I've been watching racing on TV for most of my life, and while I'm not very comfortable saying how long that actually is, "several decades" is accurate enough.
In all of that time, if there has been one constant about televised motorsports it's that no matter how good the broadcast is, someone is going to complain about it. While there will always be folks out there who will believe that they created the role of "pissed-off TV watcher," the sad fact is that dissatisfaction with the idiot box has existed as long as... well, the idiot box itself.
But lately there have been some signs that the natural roller-coaster progression of popularity with its many peaks and valleys is turning into a progressive, inexorable downward slide. The ebb and flow of ratings suddenly seems to be a sinkhole, with folks all over the industry scratching their heads trying to discover why.
The answer has to do with focus, and I don't necessarily mean the shortening attention span of the average American viewer.
Ask any racing fan over 30 years old and they'll tell you that one of the landmarks of motorsports TV coverage occurred in 1979. "The Fight" is all you need to say, and those fans will be able to cite chapter and verse of how a snowbound East Coast was treated to fisticuffs between Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison at the end of that year's Daytona 500.
To me, The Fight is remarkable because the whole fight lasted less than 20 seconds, and it was shot at extreme distance by a static camera. And yet people burned that image into their brains - it was memorable and remains so decades after the event.
Contrast this with today's racing coverage, where if there is even a hint of aggression between drivers and teams, there immediately arises a growth of cameras and boom mikes that resembles kudzu. I would not be surprised - honestly, I wouldn't - if someone like Dave Burns or Jack Arute actually waded into the fracas to ask someone who was getting their face punched, "Did that right cross hurt or merely sting?"
What's the difference? The difference is that the former example - The Fight - is voyeurism at its best. The viewer is a fascinated spectator, imagining what is being said without having it spelled out in excruciating detail or interpreted for them ad nauseum by "experts."
Because after all, motorsports is a voyeuristic sport. It is visceral - when you go see one in person you will realize it instantly. That is not to say that fans cannot engage their minds or appreciate analysis, but usually they are more interested in such things when they're not engaged watching the actual track action.
The issue has become of late that the broadcast networks are no longer content to let you experience the product - indeed, it is no longer clear exactly what "the product" really is.
I am not going to wax rhapsodic about "the good old days." To paraphrase NHL Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, the good old days aren't as good as you remember, and they never were. But I will say that back in the day, the TV networks treated their racing coverage as a signature product. With only a handful of TV channels available, networks could afford to present racing with the care of a jeweler crafting a window display.
These days, there are hundreds of TV channels all clamoring for attention, and the networks have transitioned from selling their products to selling themselves through their products. Call it the Grocery Store Phenomenon if you wish - imagine an aisle filled with dozens of different brands of the same foodstuffs. Inside the packages, the ingredients hardly vary from brand to brand - it is the packaging, and the company that sells the package, that makes the difference between which box gets picked off the shelf.
The upshot is that networks these days have the need to distinguish themselves from other networks. That's why Fox Sports added the abominable Digger - the animated groundhog that is as popular as Microsoft's annoying Office Assistant in terms of everpresence and value-addition. Let's be clear - nobody asked for Digger. He's poorly animated, he's excruciatingly intrusive, and even children don't like him (I know - I asked). But he's Fox Sports' NASCAR mascot, as much a hallmark of their coverage as TNT's fabulously unnecessary and bizarre CGI jumbotrons and pit road stoplights.
Those kinds of "features" serve to get people to remember the network and the broadcast. In a sense, exactly what is being broadcast is almost not relevant to the process. The networks sell attitude so that you'll remember them later when you're swamped with other forms of entertainment.
It's understandable because TV is and always has been a commercial enterprise. It's a sales game. The difference today is the idea of what sells and what doesn't.
The entertainment industry, if you haven't noticed, tend to leap on the first thing that looks like it can make money and exploit it until it has not only been utterly exhausted, but actually becomes a pejorative. The number of reboots, rehashes and reimaginings of existing entertainment is one symptom. Hollywood is keen on commercializing nostalgia - forgetting in the process exactly what makes people nostalgiac about things.
If Hollywood is not recycling actual entertainment, they are continuously recycling the elements that make them. Those parodies of TV pitch meetings that you see everywhere - where an executive makes some unholy proposition like, "It's Two and a Half Men meets Battlestar Galactica!"? Those actually happen - and more often than not get greenlit - because it's a safer investment to pour money into things that are proven than things that aren't. For every Lost there are ten According to Jims or CSIs, because the cost of venturing into something fresh and original is simply too high.
In motorsports' case, there seems to be the thinking that the only way to make racing fresh and original is to vary the packaging of it. So the nets add experts to dissect every nuance of what goes on during a race. Pretty soon, there is nothing left for the viewer to interpret or imagine because someone on the TV screen is doggedly attempting to bring it to light in their own inimitable style. For instance, if a driver has a wreck, there is someone there immediately with a microphone to ask about "the emotions" of the incident. It's like a visual version of Twitter - throwing bits and pieces of what's going on at you in an unceasing stream until it all becomes white noise.
In the process of doing this, the broadcasters themselves make themselves part of the show. In the past, the broadcasters' role was to chronicle the action that the viewer might not be able to see. Today, it seems that their role is to determine what action the viewer should see - and that anything else is not worth the viewers' time. In fact, in most of today's broadcasts, the networks write up the storylines ahead of time and tailor the broadcast to emphasize them.
Then there is the apparent need for the networks to prove their bonafides as "insiders" by highlighting their relationships with the drivers and teams. When Jack Arute invades the Indy 500 winner's circle and interrupts the traditional drinking of the milk to show how much of a pal he is to the winning driver, or when broadcasters and pit reporters cozy up to their subjects, calling them by nicknames and playing the role of confidant, they sacrifice their objectivity. Instead of being proxy observers for their audience, they become participants themselves.
But this attempt to be the arbiter of a race's proper emotion fails before it even begins, because the participants themselves are wise to it. When Jamie Little sidles up to a driver and asks him about his emotions, the driver has a prepared spin-doctoring ready to provide the emotion he wants to portray, instead of the emotion he's actually feeling. It becomes a performance, an act - as genuine and spontaneous as a toilet paper commercial.
This process of "selling the salesman" warps and distorts the event to the point where people lose their sense of imagination and intrigue. The event itself often gets lost in the presentation thereof. Hence, many fans have resorted to muting the TV feed or choosing to watch live feeds online with the radio broadcast providing the commentary. Why? Because the raw visual feed returns a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings and allows the viewer to reengage their imaginations without having everything spelled out in excruciating detail according to someone else's script.
That's the reason why ratings are down, folks. Fans are tired of their racing being orchestrated for them by someone selling an attitude. The product no longer matters as much as the people hawking it, and the fans don't appreciate being commercialized so blatantly.
The market has never been more crowded, and the job of standing out from that crowd has never been harder. But the fact remains that fans want to invest in the product, not the salesman. It's up to the salesman to drive interest to what he's selling, not how he sells it.