versus contract was first announced, I made the above suggestion to the previous IndyCar management regime. I told them they didn't have enough money to buy enough ads, and not enough paper to print enough press releases, to attract casual fans to a somewhat obscure network. I warned them the biggest challenge was to build an audience via word-of-mouth "water-cooler talk.")

Knowing HOW to phrase questions that can bring out a driver's personality and deepest emotions is a pit-reporter skill that perhaps ended with Chris Economaki. But Bernard and Versus must find a way to do it. Dan Wheldon was interviewed after Kentucky and the former Indy 500 winner and contender to win the two most recent races dropped clues -- not once, but twice -- that he wouldn't be returning to the Panther team in 2011. Bernard and Versus must have a non-tin ear to actually listen to the answers, understand the news value, and ask the journalistically-sound follow-up questions. "Dan, are you saying you won't be with Panther next season? Was that your decision or the team's? What reason did they give you? Who will you be driving for in 2011? Who is going to replace you at Panther?"

When Takuma Sato wrecked on the opening lap, a booth announcer wondered how many crashes the KV team had endured this season. That stat should have been at his fingertips. That showed a lack of preparation. It's certainly been written about in the press. How about an interview with Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven and asking them to total-up the collective bill? Especially in this economy, THAT would have been informative!

It would have been fascinating Storytelling.

IndyCar and Versus must have a production capability with enough awareness, and sufficient skill, to recognize the stories as they unfold -- and then tell them. Continuing into 2011 with the production status quo clearly is not an acceptable business option.

How to fix the IRL on Versus? A good place to start that saga would be to recall four telling words:

Once Upon a Time . . .



I've made my feelings known -- several times -- in this bit of cyberspace about the perils of social media and the modern media too-often not doing the Journalism 101 basics like fact checking. Then, last week, came word that Washington Post columnist Mike Wise had sent out on Twitter what he knew to be false information. Wise was making a point that lots of other reporters would repeat this "news" without bothering to verify it themselves. Sure enough, that is what happened.

It was, however, a classic case of the end not justifying the means. Even though Wise said he pulled the prank in connection with his radio show, he used a Post Twitter account. The Post put a one-month suspension on Wise, who apologized, and admitted his error of judgment.

I take three lessons from this: 1) Wise should have been wise enough to recognize the hoax would ultimately cost him precious credibility; 2) Wise should have been wise enough to recognize that his media buddies -- having been exposed for laziness and lack of standards -- would turn on him like Lewis Hamilton throttling through a hairpin corner; 3) Just because it's Twitter, that does not provide absolution from straying from traditional journalism standards.

Also of note: The Associated Press issued new guidelines on sources, instructing staff to "provide attribution whether the other organization is a newspaper, website, broadcaster or blog; whether or not it's U.S. based; and whether or not it's an AP member or subscriber."

Good move, although one might have reasonably thought such attribution would be automatic.

[ more next Monday . . . ]