Sunday, July 29, 2007
ESPN Changes The NASCAR TV Dynamic
Everyone was eagerly awaiting the first NEXTEL Cup race coverage by ESPN. Viewers had seen the broadcast team of Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree working on ESPN's Busch Series this season. What they had not seen was the added layer of "special TV stuff" that ESPN was going to bring to the table for The Brickyard 400.
Brent Musburger was heralded as the telecast host, although he played no active role once the racing began. After hosting the NASCAR Countdown show, Suzy Kolber, Brad Daugherty, and Dale Jarrett remained on the set and were featured frequently in the racing portion of the telecast. ESPN also bought Tim Brewer a new "Tech Center" to be used in explaining the technical issues that popped-up during the race.
Finally, ESPN had promoted their "Draft Track" coverage which allows an animated version of the air flow on the track between cars to be displayed on the screen by using colored graphic elements. All of these elements were newly added for the NEXTEL Cup coverage, and definitely changed the on-air dynamic that ESPN's Busch Series viewers had come to know.
No one was more deeply affected by this "shared attention" that Jerry Punch. Now, Suzy Kolber was being featured as a co-anchor, and she often voiced the program elements in the show like billboards and promos. The Infield Studio was used frequently during a caution period instead of the normal flow of pit reporters bringing viewers up-to-date about activity on pit road. Punch was not the star of the show, as he had been for the Busch Series races.
Veteran ESPN viewers who watch other sports on the network have seen this approach before. The actual sporting activity becomes almost secondary to the many announcers, the technical TV "tricks," and multiple TV studio sets that seem to be present on many ESPN events.
Punch was working hard to maintain his focus on racing as things on the track began to tell the "real" story of the race. Give Rusty Wallace credit, he was as plain spoken as he has been on the Busch Series, and so was his partner Andy Petree. Unfortunately, this flow was often interrupted by the Infield Studio crew who had their own agenda.
One program element that did not work out was the use of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as ESPN's in-race reporter. Although his crew chief was helpful to Andy Petree, Junior was having absolutely none of Wallace asking him questions and seemed to be on the edge of being very annoyed. Maybe we will subsequently find out what that was all about.
Tim Brewer was the mystery man, as he and the "Tech Center" were used sparingly. After all the hype in the media, Brewer was the odd man out because there was no real time for him to talk. He also did not appear well-informed on several occasions, but did a nice job with the Junior engine failure. The Infield Studio and Suzy Kolber took-up a lot of the content time that normally would be given to the "Tech Center."
Musburger returned about halfway through the race, and after asserting his presence Suzy Kolber appeared and allowed Dale Jarrett and Brady Daugherty to offer their analysis of the race. Once again, this would have been a perfect time to allow Tim Brewer to point out the "tech issues" that were key to the race. Instead, Daugherty again summed-up the obvious and led into a pre-produced feature on Jeff Gordon actually placed in the middle of the race. This was a big wow for veteran fans. What was happening on the track, and in the race, was again made secondary.
Around 5PM Eastern Time, ESPN cut-into the NASCAR race to update viewers on Barry Bonds and his baseball pursuits. Musburger followed with another trivia-style factoid before returning the broadcast to Punch and crew. Unfortunately, the racing action on the track was sizzling, and it included both a car into the wall and a head-to-head battle for the lead. Again, the actual racing action appears to be "secondary" to ESPN's pre-planned production features. Perhaps, many NASCAR fans are asking...Barry who?
With less than fifty laps to go, ESPN finally offered an actual race recap using the pit reporters. This helped viewers to get a clue about the on-track activity of the non-leaders because the network was having a hard time following the stories of the teams coming back-up through the field. Clint Bowyer was a good example.
In this race, even under green flag conditions, ESPN used Kolber and the Infield Studio to show video highlights of the race in-progress. Jarrett and Daugherty commented on the highlights and then returned the broadcast to Punch and company in the booth. In the "old" ESPN NASCAR days, there would never be an interruption of green flag racing by a pre-produced element. Several key points of this race had to be replayed because of ESPN's own production elements being played.
As usual, ESPN continued to have a good technical season in "NASCAR land" this year. The Brickyard pictures were excellent, the audio was consistent, and the graphics were crisp. The "triple split" on pit stops worked well, and the in-progress race graphics scrolled at a good speed. Very quietly, the ESPN technical operations gang has put together an excellent season of quality TV for NASCAR fans.
With twenty laps to go and the race raging, ESPN finally let Dale Jarrett talk directly with Wallace and Petree in the booth. DJ really lent another veteran perspective to the coverage and helped bring this broadcast another point of view. Wallace and Petree really click well with Jarrett, and it allowed the announcing crew to end their part of the race on a good note.
Unfortunately, Dave Burns conducted a horrible interview of winner Tony Stewart. It was clear that Stewart was increasingly annoyed with Burns inept questions, and this anger ultimately resulted in a profanity on national television. Perhaps, Mr. Burns will be relegated to the goofy stories which are his specialty.
The final lap of this race is going to be the subject of an additional post. Please leave your opinion about the ESPN general coverage of this event on this column.
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