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TNT looks to limit breaks

David Poole

It’s hard to tell what long-term impact the TNT broadcast of the Pepsi 400 from Daytona in July will have. But it’ll be different, and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes over.

The fifth of six races TNT airs this year will be a test case. For all but four minutes per hour, viewers will have live action from the race on their screens at all times, with hybrid styles of commercials – something TNT calls “branded content” – notched into a separate box at the bottom right of the screen.

The idea of blending commercials and live action is not new. ESPN and ABC did “side by side” coverage on Indy Racing League events, and other commercial-free telecasts have been tried with logos and other advertising elements on the screen.

But if you’ll pardon the obvious pun, TNT has tried to think outside the box, said Trish Frohman, senior vice president for advertising sales for Turner Sports.

“We think we’ve been successful in thinking of different ways of how we can talk to the viewers,” Frohman said. “The only thing better would be no commercials, and that’s not reality. We think this will be a happy compromise.”

Instead of shrinking the screen to make room for commercials, TNT has decided to reshape the screen.

High-definition television screens are wider than they are tall, whereas non-HD sets are primarily square. Letter boxing is used to get a wide-screen effect onto a regular set – the way some tapes or DVDs are shown with blank areas at the top and bottom.

TNT will use that technique, but push the image to the top of the screen and leave the vacant space at the bottom.

This area will be used for in-race elements such as the scoring ticker that normally runs across the top of the screen, as well as other elements of telemetry. It also will be used to carry advertising – for instance, a logo might be in the bottom left of the screen for several minutes at a time. The split box on the right will pop up to carry commercials or other content, such as a driver talking about his sponsor if that sponsor also happens to be one of the 12 or so signed up for a telecast.

The difference, said Jeff Behnke, executive producer of Turner Sports, is that even while sponsored content is being aired, the race will remain in the main box. Mike Wells, the director who will work TNT’s races, will use the same cameras he’ll be using while booth announcers Bill Weber, Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty are on air.

Four minutes per hour will be used for local breaks, where each area’s cable system inserts commercials sold locally. The network goes away for those breaks, but those are the only times the racing won’t be on the screen.

Five national sponsors – Pepsi, Sprint, Toyota, OTC 360 and DirecTV – have signed up for the Pepsi 400.

If the concept brings in more viewers – and that’s clearly the intent – it also would put pressure on Fox and ABC/ESPN to come up with ways to give race fans less time watching nothing but commercials.

That’s already the No. 1 gripe among the sport’s faithful.

If TNT turns the tide on that, the revolution will begin.