10 Years of Speed: Automotive Lifestyle in the Speed Lane

May 1, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

For the 10 years it’s been on the air, Speed has been synonymous with auto racing. That’s now changing. While NASCAR, muscle cars, how-to and car history will still be part of the mix, as it celebrates its first decade the network is also laying down track in automotive lifestyle programming aimed at a broader audience of car fans who are consumers, enthusiasts and collectors.

“That’s where the growth opportunity is,” said Speed VP of Programming Robert Ecker. “We’ve got the racing thing down. We’ve got all the motor sports currently available; we’ve got those viewers. We’ve now made a conscious effort to expand into the arena of people who aren’t necessarily racing fans.”

There’s a lot at stake. Since its inception as Speedvision 10 years ago, the channel has been a destination for NASCAR fans, primarily a male 40-plus demographic. That fan base is aging and, like other networks, Speed is eager to woo the key 18 to 34 male demo. “We’re not looking to disenfranchise our existing demographic,” Mr. Ecker said. “We’re just looking to create a space on this network for younger people as well.”

Speed has made tremendous strides in lassoing the younger demo, and the basis for its success can be described in three words: “Unique Whips” and “Pinks.” These two lifestyle shows launched in prime time combine the tension and testosterone that grab the younger demo’s attention.

“Pinks” refers to a car’s title, or “pink slip.” Each show starts off with two racers signing their pink slips over to the show. At a classic 1950s drag strip, they jump into their souped-up cars and race in a best three-out-of-five format, after they’ve negotiated head-start distance in car lengths. After each round, the drivers have the opportunity to renegotiate lengths.

And, yes, the winner does take the loser’s pink slip and car.

Response to the show has been overwhelming, reported Mr. Ecker, who noted that it has scored an average Nielsen Media Research rating of .78, peaking at .90. “A show like ‘Pinks’ makes sense in terms of the marriage of drag racing in a high-stakes environment with a story that has a beginning, middle and end,” he said. “It’s ripe for drama. There are new characters and situations with each program. It’s shot live and edited down, so you never know what’s going to happen.”

‘Pinks’ Reaches Out

With an upcoming 13 new summer episodes, “Pinks” not only has attracted the 18 to 34 male demo but also drawn in the original male 40-plus demo and is developing a good fan base among women, Mr. Ecker said. He reported that an episode of “Pinks” to be shot in June pits a male racer against a female racer for the same stakes. “We’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audiences,” Mr. Ecker said. “It’s a racing show with a lot of drama and it’s easily consumed.”

Just entering its second season “Unique Whips” is another lifestyle show, this one aimed at an edgier urban, hip-hop demographic. The series focuses on celebrities and their highly customized autos (“whip” means a big-dollar, high-profile dream ride customized to match the owner’s personality and style).

“We were actively looking for a show that would have appeal to young men, and this one fell into our laps,” Mr. Ecker said.

On Long Island, N.Y., Unique Autosports, run by Willy Castro, specializes in creating high-profile customized vehicles. For “Unique Whips,” viewers watch that process for an array of celebrities, hip-hop artists and sports figures, including singer Patti LaBelle, author Tom Wolfe, NASCAR superstars Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, Washington Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez, New York Yankees Gary Sheffield and Robinson Cano, DJ Whoo Kid, Busta Rhymes and Carmine Gotti of “Growing Up Gotti.” A future episode will feature a hearse being converted into a party machine.

Clearly on a roll with lifestyle programming, Speed is next launching “Payback,” a show that despite its ominous title may actually make Speed a family-oriented destination. From producer Bud Brustman, who’s behind Discovery TLC Group’s “Overhaulin'” and “Rides,” “Payback” focuses on a celebrity who has achieved a measure of success and thanks someone who helped him or her along the way with a new, customized car. “It’s a feel-good program,” said Mr. Ecker, who noted that the show depends on the “correct combination of celebrity, narrative and car to make it compelling.” Among the celebrities tapped for “Payback,” which is set to debut in July, are Jay Leno and Tim Allen.

“Shooting Cars,” an inside look at how cars are selected and prepped for movies, TV and commercial shoots, is also slated for a summer premiere. “There’s no other show like this,” Mr. Ecker said. “It shows a part of the entertainment industry that people aren’t that aware of. It’s the opposite of our other shows, where people put money into a car to make it special. In this one, they riddle them with bullets, smash the windows and take it to the shoot.”

“Jet Set” is another scheduled Brutsman project; this one documents comedian and talk show host Jay Leno’s goal to build and test a jet-powered car. At Big Dog Garage, Mr. Leno will take a 700-horsepower turbine and wrap it in a 1950s-style hot rod. And among 12 new episodes of “American Muscle Car” commissioned for a fall airdate, a six-part series will document the history and complete restoration of the last authenticated Corvette Stingray to roll off the line.

In the hopper is another series directly aimed at the youth demographic, a spinoff of “Pinks” that will raise the ante considerably with heads-up, grudge-match racing. “You run what you brung,” Mr. Ecker said. “With ‘Pinks,’ the race is predicated on negotiation and you can gain advantages there. With this, people just race.”

With some solid successes, Speed plans to put pedal to the metal for lifestyle programming. “The direction we’re going to continue is to locate, define, develop and put on-air more shows in this lifestyle, enthusiast and consumer category,” affirmed Mr. Ecker.