Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ESPN's "NASCAR NonStop" and the game of attention keep-away


ESPN announced yesterday that it will introduce "NASCAR NonStop" for its NASCAR "Chase for the Sprint Cup" broadcasts this year. As a video here shows, rather than cut away from the race to traditional spot commercials, viewers will still get to watch the race in a small "picture-in-picture" (PIP) screen next to the commercial advertisement. This isn't a completely novel idea; for instance, ESPN has shown the "crawl" of NFL Draft selections while commercials interrupted the draft for several years. NASCAR NonStop is different, of course, in that it is the continuous broadcast of a live commercial sports event. Moreover, NASCAR (like soccer) doesn't have the normal interruptions of time-outs and changes of field, as in football and baseball. It's presumably for these reasons that the article above characterizes the NASCAR Nonstop as, "One small step for NASCAR fans, one giant leap for mankind."

Before we go overboard with the hyperbole, though, I think it's probably better to historicize things, and question whether this really amounts to fan "empowerment." For many of us, when we turn on the television we begin a game of attention keep-away. TV networks produce shows to try to lure us into watching corporate advertisements. Our attention is their goal, especially our attention during commercials. Indeed, this is how commercial media companies make money--by selling our attention to advertisers. Many of us try to avoid advertisements though: they can be annoying (and loud); being sold to can be uncomfortable; and (outside of noteworthy exceptions like the Super Bowl), we'd presumably prefer to focus our attention on TV programs than the interruptions to them.

Over the past few decades, new technologies have altered how this game is played (kind of like the introduction of the forward pass changed the game between offenses and defenses). The remote control allowed TV viewers to easily "surf" to other programming during commercials. With the VCR we were able to "time-shift" programs and "zip" through ads by fast-forwarding, and the DVR only made this practice easier. Indeed, some of you might be reading this post right now with browsing software that allows you to "zap" advertisements entirely. We like these new tools in the attention keep-away game; they provide us with a degree of power over the viewing experience. On the other hand, commercial media companies--and especially advertisers--are not terribly excited about advances in advertising-avoidance technology.

Don't fret for commercial media companies and advertisers though; they've continually adjusted to technological changes in "how the game is played" (they've introduced the pass rush, to pound this the metaphor into the ground). For one, product placement has emerged as a ubiquitous counter-offensive of hypercommercialism. The logic is that the viewer can only avoid product placements by also missing the TV program. Sports programming, in particular, is considered an effective form of "zap-proof" programming (see here and here): sports viewers may be less likely to channel surf during ads for fear of missing something important; the value of catching a game live means that using a DVR to avoid ads may also mean being "out of the loop." Further, branded entertainment (think: Home Depot Half-Time Report) and in-game signage (think: ads on the NHL boards and NASCAR's team sponsors) are the norm not the exception, and sports viewers seem to have a particularly high tolerance for commercialism during sports broadcasts.

While it seems like a dream come true for race fans, NASCAR Nonstop may present further opportunities for inundating the already hypercommercialized world of sports broadcasting with even more commercial advertising. I don't know how much of the average NASCAR broadcast is taken up by commercial spot advertising (if you find this stat, I'd appreciate it), but for the sake of argument, lets say spot ads take up 20% of the program. Now let's say that NASCAR Nonstop is a success for ESPN: viewers are not turned off by watching a smaller version of the race as an adjoining, larger commercial makes its pitch; and commercial advertisers are willing to pay commensurable rates to reach viewers through this model. If I'm ESPN, do I consider subtly bumping the portion of the program that is spot advertising up to 25%? Maybe 30%? Whatever the market (accounting for viewership, ad revenue & commercial clutter) deems appropriate? I'd certainly consider it, and--from our analysts position--I'd begin to wonder just how big that "one small step" is for NASCAR fans.

One aspect that will be interesting to key in on is whether the advertising conventions employed for these PIP ads begin to take on formal advertising conventions more common in radio. In other words, assuming that much of the viewer's (visual) attention during PIP spot advertising will be on the race (and not the advertisement), I'd expect that these PIP ads will center around aural rather than visual appeals (if you don't think advertising folks think like this, consider the ways DVRs encourage advertisers to use big, bold words, pictures, and logos on the screen for long periods of time to get the message across to viewers as they zip through). While athletes (including, for our purposes here, NASCAR drivers) are already common pitchmen, don't be surprised to eventually hear sports commentators--even those from the race itself--hawking wares during these PIP spot ads. Indeed, this is a strategy commonly employed in radio where the personality's voice holds listeners to the advertising by creating the impression of continuity between advertising and editorial content. Listeners of the Jim Rome Show, just about every ESPN radio show, and Glenn Beck's Radio program will be well aware of these practices.

From my view, then, ESPN's NonStop appears to be just the latest move by the sports-media complex in attending to the attention keep-away game. Race fans may benefit from being able to watch the whole event, but this could come at the cost of new forms of subtle commercial intrusion.

-- T.C. Corrigan

For more research along these lines, check out...

Bellamy, Jr., R.V. “Sports media: A modern institution.” In A. A. Raney & J. Bryant (Eds.), Handbook of sports and media (pp. 63-76). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.

McAllister, M. P. (1996). The commercialization of American culture: New advertising, control, and democracy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilbur, K. C. “How the digital video recorder (DVR) changes traditional television advertising.” Journal of Advertising, 37(1), 143-149 (2008).

I also have an forthcoming entry on zipping and zapping in The Encyclopedia of Sports Management and Marketing

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