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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Opinion: Still a Lot of Work for Versus

Versus may be back on DirecTV and in 17 million more homes as of Monday, but that doesn't mean that the network - or its coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series - is completely legitimate just yet.

The network and its personnel have made far too many mistakes in presentation over the past year, especially in IndyCar coverage, and this is part of the reason why a lot of people do not take Comcast's sports-oriented network seriously.

I'm not just talking about Bob Jenkins and the rest of Versus' on-air personality stumbling over their words, although Jenkins is sadly not the broadcaster he was on ESPN's NASCAR coverage in the late 1990s. I'm talking about serious technological issues, many of them simple, stupid errors, that detract from the IndyCar experience that Versus puts forth.

One example of a stupid mistake: When one searches for the terms "IndyCar" and "Versus" on Google, the first URL provided is http://www.versus.com/irl... which no longer exists. (For the record, Versus' IndyCar home is now at http://www.versus.com/indycar.) Why the URL change? Why make people go through the inconvenience on your site?

But the internet is not, and has never been, Versus' bread and butter - the actual television network is. But weather-related issues notwithstanding, there were some serious mistakes made during the channel's coverage of the Sao Paulo Indy 300, and the issue comes down to a lack of communication between the production crew and the booth.

A minor example of the problem came during the qualifying show, when Jon Beekhuis attempted to describe the chassis vying for use in the 2012 IndyCar Series. Instead of going to the drawings of potential entries by Dallara, Swift, and Lola, as Beekhuis described, the crew cut to a studio shot of the Delta Wing model. After that, they began to cycle through the slides faster than Beekhuis could describe each company's innovations.

The worst mistake came during pre-race coverage, however. As the Speed Channel does with its Formula 1 coverage, Versus does not send its commentary crew to the track for foreign events; instead, they only send a pit reporter (in this case, Jack Arute) and the production crew. The goal during these types of broadcasts is to give viewers the illusion that the commentary crew is indeed at the track, interacting in real time with the pit reporter.

Sadly, we all learned on Sunday that this interaction is not live.

Bob Jenkins attempted to send coverage down to Arute with a driver in the pits. The first few seconds of the interview played before technological malfunctions cut to the start of an interview we had not yet seen, and then the start of one that we already have, before restarting from the very beginning of the interview that Versus had originally intended to show. The illusion was gone, and I'm sure a lot of viewers learned for the first time that these interactions are pre-taped. (Count me among them.)

What's most bothersome is the pedigree of all folks involved. Jenkins and Beekhuis have been calling races since before the split in open-wheel racing that divided the sport for 12 years. The production crew, the Lingner Group, has won awards for its auto racing work, especially behind Jenkins and ESPN in the 1990s. Founder Terry Lingner has won three Emmys for his contributions to sports broadcasting. And yet the whole network, with this excellent history behind everybody involved, cannot put together a professional-looking broadcast.

Originally, I felt that the series' choice to move predominantly to Versus, especially under a long-term deal, would be the best possible move for IndyCar - to move away from ESPN and establish itself with the fastest-growing sports network around, alongside the NHL, Professional Bull Riders, and other niche sports. But now it appears painfully obvious that, for all of its enthusiasm during the broadcasts themselves, and all of its willingness to promote the sport, Versus is simply not up to par.

Its 2009 Nielsen ratings, whether or not they are compared to what ESPN drew in 2008, were anemic. The highest rated race on Versus was last year's Texas event, which drew a .63. And despite a relatively strong start, with its first two races rated at .30 and .52, eight of the channel's next nine races drew a .25 rating or worse, suggesting we may see a huge dropoff from the .41 rating we had at Brazil last weekend. The worst rating for an ESPN-produced race run under normal circumstances in 2008 was .41 for the Infineon race, which is a west coast event and generally has lower ratings anyway. And don't forget the few races a year that ESPN and ABC do broadcast, which are far and away more professionally produced and see more households.

While it may be a strong niche network, and one more willing to promote the sport than ESPN, Versus still needs to make major strides in its production quality and ratings to justify its long-term contract with IndyCar. Without some serious improvement, and fast, IndyCar may slip even further behind NASCAR and F1 in America, and be stuck with Versus not out of choice, but by necessity.

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