SBJ/Aug. 5-11, 2013/Media

Channel filled a hole in market

Speed launched on Dec. 31, 1995, as the brainchild of one-time ESPN President Roger Werner, who ran the channel, then known as Speedvision, for five years before selling it to Fox. Werner spoke with SportsBusiness Journal media reporter John Ourand about the last days of Speed, which is being rebranded Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 17.

How do you feel about Fox Sports 1? Do you view Speed as your baby? Or is it just business?

WERNER:
It’s both. It is my baby. I was very proud of it and really enjoyed watching it. But I certainly understand the financial pressures and objectives that face a large public company like News Corp. It didn’t shock me. It’s disappointing to me as a television viewer not to have a unique destination channel like Speed, but instead to just have an ESPN Ocho. In my opinion, it’s a little late in the day to go up against them. It’s primarily driven by the realization that they can get a larger subscription fee for something that looks like ESPN. I wish them good luck. I understand why they’re doing it. I hate to see the industry over time becoming an oligopoly, where all the players are just offering their own versions of everybody else’s stuff.

What do you mean?

WERNER: All the networks I’ve designed and built tried to be unique and offer something that was differentiated from broadcast. What’s happened now is that as the difficulty in getting increased subscriber fees increases, most programmers are becoming more dependent on the Nielsen meter and on ad sales for the bulk of their top line growth. The industry is devolving into a bigger version of the old three-network broadcast model, where everybody knocked off everybody else. If one sitcom worked, within months there were two more on the other two networks that looked just like it. Everybody is just chasing gross ratings points. As a guy who’s been in the industry from its earliest days, that’s somewhat disappointing. I always thought the opportunity here was to create things that were new and unique and exclusive and had real tangible value to the audience, not just more of the same.

How did you develop the idea for Speedvision?

WERNER:
Back in the early 1980s, when I was COO at ESPN, we were trying to find some programming franchises that we could build that were unique and that could establish us as a leader. One of my personal passions was motorsports. There was very little on television other than the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 back in the early 1980s. So we acquired the rights to Formula One and IndyCar and a number of NASCAR events and sports car series events. We had short-track racing live on Thursday nights. We launched a weekly racing news and highlight program. We effectively dominated that category. That was one of the programming decisions that I feel was instrumental in the development of ESPN and its early success.

How did that turn into Speedvision?

WERNER:
Over the course of the 1990s, ESPN slowly walked away from the motorsports franchise to get bigger and stronger in things like football and baseball. I thought that there was an opportunity for a dedicated motorsports channel since a lot of the stuff that ESPN had done was not being done anymore, certainly not being promoted. I felt there was a hole in the market, and I could go back to my old friends in the racing industry and build a product that would satisfy them and the millions of consumers that liked that stuff.

How will Speed be remembered?

WERNER:
That original channel was the most successful consumer product that I’ve ever been associated with in 40 years of being in the packaged goods and media business. That product resonated with its target audience like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

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