In Depth

Speed Gets ‘Wrecked’ in Quest for New Viewers

Fueled on the weekends by NASCAR programming, Speed is changing gears on weeknights.
Rather than featuring racing, the cable network’s newest show focuses on the sometimes risky life at a family-owned tow truck company in Chicago.

The network’s strategy is to air what it calls automotive lifestyle programming in prime time.
The Fox-owned cable network is betting “Wrecked” will do for it what “Deadliest Catch” does for Discovery.

Speed plans to air 10 one-hour episodes of “Wrecked,” shot in high definition, beginning in July.
When Fox acquired control of Speed in 2002, the network took on part of the company’s NASCAR package and showed racing seven nights a week, said Robert Ecker, VP of programming for Speed.

The NASCAR connection helped the network add distribution; it’s now available in more than 78 million homes. But Speed’s racing programming on weeknights stalled.

“It didn’t work. It didn’t resonate,” Mr. Ecker said.

Viewership for Speed was down slightly last year in prime time and over the entire programming day. In prime time, the network was mostly flat in key demographics. That led Speed executives to start to develop automotive lifestyle programming.

“We have discovered over the course of time that while there are race fans, there are also people that have a love affair with the automobiles but are not necessarily interested in racing,” he said.

Shows about automotive culture are all over the dial, from “Pimp My Ride” on MTV to “Monster Garage” on Discovery. In addition to the allure of motoring content for American viewers, automotive is television’s largest advertising category. So shows about cars stand a good chance of finding sponsors.

Most of Speed’s original programming still has an element of racing, even if it doesn’t deal directly with NASCAR or other motor events.

In “Pinks,” competitors race each other for registration slips, while on the network’s nightly game show “Pass Time,” contestants try to guess how fast a car will do the quarter-mile.

But the network is trying to show a broader range of programming.

Mr. Ecker said “Drag Race High,” which challenges shop classes at rival Tennessee high schools to build a dragster, is as much about racing as “Friday Night Lights” is about football.
And “Living the Low Life,” hosted by model Vida Guerra, is a show about low-rider auto culture. Another show, “Super Cars Exposed,” takes expensive cars and exposes them to the elements to see what they will do.

“Wrecked,” however, is the network’s most ambitious and expensive programming effort to date, Mr. Ecker said.

Rising programming costs have kept Speed’s cash flow flat at about $60 million since 2004, which is very low for a network of its size, said Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan Research. Kagan estimates Speed’s gross ad revenues will rise to $106 million in 2008 from $95 million last year.

Mr. Ecker said Speed is betting “Wrecked” has varied appealing aspects that should attract viewers and generate return on investment.

For one thing, people have an interest in big rigs, and Chicago O’Hare Towing & Recovery uses huge, expensive pieces of machinery. And like the high-rated “Deadliest Catch,” which follows crab fisherman in the Bering Sea, it’s a show about an occupation that’s more dangerous than most people realize, particularly during a Chicago winter.

“I’m told the incidence of mortality is higher than [for] policemen and firemen,” Mr. Ecker said. The network said about 100 tow-truck drivers lose their lives on the job every year.

The show plays up the human element, showing drivers waiting in a firehouse-like environment for emergency calls. The family that owns the towing company, headed by Bill Gratzianna and his wife, adds another personal dimension. Their parents are in the business and Bill’s brother is married to Bill’s wife’s sister. The relatives own a competing firm, so sparks should fly.

Speed said it generally seeks between $6,000 and $10,000 for a 30-second spot in high-profile prime-time shows.

Beyond the interest automotive advertisers may have in the content, other sponsors may take note, Mr. Ecker said.

Since the drivers may be on call 24 hours a day during stormy weather, beer and liquor probably won’t be a part of the show. But the crew drinks a lot of coffee and eats a lot of doughnuts, Mr. Ecker said.