Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Racing has a fickle partner in TV
The Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports should be a boon to racing. Any TV exposure is. But racing's movers and shakers should be aware that history teaches that TV, especially fledgling networks, drops niche programming as soon as it has enough shows with mainstream appeal.
MIAMI, Jan. 29, 2014--Getting into bed with a TV network is like being George Clooneyâs latest flame. Great while it lasts. Just donât fantasize about happily ever after.
Racing should keep this in mind as it justifiably celebrates the launch of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports. When you donât have an abundance of suitors, you canât fret over âWill you still love me tomorrow?â
A story from my 30 years as a TV critic illustrates what racing can expect. The best handicapping I ever did wasnât at a racetrack. It was predicting the impact Miami Vice would have on South Florida.
The town fathers were apoplectic when NBC announced the new series starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas. They were terrified the tourism industry would be irreparably harmed by ripped-from-the-headlines plots.
Drug wars had made the area resemble the Wild West, only with better weapons. Dadeland, an upscale showplace mall, had recently been the site of a ferocious gun battle waged with military assault rifles.
The Miami Vice pilot was screened for TV critics during a Los Angeles press tour. It was brilliant. The lead on my column for the Miami News was, ââMiami Viceâ will be the greatest thing ever to happen to Miami.â The paper put it on Page 1.
âMiami Viceâ didnât become an instant nationwide hit. It was scheduled against âFalcon Crest,â a popular prime-time soap bolstered by the extraordinary lead-in it inherited from still white hot âDallas.â
But âViceâ was huge in Miami. There was no such thing as too much Miami Vice in the paper. I wrote about the episodes, the music, the fashions and profiled every actor in the ensemble. My stories were available on several wire services, so they were being seen beyond Miami.
I became as popular on the set as pastels. The night the pilot aired for America, there was a lavish screening party at a Miami Beach hotel. I got to sit behind the ropes with the cast. When I temporarily ran out of story ideas and didnât show up on the set for more than a week, I got a call asking if I was mad about something.
Don Johnson sent me a message that I didnât have to have a story in mind to come out to the set. He said it was OK to come over and just hang out. He also invited me to his Star Island mansion some Saturday night to watch movies with his friends.
America finally discovered âMiami Viceâ during summer rerun season when the CBS soap operas went on hiatus. Millions of faithful fans, who had been hearing about âMiami Viceââvideo recorders were still fairly rareâtuned in to see what they were missing. Miami Vice was on its way.
A frenzy erupted in the publishing business to get Johnson and company on the covers of national news and entertainment magazines.
As Season Two approached, my paper naturally wanted a major takeout on what to expect. I called over to the people who had treated me the previous year as if I were âThe Bachelorâ and they were in the harem hoping to gain favor.
Numerous calls went unreturned. Eventually I got aggressive, leaving Johnson and others a sharp message reminding them that I was there when nobody else was and how it was bad form on their part to not even return my calls.
I finally got a pithy message from Johnsonâs rep. âThat was last year. Weâre hot now.â
To bring this full circle, Fox Sports 1 needs help now. It is the new kid on the national cable sports network block. The major broadcast networks, ESPN and the Turner empire cleverly tied up the professional sports leagues and major college conferences to long-term deals. So Fox Sports has to scramble to fill 168 hours a week without resorting to miniature golf and curling from Canada. Enter the relationship with racing.
However, the major sports deals will eventually expire and Fox, out of necessity, will probably overpay to grab some of them. As these sports begin to show up on the network, horse racing will be pushed aside. In effect, it will get the âThat was then. Weâre hot nowâ brush off. Pretty much what happened with ESPN.
This is not a phenomena restricted to sports, although it has manifested itself in a slightly different way on broadcast networks. When Fox arrived in the early â90s, it relied to a large extent on series geared toward African-American audiences: True Colors, Roc, Martin and In Living Color, to name a few.
Simple explanation: The black audience was being egregiously underserved by ABC, CBS and NBC. So Fox prudently went after that segment of America.
However, once the network created a few hits and was accepted by mainstream America on even footing with the then Big Three (snagging the NFL was a major coup), the shows with predominantly black casts began to diminish. Try finding one now.
The lesser UPN and WB networks, which came along in the mid-â90s, adhered to an identical strategy. UPN got off the ground with black-targeted series such as Moesha, The Parkers, All of Us, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris.
The first series on WB was The Wayans Brothers. Parent âHood and Sister, Sister followed.
The two newbies eventually merged into the CW and the shows with African-American casts were jettisoned one by one until there were none, as the new entity discovered greater success targeting the 18-and-under crowd, also underserved in prime time.
TV critics get to meet with network executives in Los Angeles twice each year. At every one of these sessions while I was still on the beat, the CW executive in charge said the networkâs primary goal was to break out beyond teens by creating series with appeal to a more general audience. Thus far, success in this area has been limited. If and when it happens, it will be adios teens.
So racing and its fans should enjoy the honeymoon with Fox Sports while it lasts. It is hoped that this time the future of niche programming will last, not disappear.