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NASCAR cuts staff at Charlotte TV hub

- mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com
Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012

NASCAR Productions laid off about 15 percent of its Charlotte-based workforce this week in a restructuring of the unit that produces video for the motorsports giant.

In all, 32 of 180 jobs were eliminated. Some of those employees will remain into the fall as the final leg of the NASCAR Sprint Cup races are run.

Many of those laid off had more than a decade of experience in NASCAR and motorsports, including veteran project manager Chrissy Pellegrino and former WCNC (Channel 36) sports director Chuck Howard.

Steve Herbst, who took over the unit in June during an earlier restructuring that saw the departure of chief operating officer Jay Abraham, said Tuesday the cutbacks were strategic moves reflecting the changing industry.

After evaluating NASCAR Productions operations, executives decided to drop independent video production work on outside accounts not related to motorsports. It had been handling projects like Notre Dame hockey, University of Virginia football and music videos.

‘NASCAR only’

“In the last few months we’ve undergone an analysis of our business in Charlotte, particularly on the production side, and it became clear we wanted to redirect our efforts toward NASCAR only,” Herbst said.

NASCAR Productions, which includes the broadcast and archival NASCAR Images units, moved into leased space at NASCAR Plaza in 2009 and installed a $40 million studio complex in four floors of the 20-story building with the latest in digital technology. At its peak, NASCAR Productions was handling about 100 hours of content a week for clients like Fox Sports, TNT, ESPN and DirecTV.

It also produces “Inside NASCAR” for Showtime, which has been picked up for a third year in 2013, and has created documentaries like the Tim Richmond biography “30 for 30” for ESPN Films.

But its largest client has been Charlotte-based Speed channel, owned by Fox Sports, which reaches 81 million U.S. households. But Speed has trimmed some weekday NASCAR programming in favor of other shows.

“We have a very good relationship with Speed and up at Fox. We feel like we are in a great place with those guys right now and we’re looking to build on where we are today,” said Herbst, who joined NASCAR in 2011 from CBS College Sports Network, where he was executive vice president.

“We’ve been working together since the beginning and are happy with the relationship,” said Erik Arneson, Speed’s vice president of media relations. “It’s been a great collaboration.”

Herbst said creating a NASCAR cable channel similar to the NFL’s is still being considered for the Charlotte broadcast complex. “We’ve done quite a bit of thinking about it, but no decision has been made yet,” he said.

Charlotte is a hub for sports production in the Southeast. In addition to NASCAR Productions and Speed, it is also the home of ESPN-U and Raycom’s sports division.

Despite layoffs, NASCAR digital growing

Although NASCAR Productions cut staff this week, the digital arm of the business will grow by about 60 positions by year’s end.

Steve Herbst, vice president of broadcasting and production, said Tuesday that NASCAR will bring its digital operation, NASCAR.com, to its Charlotte headquarters in the fourth quarter, increasing employment in the unit from about 15 now to about 75. Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting now handles the web operation under a contract that runs through the end of 2012.

Marc Jenkins, vice president of digital media, will oversee digital and social media operations in a new space being finished on the eighth floor of NASCAR Plaza.

Washburn: 704-358-5007; Utter: 704-358-5113, Twitter: @jim_utter

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