Saturday, July 7, 2007

ESPN's Saturday Busch Coverage Still Damp

There are few things harder to do than trying to arrange all the logistics of a NASCAR race that has been postponed by rain. NASCAR wants to get the race in now, the TV network wants time to set the table, and the TV viewers want some action.

Saturday, ESPN's coverage of the Daytona Busch race had many positive elements and several interesting decisions. Rather than begin the telecast with the ESPN Infield Studio and host Allen Bestwick, the network decided to go directly to play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch. On Friday night, Bestwick had done most of the "heavy lifting" for the network through a multi-hour rain delay.

Using Bestwick during this "opening" sequence would have allowed things to be orchestrated from the infield all the way through the first pace lap. As it was, TV viewers did not see or hear from Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree in the announce booth until that time. Punch tried his best to coordinate things, but it would have been a lot easier from the million dollar infield studio.

The Daly Planet receives a lot of email about the rock music "thing" that the networks have embraced in regard to a NASCAR theme song. ESPN's tired Aerosmith tune and TNT's motorcycle anthem "Born to be Wild" are just a TV phenomenon that will fade over time. There were many years of country music, then many years of dramatic orchestra style themes, and now we have hard rock. It certainly is...interesting.

ESPN continues to do a good thing with a designated in-car "reporter" and then an in-race crew chief. Kevin Harvick shows that he "gets it," as he looks into the camera with his racing helmet visor raised and uses hand gestures to make his point. Things have come a long way since one of the first ESPN in-car cameras caught driver Dick Trickle smoking a cigarette as the cars ran around during a caution period. Trickle had his smokes taped to the roll bar and a lighter in his pocket. How things have changed.

ESPN's "full throttle" feature is either loved or hated by fans. It certainly brings a lot of information to the viewer through the TV speakers, but also confuses, with many voices saying exactly the same thing. It might be fun if ESPN isolated a group of radios, say the top twenty cars, and lets fans hear the results. In the meantime, it always better on a green flag when the audio is from the participants, and not the announcers.

Viewers did not see or hear Allen Bestwick until well into the race. Like many others, I thought ESPN had closed the Infield Studio for this postponement. Never did Punch or any other announcer include, or reference, Bestwick. When he and Brad Daugherty did speak, it was a reminder of just how much fun the Saturday night rain-out telecast was with Bestwick at the helm.

Shannon Spake has really been a surprise this season. She has got to be one of the most hardworking people on the ESPN team this year. She is on pit road, reporting for NASCAR Now, and often featured on other ESPN NASCAR "content" programs and websites like In this race, she was all over the place from pre-race through the post-race interviews while asking good questions. What a transition from her SPEED Channel days.

ESPN continued to make good pictures and sound with its slightly damp equipment. Viewers have become so accustomed to superior technical operations, it is just taken for granted. It was interesting that ESPN's Programming Department did not use the lower third "ticker" on the screen to tell viewers why the normal programming had been pre-empted for this postponed race. They tried to use a "now" and "next" graphic, but it did not contain the right information. This should have been done both in graphic form and by the on-air announcers every thirty minutes. Its called a "scene set," and is TV 101.

Rusty Wallace once again faced the familiar situation of dealing with his son involved in another accident in a Busch race. Rusty has been doing a pretty good job of walking the line, but its obvious that things are not exactly going the way he had envisioned for his son's season. This is one element of the ESPN telecasts that viewers do not miss when Dale Jarrett steps-into the play-by-play role.

As usual when the NEXTEL Cup gang is out in full force, the Busch Series becomes nothing more than "Cup Lite." ESPN enjoyed good racing, but the drivers battled aero problems that made it tough to pass on the final couple of laps. The finish was under the green, but it was single file. Fans of this series will understand that when Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Brad Coleman, and Stephen Leicht are battling for the win, the Busch Series is really showing its true colors.

In this broadcast, nothing was more obvious than the fact that Allen Bestwick should have been in the broadcast booth, and that Jerry Punch should have been the infield host. Bestwick's play-by-play skills are superior to Punch, and often times Punch is busy following stories in the a reporter. ESPN truly needs a "voice" in the booth to simply call the action and direct traffic. That is Allen Bestwick.

In addition, this would unlock the "box" that Punch is contained inside in his current role. He would be a great host of NASCAR Now, a great host of NASCAR Countdown, and a great feature reporter and voice of the sport on SportsCenter. Think of the in-depth features that Punch could contribute to the network with his years of perspective. Reporting is his comfort zone. What he is not comfortable in, and clearly so, is three hours of directing traffic on a live race.

