Monday, August 23, 2010

Racing Weekend Hangover... after a word from our sponsors

So this past weekend’s IndyCar race had a lot of people internet-angry, which is kind of like actually being angry except most of it is just a lot of text without follow-up. The thing that had a lot of people talking was not Will Power’s unfair advantage due to having superhuman abilities giving him a 1 second lead PER LAP over the rest of the field, nor was it about KV Racing continuing their destruction derby in the middle of an IndyCar Race; no it was the fact that VERSUS went to commercial break with 5 laps remaining and by the time they returned and finished showing a Will Power montage, viewers got the final one and a half lap.

As a result of my field trip to Making Up the Numbers, I’ve now got a taste of some factual analysis on commercial time during American motorsports broadcasting. The initial results turned up interesting in that the amount of commercials increases depending on the TV station and series while ESPN showed little regard for capturing important on-track action.

As this weekend started I couldn’t help but to continue the practice, so I queued up my spreadsheet and calculator and tracked this past weekend’s American LeMans race at Road America covered on SPEED and the IndyCar race at Sonoma covered on Versus and there is a mighty interesting conclusion to be found…. After this word from our sponsors…

Oh, so while we were away for that commercial Will Power just won another race. But what you didn’t miss are the neato charts and results of time tracking the TV broadcasts from racing. As per usual, race time is judged from the moment someone says “Drivers Start your engines” to the time the final car crosses the checkered flag.  For a reference point, go here to see NASCAR at Watkins Glen and IndyCar at Mid-Ohio.

Click to see full size

The initial thing that pointed out to me for ALMS was totally unrelated to the TV broadcast but instead that there were three different yellow flag caution periods that were longer than fifteen minutes! I mean ALMS has longer races in general plus more cars with numerous classes, but fifteen minute caution periods? It definitely turned me off as a viewer, but theres is great racing so I pushed through for it. There were also a large number of long commercials, some stints as short as 2 minutes but three different stints of 4-minutes of straight commercials.

Even amongst all that, ALMS on SPEED still only came out to 46 minutes of commercials, or 27% of the broadcast. 7% less than NASCAR on ESPN whose race was only 6 minutes shorter in length. The one benefit that ALMS and Grand-Am have on TV is that the broadcaster knows exactly when the race will end regardless of how many caution periods happen because they are timed events. As a result SPEED was able to time the commercials so that the final 13 minutes of the race were broadcast without interruption. 

What is interesting to note however, is that ESPN managed the final 15 minutes in Watkins Glen for NASCAR? How did they do it, well by doing commercial double ups during yellow periods seemed to be their key. And that’s where we can turn our attention to IndyCar on VERSUS.

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If you saw last week’s chart, you’ll note that Sonoma had exactly the same amount of commercials in time than Mid-Ohio, roughly 26 minutes, but because the race was shorter it upped the percentage to 23% (vs. 21% at Mid-Ohio). So clearly it wasn’t a matter of VERSUS trying to get as many commercials as possible into the broadcast yesterday, more likely it seems to me that VERSUS has a minimum 13 commercial breaks for a road course.

Now that is an educated guess on my part, but I’d bet you two jars of Boudreaux’s Butt Paste that all the road courses this season had at least 13 commercial breaks for at least 26 minutes. The problem at Sonoma is that with 10 laps to go they only had 12 breaks, meaning they likely scrambled to get that last one in. The choice: break TV commercial contracts or suffer the wrath of angry fans on the internet because you went side-by-side while Scott Dixon was all over Will Power’s ass with 5 laps to go.

We don’t know the answer to what happens behind the scenes or what would happen if they didn’t hit a contracted minimum, but at least maybe now we know why. And if that’s the reason, then all we can ask for is that VERSUS try doing more commercial double stints during yellow flag periods like they did through laps 38-40. The final 7-minute yellow period at Sonoma-Infineon would have been a perfect spot, or the yellow in the middle of the race that was commercial-less, and then we could have gone green to finish without interruption, and the internet would rejoice... that is, assuming it is as easy to do as it was for me to write that.


Jackie said...

Nice work again Allen. Hehe we've got you bitten by the stats bug... there will be no stopping you now!

Wonder what they would do if there is no yellow flags during a race or does that just never happen?

Allen Wedge said...

Definitely have gotten the stats bug; my only problem is I need more to work with. Indycar doesn't offer up lap times after a race like F1 does for Gavin to use.

As for yellow flags; only 1 race in IndyCar Series history has gone without a yellow flag and that was last year's finale. Before that I can only recall two-three other races that came close and in all cases a yellow was thrown in the final laps due to contact/debris on the track, at which point a commercial seems silly as its just a yellow flag during checkered flag (like the Indy 500 this year).

Truly the only real solution is commercial free races; but alas I don't think that will happen at least until there is a bigger fanbase to demand it.

RubberGoat said...

Great stuff Allen. I really think you are on to something with this one.

As for the 'commercial break too close to the end of the race' thing, it has happened when ITV used to have the coverage in the UK.

Apparently they went to a commercial break with something like 4 laps to go because they were contractually bound to have one more... yet were waiting because Jenson Button was having a bit of a battle with someone. There was a bit of outrage and after that, you kept hearing ITV say with about 10 laps to go: "We are commercial free until the end of the Grand Prix"...

Pat W said...

Good analysis!

I think Gavin's referring to the Imola 2005 when ITV held back their final break because Schumacher and Alonso were nose-to-tail in the closing laps - as they had been for many laps. I think they were hoping it would be resolved. Eventually they had to take their break because they had to before the flag fell - and they missed the last two laps. To make it worse, when they returned they said "don't worry we'll show you that again" - they never showed it in the first place!