Panel: Quality Trumps Quantity in TV Coverage

Panel of TV professionals take exception with McKinsey study recommendations

More network television isn't necessarily better for racing; instead, put the money in high definition and YouTube.

That was part of the the message from a panel of top TV veterans and executives at the International Simulcast Conference held in Scottsdale, Ariz. Instead of counting hours, horse racing needs to be smarter about its television coverage, panel members said.

"We need to bring our leaders into this century," said Mike Trager, a longtime producer who put together the original Breeders' Cup package  and has handled the Hambletonian for many years. "Instead of buying time on (NBC-owned) Versus, we should give a thousand kids cameras and shoot YouTube videos. Maybe one would go viral and we'd get more impact. That's the audience we need to reach."

Speaking Oct. 5 in the conference's final session, Trager, along with HRTV's Amy Zimmerman, TVG's Tony Allevato, and Ed Seigenfeld, formerly of Triple Crown Productions, provided an illuminating look at their medium as it relates to racing. And they fired back at one of the main conclusions of the McKinsey study: That horse racing needs more network coverage to attract new fans.

The Jockey Club reportedly plans to spend about $10 million based on a plan of action built out of the study. Jason Wilson, The Jockey Club's vice president of business development, earlier told the conference that a new network contract for races leading up to the Triple Crown is now in the works.

"What struck me in reading the study is that it's a repeat of the one I did for NYRA in 1987," said Seigenfeld, now a consultant. The former NYRA executive put together the VISA and Chrysler sponsorship deals for Triple Crown Productions.

Said Trager: "I read the same thing 10, 20 years ago. It's a vast oversimplification. You can't say we're never on TV; we have two networks dedicated to it.

"But our average demographic is 51 years old and aging." 

Trager blamed decisions by racing executives decades ago to forego television for many of the sport's problems today. "Thirty years ago, we essentially lost a generation of viewers, and because of that, we lost the generation that followed it. We've got to focus now on the younger generation."

Seigenfeld agreed that the study oversimplified racing's exposure problem. "There were a lot of things that were accurate," he said, "but not new accurate. Instead of being reactive, we need to get ahead of the game for once."

The McKinsey study interviewed hundreds of industry leaders and stakeholders. One of the most striking numbers in the report: Thoroughbred racing received only 46 hours of network television coverage in 2010. Most of that time went to Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup telecasts.

Most discouragingly, it found that TV coverage of racing produced no new fans for the sport.

"I was surprised no one from McKinsey called me," said Allevato,  executive vice president of TVG. "I learned today they didn't call Amy (Zimmerman, HRTV's executive producer), either. It's like saying that there's less news on TV than there was 30 years ago, if you don't count Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, because they only appeal to people who like to watch the news."

TVG, which can be seen in 80 million homes, devotes 24 hours a day to racing coverage. HRTV, with smaller distribution, mixes horse racing and other informational programming of all breeds in its 24-hour programming, including many original series such as the award-winning "Inside Information."

In addition, TVG provides Fox Sports with more than 1,000 hours of programming a year, Allevato said. "They're saying Fox Sports isn't network, but Versus is?"

Zimmerman believes that racing missed the boat by not embracing attempts to cross over to the general population with shows such as "Jockeys," which Animal Planet dropped after two seasons because its viewership, at about 475,000, wasn't deemed large enough to continue producing it. Racing people dismissed the show as a soap opera and didn't support it. She noted that the 2009 Travers Stakes (gr. I), run the same year as "Jockeys" was on the air, attracted only 125,000 viewers.

"People still ask me about what happened with Chantal (Sutherland) and Mike (Smith)," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman is based at Santa Anita, where HBO has filmed the opening season of a new television series, "Luck," which will star Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.

"This is a tremendous program," she said. "It shows both the good side and the bad side of racing. 'Luck' is suddenly going to make racing cool. It will attract people to racing that have never paid any attention before. It will be up to Tony and I to produce programming for those people."

Allevato said that, contrary to the McKinsey report's finding, racing is better off in terms of television coverage.

Where racing lags is in its lack of high definition coverage, not just on the two racing networks but at the tracks, the experts said. That impacts simulcast coverage as well. Almost all major network coverage is now in HD.

When people without much knowledge of racing see it in HD, they are going to want to go to the track, Allevato said.

"Out of the 35 all-sports networks, 31 are in high definition," Allevato said. "Out of the four that are not HD, two are horse racing. "

TVG plans to convert to HD in 2012 beginning with races from Del Mar and Keeneland. The network, which is owned by Betfair, plans to spend about $10 million for the makeover, Allevato said. What that means is that rather than concentrating on Southern California, TVG will be spending more time at the tracks that are producing races in HD.

That's a major obstacle to the conversion since most track feeds are still in standard definition. TVG is working with tracks to update equipment, but cost is the issue.

"Maybe some of the money (the Jockey Club will spend) should go back to the tracks for the purpose of televising in HD," Trager suggested. "We have two networks devoted to horseracing and we're not providing them with what they need."

Meanwhile, racing continues to wrestle with how to present itself. It seems to want to hide the fact that it can be dangerous and that its major attraction is legalized gambling, the panelists noted, when executives should be embracing such factors. It is a complicated sport, sure, but those putting on the show are never sure how much they want to dumb it down.

The problem with a series such as one proposed by The Jockey Club that leads to the Triple Crown is that the major participants -- the horses, trainers, and jockeys the public reads about -- often don't show up, opting for a softer spot someplace else. How do you explain that to someone trying to figure out the sport?

"What do you do with that hour?" Trager asked. "I don't think we have the expertise to know. You have a budget of $400,000 and you are going to have to spend much of it buying time. So what do you do? You cut production costs. And it shows."

"You have to ask yourself, what is the purpose?" Zimmerman added. "Is it just to show the races or is it to attract new fans?"

The industry doesn't have the patience it needs, Seigenfeld said. It tires of approaches such as "Jockeys" or years ago, the "Go Baby Go" marketing campaign, much too quickly.

"It takes a long time to build an audience," Seigenfeld said. "The lords of racing don't want to believe that, but it's the truth."