There’s only one place in the country where race fans can’t watch the Indy 500 live on TV — Indianapolis. But don’t worry, WRTV had Hoosiers covered over the weekend — just as it has for 60 years.
Each year, ABC’s live broadcast of the Indianpolis 500 over the Memorial Day weekend wins its time period in nearly every market. Among the few it doesn’t is DMA 25 — Indianapolis itself, where the Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials require ABC to black out the race.
But don’t feel sorry for McGraw-Hill’s WRTV, the Indianapolis ABC affiliate. Starting in the mid-1990s the station has received special dispensation to air the entire race on a delayed basis in primetime. It’s always been a winner.
Last Sunday’s replay of Helio Castroneves’ emotional victory paid off in viewership that exceeded even WRTV’s expectations: a 15 rating and a 27 share. The closest competitor pulled a 5 rating.
“It’s a local ritual,” says WRTV Director of Audience Development Paul Montgomery. “People attend the race then come home, fire up the grill and turn on our coverage. And usually they enjoy a better seat than they had at the race.”
Like the Packers in Green Bay or at stations lucky enough to carry the Super Bowl in a contender’s hometown, the Indianapolis 500 is more than a big draw, it’s a uniquely powerful marketing opportunity.
“Every station wants a piece of the action,” says Montgomery, “but we’re the only place you can see the race” — a phrase familiar to practically all Hoosiers with a TV. For over a decade, WRTV has used the rhyming slogan to brand its broadcast monopoly on Indy 500 action.
For many years the station also carried Bump Day, the third and final elimination trial before the actual race. But Speedway officials recently awarded the rights to the cable sports upstart Versus.
Undeterred, WRTV created its own annual special, Breakfast at the Brickyard — two hours of live pre-race coverage featuring driver and celebrity interviews and recapping the three weeks of parades, parties and general hoopla.
Of course, WRTV’s competition does all it can to horn in on the action, says WRTV General Sales Manager Sally Kohn. “Everyone gets a small piece of it. One station (LIN’s WISH) carries the Indy 500 Mini Marathon and the (celebrity-laden) Snakepit Ball. Another has the parade.”
In fact the competitive free-for-all starts weeks earlier. “The track opens in early May for the qualification races,” says WRTV’s Montgomery. “We’ve got special expanded news programming throughout the entire month. Half of our late news has been dedicated to what’s going on at the track each day.”
Much of WRTV’s coverage includes exclusive commentary by popular champion driver Tony Kanaan, who on Sunday survived a fiery crash and emerged unhurt. Kanaan is just one of the celebrities who adds luster — and eyeballs — to WRTV’s coverage.
“ABC has been very helpful in granting access to celebrities,” says Montgomery. “Gray’s Anatomy co-star Patrick Dempsey is a race car owner and all last year we got to feature Dancing With The Stars winner and champion driver Helio Castroneves right through May sweeps.”
Montgomery credits Castroneves’s newfound popularity on Dancing With The Stars plus exciting new racing personalities like Danica Patrick with bringing a whole new audience to the sport. But as popular and appealing as these celebrities are, the race itself remains the main draw, even if the telecast is delayed by six hours or so.
“In fact, the ratings are higher than they’d be if we ran it live. There are simply more people available to watch it. And because it’s an event — and it’s all about Indianapolis — we have no problem selling it as a premium.”
Although Kohn concedes that sales of TV-Web combo “packages” — often sold to car dealers — lagged a bit a bit this year, the delayed telecast still sold out. “That’s because certain one-time-only advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach men 25-54,” says Kohn, citing the fast food chain Hardees as one such eager customer.
Other companies who bought time on WRTV race coverage include retail chain Meijer, supermarket leader Kroger, Pizza Hut, Miller, Coors, White Castle, Air Trans, Clarion Health, the Good Guys Car Show and, despite the economy, several local car dealers.
Kohn declined to reveal exact revenue figures, but acknowledged that the sold-out inventory surrounding the race is a welcome boon to the station’s bottom line. But so far at least, that windfall has come without a “halo effect.”
“The Indy 500 sales really haven’t had much long-term impact on our regular sports coverage,” says Kohn, “It’s an event that stands on its own.”
On the other hand, Kohn’s sales team doesn’t need to expend extra effort to create complex client packages. “Sometimes we offer incentive spots in our ongoing programs in order to sell a special show,” says Kohn. “But we don’t need to do that with this event. It’s one of the few things that continues to sell itself.”
And no wonder. WRTV has been selling time on the Indianapolis 500 since the station signed on the air as WFBM 60 years ago this week. The station’s first program was a documentary called Crucible of Speed about the early days of the Indianapolis 500. It was followed by a live telecast of the race.
An ABC affiliate since 1979, WRTV enjoys one more favor from the alphabet network on Race Day — a special early feed of that evening’s primetime schedule, which it is allowed to broadcast during the actual race. Of course, this being Indianapolis, the time-shifted race always outperforms the sneak preview of primetime.
But despite the financial rewards, the time delay is not without problems. Just like NBC’s Olympic coverage from Australia and China, there’s the problem of reporting the news without “spoiling” the race for people who want to see it for the first time during the primetime replay.
“We are careful not to drop any ‘spoilers’ into news teases and other race updates,” says Montgomery. “During our early news, we’ll even tell viewers to briefly turn off their TV’s if they don’t want to know the outcome of the race.”
The station’s Internet coverage, branded as theindychannel.com, takes a different philosophy. It presumes that anyone who visits a Web site is actively seeking information. “Even so,” says Montgomery, “we find a lot of our regular Web visitors and Twitter subscribers deliberately ‘unplug themselves’ until the primetime replay is over.”
That proved to be an especially good idea Sunday after Castroneves’s victory — following a drama-filled year of highs (Dancing With The Stars) and lows (the withering ordeal of a trial and acquittal for alleged tax evasion.)
This buzzworthy outcome also means extra opportunity for WRTV — at least several more days worth of lucrative special reports and follow-up coverage.
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald is your weekly stimulus package. Every Monday we showcase innovations and inspirations in local TV. What’s going on at your station that others need to know about? Write to Arthur at mailto:[email protected].