After a down year caused by the recession's impact on the media industry, coverage of the Kentucky Derby is back to where it was, according to Churchill Downs. And it's good timing for a track that's aiming to expand the notoriety of the Kentucky Oaks festivities on Derby Eve.
Typically, Churchill Downs issues 1,900 to 2,000 media credentials for the Derby, said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications. Last year, though, that number dropped to about 1,800 as organizations cut back.
"Obviously the economy was a factor in all aspects of life ... and travel budgets were no exception," he said.
Rogers said most of the traditional media organizations still covered the Derby, but they sent fewer staffers.
"But this year, the credentials are tracking much strong er ... and obviously we're pleased by that," he said.
One broadcast media outlet expanding coverage is Lexington's NBC affiliate, WLEX (Channel 18). The television station is sending a few more staffers and also introducing new segments to its all-day coverage, which will begin about 8:30 a.m., a half-hour earlier than usual.
Bruce Carter, WLEX's news director, said the local coverage will continue until NBC Sports begins broadcasting at 4 p.m. After NBC's coverage ends at 7 p.m., WLEX will host a one-hour post-Derby special.
"It's a time when our staff gets to cut loose and have fun and do something out of the ordinary of traditional news coverage," he said of Derby Day.
This year, morning co-anchor Chris Goodman will be out and about searching for entertaining attendees in a new segment called "Derby's Got Talent." The station also is adding a camera on the backside of the track, Carter said.
The Derby means major ratings for WLEX. In 2009, ratings for the Derby in the 40-county area measured by Nielsen were up slightly, from 26 ratings points in 2008 to 28, or 28 percent of total television households. Of those watching TV at the time, 60 percent were tuned in to see Mine That Bird's improbable victory.
That's not the case everywhere else, though, Carter said, recalling how the Derby was viewed when he worked in Roanoke, Va.
"The newspaper didn't even do a story on the Derby," he said.
Carter, who had moved to Roanoke from Louisville, said that to drum up interest, he held a party, borrowed a satellite truck and downloaded a Louisville station's coverage so his colleagues could see what they were missing.
"The ratings there were nothing," Carter recalled. "I think it did 5 or 6 ratings points. Outside of Kentucky and a couple of other horse-racing communities, it does OK, but certainly here, it still has Super Bowl status."
Churchill Downs is looking to improve that status here and nationally by expanding the appeal of the Oaks.
"On Kentucky Oaks Day, we have an on-track crowd that is traditionally around 100,000 people," Rogers said. "How many other sporting events draw 100,000 people, and no one's ever heard of it?"
Last year, the track partnered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure and raised money for breast cancer research. The move drove media coverage and helped the track strike a deal to air the Oaks on the NBC-owned Bravo cable network, Rogers said. That partnership will continue this year with Bravo airing the race from 5 to 6 p.m.
"The Derby is the Derby," Rogers said. "But we want to incorporate all that on to Kentucky Oaks Day as well and have a giant two-day event."