10 Years of Speed: Revving on All Cylinders

May 1, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

In the domain of narrowcasting, cable networks speak of their “brand” and of being a “destination,” but delivering the audience they seek is another matter. Not so with Speed. As it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Speed can boast that it is reaching the 18- to 49-year-old male audience for which it was created and giving them an expanding universe of racing events and automotive lifestyle programming.

“In our mission statement we say that Speed is the No. 1 source for motorsports,” said Hunter Nickell, the Fox-owned network’s executive VP and general manager. “I’ll let someone else put the adjectives to it, but I’m fired up about how the business is performing.”

The numbers tell the story. Speed made its debut on New Year’s Eve 1995 with 3.2 million subscribers, and now, including Canada, tops 70 million. Its audience is more than 86 percent male, with household incomes averaging $60,000 per year, according to audience research firm Mediamark. Ratings for some racing events have topped the 2.0 mark, according to Nielsen Media Research, an impressive figure considering that in most markets Speed is on expanded cable or a digital tier.

Speed has been buoyed by its association with NASCAR, which comes through the deal Fox made with the stock car racing sanctioning body. Speed has some NASCAR events of its own, but even when major races are televised on another Fox-owned channel or on NBC, enthusiasts tune in to Speed for prerace and postrace coverage and ancillary programming.

“They’re the home of NASCAR TV, have been since 2001,” said Dick Glover, NASCAR VP of broadcasting. “Our objective was to get quality programming on a daily basis so NASCAR fans can make appointment viewing. Under Hunter Nickell’s leadership, Speed has done a great job.”

The origins of Speed go back to 1994, when Roger Werner, then an executive at ESPN, conceived of “a network for guys like me who loved motorsports, who were gearheads, speed freaks.”

Mr. Werner took the concept of what would be called Speedvision to Cox Broadcasting, which jumped on board with Times Mirror as sole partner, later joined before launch by Comcast and Continental Cable (which became Media One).

At the same time, Cox asked Mr. Werner to develop another network, which would become The Outdoor Life Network and would premiere months before Speedvision.

Speedvision made its debut with Bill Patrick hosting programming that included such shows as “Wild About Wheels,” Planes of Fame,” “Classic Boat” and “The History of Trans-Am.”

“We launched with archival stuff,” Mr. Werner recalled. “It was not just auto racing, but anything to do with speed-planes, motorbikes-and it was footage that quite often no one has ever seen before, released from government or private collections, or European and American motor racing archives.”

Within the first year or so racing events were secured, such as Formula One rights, some Le Mans and NASCAR competitions and the famed Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction. The latter still runs on Speed and is now an interactive offering.

“In my 35 to 40 years’ experience, Speedvision was one of the most dramatic and successful product launches ever,” Mr. Werner said. “We really attracted the target audience and relatively quickly. Word got out we were the place to see the wheels spinning.”

Behind the scenes, Times Mirror sold its shares to the partners in 1997, and Fox/Liberty Media became a partner in both Speedvision and The Outdoor Life Network in 1998, with an option to purchase all shares in 2001.

Fox did just that. In early 2001 Fox bought the shares of both Cox and Media One in the networks, and later that year Comcast bought out Fox’s interest in OLN using, in part, its shares in Speedvision for the transaction.

Fox became the sole owner of the network and renamed it Speed Channel for its relaunch in 2002. The media giant had made a 10-year deal with NASCAR and wanted Speed Channel as part of the long-term arrangement. It even moved Speed’s headquarters and staff from Stamford, Conn., to Charlotte, N.C., which is also the home of NASCAR.

NASCAR Connection

Mr. Werner departed to become an independent producer, and Jim Liberatore became the new president of a network that would focus almost entirely on action on and around the racetrack.

“We had the tie-in with NASCAR,” said Mr. Liberatore, who is now the president of Sports Time Ohio. “We were in many ways NASCAR TV, and that made marketing the new channel easier. Without NASCAR from that point, there might not be a Speed.

“Although we dropped some programming, such as aviation, and there was less motorcycles and such, we kept our numbers and grew. And the advertisers who wanted that audience wanted us. Our viewer composition was really upscale, a lot of do-it-yourselfers. It was an attractive-and attentive-male audience.”

Speed Channel had turned a profit by 2001, and began to put $70 million to $80 million in annual revenues into the Fox coffers.

Of course, scheduling a network for which virtually all the tentpole and marquee events take place on weekends can have its challenges.

“It’s true that we don’t seem to have events that are going to play live in prime time,” said Mark Callahan, the director of programming, who heads the scheduling staff and who has been with the network since a month after its debut.

“During the week in prime time we can rerun the events,” he said. “We also try to rerun events around traditional lunchtime, thinking that our audience can then watch at the local pub where they eat, or in an employees’ lounge.”

“But we also have to think about daytime and early evenings, when a good chunk of our male audience is working or on their way home,” he added.

That’s where Speed looks for the males in their mid- to late teens, running programming such as its “Monster Jam” motorsports series at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. (ET).

The network has launched a number of successful series. One of the current audience favorites is “Pinks,” which premiered in 2005 as a reality competition series in which two participants drag race.

The network has steered clear of televising movies related to racing, said Mr. Callahan, largely because movie packages tend to be pricey.

There is no specific plan to attract women, though Mr. Nickell said they are discovering the channel. “The female audience-it’s happening,” he said. “NASCAR has a young female audience, and they’re beginning to find us. I won’t say we don’t make an attempt to attract that audience, but we’re trying to maximize the use of our brand and that may not include a direct effort.”

The women who are seen on the network tend to have an appeal to men. For example, Michele Smith, one of the hosts of “American Thunder,” found earlier fame on the cover of Playboy.

“You put women in front of a camera and a stock car and everyone goes gaga,” Mr. Callahan said.

Speed, as the network is now known, began a concerted effort in 2005 to expand its delivery methods beyond the cable network. It has moved into video-on-demand and interactive television, and there is an expectation that some Speed programming will work on the emerging mobile phone delivery systems.

“There’s been a terrific consumer response to the initial VOD,” Mr. Nickell said. “We’ll be on as many platforms as it makes sense and where we can still deliver what our viewers expect from us. We also see the new platforms are a means to deliver content that will reach new viewers.”

“Speaking for NASCAR, we want to work with Speed so our fans can easily access our sports,” Mr. Glover said. “We want to reach our fans wherever they are. Speed’s goals are to find new media opportunities and delivery, and we’re supportive of that.”

Speed is poised for greater growth, its top executive believes.

“Here’s the deal,” Mr. Nickell said. “We spend a lot of time going over and over our core values. We kno
w what our business is and who our audience is. NASCAR is only going to grow. Fox has high expectations, but is supportive in every way.

“In addition to NASCAR, we have Formula One, Grand Am, Supercross-the list of races is a long one. The motor vehicle enthusiast knows who we are.”