ESPN's "Wire To Wire" digest show will be eliminated in 2007, but the amount of live coverage hours of horse racing on the network will increase slightly, part of a retooling of the lineups for the sports cable company and affiliated broadcast network ABC.
Despite a total drop of about 40 hours of coverage from a benchmark in 2006 of nearly 140 hours, a senior ESPN executive says the network is still dedicated to horse racing.
Most of the coverage reduction will come in the form of eliminating Wire To Wire, which accounted for 53 hours annually.
"Wire to Wire is something that we can do without now, but even with all of the revisions, we feel that less is more," said ESPN senior vice president Len DeLuca. "We will be more committed on the jewel events, particularly now that the 'Breeders' Cup Challenge' is in place.
"We are now in command of all of the championship racing leading up to the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth, and that is exciting."
Announced a few days before the 2006 Breeders' Cup World Championships were run at Churchill Downs, the Challenge was touted as a "Win and You're In" series that guarantees berths into the Breeders' Cup for the winners of 24 graded stakes.
Though the scheduling lineup hasn't been completed, those "playoff" races will be televised on six showcase telecasts.
"What it won't include are races like the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and the Florida Derby (gr. I), which will be shown on other networks," said Greg Avioli, interim CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which is a production partner in ESPN racing. "Our real focus now is on the Breeders' Cup Challenge, and we plan to try some different things like we did at the Breeders' Cup – virtual finish line, multiple camera angles, perhaps an overhead shot from the blimp."
DeLuca said ESPN will continue to offer expansive airtime in the immediate days leading up to Triple Crown races, similar to what has been done in the past with coverage of, for example, the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) from Churchill Downs, and the Pimlico Special (gr. I) and Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II) from Pimlico.
There has been no decision on the final airing of "Wire To Wire," which was known as "Racehorse Digest" prior to 2002. Declining viewership played a significant part in the decision to eliminate the show, with a 0.1 rating ranking well under the 0.25 average for all racing on ESPN, including ESPN2.
On ESPN alone, horse racing averaged a 0.6 rating in 2006, and a 1.0 rating on ABC, including a 3.3 rating on the network's first coverage of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). A rating point represents about 1.1 million households.
"The ratings for Wire To Wire were poor – but they were diminishing in part because of all the information that is available world-wide," said DeLuca. "Wire To Wire was a wonderfully conceived show, but now we are serving horse racing on all levels. We are very excited about the upgrade."