08/18/2011 10:29AM

Keeneland telecasts on NBC-Versus

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – NBC and its sister network Versus will broadcast four one-hour telecasts from Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., during the track’s fall meet later this year, the two companies announced on Thursday.

Three of the broadcasts will occur on consecutive days on Versus during the opening weekend of Keeneland’s fall meet, on Oct. 7-9, and they will feature live coverage of six graded stakes that typically serve as preps to the Breeders’ Cup two-day event, scheduled for the first weekend in November at Churchill Downs. The final broadcast will occur on Oct. 15 on NBC and will focus on events surrounding Keeneland’s 75th anniversary, the two companies said, as well as live coverage of the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

The deal is similar to an arrangement reached earlier this year between NBC and the New York Racing Association to broadcast eight live telecasts from NYRA’s Saratoga Race Course during the track’s ongoing summer meet. In both instances, the tracks are underwriting the costs of the television production, with revenues from the broadcasts shared by the partners.

The Saratoga broadcasts are being shown under the title “Summer at Saratoga,” with an emphasis on the social and cultural aspects of the racing scene at the historic track. In a similar vein, the Keeneland broadcasts will be called “Autumn at Keeneland.”

According to officials, Keeneland and NBC began discussing a deal after the first broadcast of the “Summer at Saratoga” series drew approximately 1.18 million viewers, a figure that exceeded the viewership number for three of the last five Saturday Breeders’ Cup broadcasts. Television officials have said that the broadcast succeeded because of its appearance on a national television network, and because of Saratoga’s rich brand name.

The viewership figures for the succeeding “Summer at Saratoga” broadcasts, all on Versus, have dropped off considerably, however. For the four broadcasts, viewership has averaged 175,000 people, according to Adam Freifeld, a spokesperson for NBC. The next two broadcasts, on Aug. 20 and Aug. 27, will be on NBC.

NBC has the broadcast rights to all three races of the Triple Crown for the next four years, and the network has been eagerly reaching out to sports organizations for programming for its Versus network, which it is attempting to build into a rival to other larger sports channels. At the same time, racing has been desperate to expand its presence on national television as a way to reach out to new fans to combat a rapidly eroding fan base.

Just last week, the Jockey Club announced that it would underwrite a new television series beginning in 2012 that focuses on racing, as part of a plan to implement the recommendations of a report prepared by McKinsey & Company. The Jockey Club has not yet decided what format the show will take, but officials said they are currently in discussions with major networks for the broadcasts.