It came with no fanfare Sunday during Fox’s coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway. During the late stages of the races, viewers were treated to a commercial break without ever leaving the action on the track.
Fox aired a commercial break in a side by side configuration showing the action on the track silently on the right hand side of the screen while airing a commercial with sound on the left. It was a surprise to many but something that has been hotly debated in NASCAR circles before.
When ABC/ESPN was contracted to air IndyCar races in 2005 they employed a feature known as ‘Side-By-Side’. This allowed viewers to continue to see the action on the track while airing commercials. Fans never missed any of the on track action and advertisers still had their on-air time. While there were never any concrete numbers to gauge the success of the ‘Side-By-Side’ coverage, the response from IndyCar fans seemed overwhelmingly positive.
The debate in NASCAR circles began in 2006. FOX, TNT and ABC/ESPN entered into the first year of coverage of NASCAR that would see races split among the three networks for eight years. NASCAR fans began wondering aloud if the same ‘Side-By-Side’ technology ESPN used in IndyCar would be used in NASCAR.
The answer they got, at least from NASCAR, was a resounding ‘no’. Despite network executives who said they were willing to explore the option, NASCAR officials nixed the idea.
“We’ve looked at a lot of options to enhance the fan/viewer experience but feel that a split-screen presentation of ads and racing serves neither the fan nor advertiser,” Ramsey Poston, who was NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, said at the time. “Our TV partners do an excellent job of immediately returning to significant track action when it happens during commercials. With replays and other technology, the networks make sure NASCAR fans get the best, most comprehensive race coverage anywhere.”
The talk of ‘Side-By-Side’ coverage has come up since then, but has been quieter. That makes sense given the other options available on computers, cell phones and satellite TV that allows some viewers to follow the action while commercials are airing. There’s also been the continued resistance by NASCAR to allow networks to employ the technology.
As Fox proved Sunday however, the technology is there and ‘Side-By-Side’ coverage is more than possible.
Despite a TV ratings upward trend in the early season, the numbers seem to be flattening out. Continuing coverage of a race during a commercial break would no doubt keep more eyes on the screens and may even add a few more. It’s also no secret that NASCAR fans are loyal customers to those advertisers who support the sport. No doubt more than a few would show their gratitude to an advertiser on a split screen race by opening their wallets.
Whether Fox’s experiment of ‘Side-By-Side’ coverage Sunday was sanctioned by NASCAR or done on their own, it’s now up to those fans once asked loudly for it to speak up once more.
Many will agree that ‘Side-By-Side’ coverage is the right thing for NASCAR, for advertisers and for the fans.