This year’s Indy 500 saw one of the most exciting duels to the checkered flag the most historic race in American motorsports has ever seen. Ryan Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line just ahead of three-time champion Helio Castroneves. What made the closing laps so spectacular were the several pulsating lead changes between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay with multiple daring passes. Hunter-Reay’s margin of victory of .06 seconds was the second closest finish in Indy 500 history.
But instead of focusing on the incredible drama in the final laps of the Indy 500, many viewers were too busy throwing their remotes at the television over ABC’s decision to relegate the actual race itself to a tiny split-screen box. While one of the most compelling finishes in Brickyard history was playing out, ABC… sorry, ESPN on ABC, decided to turn it into a soap opera with half the screen devoted to the wife and girlfriend of the competing drivers.
This is what viewers saw when Hunter-Reay passed Castroneves just after taking the white flag on the final lap. Indeed, it was a split screen with the actual race taking up much less than half the screen and sharing time with Castroneves’ girlfriend Adriana Henao. Tim Burke actually calculated that race footage was featured on less than 15% of your television screen!
To miss what ended up being the final pass for the win at the white flag is an unforgivable decision in the minds of many racing fans. Could you imagine another network missing the final out in the bottom of the 9th inning during the World Series because they were too busy focusing on crowd shots? (Wait, Fox, don’t answer that question.)
In fact, ABC spent almost as much time showing the split screen than they did a fullscreen of the race in the final five laps. Below is video of ABC’s broadcast. In the 3 minutes and 25 seconds it took to complete the final 5 laps, ABC showed a split screen for 1 minute and 27 seconds. That means that 42% of end-of-race coverage was devoted to a split screen between the race and WAG Cam.
Perhaps even more infuriating for race fans, most of the split screen coverage came on Laps 199 and Lap 200. The majority of the final two laps was spent with the actual race relegated to a mere afterthought and part of a larger soap opera playing out. ABC/ESPN finally left the split screen when Hunter-Reay was midway down the backstretch on the final lap.
So did ABC/ESPN ruin the Indy 500 with their storytelling dynamics? That’s a complex question because footage of wives, girlfriends, fathers, and team owners has been a part of Indy 500 television coverage for decades.
Pick a random year on YouTube and you’ll find split screen footage and television producers trying to amp up the drama. Just take a look at this video from 1989 when Al Unser Jr. was battling Emerson Fittipaldi for the race win. ABC continually cut to the pits, even leaving race footage entirely. Thank goodness they caught the climax when Fittipaldi and Little Al made contact in Turn 3 with 2 laps to go.
I can imagine if Twitter was around in 1989, a significant portion of race fans would be voicing their complaints with ABC as well. Take this image from 1995 when the split screen was in use. At least the race takes up the majority of the screen in this more primitive version:
In 2006, Mario Andretti featured prominently when Marco and Michael were battling Sam Hornish Jr. for the victory. In 2010, Ashley Judd was very popular with the ABC cameras with husband Dario Franchitti leading the field. And just to reinforce the point, here’s an image from last year during Tony Kanaan’s victory:
The tactic of showing wives and girlfriends in the pits is nothing new. It’s as much a part of the Indy 500 television production as the celebratory swig of milk. And truth be told, there’s nothing wrong with showing an example of the raw emotion unfolding in the pits. However, it’s a very delicate balance between amplifying race coverage and overshadowing race coverage.
Those working in sports television need to always keep in mind that the reason millions of viewers are watching sports is because of the actual sporting event, not to watch the reactions of people watching. There is simply no need to try to manufacture added drama by taking away attention from the event itself. It does a disservice to fans and a disservice to the event the network is trying to cover. And this isn’t just an Indy 500 issue, it’s seen around the sports world. The same goes for MLB on Fox and their gratuitous crowd shots or CBS exploiting crying children in the stands during the NCAA Tournament or NBC showcasing Bode Miller’s tears.
It’s entirely fair to say that ABC/ESPN didn’t just cross that line yesterday, they shattered it. By devoting so much time to the WAG Cam and relegating the closing laps to a tiny box, ABC made the Indy 500 a supporting actor in their network soap opera. If these networks find that the game or the race at hand isn’t enough to keep their interest without manufacturing some kind of added drama, then they are in the wrong business.
Sporadic shots and split screens showing the reaction in the pits are perfectly acceptable. But spending 42% of the final five laps in a split screen and taking attention away from the race-winning pass lost the plot entirely. ABC/ESPN should have spent the final laps showing the race in a full screen devoting 100% of their efforts to the action happening on the track. After all, that’s why race fans were watching, wasn’t it?