Emotion will be key to NBC's NASCAR approach
December 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Executive Sam Flood plans big-picture changes; Burton readies for starring role
LAS VEGAS -- If Sam Flood has his way, the radio communications that NBC viewers will hear between drivers, spotters and crew chiefs won't be taped -- they will be aired live.
If he can get around the not-so-small issue of swearing first.
"Emotion is a wonderful thing. It's what makes sports great," said Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports, which returns as a NASCAR broadcast partner in 2015. "And I would bet with all the technology we have, there's a way to filter swearing. It's not there yet. I wouldn’t want to be on an NBC show having the FCC catch an F-bomb being plopped out of the air. But I'd be willing to try it over time if there's that filter system that automatically gets a word that shouldn't be going home."
NBC and NBC Sports Network will air the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the season beginning in 2015, and even though that kickoff is still more than a year away, the network's plans for NASCAR are already coming into focus. Tuesday, 21-time race winner Jeff Burton was named as broadcast analyst, and on Wednesday, Rick Allen was named as the lead race announcer.
And it seems clear that a linchpin of NBC's approach will be to maximize the emotion within the sport, even if that means trying to break drivers of some longstanding habits -- like immediately thanking all of their sponsors when they climb out of a car in Victory Lane.
"I think the sponsors are so critical to this sport. They need to be honored and respected. But your first answer shouldn't be thanking the sponsors," Flood said at the NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum that opened Champion's Week. "The first answer should be the emotion of the moment and the significance of the moment. … The sponsors can come at the back end of it, and I would never shortchange that. But I think the emotion has to come first."
Burton agreed, saying the sponsor logos on a driver's cap and firesuit should suffice.
"Do you really need to say it? I mean, most people can read," Burton said. "I've been in this sport forever, and when you push (sponsors) all the time, I think it takes away from the emotion of the sport. … That's why you wear a uniform with all the stuff on it. And to be honest, that's what I've done for 20 years. And I've never had a sponsor come to me and say, 'You need to mention our name more.' I don't remember ever having that conversation. And the reason why was, I was respected for answering the question."
The concept of live team audio, though, presents a stickier issue. Flood called it "critical" to the NASCAR viewing experience, and wants to move it away from tape and into real time. But then how to prevent viewers from being hit with a barrage of four-letter words? "I think you have to get to a point where there's a heavy fine for swearing," Flood said.
As in, fines levied by NASCAR. Burton believes the approach would need to be more gradual. "What would be difficult would be getting the drivers in the mindset of, you're always live on TV. That would be a transition," he said. "The transition could happen, but it wouldn't be an overnight transition. It would be a process to get there."
NASCAR and NBC Sports Group reached an agreement in July that grants NBC Universal exclusive rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, final 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, select NASCAR Regional and Touring Series events, and other live content beginning in 2015. Of NBC Sports Group's 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, seven will be carried on NBC annually, with 13 airing on NBC Sports Network. Four of NBC Sports Group's 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series races will air on NBC, with 15 airing on NBC Sports Network.
NBC aims to do some things differently than it did the last time it was a NASCAR broadcast partner, from 2001 through 2006. Jeff Behnke, a longtime Turner Sports producer who will head the NASCAR team's day-to-day operations, will be based in Charlotte, N.C., marking the first time the head of a network's NASCAR team will be stationed in the sport's hub.
"To have someone in Charlotte with all the race shops and team owners, and getting to know the teams, having a real person on the ground," Flood said, "we think it's a real change that's going to help the sport and help us have a better relationship with every race team."
NBC also hopes to take a cue from its football coverage. Before each Sunday night NFL game, the network's talent meets on Friday with the home team's head coach, coordinators and key players, and then does the same with the visiting team's on Saturday. Flood envisions similar, formalized meetings with key NASCAR teams each week.
"They need to have a schedule … where each weekend, six or seven race teams are going to get 10 minutes with our talent to talk about where they are, where they're going," he said. "We didn’t have that in '01 to '06. It was all (former analyst) Benny Parsons leaning against tires having conversations. And Benny was great about it, because he never left the garage. One of the greatest guys of all time. … I think in this day and age with drivers pulled in all different directions, we need to formalize that."
Flood said he also wants to take advantage of what's happening on pit road, as well as Burton's perspective coming fresh from the race car. The Virginia native recently finished his final full-time season with Richard Childress Racing, and will test and compete on a limited basis with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014 before transitioning into the booth the following year.
"I think there's a real relevance to him," Flood said of Burton. "And he's a guy I'd like to have a beer with, have a conversation with. His ability to engage, to know what's going on in real time, it's so fresh. I think it’s going to be great for the audience to hear an unfiltered take from a guy right out of the race car."
For Burton, the challenge will be to maintain that relevance once he's out of the vehicle.
"I have a lot of good relations now with people who will sit down and talk to me. But five years down the road, what am I going to be doing to ensure I still have those relationships?" he said. "That's part of my role -- to make sure I'm staying current, to make sure that I am working with people, that people trust me and can come talk to me. That I can ask them questions and they're willing to answer them. I think that's built though honesty and through trust. And that will take a while to build."
NBC's previous stint as a NASCAR broadcast partner coincided with an era that saw the sport enjoy some of its highest levels of popularity. Flood believes NASCAR can get back there again, and it starts with winning over the core fans who have long been key to the circuit's health.
"I think we learned the first time out that this is a passionate fan base you've got to embrace, to get them to understand that you're there for them. Once you bring that passionate core in, you saw the sport grow from '01 through '05 or '06 -- we want to replicate that. We want to make people understand that we're going to make this bigger, and get the core fan knowing we're the place to be," he said.
"I want the core fan. We need the core fan. The sport needs the core fan. We need full seats. We need the stands full. We want to help race tracks do that. We want to do what we can to make sure the fans at home know, it's pretty cool to be up there in the seats, I want to get back to the race track. That's step one, filling up every race track, getting fans there to consume the race. Because once you go, you're hooked."
And to Burton, the emotion the sport presents is often a key reason why. NBC's goal will be to capture it.
"The more we can show how much it means to people, the better our sport is," Burton said. "So things like live audio, things like immediately getting out of the car and having a microphone in your face, those are good things. Those are things that make this sport great. It does matter that it is emotional. … We can't manufacture emotion, but we don’t have to. If we're there at the right time and the right place, the emotion's there. We just have to be there."