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IndyCar suffering through slumping TV ratings

Will Power drove from ninth to first to win IndyCar's last race, and Dario Franchitti said he used one of the best drives of his career to improve eight positions for a 10th-place finish.

Both drivers praised the April 1 race at Barber Motorsports Park one of the best in years for IndyCar, and they were certain fans were highly entertained with the product.

Then they found out very few ever saw the race.

IndyCar's television ratings are down through the first two races of the season, at a time the series believes it has its best competition in years and intriguing storylines that could attract a wider audience. But the race at Barber drew just a .25 on cable channel NBC Sports Network, and the Nielsen ratings company estimated it was watched live in only 218,000 homes.

"It's a pity because it's such a good product, good racing, good teams, good drivers and it's just not getting out there and that's unfortunate," Power said. "Barber was one of the best races in a long time, and no one got to see it."

So what's the fix?

"NBC has to advertise more, it's as simple as that, if they care about IndyCar," Power said.

There was an overwhelming sense of frustration throughout the paddock this weekend at the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix over the slumping television ratings. Although attendance was up at both events, the television ratings are dropping. The season opener at St. Petersburg drew a .9 on ABC, and many complained the network did a sub-par job in presenting an entertaining program.

It was the opposite with NBC Sports, which drew immediate high marks from fans about the network's effort to showcase passing throughout the field.

"It's so frustrating because the Barber race, there was stuff going on everywhere, and although I haven't watched it, I know it was an excellent race," Franchitti said. "So you wonder how do we get that word out? NBC Sports has to spend some big money and has to promote better, because when you've got racing that good, you need to let people know.

"You need to get the message out there because the product out there is good."

IndyCar's television package is split between two networks, with NBC Sports carrying 10 races on cable and ABC gets six races, including the Indianapolis 500.

The long-term future of the series is with NBC Sports, which is in the third year of a 10-year contract IndyCar signed with Versus before the 2009 season. That's got many in the industry adamant that the network has been entrusted to help promote the series and carries a heavier responsibility than ABC.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard noted the first two races of the season had tough television competition, with St. Pete going up against a Tiger Woods victory and the NCAA tournament, while Barber went head-to-head with a NASCAR race at Martinsville.

"I'm not making excuses, but our ratings are unacceptable and we can't live with the ratings we are currently getting," Bernard said. "We must move the dial. This is a major sport, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent and it needs to have good ratings.

"I think the NBC production has been outstanding so far, but NBC and IndyCar have to do a better job of promoting races."

NBC Sports said it ran three or four promotions during Wednesday night's NHL playoff game, which was the most-watched NHL playoff opening night ever for the network. The network also said its promotion of IndyCar is second only to NHL, and advertisements for Sunday's race aired on NBC during Saturday's hockey games.

But there's nothing on the home page of NBC Sports' web site, and the motorsports page has heavy NASCAR coverage. There was also no mention of IndyCar in the network's NBC SportsTalk program on Thursday night, the day Chevrolet decided to pull all 11 of its engines in a major storyline for the series.

The consternation about ratings and promotion has spoiled what most believe was an outstanding opening broadcast for rebranded NBC Sports. The network debuted the new IndyCar 36 show, which is produced by IMS Productions and drew high marks as a lead-in to the race. Graham Rahal will be the featured driver in the show set to air before Sunday's race at Long Beach.

IndyCar loaned former race director Brian Barnhart to the NBC production team to help spot the race and point out interesting on-track battles, part-time driver Townsend Bell debuted as a pit reporter and the network unveiled a new graphics package.

The network now hopes for another strong effort Sunday at Long Beach, and understands that requires providing action, analysis and telling compelling stories that keep the fans entertained.

"You come off a show like Barber and you have to be really proud of what you've done and take into consideration a lot of the feedback we've received," producer Rich O'Connor said. "You just have to build on that. At the end of the day, we work for NBC but we also work for the race fan."

Team owner Roger Penske said television ratings are linked to IndyCar's ability to grow the fan base, which can be done through consistent races in strong cities. Although he firmly believes ovals must be part of the schedule, Penske said city races such as Long Beach are critical in attracting new fans.

"Our issue with the TV ratings, we compete against golf and we compete against NASCAR on certain weekends, and they are established formats with an established base of fans and viewership," Penske said. "We're going to have to chip away at that a little bit at a time. But I feel very positive about the series, and we just need to stay the course."

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