Monday, August 19, 2013

Speed Channel dies amongst the roar of broadcasting mediocrity

Heard about Fox Sports 1?  You'd be forgiven if you could care less about the latest entry into the sports network wars.  These days it seems sports programming is little more than background noise for all but the rabid faithful at the local sports bar. 

But there's no denying it's a lucrative business with exclusive subscriptions from the likes of the NFL, NASCAR and even the PGA demanding hundreds of dollars per year just for the privilege of watching. 

Even if you could care less about anyone's "Season Pass" you still end up paying for sports programming.  It's common knowledge that the most basic of cable and satellite charges are comprised at least in part of fees paid to channels you may never watch like ESPN.

 If you're paying $35 a month for cable or satellite you can bet at least $5 of it is going to ESPN  (a Disney property.)   It's become the catalyst for a growing movement of  "cord-cutters"  fed up with ever increasing costs for programming they don't want. 

It's a movement I'll soon be joining myself and the final straw was Fox's decision to take on  ESPN by converting its Fuel and Speed channels to a more ESPN-like sports network.  More than just a name change Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 promise the same kind of sports grab bag that subscribers are already paying too much for with ESPN. 

There are few channels I take an active interest in on Cable or Satellite anymore.  Now that one of them  has fallen prey to Fox network's arrogance it's hard to justify paying a large portion of my monthly bill for content I have no use for.

In Broadcasting, trying to be everything to everyone is the definition of appointment viewing.  It forces viewers to suffer through programming they don't want just for the opportunity to see shows they may actually be interested in.  

Sadly, it's often a burnt offering as niche programming is forced to conform to a lineup built on the hopes of capturing the widest arc of viewership.  It assumes a fan of NFL football is also a fan of NASCAR or extreme sports.  A foolish assumption when viewed in the context of the popularity of those exclusive subscriptions mentioned earlier. 

It's a model proven obsolete by  the success of services like Netflix and on-demand programming options.  It's also proving increasingly unsustainable as ESPN appears to be losing market share not to other traditional media competitors but rather to the Internet and exclusive sports programming  packages offered by Satellite and cable.

I remember Speed channel back when it was called SpeedVision and before it became a Fox property in 2002.  Those were the golden years for the channel long before Fox flooded the schedule with NASCAR programming and AMA supercross.  There were Howto shows, coverage of racing events and lifestyle programming that appealed to the gearhead in me. 

I actually credit the channel for reigniting my interest in the automotive hobby and enjoyed the slightly quirky but always interesting shows like Chop, Cut Rebuild, Dream Car Garage and Lost Drive-In.  Later, shows like Gearz and Barrett-Jackson Car search (based on the auction) offered a respite from the incessant Fox NASCAR programming.

My initial exposure to the channel came late in 1998 while flipping through the menus on my then new satellite receiver and stopping on a strange sight.  There was Carroll Shelby sitting next to a Blue Dodge Dakota specially prepared by his shop.  A very HSN looking bar ran down the left side of the screen showing the truck's features.  At the time they were asking $45,000.   I thought I'd stumbled across some millionaire's version of the Home Shopping Network.  Shortly thereafter the annual Barrett-Jackson automobile auction was broadcast live from Scottsdale and became the catalyst for my subsequent and frequent visits to the channel.

 Fox's acquisition in 2001 and schedule domination with NASCAR and related programming slowly eroded the channel's viewership.  Instead of classic car-themed movies of the Lost Drive In viewers were assaulted with re-runs of NASCAR and motorcycle races.  SpeedVision, now Speed, had ceased being a lifestyle channel and was slowly moving towards a motorsports-only version of ESPN with "personality" driven programming a la' CNN.

There was less and less reason to spend too much time there.  Even longtime standards like the Barrett Jackson Auctions became polluted by the Fox influence.  Commentators well versed in their subject were forced to share the stage with pinup-girl types while dumbing down content seemingly aimed at adolescent males.

In the last two years of the network's life, to watch a Speed Channel broadcast of an automotive event became an exercise in aggravation.  Doubly so if you happened to be a female who didn't enjoy your intelligence being insulted by Fox's outdated stereotype of the Ideal woman.  

The acquisition of the channel by Fox was the beginning of the end as the network exerted ever more influence over its schedule.  Crowding it with programming  catering to the lowest common denominator of automotive content.

August 17th brought the final blow as Mike Joy provided the channel's epitaph...

“We love that you care as much about your cars as family, God and country. And so do we. but now it’s time to switch off the ignition and turn in the keys. This is the end of Speed in America...“

"...So now, it’s goodnight and farewell to America’s motorsports authority. Speed.”