Envisioning a new broadcast

Nearly as important as post-Derby racing coverage is post-Derby media coverage.  Equidaily has devoted a whole section to links to media commentary, and no shortage of mainstream and Internet racing writers (including this one) have dropped an opinion about what they saw on television on Saturday afternoon.

I thought about writing my usual scathing coverage of what passes for a racing broadcast; fortunately, Lisa Grimm at Superfecta beat me to it, leaving me to wander elsewhere in my musings.  And I began to think:  “What would my perfect racing telecast look like?”

Let’s face it:  broadcasting a day of racing is no easy task.  At least Super Bowl insanity leads to a couple of hours of actual sporting event; even with the Derby undercard, you’ve got a maximum of about thirty minutes of horses running, thirty minutes out of eight or so hours of coverage.  I’m glad that it’s not my job to fill it.

Peter Rotondo is Vice President of Media and Entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup; prior to that he worked in a similar capacity for the NTRA, so he’s put in more than a decade of thinking about how to broadcast Big Race Days to the masses, working primarily as a liaison to ESPN. 

“ESPN covers racing for the general sports fan, as a sporting event.  While there’s some celebrity stuff on ESPN broadcasts, that element of the day isn’t over-sold.  It’s part of the event, but ESPN comes to cover a sporting event. 

“NBC gears its coverage to the casual event viewer.  NBC coverage isn’t geared towards the odds, to gambling—the focus is on the event, which goes beyond the racing.  NBC’s trying to broaden the audience, to show that there’s more to the Kentucky Derby than those two minutes.”

So once again, racing has to deal with a dual identity:  as event and as game.  It has to reach two audiences simultaneously:  casual fans to broaden the audience; serious horse enthusiasts and gamblers to maintain its core and keep the sport solvent. 

I’m someone who can happily spend twelve hours a day at the track, but I’d rather watch the Devils win the Cup than watch multiple hours of racing on television.  (OK, maybe not.)  But perhaps there’s an alternative to the “more is more,” marathon model of broadcasting racing?  Through the year, we occasionally get a nicely packaged hour or so of racing television:  two or three high quality races from the same or different tracks, a little analysis, a short feature or two.  90 minutes, we’re done. 

“For a variety of reasons, it’s tough to broadcast that,” Rotondo said.  He recalled examples of such shows, observing that a national Pick 3 or Pick 4 bet would often accompany such programming and said, “In a perfect world, you’d have a 90-minute show from multiple tracks.  But it’s tough for that to happen.” 

Yes, the content of national racing broadcasts is tough to take.  But perhaps the length of the broadcasts is as much to blame as the desire to cast a wide audience net and to appeal to the “Real Housewives” and E! TV crowd.  A shorter broadcast means that we’d lose some of the undercard races, but while a lot of people talked to me this week about watching the Derby, not a single one of them turned on the television in early afternoon and turned it off at 7 pm. 

I don’t envy those whose job it is to try to captivate a widely disparate audience for the amount of time it takes to fly from New York to London, and it’s pretty easy to bash them for the product that they put out—I’ve certainly done it enough.  I spent part of my day playing TV producer, envisioning what I’d like to see on a Big Racing Broadcast.  What does your Perfect Racing TV look like?

12 thoughts on “Envisioning a new broadcast

  1. Hi, Teresa,

    I’m not confident I know the best answer to your posed question, but on a smaller scale Frank Wright, Charlsie Cantey and I put together a thirty-minute, two-race telecast weekly that was well received by metropolitan New York viewers for many years during the sport’s relatively popular 1970s and 1980s. We would open and close the show with a sixty-second self promo, or PSA (public service announcement) and fit in a brief beer commercial when we could line one up at the mid-point, somewhere after the featured race concluded.

    The strictly scripted plan always included a five-minute build-up to that Saturday’s stakes race, followed by the race’s post parade and its running with only a pan camera angle. After a commercial break we would come back with that week’s feature story, always horse oriented, and begin a brief buildup to the ninth and final race, the day’s possibly high-payout Triple race.

    Much of each week’s show was aired live and that elemental detail often became momentarily stressful because it was sometimes difficult to accomodate final post time with 6:29:59PM, our mandatory signoff time. Many of our programs were too-quickly ended with a breathy “Good night and good luck” and no rolling credits. So, my experience may not be the best reference to use in response to your question.

    However, with the above weaknesses acknowledged, I still think the best horseracing telecast should probably attempot to resemble our output — two races within thirty minutes — to minimize the possibilities for boredom and to maximize the show’s percentage of racing action. Simplistic, yes; unattractive to the uninitiated, possibly; oblivious to each track’s wagering-time requirements, obviously. However, if racing were presented to a national audience in such limited fashion, perhaps the public at large would be more inclined to take us into their living rooms, and the television producers at focus would be more inclined to broadcast horseracing more regularly, say each weekend, as has been the custom in England and elsewhere for decades.

    In this case, maybe less would be better.

    • I remember–not too clearly–those broadcasts, and I can’t even imagine what a treat such a show would be now. As you note, the obstacles are myriad; but so, as you note, are the benefits.

