Life in the HotPass Lane

New technology puts viewers into the driver's seat
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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 contract.

"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 sponsorship.

"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?"