September 28, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
You'd never know it from all of the whiz-bang hype built around this week's announcement of the 2001 NASCAR television schedule that there was any downside to consumers.
Indeed, based on the way the story unfolded in most media outlets, it would seem the new TV set up was the next best thing to sliced bread. Well, hate to let you down, but this bread isn't so tasty.
Fact is, a portion of the race fans now accustomed to watching every race on television won't be able to do so under the new television lineup.
That's right. A segment of the crowd won't get some of the races that were available under past contracts.
The problems stem from three of the Winston Cup races being parceled off to the Fox-owned cable network FX. See, FX isn't available in every home with basic cable television, far from it.
That means some people won't get to see the early season events from Richmond, Michigan or The Winston at Charlotte.
To the tried-and-true Winston Cup fans, this will be a case of deja vu.
Remember when The Nashville Network, now called The National Network, got into racing in the early 1990s? Back then, TNN was much smaller than it is today. When the channel aired a race, fans without the service were stuck with little else to do but twiddle their fingers or listen to the radio.
In a sense, the shift of these events, albeit only three, is a step backwards for the sport.
This isn't to suggest that FX isn't a good network, because it is. Besides airing the Howard Stern-produced "Baywatch" spoof "Son of The Beach" and reruns of "NYPD Blue," the network will in the coming years begin airing reruns of such programs as "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "The Practice."
But on a pure distribution basis, the channel's going to be a problem for some die-hard fans that get their cable from operators who don't offer the channel.
For instance, viewers in Manhattan, not necessarily a racing hotbed, but
home to fans nonetheless, won't gain access to FX until late 2001.
Likewise, Philadelphia, a market that the Pocono International Raceway and Dover Downs International Speedway both count as being part of their marketing region, don't get FX. And dozens of other markets around the country have never heard of FX.
So far, FX is available in 54 million homes. Put another way, that's about 20 million fewer homes than now get TNN. And about 25 million less than now get ESPN.
No matter how you analyze the situation, fewer people will have a crack at watching the races on FX because of its reach.
Now, going back to the TNN example, it's safe to say that TNN gained subscribers because of NASCAR, and NASCAR gained some fans because of TNN. No surprise, the folks at FX are hoping that same thinking pays off for them.
"When you try to grow your network, the way to grow is to get quality programming people want to see," said a FX spokesman. "I don't think there's any question NASCAR is going to help our growth."
But how soon and at what cost?
Gaining those dial positions may be easier said than done. As it stands now, FX has deals in place to reach upwards of 60 million cable homes by next year. But, in cableland, there's a real crunch for channel positions, meaning to get the network on, a cable operator needs to sacrifice another channel now being carried… or to expand its offerings.
Which channel would you trade to make room for FX? The reality is, you won't get to choose. The cable system will make that decision for you.
Still, it's an issue that all cable operators - the people you pay to deliver the signal to your home - are wrestling with right now.
The good news is, industry research indicates that FX is one of the channels that viewers tend to select when asked what they would like added to their systems. However, now it's up to the cable operators to pull the trigger.
Yet, for some, that shot won't come soon enough to spare them the
disappointment of the coming season. Races will be missed in some markets where they are televised now, guaranteed.
And for race fans in areas where FX is not offered, now is the time to take action - not next season when the first race is fast approaching. Pick up the phone and call your cable operator to demand that they add FX.
If they listen to your pleas, you're ahead of the game. If they don't, of course, crank up the transistor radio and praise the Lord for MRN. Because if you're relying on FX to bring you the race, the radio is all you have to get through the day.
Elsewhere: Bray Cary, NASCAR's head of TV issues, has informed us the new NASCAR Channel will likely be unveiled in December during NASCAR's events leading up to the annual banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The channel, which is expected to offer a variety of NASCAR-flavored programming, could be up and running by next February, Cary said.
But, how many people will be able to see it at launch - or even in year or two - is another question.
Cable operators often bellyache about not having enough channel capacity to take on new networks. So it's very possible the NASCAR Channel will find it tough going at the beginning.
The much-talked about 500-channel universe is far from becoming a reality. And for every channel now being carried by your cable operator, there are probably a dozen others hankering for a shot at the system.
There's been some unconfirmed talk of Speedvision turning its cablewaves over to the NASCAR Channel, which would give the network much needed shelf space. Yet, even if such a transformation occurred, that would only make the network available to just over 29 million homes, far below the levels it will take to gain wide acceptance.
For example, many large advertisers - the folks that pay the bills - won't blink at a cable network that doesn't reach at least 50 million homes. And with channel space at a premium, the NASCAR Channel will be fighting with other existing, broad-based services such as FX, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Court TV and maybe the Home & Garden Channel for a position with the cable operators.
Certainly, the channel will be available to viewers with satellite dishes, but that's still a relatively small universe and a big expense for viewers to incur for one network.
So it is, the NASCAR Channel may be upon us, though it might just take some time to actually get to our homes.