David Zurawik

National TV audience for Baltimore Grand Prix falls way short of projection

The Baltimore Grand Prix Sunday averaged 591,000 viewers, according to figures released by NBC, and it was NOT the most watched IndyCar race in the history of cable channel Versus, as promoters claimed and some published as fact.

Let me repeat that last part: It was not the most watched IndyCar race in Versus history.

The history of IndyCar racing on Versus is only one year old, but a race in Edmonton in July was watched nationally by more viewers than Baltimore's. That telecast delivered 642,000 viewers.

The 591,000 viewers is in line with what I predicted yesterday using preliminary ratings and TV homes as a rough yardstick for viewers. And it is a far cry from the 3.5 million viewers mentioned in this press release from the city in May 2010 heralding the Grand Prix agreement. It is about one-sixth that audience.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in addition to filling City hotel rooms and restaurants, the street race will "change the way the world sees Baltimore," as a result of global media exposure to millions of Indy Racing League (IRL) fans who attend similar events in Monte Carlo, San Paulo, Long Beach, and St. Petersburg. The race will be broadcast on national television to more than 3.5 million domestic viewers. Related media and marketing exposure is valued at an estimated $27.5 million over five years, according to the economic report.

Actually, the race was broadcast into the homes of at least 76 million "domestic" viewers on Versus and over 100 million on ABC. But an average audience of only 591,000 persons in all those homes watched, according to the figures released today. That's why I have been saying since Sunday let's wait for these numbers and not let the mayor's tweets and race promoters spin us into declaring Baltimore's Grand Prix a "TV hit" and the "most watched race" in Versus "history," which at one year is not exactly the history of the NFL or NBC.

As I said Sunday, you can send out all the positive images and messages of Baltimore that you want, but it doesn't mean millions will see them. This really is Communications 101: No one telecast is ever going to "change the way the world sees" anything. Are the mayor's words not textbook hype?

Again, I am not talking about whether or not the Grand Prix was a success in other ways. I only cover TV and media, and I am just setting the record straight on how many national viewers watched Baltimore's first Grand Prix -- and whether it was a "TV hit" and the "most watched" IndyCar race in Versus history as the promoters and spin doctors have been claiming since Sunday.