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FAN TAKES WHEEL AT SPEED

6/10/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Speed Channel has a new lead driver — one who might ultimately steer a course toward NASCAR programming.

Hunter Nickell, previously senior vice president and general manager of regional sports network FSN South, has been tapped as executive vice president and general manager of the 64 million-subscriber Speed, Fox officials said last week. Officially the announcement is scheduled for today (June 13).

Nickell succeeds Jim Liberatore, whose contract with Speed expires at the end of June.

Nickell, 48, had been with the Atlanta-based regional sports network and its predecessor, SportSouth, since 1990. Fox Cable Networks bought Speedvision in 2001.

When it comes to cars, Nickell knows whereof he speaks. FSN South has long presented racing fare and a significant amount of original programming. “[Auto fare] has been one of the quality staples of the network for a long time.”

Nickell describes himself as “a big race fan” — and a sometimes-practitioner on the grass-roots level: “My son competed on the Legends Car Series [short-track racing] around the Southeast.”

Nickell, who served as crew chief, was asked if he’d been behind the wheel.

“As little as [my son] let me,” he replied.

As for his pit-stop analysis of Speed’s current position, Nickell said: “For years, the passion for racing was largely in the Southeast and the South. Now, the events, lifestyle shows and derivate programming are becoming more of a fabric around the country,” he said. “Speed Channel has embraced that growth. The network has good momentum in distribution and its various kinds of programming. My goal is to keep that momentum going.”

Speed’s schedule is largely shaped by four programming silos: racing series; shoulder programming for NASCAR; shows on customizing autos and motorcycles; and auto enthusiasm/lifestyle fare. Speed has averaged a 0.25 primetime rating through May, up 14% from the same period a year ago, while total-day is ahead 11% to a 0.15.

As far as Tony Vinciquerra, Fox Networks Group president and CEO and Nickell’s boss, is concerned, Speed will be pushing the metal to bolster its lineup of racing competition across various auto and motorcycle circuits, as well as buttressing its roster of news, enthusiast and lifestyle fare such as Unique Whips.

“Viewers come to us for the racing, while others are interested in the lifestyle and enthusiast programming,” he said. “We want the circle to widen so we not only attract NASCAR fans, but those looking to buy a car who may be interested in our test drive shows, or collectors looking to see what’s going on at auctions.”

NASCAR recently elected not to exercise its option with Fox and FX past 2006. The circuit, thus, has synched up all of its rights to the Nextel Cup and Busch Series, also held by NBC and Turner, to conclude after that season.

When the top-level NASCAR contract was negotiated in 2000, Speedvision was in fewer than 40 million homes. With Speed now in 64 million homes and growing, Vinciquerra said, “We’re interested in having more NASCAR product on Speed.”

The network currently airs NASCAR qualifying competition and “happy hour” runs, as well as shows like NASCAR Nation and NASCAR Inside Nextel Cup. Contracts for that ancillary programming extend well into next decade, according to Speed officials.

At the same time, Vinciquerra anticipates that NASCAR will have “a significant presence on FX” going forward. The network has enjoyed its strongest ratings season to date with its Nextel Cup and Busch Series offerings.

He said that ratings for Speed’s coverage of The Craftsman Truck Series— up 30% over 2004, with an average household rating above 1 — have been building since the circuit was wrested from ESPN. That NASCAR contract expires after the 2006 season, and Speed wants to renew it, even though the high production costs involved have hurt its financial performance.

Fox also wants Speed to rev up its presence in other media, with content aimed at mobile devices, ring tones and other applications. Vinciquerra anticipates that Speed will be involved with a fantasy league for NASCAR, and that there could be more vicarious off-air involvement for viewers watching the Barrett Jackson Auction events in the years ahead.

LIBERATORE LEFT

Liberatore, who has spent four years at the network, in a recent interview said it was best that he move on after encountering philosophical differences with Fox executives about where Speed should invest its programming dollars. Liberatore will remain with the network through June 27.

Fox has yet to name a successor at FSN South, the nation’s largest regional sports network with some 10.6 million subs in seven Southeastern states.