  2. Teresa
    You’ve struck a nerve. I need to think about a post that will hopefully
    make sense. Later I will do so. Since my esteemed friend above has chimed in
    he does speak truth. He and I have had some discussion over the years on this very subject. Tomorrow I will try to post something.


  3. Pingback: What Is Nbc Kentucky Derby Coverage | Worldwide News

  4. I don’t have the best answer either. “Big Network” productions are in the business
    of entertainment. Thus, less wagering info and more stories and goofy stuff all supposing to try to appeal to EVERYONE. One of the 1st things I learned in broadcasting was “you can’t please all all the time” (but you will try.) So, the networks throw in something for everyone. Seasoned race watchers don’t want the fluff. Just the facts and a good story now and then. I don’t watch TVG or HRTV enough to get a good grasp but I hear plenty of negative chatter about them.
    Capital OTB, where I’ve spent at least a 100 years, is in the business of raising revenue through the sale of wagers. Therefore, Capital’s TV network is to show you races and information 4 tracks at a time. Many times more than 4 tracks at a time. Yes, we do get the “stuff” out there. Those that can follow along are the seasoned watchers & players. Not alot is done for the new player or watcher.
    Our on-air talent, which in my opinion do a great job, have programming in the
    mornings on the network before racing. They are not Hollywood celeb types but do know the game and give very good information. Our goal is not to necessarily entertain. We do make mistakes everyday. But, do get the job done.
    I don’t have the answer to what would make a good horse racing production. I’m not sure if there is an answer.
    As Marshall said above, his production concentrated on a couple of races in a short period of time once or twice a week. It worked. It was also one of the few racing shows in town.
    Those that lived in the Albany area 40 or so years ago might remember the Grand Union races of the week. That was entertaining. Also, the Friday night harness program from Saratoga Raceway with Howard Tupper. Great fun as well.
    We come to the 21st century. What is the answer?

  5. I forgot something. The broadcast bible says “Thou shalt be rated”.

    Since NBC’s ratings were “solid” they accomplished what they set out to do.


  6. It is an interesting discussion as I can certainly appreciate the fine line that ABC or NBC face will airing horse racing: drawing in new/casual viewers while still having “cred” with more savvy viewers.

    I haven’t been a big fan of EPSN’s recent telecast efforts but their Derby undercard coverage was decent. Still they aren’t pushing the envelope with trying new techniques of mics on jockeys or different camera positions. Some of ESPN/ABC coverage is now stock-and-trade with say Jerry Bailey and showing the goggles required; also his predictions of how a race will play out. The latter I think is a value add and gets the attention of even seasoned fans.

    TVG and the less visually polished and smaller market share HRTV are two very different animals vs. ESPN. While many will dismiss TVG programing simply because they are wagering focused and not everyone can be right, the network does a good job with Derby shows covering all the contenders, works and related angles. TVG on air folks need to get cut some slack by viewers. Simon Bray was a respected assistant trainer and knows his stuff so too a trainer like Tom Amoss, etc.

    One thing that an ABC or NBC doesn’t focus much on is ‘where do the horses come from’ (homebreds, claimers, bought at auction) or how they got to the Derby, for example. What races did they win, how did they earn the money, etc. I suspect that the networks really fear that it would be “too much” information and horses on tv. Perhaps they should have a countdown clock on screen to show when the race is so that viewers aren’t confused when they see another race going on.

    I wonder if we’ll see a time when the trakus system is used for the Derby so that viewers can visually see their runner. TVG uses it randomly with the Keeneland feeds but not all the time. It could be something different for a network to use. As for the overhead shots and isolated racer when replaying the race I like both and think the criticism out there is unfounded against NBC.

  7. Just a very brief afterthought: As long as there are radios and television sets in horserace-interested people’s homes, there will inevitably be a certain quantity of listeners and viewers who believe they can call a horse race as well as or better than the track’s announcer; or put together a telecast as well as or better than the major-network, or local-network, pros can. That’s this business’s sparkling gleam of human nature and I say, Thank goodness for such devoted interest!

    A Perfect Telecast may not be possible because: THAT’S HORSERACING!

  8. Mr. Cassidy: No one sir calls a better tace than you. And as far as I’m concerned, if you and Harvey Pack both came back to do these shows, no one would be complaining about the quality of the broadcasts.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the great, detailed comments. I don’t get TVG or HRTV here in Brooklyn, and the first time that I saw TVG, I was horrified by the non-stop chatter. I am used, I guess, the rather meditative silence on NYC OTB–I don’t like that I don’t get to see other tracks when NYRA is racing, but the lack of constant noise is a blessing. I believe that Capital OTB achieves something similar.

    Capital OTB does a much better job with morning programming than NYC OTB–here, we get handicapping shows for GP and CRC and AP and FG–race cards that then will not be shown, because channel 71 shows only NYRA races. Nonsensical.

    Like I said–I’m glad that it’s not my job to figure this out–feels like no matter what you do, you’re alienating some key part of your audience.

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