Speed Revs Up Prime as Nascar Slumps

As Nascar continues to suffer from significant viewer defections, Speed Channel is taking a proactive approach to the sport’s ratings challenges, gassing up a new prime-time lineup of original series to roar off the line in 2011.
The Fox Sports Media Group network has as many as 20 different projects in various stages of development, with a half-dozen new shows set to bow in February. The premieres will follow on the heels of Speed Channel’s coverage of Nascar’s season-opening Speedweeks events in Daytona Beach.
Among the new entries lined up for February are: Wheel Wars, a competition series produced by BASE Productions (Spike TV’s Jesse James Is a Dead Man, National Geographic Channel’s Megacities); Car Science, an auto-centric take on Nat Geo’s Fight Science franchise; and American Trucker, a look at iconic rigs from BCII Productions (TLC’s Overhaulin’).  
The first haul of new programs will run in Wednesday and Thursday prime.
Speed Channel president Hunter Nickell said that while the network has had great success in the last several years with its enthusiasts’ programming, some of the competition-related fare that premiered in 2010 didn’t produce results. “It’s a genre that is really strong for us on the weekends, but just did not perform as well in prime time,” Nickell said. “So this initiative represents a very ambitious course correction for Speed Channel.”
Also in the hopper is the synergistic Ticket to Ride with Dan Neil, a look at the business of car culture hosted by The Wall Street Journal columnist (“Rumble Seat”). News Corp. is the parent company of Fox Sports and the Journal.
“The idea behind this push is to give ourselves the strongest possible shot at audience growth among males in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos,” Nickell said. The network took a significant hit in prime time in the third quarter, as deliveries dropped 23 percent to 198,000 total viewers. Adults 18-49 plummeted 39 percent in the quarter, per Nielsen, as Speed’s deliveries of that demo went from 122,000 in the year-ago period to 75,000. The 25-54 crowd also dropped off by a 39 percent margin (90,000).
Speed did begin to see some improvement in recent weeks, with November prime deliveries down by just 3 percent. That said, both larger demos were off by 23 percent.
The network’s fortunes are largely dependent on the strength of Nascar, which has weathered serious viewer losses over the last four years. According to Nielsen data, Nascar has seen nearly a quarter of its TV fan base walk away since 2006, when it finalized its current eight-year media deals with Fox, Turner Sports and ESPN.
“We had a mixed year with our Nascar coverage, but what sometimes gets lost in all the analysis is just what an enormous sport it really is,” Nickell said. “There are some tremendously exciting drivers out there and fans are catching on. It’ll come back.”