R: You must be disappointed with the TV ratings from Versus' first two races. Why has there been such a year-on-year drop when the racing and the presentation has improved?
RB: We're not exactly comparing apples with apples. I don't believe in excuses, but I think we're still attracting purists, and that's the first and foremost step in making it right. But there's not going to be an overnight fix for attracting new fans; it's going to take a couple of years, and I think we're on the right path, and I think we've made a lot of correct decisions that set us up for a positive trend. I think that at Barber, going up against Tiger Woods at the Masters hurt us, and after talking to even the most devoted IndyCar followers, I heard that they were switching back and forth. At Long Beach, we were comparing ourselves to 2010 figures, when the NASCAR race scheduled for that same day last year had been postponed due to a rain-out. So, like I say, there's not a direct comparison to the 2010 ratings. Another important point is that, yes, we only managed 0.33 average for Long Beach, but I measure on 15-minute increments, and the most exciting part to me was that we started with a 0.2 but ended the race with over 0.5; it just kept increasing, and I know from experience that's a positive sign. When people found us, they stayed with us and it's crucial that you can do that as a sport. So there were some positives. Don't get me wrong, we must continue to show increases to better our sport, but I remain optimistic; I'm not giving up on this yet!
R: Do you think Versus is doing a good job promoting but that it's just not reaching enough homes?
RB: Well, I think NBC is doing a good job. I'm not convinced that Versus is doing enough off-channel. However, I don't want to throw them under the bus because I want to see what they do in the first three or four shows and then re-evaluate.
R: Do you think the race day show is good?
RB: If you read the blogs and comments sections on websites, and from the e-mails I get, I think the fans love what they're watching. That's, in fact, one of the big positives. I just think we need to stay on our current course and deliver exciting races.
R: And the weekly midweek show [Tuesdays, 4pm ET] has to help, right?
RB: Well, I hope so. We're going to try it through the Month of May and see how it works. I'm not overly in love with the time slot but it's a start and we'll see how successful it is.
R: Who's responsibility is it to solve the TV ratings issue? Is that entirely down to you, or is it NBC? How do you divide the burden of sorting it out?
RB: I think it all falls with me. There's no finger-pointing. One good thing about NBC is what they're trying to do for us, promoting us on their network. I just think it must be remembered that it's not a fix that can be made overnight; expanding a devoted following will take time.
R: What are the feasible solutions, in your opinion?
RB: Firstly, continue to create the greatest racing. What we have, I believe, is very entertaining. Eight different teams are represented in the top 10 on the points table right now and that's what fans want to see – exciting racing with different drivers becoming prominent on different weekends. I don't want to change much there. But one of the things we've been asking, “Is five hours of TV too much?” Showing Indy Lights and then an hour of pre-IndyCar race build-up may be too much. So this weekend will be a good test considering there's no Lights race. And I think we should compare the ratings to Kansas from last year which was on this date 12 months ago. You can't compare Brazil to Brazil because that was the 2010 season opener.
R: So if NBC creates the NBC Sports Channel or whatever they name it, how much influence can you have over their promotion of IndyCar? Are you in a position of strength?
RB: I think what's good about the NBC executives is that they're very willing to work with us. Sam Flood's been outstanding, John Miller and Kevin Moynahan have all been great to work with, too, as has Marc Fein from Versus. I'm very optimistic that when they make that change, it will help to keep people's awareness of us. And some of the things they're trying to do right now is provide more original content and more quality content. They told us they want to make IndyCar one of their flagships, and that's very exciting. So we need to give them as much to work with as possible and continue to deliver great races.
R: Will a name change for the channel really help? They're only going to be reaching the same number of homes.
RB: I think definitely it will give us a tremendous amount of credibility and I think will raise the quality. Just like what NBC did with NHL by committing two billion dollars for the next 10 years. They're going to have to reach out and invest in some more solid programming to make sure that the homes they penetrate goes from 74 million to 100 million. And I hope they'll get the channel in a better location on the dial, because when you have powerhouses like NBC and Comcast, I think both of those together can make this a win-win. For our sake and their sake, they need to increase awareness of us: We both have a lot riding on this.
R: When's the first chance that what are currently Versus races can be seen on NBC? Is it 2012 or 2013?
RB: Well, we start renegotiating our network television deal this month and right now we're in an exclusivity phase with ABC. We're being very respectful to them and we've had some very productive meetings with them.
R: But ultimately, could ABC's five races end up on NBC, and the remaining 12 switch to the NBC Sports Channel?
RB:I don't ever want to rule out anyone. I think that we owe ABC respect because, number one, they're good people, and number two, we've had a fruitful 46-year history with them and they deserve an opportunity to negotiate with us. But anything is possible at this time.
R: I guess what I'm driving at is, what is your ideal-world scenario? If you could rip it up and start again, what would be your choice?
RB: Let me put it this way: What's important for the series is looking for who will provide the most exposure for the series and then the best coverage. That's simply essential for the teams' sponsors and for the series' sponsors.
R: These figures that have been bandied about – that Versus pays IndyCar $5m per year for its 12 races – are they true?
RB: No, that's not true, and I don't know where all that came from. It's actually a very complicated deal, something that I'm not going to explain over the phone on such a poor connection! But it's much more of a co-promotion and co-ownership deal, with some revenue-sharing.
R: OK, but are IMS Productions' costs covered by this deal?
RB: Er…no! I think it's fair to say that right now, our television deal is a very expensive proposition.
R: Is it true that the Versus deal was for 10 years?
RB: I believe we have seven more to go.
R: Is there a penalty for getting out of the deal early, if that's what you wanted?
RB: There are no options out right now.
R: How much of a position of strength is IndyCar in when it comes to negotiating new deals?
RB: I think the strength of our position is determined by how much competing TV companies want our product. I think the most positive thing for us is the forward momentum in terms of how much sponsorship and advertising we've been able to attract in the past couple years. I think there's excitement over the new car which is also essential. And I think everyone remembers the heyday of 1993-'95. As a network, you should be looking at us and thinking, “Hey, this has a very good shot of coming back.” We're making great progress and that will be reflected in a better television deal.
R: Will you have to buy time? And how much of that do you have to do for network TV – or the sports channels?
RB: We don't actually buy time.
R: So IndyCar has to make itself desirable enough to trigger bidding wars from ABC, NBC, and so on?
RB: Yeah, I think we must show promise, show commitment, and show what our vision is – all of which I think we've done. And I think there's a lot of interest from networks out there; I know there is, in fact, and that's a very positive sign for IndyCar and that will be our leverage on a new deal. I think it's very important that we have brought on IMG and Barry Frank to help negotiate our next deal.
R: Wow, that's great! There's no chance, though, that you could end up with all 17 races on SPEED?
RB: No, Versus has exclusivity on cable. We have a lot of interest from networks right now. I think it's very promising that we'll have a major network deal. Stay tuned!