The US (Cycling) Television Dilemma
I’ve noticed that cycling fans spend as much time critiquing (or, if you like, complaining about) teams, racing tactics, personalities, etc, almost as we do professing our love for the sport. One particularly hot topic for cycling fans is race coverage on TV. As far as we’re concerned, there’s never enough- only the Belgians seem to do it right when it comes to the amount and quality of coverage. In the US, we have this art down to a science, as the only place to watch what limited cycling coverage exists is on NBC Sports Network (previously Versus) and Universal Sports- both of which are owned by the same company, Comcast. Oh what scorn is heaped upon those networks- so many commercials breaks, most of them timed so the viewers miss the breaks and attacks, lots of meaningless prattle by Phil and Paul, the Lance worshiping, the often overly dramatic filler pieces, questionable promotional ads… We viewers deserve more! Just look at Sporza and RAI is doing- they know how to show a bike race. Why can’t we have that??
But…I think it’s important for us viewers in the US to take a step back. Yes, we have the right to criticize and perhaps even a duty to not just accept the status quo but demand better. However, we should also look at what is offered in the context of American television. I’m not saying I agree with the American television model, but it’s what we got. When I read or take part in discussions about expanding the reach of the sport, I find myself nodding my head in agree with those who say “we need more coverage on mainstream TV! That’s the only way to get new viewers!” or “there must be more explanation so the new viewer understands!” or “we must get rid of Phil and Paul because they’re ruining the sport!” I nod my head and say “Of course! It’s the only way!” But when I think about how I got into the sport, I realize all of those things we lament were present when I started watching and did not impede my ability to appreciate the sport nor did it stop me from becoming obsessed.
I discovered cycling through Versus and Universal. I just happened upon the Tour one day on Versus and was sucked in by the story. I really didn’t think too much of all the commercials as commercials are the bread and butter of American television. I didn’t think anything of the fluff and filler, as American television (and American in general!) is all about flash. Plus, they were useful mini tutorials to help me become familiar with tactics, riders, and teams. I loved Phil and Paul because they helped explain the story to me, helped me understand what was going on and why it was important. Now those two seem overly simplistic and bit ridiculous, but at the time, I needed all that explanation. Cycling is not an easy sport to understand, but I felt the resources offered on Versus helped pave the way. It was only as I got more invested in the sport that I started to mind Universal, Versus and P and P. Because as I wanted more cycling to watch and more sophisticated commentary, I realized the current offerings on TV couldn’t give me that. That’s when I turned to pirated online content. That’s when I realized what cycling content could be and how much American cycling coverage differed from other countries.
The bottom line is that while NBC Sports and Universal can help create fans, they won’t be able to keep or sustain long term, hardcore fans. If they would like to keep those fans they helped create, they need to cut down on the fluff and filler, get rid of P&P (or at least take away their monopoly), find a way to cut back on commercials (especially near the end of the race) or at least figure out a way to time them better so we don’t miss breaks and attacks, and work out a way to offer the guidance that beginners need with the sophisticated commentary the more seasoned viewers crave. These networks have made a good start to growing the cycling audience in the US, but more work is needed to keep and grow those fans.