CNN/SI On Outs

It’s sort of unconceivable, but there might actually be some upside to the economic downturn for those who get their NASCAR fix on the small screen.

Last week, CNN executives informed the staff of their cable channel CNN/SI, that later this year the channel would cease to exist.

The network was started a couple of years ago as a joint venture between CNN and Sports Illustrated, which at the time had become corporate siblings when Time Warner acquired Turner Broadcasting.

At the time, the channel was going to be a hard-news look at the sports world, much the way CNN covers general news.

However, the channel never really took off, struggling to get clearance on cable systems reaching about 20 million viewers. Now, with the economy struggling, CNN has decided to fold the operation for something else, leaving nearly 200 people scrambling for work.

For race fans who could get the channel – and 20 million is not really very many when there are 105 million homes with televisions – it provided an additional dose of sports news, some of it racing related.

Trouble is, when the networks cut their multi-billion, multi-year deal to cover NASCAR, CNN/SI became a small, albeit significant player in the deal.

Turner, which shares part of the coverage with NBC, decided to shift all of the practice and qualifying coverage to CNN/SI, meaning fewer people got to see that aspect of the sport than in previous years.

Under the old deals, ESPN and ESPN2 often carried qualifying and practice shows on Friday afternoons, which gave viewers another glimpse into the sport. And for those with televisions near their desks, it was a welcome addition to a dreary workday.

Believe it or not, the Friday practice coverage can often be an extremely informative warm-up for the weekend's racing events. Because the shows were spread over a couple hours, on-air anchors could discuss the sport with drivers with a little breathing room and talk about technology and technique.

Granted, those elements are also part of the weekend programs, too, yet during those telecasts the race is the focus.

FOX, for example, aired some of the qualifying shows on its regional sports networks and sometimes FX.

In fact, during one of those telecasts last February, Darrell Waltrip conducted one of the best interviews ever with Dale Earnhardt.

That said, the shift to CNN/SI this year was disappointing for many fans.

The channel’s limited reach made it impossible for some diehards to find the qualifying and practice shows. Some, in fact, complained in racing trade journals and on web sites along the way.

So it is, the last turn of events for CNNSI may be a benefit to race fans. As it stands now, CNN/SI will give way to a new channel AOL Sports that will be jointly owned by AOL-Time Warner and the National Basketball Association, and will have a basketball flavor.

That leaves few other places for the warm-up programming to go. Turner, if it wanted, could shift the stuff over to TBS, which also airs some weekend events. Or, perhaps, FOX’s regional networks or the new Speedvision incarnation, Speed Channel could pick up the slack.

Because of its commitment to daytime fare, NBC is out of the question.

Sources say the Speed Channel would like to have the programming and Turner insiders are still pondering whether to keep it as a stepchild on AOL Sports, or let it go to Speed Channel.

And, it’s possible the qualifying and practice coverage won’t air at all.

No matter where it goes, as long as the qualifying and practice coverage airs somewhere, it will clearly be better than airing on CNN/SI.

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