Photo: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

24 Hours at Daytona, 12 Hours of Ads: The Enshittification of Racing on Peacock

Rob Zacny

Somewhere in my email are the details for my membership to a private forum where racing fans would upload high-fidelity recordings of race broadcasts from around the world. For many years, when I couldn’t buy a cable package that gave me access to Formula One racing, this was my connection to the sport. A day or even hours after the latest race ended, there would be a link to watch it with your choice of broadcasters. Dutch and Brazilians living abroad could watch with their home commentary teams, while American viewers could get ahold of the often superior ITV / Sky broadcasts from the U.K. If you wanted to watch just about any type of racing, some Good Samaritan would get that VOD uploaded within 24 hours. This was often the best, and sometimes the only, way for these niche fandoms to sustain themselves and connect with their sport and communities.

I haven’t needed to use that forum for several years. But lately, I’ve started to suspect it’s once again my future just as much as it was my past.

It couldn’t compete with the convenience of what became the best deal in streaming for racing fans: Peacock. I got a nice discount on this streaming service thanks to my Comcast subscription (NBC’s corporate parent), so for a few extra bucks a month, I got loads of commercial-free sports car racing, IndyCar, plus Premier League and more niche sports (for Americans) like rugby and cycling. It was just about the only platform where I felt truly good about the value for the money, so naturally, it’s gone to hell the last few months.

Many sports were hellish for American fans to follow through regular cable means. Watching the latest race required bouncing around countless cable channels and getting buy-up options for your cable package. There was the “Wow You Really Like Sports, It’s Getting Kind of Weird” package, along with the “We Know You Sickos Will Keep Paying” package that finally gave you access to those CBS Sports alternate channels that seem to run nothing but old football games and infomercials. These are the places where sports car racing has historically lived on TV.

After NBC lost the F1 license to ESPN a number of years ago, it doubled down on motorsports more broadly and made Peacock a one-stop shop for North American auto racing. It didn’t just carry the main events like the 24 Hours of Daytona or IndyCar racing, but it also hosted broadcasts from the feeder series like Indy NXT (no, I’m not sure about that name either) and the various lower tiers like the shockingly terrific Mazda MX-5 cup, which feels like a medieval jousting tournament except everyone is riding a Miata. Times were good.

A BMW M Hybrid V8 on a track at the 2023 Roar Before the Rolex 24 in Daytona.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, things have recently been changing. This past NFL season, Peacock got a couple exclusive games that didn’t even air on NBC, and right away, I noticed something odd: You couldn’t join the games late and “watch from the beginning” like you could before. This is standard on YouTube TV, which is basically built to mimic a set-top DVR device. Likewise, you couldn’t pause or rewind the games on Peacock; you could only watch the game live, like people did before DVR. It was NBC proudly introducing the audience of the most popular sport in the U.S. to the least convenient way to watch it, a way that’s existed since the days of needing to assign someone to stand next to the TV set and adjust a rabbit-ear antenna to bring in a picture.

Sadly, this was a sign of things to come. This past weekend was the 24 Hours of Daytona (aka the Rolex 24 at Daytona), the second-biggest endurance race of the year and the unofficial start of the racing calendar. It attracts drivers from IndyCar, F1, and others that don’t generally compete in International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) events, making it one of the only “all-star” events in sports where you’ll truly see the best in the world going all-out against one another.

In previous years you could join late and skip around the live broadcast to catch up on what you missed, which is vital in an endurance race that runs overnight and frequently pauses for long periods under caution flags. This year, that functionality was gone. You could watch live or not at all.

Worse, while the cable broadcasts were apparently keeping the race running in a small window during ad breaks, you got commercials on Peacock, which were placed with almost gleeful indifference to what was happening on track. On the first night of the race, with the second-place car hunting down the leader as they approached slower traffic, Peacock threw to an ad break. Sure enough, when the break ended, the lead had changed and we didn’t even see a replay for about five minutes. Before the race even ended, fans were digging into how bad the broadcast was.

Somebody at NBC has a plan for Peacock built around making ads more obtrusive and eliminating an audience’s ability to get around them.

The real low point came in the final two hours. It was a terrific morning of racing and relatively few commercials. As dawn gave way to day and several battles for the lead were taking shape towards the final sprint, the broadcast finally switched to the main NBC network. It should have been a time to showcase a criminally underrated sport for a wide audience. Instead, NBC served up about 30 minutes of commercials for every hour of airtime. Lead changes were missed and so were pit stops and tire changes, so suddenly, none of the action had any context. At a moment when teams were playing their final cards to go for broke, NBC was hiding those cards to smother viewers in more ads for fast food and medication. It would be like if a World Series broadcast cut away during the seventh-inning stretch and came back for the bottom of the ninth. Even the fact that the winner of the GTD class crossed the finish line with a Bowsette decal blessing their effort couldn't make the day feel less like a waste.

I am sure there are folks working at Peacock who see these changes as necessary evils to sustain the service and their broadcast teams. While there are race fans who would chafe at that latter part, I am in the camp that would die for commentators Leigh Diffey and James Hinchcliffe. I absolutely want NBC to invest in racing, but vandalizing that coverage the way Peacock did is going to kill that service for an audience NBC may mistakenly think is captive.

Because here’s the thing: These races are not hard to watch outside the U.S. where Peacock and NBC aren’t the broadcasters. Every complaint about the broadcast you’ll find online has somebody helpfully explaining how to use a VPN to get other race feeds from outside the U.S. While I’m sure NBC and IMSA can make using VPNs to get around region restrictions more difficult, I’ve yet to see any service completely shut down those loopholes, and they probably couldn’t if they tried. Again, the communities that NBC is treating like dumping grounds for ad inventory are communities that started mailing videotapes to each other the second the format was invented. These people aren’t cheap, they are choosy.

Somebody at NBC has a plan for Peacock built around making ads more obtrusive and eliminating an audience’s ability to get around them. That might make sense if the play is to get a few high-profile sports events a year to draw viewers to your platform and get them to keep an ad-support tier for a month or two until they remember to cancel. But that hostage-taking strategy is incompatible with the audience Peacock cultivated with investment in more niche sports.

A driver futilely tries to extinguish a fire billowing from the hood of a Lexus race car.
A moment from the Rolex 24 that neatly encapsulates where Peacock's coverage is at.

Prior to this weekend, if Peacock had announced that it needed to move ad-free motorsports behind a higher-tier plan, I would have happily paid because I would’ve felt like I was getting a bargain. Now, after botching the TV production of one of the biggest racing events NBC Sports carries, I don’t think NBC respects these racing series enough to effectively televise them.

As a fan, that annoys the hell out of me. And it should worry people running organizations like IMSA and IndyCar. Racing isn’t like football or baseball, where you have a huge number of fans getting into the sport just because it’s part of civic and family life. People get into racing because it’s awesome. To make them realize that you need a broadcast partner that gives a damn. Suddenly, NBC isn’t looking like that partner. 

Old fans will be fine, they’ll just dust off their VPNs and private forums. It’s the new fans that bad broadcasts will fail to create that race organizers need to be worried about.

Rob Zacny (he/him) is a cofounder and partner at Remap. In addition to his work at Remap, he is the host of A More Civilized Age: A Star Wars Podcast and a panelist on Shift+F1, a Formula 1 racing podcast. You can follow his increasingly inactive social media presence on Twitter, and Bluesky.

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