On online streaming, Versus conspicuous in its silence

IndyCar commentary — By on March 18, 2011 2:01 pm
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It appears that, at least in the short term, the NBC/Comcast merger has hurt INDYCAR fans far, far more than it has helped.

The hope, of course, is that Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal means that Versus, INDYCAR’s part-time broadcast partner, might see increased viewership and that NBC may even become INDYCAR’s network broadcaster and air more races in more homes.

But these changes are expected to be long term, if they happen at all. Meanwhile, in the short term, Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal and the resulting change of staff at Versus appear to have resulted in the stomping out of one of INDYCAR’s best and most fan-friendly initiatives: free online streaming of every session on its schedule.

It turns out that by offering online streaming, INDYCAR has been in violation of its contract with Versus since the beginning. But until now, the parties involved either missed the fine print or were willing to turn a blind eye. However, it appears that Comcast now wants to force INDYCAR fans to pay for cable or satellite service in order to view races, and INDYCAR is unable do a thing about it. (It was a terrible thing to agree to in the first place, but that’s another matter.)

There’s a major flaw with the logic behind this: no one is going to sign up for cable as a result of the loss of online streaming. Fans will either seek out a bootleg stream or they simply won’t watch. With any amount of research, the number-crunchers responsible for this would find that the crossover between those people watching INDYCAR streams online and those capable of acquiring Versus through legitimate means is very low. There’s precious little profit to be gained by shutting out fans who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the cable product whether the stream is available or not.

And this move hurts every INDYCAR fan, domestic and international. The international fan base gets burned the most, of course — many countries don’t have broadcasters who carry INDYCAR races at all, and even those that do rarely receive everything Versus offers. Take Canada as an example — TSN broadcasts the races (when it feels like it — it’s not at all unusual for a race to be preempted and shifted to another time or channel, messing up PVR programming and making the broadcast all but impossible to find). But TSN has never aired the qualifying show or anything related to Firestone Indy Lights, which means that Canadian fans now have no venue for watching these sessions.

But even fans in the U.S. with access to the full Versus line-up will see reduced coverage as a result of this move, and it’s unfortunately the dedicated fans who will be hurt the most. There was a fair number of people who would wake up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to watch the morning warm-up sessions, despite the fact that they were usually uneventful. These people form the group that would watch IndyCars on track at any time of the day or night simply because they are there. Now, all practice and morning warm-up sessions will be off-limits to anyone not physically present on race weekends. Talk about taking a step backward in fan base development.

The crux of the problem is that the television world has yet to figure out that Neilsen ratings are on the verge of becoming useless data. There’s no doubt that someone in the Versus or Comcast offices took a look at the INDYCAR situation and followed this line of thinking: ratings are low because people are watching online, so let’s take away online streaming and the ratings will go up. Too many broadcast outlets are still using this antiquated way of tracking viewers to sell advertising space instead of being forward-thinking and using page hit statistics as well as ratings to demonstrate value in their products. Instead, fans will now move to third-party streaming sites, and those potential viewership numbers are being lost. And either way, cable companies stand to lose if television stations go this route on their own, which means an iron fist will be applied to keep profits rolling in the traditional way whenever possible.

If a large cable company is ever able to adapt to the times and find a way to create a product offering online, that company stands to profit substantially. It’s been said over and over by fans from around the globe that people would be more than willing to pay a fair price for a quality online stream of INDYCAR events. One would think that the revenue from selling access to the stream could offset the loss in profits from those same people not paying for cable service, especially since a large number of those people either can’t or weren’t going to give that money to Comcast anyway.

But unfortunately, there’s no forward-thinking involved in this decision, so it’s highly unlikely that any of these changes will be made, and INDYCAR coverage will now return to the dark ages.

Thus far, Versus has been completely silent on this issue. Versus isn’t feeling much like a valuable broadcasting partner at the moment, and INDYCAR is stuck in this contract for another eight years. At a minimum, the station owes the sport’s most serious fans — the core of its INDYCAR viewership — an explanation for taking away access that it doesn’t intend to replace.

And in the meantime, INDYCAR should be watching the ALMS very closely to see how its decision to go online-only plays out. As online content becomes more accessible and acceptable to the general public, INDYCAR shouldn’t rule out the possibility that a similar move could be of benefit if its partnership with Versus continues to be a ball and chain on its expansion efforts.

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