PRUETT: IndyCar’s ambitious play for new TV viewers

PRUETT: IndyCar’s ambitious play for new TV viewers

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: IndyCar’s ambitious play for new TV viewers

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IndyCar’s upcoming “100 Days to Indy” isn’t headed to a streaming giant like the one that turned Formula 1 into a U.S. ratings star with the pioneering docuseries “Drive To Survive,” but I wouldn’t paint 100 Days’ destination at The CW and VICE TV as a strategical error. It’s actually an ambitious play.

Granted, it might not make a lot of sense to IndyCar’s older fans — the ones that also double as the series’ largest percentage of followers — who’ve never spent time on either channel. And yet, the youth-centric alignment with The CW is everything IndyCar needs to protect its future. Spend a moment looking through its range of network and streaming shows and there’s no question most of its offerings are made for those who are in high school, college, or somewhere south of 30. Those are also the exact folks who, by and large, don’t know IndyCar exists.

“This isn’t for our average fan,” IndyCar CEO Mark Miles told RACER. “Our average fan can get it and I think they’ll love it. But this is really meant to broaden our audience beyond the traditional race fan.”

It’s fair to say the IndyCar Series has made incremental gains in attracting new and younger fans in recent years, but there’s no denying a significant challenge remains in establishing IndyCar as something other than grandma and grandpa’s favorite racing show.

Drawing from TV metrics gathered by IndyCar after the 2022 season concluded, it remains the unfortunate leader among all major rivals it cited in a demographic comparison — NASCAR, Formula 1 and the NHRA — as having the oldest viewers: 24.7 percent who tuned in were between 55-65 and 43.6 percent were 65 or older.

Together, they make for a worrisome, combined figure that says 68.3 percent of IndyCar’s NBC audience is 55 or older. Add the 45-55 age group to that list and IndyCar’s TV audience leads again over NASCAR, F1 and the NHRA, with 83.6 percent being 45 years old or older.

That leaves an incredibly small remainder of 16.4 percent for viewers who are 44 and below.

Having older fans isn’t necessarily a bad thing — heck, I’m in that 45-55 range as well — but not when nearly half of the audience is in the 65-plus range and so few were born this century. Every racing series and all of their teams want to be able to tell sponsors and investors that their sport is filled with youth and vibrance and modernity, and with 83.6 percent belonging to those of us who are at least 45, the audience of interest for most companies is not presently found in IndyCar. This fact, along with some other key problems facing the series, cannot wait to be addressed later in the decade.

Just as IndyCar leads all major series with the greatest number of older viewers, it also leads in the opposite direction with having the smallest amount of young viewers.

Take the under-17 group and the coveted 18-24 watchers, and they account for just 6.4 percent of IndyCar’s viewership. Compare that to F1’s demographic in the U.S. where it has the lowest figure for the 55-plus age range at 50.9 percent and the highest in the under-17/18-24 youth segment at 11.7 percent.

One more key audience number to list is IndyCar’s 25-34 crowd, which comes in at the lowest among its rivals at 3.2 percent. F1 is the winner here as well in the U.S., with 9.6 percent of its audience falling into that 25-34 range.

I know numbers and stats can sometimes be boring to explore, but all of IndyCar’s TV data screams for an urgent need to find a whole new audience to carry it forward when we start to lose its current majority. A big push by IndyCar to go ahead with a docuseries with the intent of creating new fans among the grandsons and granddaughters of its core audience makes all the sense in the world.

In another caveat, The CW’s newish majority owner Nexstar recently confirmed its average TV viewer is 58 which, on the surface, is everything IndyCar has plenty of right now. But its programming, which is aimed at the 18-34 demographic, is known to be heavily consumed through streaming on The CW’s app instead of linear TV. Simply put, the new audience IndyCar needs is all about streaming, and the six-part “100 Days to Indy” will be among the featured content for them to watch on phones and tablets.

One more note of interest I found is The CW, as the country’s fifth-largest network, has a presence in all local markets. That doesn’t guarantee it’s in 100 percent of households since folks use a wide variety of methods and services to receive network and cable content, but it does mean The CW has a significant reach throughout the country. I imagine a lot of IndyCar fans have already spoken the words “The CW” into their remote controls to find where it lives among the hundreds of other channels; through Xfinity for my wife and I, IndyCar’s main partners at NBC live on 703 and The CW is nearby on 712.

This exercise is about reach and potential for IndyCar to connect with a whole new audience through The CW and VICE TV using the greatest American race as the hook. Netflix, of course, would have been the perfect home for this project, but they weren’t interested and among those who were, the series went with the option that offered the best odds of addressing its demographic skew.

“We think they represent incredibly powerful media partners,” Miles added. “And they bring to this global reach. The president of Nexstar told the (IndyCar) drivers that if you have internet access on the planet, you can get this for free. In the U.S., each episode will air initially in prime time on The CW and it is available in essentially every American home. And prime time is prime time, the biggest audiences. It will also be available on The CW app so people who want to stream it can do that.”

Quick re-broadcasts on VICE, which will film and produce the series for The CW, brings another dimension to the project with a domestic audience size said to be in the range of 70 million households. VICE also presents significant international solutions for 100 Days to be seen in Asia, Western Europe, and beyond.

“So one point is this reach, and the second point is younger,” Miles continued. “VICE is the dominant media outlet on the planet for Generation Z and millennials. And so that’s really important because it gives us the opportunity to broaden people who can wake up to IndyCar, who may not be aware of us or following us today. The third thing that we think is really important is that unlike some other series where they shoot and edit, and they create the shows and then months later, after the season’s over, it airs, in this case, all six shows will air in 2023, before the 500. And the sixth will air the week after the 500. We think that gives us an immediate impact.

“That is terrific to achieve and probably ends up being helpful to our friends at NBC and their ratings as hopefully people will begin to migrate from watching the show to watching live racing. So those factors to me are strategic. There was no other alternative that provided all that and that’s why we’re really, really enthusiastic about this.”

Let’s be honest. “Drive To Survive” found lightning in a bottle during the pandemic when earth was stuck inside searching for new things to watch and pass the time, and F1 was a massive beneficiary of that once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. IndyCar, coming in five years later on Netflix with a copycat version of DTS, was never going to reap the same rewards.

The deal with The CW and VICE Media Group could be confusing to some, but if it helps to pull in some of the coveted youth IndyCar lacks, the decision will be hailed as one of the smarter moves Penske Entertainment has made since it bought the series.

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