ABC counting on story lines to sell Indy 500
Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, jokes with members of his crew after his qualification run on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman)
Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti will be trying to become four-time Indianapolis 500 champions, four women will roll off the starting grid, a local boy is on the pole and a group of dynamic rookies that includes A.J. Allmendinger is there to add intrigue.
Indeed, there's no shortage of compelling story lines accompanying Sunday's race to leave television executives feeling confident about another bump in viewership this year.
"What we've seen in the past couple of weeks, and in the past weekend from a story-line point of view, gives us a great opportunity to put on a terrific show for our viewers," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN's vice president in charge of motorsports production.
Television ratings for the Indy 500 dropped precipitously throughout the 1990s as attention waned and NASCAR ratings soared. And while there have been a few spikes along the way, the trend continued until ratings bottomed out in 2008.
The past few years, though, have witnessed a modest resurgence, and last year's race won by Franchitti resulted in a four-year high of nearly 6.9 million viewers.
"I long ago learned it's an exercise in futility to predict ratings," Feinberg said on a conference call with reporters. "I know the IndyCar ratings have been challenged in certain areas, but as a production team, the best thing we can do is tell these stories."
And hope that those stories turn enough casual viewers into regulars for the rest of ABC-ESPN's package of races this season, including a Saturday night race at Texas.
"We discuss how we can hopefully turn people who sample the Indy 500 into fans who can watch other races," Feinberg said, "but ultimately that's the viewer's decision. Last year's Indy 500 was tremendously successful. We have a great front row (this year), a lot of tremendous stories — those are all pieces we can drive, but at the end of the day, viewers decide."
The network is making a few tweaks to this year's telecast: ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak is taking over from Brent Musburger as the host of this year's race. A former pit reporter for TNT, Czarniak has appeared on some of the network's NASCAR coverage but will be making her first trip to the Indianapolis 500.
Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, drives through the first turn on his qualification run on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 18, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
"She's wide-eyed," said Marty Reid, who will be handling lap-by-lap announcing for the eighth time. "She was here this past weekend for qualifications — she's absorbing everything."