TNT has NASCAR rights for six races throughout the summer months between Fox's early season and ESPN's late season coverage of the sport. Saturday night, TNT's airing of NASCAR's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona Saturday night drew the ire of racing fans across the country not because of the announcers, or the camerawork, or the production qualities, but for something that annoys fans and TV watchers everywhere.
In fact, it's nothing new for TNT as they've been criticized throughout the summer and in the past for the amount of commercials the network airs that interrupt the live telecast. Respected NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck of USA Today called last year's race at Kentucky "virtually unwatchable" while at SB Nation and called the amount of ads flooding NASCAR telecasts "the single greatest problem facing NASCAR today." That may be a bit strong, but it shows the fever pitch at which commercials interrupting broadcasts are becoming a major issue for NASCAR fans over the last couple years. Here are a few tweets from Saturday night showing disdain over that problem…
400 is not the number of miles but the number of commercials on TNT tonight. #NASCAR
— The NASCAR Country™ (@NASCARFanNation) July 7, 2013
TNT running snippets of race between commercials #nascar
— George Diaz (@georgediaz) July 7, 2013
You're watching Commercials on TNT brought to you by #NASCAR.
— The Catch Fence ™ (@TheCatchFence) July 7, 2013
— jamie banks (@jamiebanks44) July 7, 2013
The website CawsnJaws has taken to tracking commercial stats for races and found that during Saturday night's race there were 143 minutes of race broadcast time and 46 minutes of commercial broadcast time, or 25% of coverage. That was down from between 27-29% of commercial time in TNT's previous races this year. For comparison's sake, Fox's races ranged wildly between 20-30% but was most often in the low 20's percentage wise going as low as 18% for the 2013 All Star Race and 31.5% for the Daytona 500. ESPN's time in commercial with no racing being shown was well into the low teens for last year's Chase, utilizing side-by-side coverage much more than Fox or TNT. In side-by-side coverage, the race is shown on a split screen with commercials – it's an innovation useful for NASCAR fans who don't want to miss the action. Again, all those stats can be seen at CawsnJaws.
Saturday night, there was only one period of race coverage longer at Daytona than 10 minutes without commercials until TNT televised the last 34 laps commercial free thanks to agreements with sponsors for 51 minutes. Much of the angst over TNT's commercials can be seen in this strategy, although it's ultimately a benefit when the race reaches its climax. TNT is simply stacking commercials in the early and middle portions of the race so they can air the final stages without commercials. Although the stats seem to suggest TNT shows more commercials than Fox or ESPN, it's not by an obnoxiously huge margin. Their commercial strategy is a double edged sword to be sure – fans feel commercials are interrupting the race at insufferable intervals early on, but the trade-off is in seeing the last X number of laps without commercials at all.
There may be a bigger point to be made here with the innovation of side-by-side advertising, though. Perhaps NASCAR fans are getting used to having their races interrupted with fewer cutaways to commercials and more split screens where they don't miss live racing. That could be the source of much of the angst directed at TNT seeing as how they have the fewest side-by-side breaks of the three NASCAR networks.
Regarding the furor over commercials in the Coke Zero 400 Saturday night, a Turner spokesman says, “TNT debuted the Wide Open concept in 2007 and we continue to evolve the model to best serve the collective interests of our fans and advertisers. This year’s approach ensured our viewers were able to see all of the action at the pinnacle moment of the race – with nearly the entire final hour of the race televised without commercial interruption – while also providing exclusivity for our sponsors Coke Zero and Sprint.”
Could TNT go back to their Wide Open/side-by-side coverage in the future? Possibly, but it depends on whether or not networks and advertisers want to make the commitment. Could TNT make an adjustment in spacing out commercials? Yes, but then NASCAR fans may complain about the last laps not being commercial free. There's a definite give and take there and maybe a better balance could be struck.
NASCAR races and commercials is something that may be worth keeping an eye on in future weeks and years. More side-by-side advertising could be the wave of the future (and reports in SBJ a while back were that Fox Sports 1 is highly interested in the concept). For NASCAR though, the reality is that it's always been this way with breaks between racing. Sometimes action is going to be missed because unlike the NFL or NBA, the races don't stop and wait for TV timeouts. As long as their are going to be sports that don't have natural breaks, there's going to be complaints about advertising interrupting them. It's the nature of the beast.