Friday, March 1, 2013

Cycling’s Ongoing TV Challenges

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In January I wrote about the disappointing start to the NBC Sports cycling calendar for 2013.  In mid-February the network finally revealed its full broadcast schedule.  And the schedule isn’t all bad, but some of the choices are hard to explain.

It’s important to remember that NBC is a network, not a single channel.  Most cable/satellite providers carry the NBC Sports channel and the local NBC affiliate (for the Milwaukee market, that’s WTMJ, channel 4).  Far fewer providers carry NBC Universal, a channel on which you will find the Vuelta a España, several smaller stage races, and a number of one-day races.  If you have NBC, NBC Sports and NBC Universal, then you’ll get to see a lot of racing this year.  But notably absent are Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold, the Tour of Romandie, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de Suisse, and the Giro di Lombardia.  How can NBC leave those events off the schedule while it includes such also-ran events as the Tour of Turkey, the Grand Prix E3 Harelbeke, the Three Days of De Panne, the Four Days of Dunkerque, the GP Plouay and the GP Wallonie?  Even avid cycling fans are unlikely to recognize some of those.

Then there’s the issue of timeslots.  Some of NBC’s broadcasts will occur late at night, hours after the conclusion of the actual events.  That should allow NBC to present highlights free of the technical problems that plague its live coverage, but it won’t do anything to grow the audience for cycling.

Early this morning VeloNews published a thought-provoking editorial on cycling’s TV problem.  What’s your opinion?  Would you rather watch a live broadcast in its entirety despite the risk of boredom, or would you prefer a condensed broadcast that packages race highlights with personality profiles and technical reviews?  Please see the poll in the right-hand column of this page and cast your vote.

VeloNews is a road-oriented magazine and the editorial is written from that perspective.  My take on televised road races is this: I want to see everything but I realize I’m not a typical fan.  To grow the viewership the best approach is live coverage that includes other features which can be shown during lulls in the action.  But of the two options I'm presenting in my poll, I'm picking the cleaned-up highlights approach.  I'll get my wire-to-wire coverage on the Internet.

Pro cyclocross is almost made for TV already: begin the broadcast on the hour with a course preview and rider interviews, start the race 15 minutes later, follow the live action for 60 minutes, then wrap things up with the podium presentation and more interviews and you’re all done in an hour and a half.  And ’cross doesn’t require an army of cameramen because the course isn’t 120 miles long.

Time trials and track events fit neatly into a televised format too.  Sure, a TT can take several hours to unfold but we don’t need to see it all.  Usually the top contenders are grouped at the end of the start list, and with only a handful of riders on the course at any time, it’s easy for the TV announcers to build drama around individuals rather than presenting an amorphous peloton.  Track cycling is perfect for TV because it is so confined by the physical dimensions of the velodrome and by the short duration of its events.  Some endurance events surpass 60 minutes, but if you gave those the highlight treatment and concentrated on the sprints, then you could give viewers multiple races in a single 1-hour program.

On Sunday we’ll get to see whether NBC was listening to its critics during the Tour Down Under—I doubt the network reads my blog but let’s hope all of the negative comments on its Facebook page didn’t go unnoticed.  Highlights from the Tour of Oman will air on NBC Sports at 11 a.m. CST, followed by live coverage of the Paris-Nice prologue at noon.

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