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Life in the HotPass Lane

New technology puts viewers into the driver's seat 1/26/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

When the flag drops on the NASCAR season next month, race watchers can
do the equivalent of viewing the Super Bowl from inside Peyton Manning's helmet
and listen in on chats with coaches during timeouts.

With the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, DirecTV is introducing HotPass, where a
single channel is dedicated to an individual driver, offering camera angles
from inside the car and a live audio feed of communications with the crew.

Last year, David Hill, president of DirecTV Entertainment and chairman
of Fox Sports, spent an afternoon watching a race by focusing solely on the
fortunes of driver Kevin Harvick. He followed Harvick's decisions to pass on
the inside, fall behind to conserve gas and hit the pits, all while listening
to driver-crew communications.

After years of watching races from the overhead perspective, Hill felt
the "race within the race" was riveting enough for exclusive coverage. HotPass
will offer five channels, each with a flag-to-flag focus on a single driver
throughout the NASCAR season.

"You're sitting in the passenger seat, riding shotgun, feeling the same
emotions as the driver," Hill says. The subscription service—which won't be
in HD until 2008—is no small undertaking, with 25 cameras and a 70-member
production staff, plus two announcers per channel. And producers will have to
manage a constantly changing split screen, switching between various camera
angles and weaving in the two-way audio feed and graphic elements.

Hill's development of HotPass isn't entirely novel. Until this year,
NASCAR had offered NASCAR In Car, a subscription package on digital cable
providing seven channels devoted to individual drivers but with limited camera
angles and no analysis. HotPass could be the most significant breakthrough for
NASCAR telecasts since 2001. That year, Sportvision (which brought the yellow
first-down line to televised football) allowed networks to offer real-time data
for individual cars—attached to identification "pointers"—such as speed and
time to the leader.

DirecTV is one of several NASCAR broadcasters offering technological
innovations this season. Not to be outdone, ESPN said its upcoming NASCAR races
will be "the most technologically advanced programming in the history of
televised motorsports." Indeed, the network will be the first to offer
high-definition feeds from in-car cameras, meaning all broadcasts will be
entirely in HD this season, using as many as 75 high-definition cameras. TNT
plans to offer a July race commercial-free. And Fox, along with the other
networks, will be able to transform replays, using animation to re-create
on-track events.

Networks hope the production upgrades will help reverse 2006's ratings
decline, which followed a period of impressive growth. A huge financial
investment is riding on it as Fox (and partner Speed network), TNT and ABC/ESPN
(which replaces NBC) ponied up a combined $4.5 billion in a new eight-year

"All the partners are fully vested in growing the property through
enhancing the viewing experience for the fan," says Sam Sussman, senior
VP/director of sports activation at Starcom.

NASCAR officials and advertisers remain bullish, attributing ratings
drops to essentially a market correction. "You have to look at it as a whole.
It's still the No. 2-rated sport, second only to the NFL. We're not too
concerned about it," says Dean Kessel, who oversees Sprint Nextel's NASCAR

"The goal is to bring new fans to the sport and, hopefully, get them to
stick around," says Ed Erhardt, president of sales at ESPN/ABC. But ESPN and
other broadcasters need to broaden the audience without alienating the
hard-core fans who have fueled NASCAR's growth.

ESPN is counting on HD to lure viewers, partly by breaking ground as the
first broadcaster to offer in-car camera feeds in the HD format, an innovation
developed with Broadcast Sports Inc. "I'm excited to see what camera shots from
inside a car going 200 miles per hour look like in high-definition," says Rich
Feinberg, an ESPN senior coordinating producer.

TNT plans to offer the July 7 Pepsi 400 essentially commercial-free.
While Turner won't confirm the details, a media buying exec said network plans
call for 12 marketers to sponsor the bottom third of the screen, where their
branded content would run as the action continues.

Fox, ABC/ESPN and Turner are also looking to a new application from
Sportvision that allows a 3D animated look similar to a videogame. For Fox and
others, it allows for a virtually infinite amount of replays.

Turner is also using the animation for its subscription TrackPass
RaceView at Meant to complement TV, it enables fans to obtain
additional information and in-car audio feeds while watching. As with HotPass,
they can follow a favorite driver.

No matter what outlet, NASCAR allows unprecedented access to the
participants during the action. In ESPN's case, the network makes agreements to
speak with certain drivers as they circle the track. Says Feinberg, "Can you
imagine, in a football or basketball game, the guys in the booth talking to
players in between plays?"