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Ingram: A Racing Revolution Begins At ESPN3.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 21 2011

The action from Sebring was tough to find for some fans over the weekend. Technology has not solved all problems. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

If you were up before dawn on Sunday to catch a plane, as I was, in hopes of seeing the green flag fall at the Bristol Motor Speedway’s Sprint Cup event on TV at home, the idea of watching races live via a computer bears some thought.

On Saturday, the day before this journey started, I was at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, which was carried live on ESPN3.com, the first major race ever covered live on broadband. Up until now, if it’s important enough to be televised live, the networks have the rights and send viewers to the traditional TV channels.

The traditional method of watching was where I was headed on Sunday. My way-before-dawn start paid off as I slid into my chair in the den at 1:17 p.m., watching the green drop on Fox Sports before Kyle Busch mowed down another field at Bristol. I then checked out portions of the coverage of Sebring at home via my laptop on the replay available at ESPN3.com just to see how things are percolating along in the land of broadband when it comes to better options for watching live race coverage on a variety of devices.

I had watched a good portion of ESPN3.com’s Sebring coverage while in the media center at the track. At home, the replay displayed the same outstanding production values I had watched on the media center monitors, including commentary from veterans John Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw.

So what’s all the ruckus about not being able to see the race live on Speed TV, the previous network most familiar to sports car racing fans – where the coverage of Sebring has admittedly been top

The winner of the Sebring race Saturday night was a Peugeot. Were you able to watch it on TV? (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

notch? As usual, race fans tend to find the traditional methodologies so comfortable that change is necessarily a painful process. That’s a fundamental aspect of human nature and a consideration often overlooked in the rollout of the new broadband approach by the American Le Mans Series in a partnership with ESPN.

But is this change really going to work in the long haul – given that so many people have trouble accessing ESPN3.com’s coverage? Or maybe just don’t like the idea of watching a race live on a computer even if they can access it?

I must admit, the only way I’d like to watch a motor race live on my laptop would be if it wasn’t available by any other method – such as while traveling. (More on this later.) At home, on the other hand, it’s standard with newer models to be able to hook up the TV to a laptop and get the big screen view – just like downloading, say, Netflix.

The big rub at the moment: ESPN3.com is a new approach to live sports television and it’s not available from all Internet Service Providers. Thus, ESPN, which continues to push the electronic media envelope in all directions, has tapped into the debate about net neutrality, one of the larger issues of our times.

Certain providers of Internet – take Comcast as but one example – regard ESPN3.com as basically a TV channel, which it is. Comcast got started providing cable service before it went into the business of providing Internet and phone service to customers through its broadband networks. In the case of Comcast, the ESPN3.com portion of the Internet is a TV channel just like the ones it charges its customers for. But there’s no way for Comcast to tap into the revenue from this online TV. So it chooses to not deliver ESPN3.com, which competes for viewers.

This explains why, according to fellow Atlanta area residents who are on the Comcast network, accessing ESPN3.com to watch the Sebring 12-hour race live was not possible. On the other hand,

The infield at Sebring before sunrise. A new day may be dawning for televised race coverage. (RacinToday.com photo by Jim Pedley)

since my broadband hook-up is through a DSL line provided by AT&T, which is in a marketing partnership with ESPN3.com, I will have no problem getting ALMS live on line at my house in Atlanta.

As Scott Atherton, president of the ALMS has pointed out, the situation with ESPN3.com is analogous to the early days of what was originally called Speedvision. The first cable network dedicated to non-stop motor racing coverage, which was eventually rebranded as Speed TV once under the ownership of Fox Sports, was only available on a small percentage of cable networks in its infancy. As the cable universe expanded and the demand among consumers grew, Speed TV gradually became a cable staple.

What’s different about the current issue of ESPN3.com concerns the cable network landscape, which is dramatically different these days. The issue of TV channels and movies getting delivered by broadband looks like tag-team Sumo wrestling match among corporate giants such as AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV, etc. In April of 2010, this struggle turned into a donnybrook when the Federal Communications Commission lost a court case against Comcast, which gutted the FCC’s authority to regulate the Internet.

I would still bet the tide of history is on the side of ESPN3.com, because parceling up the Internet is not in the public interest and seems all too much like the draconian world of dictatorships and repressive regimes that monitor or shut down social media. On the other hand, the Internet is innovative and entrepreneurial capitalism at its best. In the case of video, production values are invariably tied to money and there has to be some compromise involving filthy lucre somewhere. (I wonder about the exchange of money between AT&T and ESPN3.com, for instance, or whether the relationship grew out of mutual promotional benefits.)

In the long haul, it seems to me companies like AT&T and Comcast are going to find ways to produce revenue streams via payments from one source or another to deliver video on broadband. It’s a question of how much it will cost and how it will be implemented.

As for the ALMS, although the sanctioning body has regularly stumbled, sometimes badly, on the introduction of its new platform in terms of communicating with fans, the timing was right to make

Home viewers could, one day soon, wheeling up office chairs to watch racing. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

a switch to develop new TV partnerships beyond the traditional scheme that has usually prevailed with Speed TV and its parent Fox Sports. The ALMS schedule has gradually migrated to Saturdays. From the point of view of ESPN and ABC, that makes for good timing with live broadband events on Saturday and taped network shows on Sundays, which carry the budget through advertising.

Taped delay, of course, has rarely made sense for racing fans, this being to my mind the biggest fly in the ointment – not the difficulty of accessing ESPN3.com. In my humble opinion, tape-delayed racing coverage is a lot like a beer that’s been opened a day earlier – flat and featureless because the networks invariably cut the shows down from a longer “live to tape” telecast. The methodology necessarily loses the story line and perspective.

Then there’s the usual problem of major networks being so self-conscious about their own lack of racing knowledge (outside of NASCAR) and simultaneously trying to pitch the sport to mainstream viewers on tape delay. The result is an effort driven by producers/directors to explain to the uninitiated how motor racing works, which just bores the hell out of everybody, newcomers and veterans alike. Stick a stream-of-consciousness type like Hindhaugh in there to make the call and newcomers can then alloy themselves to the genuine sense of excitement.

In more ways than the hideous specter of tape-delayed coverage, we’ve not quite arrived in the brave new electronic world of broadband sports delivery yet. Due to “instabilities,” says the information at ESPN3.com, the use of Firebug is not possible to get events from the site, which excludes handheld devices. Since the ESPN3.com system depends on Flash technology, Apple devices can’t receive it. As for gamers, the XBox can get ESPN3.com – with the right membership fees.

Nobody can get ESPN3.com on their laptop via a wireless card yet, to take another example of the ongoing technical handicaps still in place for getting racing live via an electronic device.

The day a race fan can get all events live on virtually any kind of device, this revolution will be complete. It got started on Saturday at Sebring.

Quote of the Week: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/12/fcc-rule/. This link provides a detailed story about the ongoing dispute over net neutrality.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 21 2011
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