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Channel broadens appea

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


If you thought for a minute that a channel devoting 24 hours, seven days a week to all things racing was, well, a bit much, guess what?

How does two channels sound?

The rapid spread of Speed Channel has made it the fastest growing cable network in the country, and its impressive growth might force an offshoot channel.

"We've talked about it," Speed Channel president Jim Liberatore said.

Of course, considering that since Fox acquired the Charlotte, N.C.-based channel (when it was known as SpeedVision) in 2001, it has almost doubled the number of homes it can be seen in (from roughly 37-million to 60-million).

NASCAR and the intense interest of its fans has driven the channel to new heights and will continue to do so. But Speed Channel's old guard, which fought the inclusion of NASCAR coverage, remains the most loyal of its viewers.

"From the non-NASCAR fans, they were really concerned; it's a small group but a vocal group," Liberatore said. "Covering NASCAR 24-7 doesn't make sense at this time, but our programing needs to be representative of the huge NASCAR base. . . . If not, this would be like a football channel that was all about soccer. In this country, to have a motorsports network, you have to have a real significant representation from NASCAR."

Liberatore's numbers say that of 75-million NASCAR fans, 72 percent had never heard of or cared for his channel.

Those that have always cared for his channel, a small but loyal group of non-NASCAR racing fans, will be those tuning in for the Champ Car World Series season opener Sunday at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

It will also tune in for Formula One racing . . . and motorcycle racing . . . and powerboat racing . . . and any other events the typical American viewer never has heard of or never would watch.

Which is exactly why NASCAR is so important to Liberatore's vision. It gives him a reason to phase out such filler as marine and aviation programming and movies, and replace them with more live coverage "to make this truly a racing network instead of a network just about cars.

"Twenty percent of the schedule was live or first-run racing; we bumped that up to 70 percent. . . . It used to be you turn on SpeedVision and some shows ran 50-60 times. Now we only have shows running two times, maybe three times if the schedule permits."

And he hopes the infusion of NASCAR fans will mean better ratings all around. Right now, it's no comparison. But if the NASCAR gravy train can drop off a few passengers. . . .

"For advertising, (CART and F1) does fairly well, and for ratings it does well also," Liberatore said. "If we do a 0.6, which is really what IRL and CART and the F1s of the world do, that's a good rating. But, for example, the NASCAR practice we did, the repeat for that, did a 1.0 rating."

Though rumors abounded when Liberatore came to Speed Channel that the network would become a 24-hour NASCAR network -- and it was discussed -- he says that the channel would rather help grow its non-NASCAR coverage and will patiently hope to hook American viewers.

"What happens in this country is the drivers are the stars, and if you don't see that star you lose interest," Liberatore said. "Coverage green flag to checkered doesn't help grow the sport. When we cover CART and show the prerace and the podium and show us interviewing drivers on a Saturday and fans can see what a character someone like Paul Tracy is, that's a good thing. Imagine if you watched baseball and didn't know any of the players. In Europe, it's all about the machines. Here you see the banners are all about Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip and it's all over the fans' shirts. Go to an F1 race and you see signs for McLaren and F1 and Ferrari. That's a huge difference."

And a huge obstacle to its coverage. But as it introduces drivers to new viewers, the channel expects ratings to increase. Interested fans will get a chance to meet many of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg drivers during Speed Channel's coverage of Saturday's qualifying.

Liberatore hopes after they do, they decide to tune in Sunday for the race.

On TV

If you want to watch the races this weekend, you better make sure you're up to Speed.

Speed Channel, a cable network that provides 24 hours of racing daily, is covering the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It reaches nearly 60-million homes across the country, but it's not part of the standard package on many local cable systems.

Time Warner, for instance, offers Speed Channel on its digital tier, which has about 300,000 subscribers. Verizon Americast also offers Speed to its 30,000 digital subscribers. Speed also is available to those with satellite dishes and as part of some other cable packages.

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