EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - TALKING TV WITH NHRA’S NEW TV MAN, KEN ADELSON
A major challenge lies ahead for Emmy award-winning multimedia executive, producer, and broadcast journalist Ken Adelson – to make NHRA’s television broadcasts relevant and dependable again.
Adelson, who will create and oversee the NHRA television production division that will work with FOX Sports, began his position with NHRA on September 1.
Prior to accepting the position with NHRA, Adelson worked as a senior consultant and executive producer with Desser Sports Media, where NHRA was a client. Prior to that, he served as executive producer for the Jockey Club, a show on FOX Sports 1 dedicated to horse racing.
From 2008 until 2011, Adelson created from scratch the broadcasting and digital media departments for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. He launched the program in less than three months and later won a Heartland Emmy for “Best Game Broadcast.”
For nearly two decades, he served as senior vice president, production operations & planning for the NBA. During his time at the NBA, he oversaw the day-to-day operations and created thousands of hours of programming each season that was distributed to more than 190 countries. He also played a key role in the launch of NBA TV in 1999, the first cable network created by a sports league.
In this exclusive interview with CompetitionPlus.com’s Bobby Bennett, Adelson discusses the plans which lie ahead for the new broadcast, the approach he and his team will take and the expectations for his team headed into the new era of NHRA broadcast.
COMPETITIONPLUS – Congratulations on your appointment. With this appointment comes the huge challenge of hitting the ground running at full speed. How intimidating is the challenge before you?
KEN ADELSON – Intimidating is not the right word. Exhilarating might be a better word. The opportunity I have here, I’m honored to have. The opportunity is there to hit the ground running, and create something really special, long-running and a service to the sport. I’ve quickly developed a true passion for it, as well as my new profession.
I have been involved in some start-ups in the past, but this in a lot of ways is as interesting and as challenging or anything in the past. There was no infrastructure in place at all from the NHRA’s perspective to start this venture. That makes this a lot of fun. It’s the perfect opportunity.
CP – You mentioned you are excited about this, and some of the terminology might suggest toeing the company line. But long before you even had to start a television production effort, you were at the NHRA events with your sleeves rolled up, smiling and diving head first into the project. Was that excitement because you had to be, or was it as some of us witnessed, a true excitement about getting involved in the original extreme sport?
KA – One of the things that really hooked me into taking this on; was that I truly enjoyed the drag racing experience. When I was out there I didn’t really believe that experience was truly being translated through the screen as well as it could be. ESPN did a great job but I don’t think the experience you saw and felt, and felt is a key word, and also heard at the track was something sport fans in general, didn’t know about. It hooked me, and the opportunity to do what I do, and translate to viewers got me truly excited.
Let me address the first part of your comment. There’s a balance between working for a governing body and television. From a credibility standpoint, you have to present what is going on and you have to do it objectively. You have to have credibility in your broadcast. That’s very important. Then, of course, it’s not a matter of working for the company. It’s a matter of wanting to grow the sport. I think those two goals are a must. I’ve done that before when launching NBA TV. We had many similar questions and comments. In the long run, it becomes a benefit to the people out there because they are beginning to see more and more of what they really love.
What I am finding here is a pretty passionate fan base, which is also terrific.
CP – Speaking of the passionate fan base, should those passionate fans expect a winning effort right out of the gate with the group you’ve assembled?
KA – Our plan is to not miss a beat and to look to a high level of quality on the national level in presenting the races, and the scene. The plan we have in place is strong.
CP – Right off the bat, you faced criticism from the passionate fan base for not bringing Mike Dunn back for the new broadcast team. Can you shed any light on why that decision was made?
KA – Mike Dunn did a great job, and he is a longtime member of the community. For us, we were trying to build a team that we were planning for, five to ten years into the future. I am looking at building this as a team. We are building this team to take us for a long time. At this point, we just felt like while Mike did a great job, the team members we have assembled including Tony Pedregon will really bring the sport to light for everybody as well. We are really happy with this group and wish Mike the best.
CP – In a sense, you are every bit as much a new race team. While it may be extremely unfair, you are expected to win your first national event. How are you preparing and testing for your Pomona debut?
KA – We are preparing extensively. This job really comes in phases for me. First, we had to put the crew together, and that was the on-air team. Then we built the behind the scenes team with new eyes and blood. We have brought in some extremely talented talent such as Lewis Bloom, and he’s on our team full-time. We are preparing, learning and are already out getting interviews with drivers. We’re getting those stories we talked about, and in doing so adding depth and information about not only the drivers but those who make up the sport. We are doing our homework. The FOX team has been great in supporting us and in working together, and sharing their racing experience. I think it’s a whole new operation of creativity. We are using the month of January working to really have those first few shows slide out. We are also going to use the NHRA Nitro Spring Training test session in Phoenix, as a full dress rehearsal. We will be there with our trucks, talent and team to walk through it. This will be our final dress rehearsal. With Phoenix being the second event of the season, it sets us up perfectly to go back and be really prepared.
