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Fox unable to celebrate high 500 ratings


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

Fox earned not just high ratings but high marks from Winston Cup fans for its first broadcast of the Daytona 500.

And the death of Dale Earnhardt -- and the national buzz surrounding the sport -- could send ratings soaring to levels NASCAR officials could not have imagined.

Fox representatives would not speculate on the subject and have been quick to say Earnhardt's death has kept them from celebrating the network's huge Daytona ratings. Ten percent of American households with televisions tuned in to watch the race, the best rating since its TV debut in 1979. None of the success was attributable to Earnhardt's late crash.

It figures, then, that viewership for Sunday's race in Rockingham, N.C., on Fox will be extraordinary. The move from cable to broadcast (when TNN aired it last year, it got a 5.2 rating, nearly 4-million homes) will be only one reason for the boost.

"In the short run, frankly, I would expect the ratings are going to increase for Fox, because Dale Earnhardt's death has been front page news across the country," New York-based television consultant Neal Pilson said. "A lot of viewers are going to tune in that do not normally watch Winston Cup racing."

Pilson, it must be noted, is a consultant for NASCAR, but he also is the former president of CBS Sports, which held rights to Daytona broadcasts for 21 years.

The long-term impact of Earnhardt's death is tougher to measure. Many of his fans have said they won't return to Daytona or will stop watching races. Ratings could drop if those fans abandon the sport, but Pilson doesn't believe that will happen.

"I think NASCAR fans (tend to) follow the sport first and then follow the drivers," Pilson said. "In the long run, I expect Dale's fans will get behind Dale Jr., or perhaps root for their second most favorite driver."

Fox's coverage was a hit with both new and established Winston Cup fans. A notable innovation was FoxTrax, the graphic at the top of the screen that continually relays the drivers' order and speed. The placement annoyed some fans but otherwise was well received.

Fox also unveiled part of a technology involving global positioning satellites that officials say eventually will track all drivers' RPM, speed and distance from other cars, as well as point to a driver's car as someone in the booth discusses it.

The network was a bit slow to react to Earnhardt's crash and did not to stay on air awaiting news of his condition -- ultimately a reasonable move considering his death wasn't announced for two hours.

But the race coverage was excellent and drew in new fans. Add in curiosity seekers, and the numbers will climb higher. Fox is no doubt pleased -- privately, of course.

EARNHARDT FUNERAL: Earnhardt's service initially was scheduled to be aired exclusively on Fox Sports Net, a move that upset fans who don't get cable and fans who are customers of Time Warner Central Florida (Orlando/Daytona Beach), which doesn't carry FSN.

Fox decided to make it available to affiliates that wanted it and finally, at the request of Earnhardt's wife, made it available to all networks and stations willing to sign an agreement that footage would not be re-aired. Production costs for the broadcast, hosted by Fox announcers Mike Joy and Ken Squier, were picked up by Fox, but it also aired on TBS, MSNBC and CNN and partially on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNNEWS.

MORE EARNHARDT: Remembrances of No. 3 will continue all weekend and into next week. Tonight at 7:30, ESPN will re-air its hourlong special, Dale Earnhardt Remembered. It first aired Tuesday on ESPN2. ESPN Classic will air a 12-hour tribute at noon Saturday that will feature tapes of five of his greatest races, including his 1998 Daytona 500 victory.

Fox will focus its prerace show Sunday on Earnhardt. Also Sunday, Fox Sports Net will air a special episode of Beyond the Glory at 8 p.m. And Monday at 11:08 p.m. following the World Wrestling Federation broadcast, TNN will present Dale Earnhardt: The People's Champion. The hourlong show will include a recent, never-before-seen interview with Earnhardt and Dale Jr.

ESPN VS. NASCAR: ESPN has accepted credentials to the next three Winston Cup races but will not take a camera in protest of NASCAR's decision to deny credentials to ESPN2's racing show RPM 2Night. ESPN's SportsCenter was offered credentials for Daytona but the network declined, saying its RPM 2Night crew was responsible for the network's racing coverage. Even without credentials, the show got record ratings this week, so ESPN will change its policy in the coming weeks. "To serve our fans, we have to have our reporters and producers inside the track," ESPN director of communications Mike Soltys said.

LIGHTNING RATINGS: Saturday's Lightning-Rangers game on ESPN2, Tampa Bay's first appearance on national television in more than three years, garnered a slightly better-than-average rating. The rating was 0.27, better than the average of about 0.24, an ESPN spokesman said. That is about 200,000 homes.

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