CP – Will there be live streaming of these events for those who do not have access to television at the time?
KA – We will have a different approach. There will be a premium streaming service for fans on the web. This is currently in development. There will be more web availability for fans. What was done before was done in pieces for the broadcast, and it was still great because you had a chance to see it. We are going to use what is happening on site to bring a real show to the web including using some of Alan Reinhart’s commentary. We are in the process of trying to create a better experience digitally. It’s still in development but that’s the plan for the future and take it a step further.
CP - Is there a timetable for this?
KA - We are shooting for the beginning of the season but like all things in technology, it might not be right at the beginning. But it will begin within the first six weeks. We are working to make it available as quickly as we can. In some ways, this is more complicated than doing television. But, it’s important and we want to make sure we get it right.
CP – Will there be a balance to tap into five decades of history and the modern era?
KA – Balance is the right word and the answer is yes. Our goal is to bring out the personalities and the people who make the game what it is today, and to expand them to the fans. But one thing I know for sure, you’re nothing without your history. In being in sports for a long time, the history here is incredibly rich. We will have a number of historical references. One of the things we are going to do on every episode is to set up why we are here. We will then show why this is special and why you should be watching as a fan. That’s something we are already digging into for the first show. As an example, we’ve already found footage from the first-ever race in Pomona. We are already digging into our library and are bringing out rare race footage.
It’s a balance of having to show every race, the action covered, and that’s just one of the challenges we face. Our goal is to have that balance. We want the viewers to walk away from the show having enjoyed the action and all the while feel as they have learned something about the sport.
CP – Remaining on the historical topic, many race fans often refer to the Diamond P days as the magical era of drag racing television. Has there been an effort to look into those days for what made the era so magical in regards to implementing in the new program?
KA – We have done a lot of looking back. It’s amazing how things go in circles in whatever it is, whether it’s clothing styles or whatever. There were aspects of the show back then that made for good television. There were cameras above. There were helicopters, high-angle cameras. The way they covered the races was different. To me it is important to go back and look at how they did it. One of the things I felt was important from Day One, and before I looked at the past history of the shows is having handheld cameras manned on the starting line. The robotics just didn’t deliver the same kind of flavor and color. For example, looking into the driver’s eyes on the starting line and being right there in the middle of it all. That’s something we are going to do and hopefully we will be able to bring fans closer to the action.
Working with the NHRA’s safety team, we will do it in such a way that it works for everyone. We will make sure our guys are safe, as well as getting those good pictures. That was something they used to do, and when I look back at those shows those shots are just fantastic. They really help bring the moment to life.
CP – The late, great Wally Parks once said the cars were the stars. How do you find that balance of promoting the excitement of 10,000 horsepower nitro-burners and the personalities? Who gets top billing here?
KA – We have to bring that balance. Our goal and challenge remains the cars are still the stars, but so are the people. The cars don’t have to be the only stars. I think we will be able to do that. If we can do that and look back on the show a year from now, and say we were able to do that, it will allow me to say we were successful.
CP – One last question, how do you convince NHRA drag racing fans the days of getting bumped for other less exciting sports are over with? How do you get me excited for what is ahead?
KA – I start with that was one of the main items we used in the negotiations with other networks. The fact we are going to be on live 17 times as compared with a lesser amount from last year on the Sunday finals shows tells 90-percent of the story. The sport has to be live, especially in these days of social media and instant communication. The fact we are going to be able to present more live shows should make fans more excited about what they are watching. When it is live, there is no bumping involved. The only reason we won’t be live with the other shows, is because we made the decision with FOX to not go head-to-head with NASCAR. The tape-delayed races all butt up against the end of those races. We made the decision from a fan standpoint, and a one from viewership, that we would be better off to wait until just after those races completed. This way they can promote us as you will see. We believe this will be a better service to the fans. Our goal is to be all live on Sunday.
Saturday is always a tough day. Fox will do their best not to bump us from our windows. It’s just a tough day with other sports happening. We will add a whole series of Friday night broadcasts. I have found in my short experience, there’s nothing like Friday night racing. When the evening hits, the fire, the speed, and the fact some of the times are the best … we will have at least eight, and maybe 13 Friday night hours in primetime before 11 PM, on FoxSports1. This opens the NHRA to a whole new audience. It gives the current fans a chance to see Friday qualifying on Friday and not have to wait until Saturday. With all of those things put together, it should be a pretty exciting time for the fans.