It was fitting that ESPN chose to allow Bestwick to close out the program from the Infield Studio. It seems that with some simple changes ESPN has found a good combination of talent in the Bristol HD Studio, on the infield NASCAR Countdown set, and in the broadcast booth. In a couple of days, we will be told by ESPN which personnel they will put in what positions for the Chicago race.

This decision by ESPN will be critical, as Chicago is the last "dress rehearsal" before the network takes over the NEXTEL Cup Series for the rest of the season. The ESPN NASCAR team had a very solid weekend, including a one hour news show, a rain delay, and a Saturday race. With a couple of small changes, they might be ready to return to the position the network held with fans many years ago.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from viewers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.


Gilbert Sam, Jr. said...

It was awkward to see Bestwick, laps into the Busch race after all he was the host.. No Infield Studio during pre-race, or rolling them off the grid was odd. About the music, after seven years NBC introduced Metallica to kickoff NASCAR on NBC coverage. I guess, some fans just can't let it die. God forbid any culture, it's like ABC/ESPN using Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during '06 NBA Finals Coverage. OH MY! NASCAR fans, we have a host that doesn't know who won the previous race he was covering (When Erik K. was asked by Mike Massaro at Richmond on NASCAR NOW, who won the previous races, Erik couldn't remember Johnson's win at Phoenix.)

Anonymous said...

Why is ESPN going to a full-field speed shot of the cars going into turn onw with 5 laps to go?

The announcers hype and hype and hype the upcoming restart and how it could deteremine the race and we don't even get to see the leaders race off to turn one because ESPN has to follow their STUPID FORMULA OF FULL FIELD SPEED SHOTS ON EVERY, SINGLE RESTART.

Then after a lap or so you hear Rusty say, "that race into turn one was the important part of this race"



Tripp said...

ESPN clearly has many components in place to build some great racing broadcasts. Bestwick rivals Mike Joy in his ability to anchor the coverage, which showed during one of the best rain delay shows I can remember. Brewer and Petrie are increasingly at ease as they present their valuable insights. I still think the big "pink note" is Wallace. I cannot perceive any chemistry between Rusty and the others in the broadcast team and find myself wishing Dale Jarrett would slip back into that seat.

I agree that Dr. Punch's talents are being misspent. He lacks the intuitive knack to drive a telecast from the booth like Joy or even Bob Varsha on the F1 broadcasts. Punch has always demonstrated a deep knowledge of the machinations of racing, skill at unearthing the subtleties in a race's storyline and relating on the air, and does great live interviews. Your suggestion of swapping Punch's and Bestwick's roles would expose both's talents more fully. It might also foster the chemistry that is so obviously missing from the booth.

Kudos to ESPN for putting hi-def cameras in the race cars. I found that I missed them during the TNT Cup broadcast.

ESPN's race broadcasts are getting better overall. Let's just hope that they assign their personnel according to their abilities.

Charles said...


ESPN: Please take this Unique Opportunity to be the Hero that Solves the NASCAR Ratings and Buschwhacker Problem Simultaneously!

John Daly is spot on. The hottest rising future NASCAR stars like 19-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brad Coleman, the smiling Australian Marcos Ambrose and Kentucky winner Stephen Leicht are far more interesting stories and media fodder than Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards taking time from their Cup schedule to pick up additional spending money.

Ratings Problme is a SIMPLE FIX:

If the Cup stars run on Saturday AND Sunday I can pick when I want to watch them. Therefore, I may elect to watch Edwards on Saturday and not watch the Cup race on Sunday. To the average fan, the races look the same anyway so why watch them both if I am going to see the same guys? That takes too big a chunk out of my weekend.

If Saturday were for the hottest rising stars like Coleman, Ambrose, and Leicht, then the market could tune in to see the future of the sport, just as they do with NCAA Football. Then, even the casual fan would have to watch on Sunday to see the Superstars. The die-hard fans would watch both because they can witness the immediate future of the sport and see equally exciting races. Sunday ratings would shoot back up and exceed prevous rating levels.

Balance the Financial Equation:

Cup drivers tell the media the Busch field would not be full without them. That is absolutely incorrect and they should stick to driving cars and not analyzing business problems and media trends. The truth is, the cost of running Busch for teams has skyrocketed because of the high price of the Cup drivers and has forced many Busch teams out of business. Without the Cup drivers, the cost would drop significantly, the Busch teams would actually have a chance for prize money, and sponsosrs would be abe to do a more consistent job of branding at the Busch level because the drivers would not be hopping around from car to car the way they do now.

Clarify the Confusing Brands:

The game of musical chairs (or drivers' seats) played by the teams and Cup drivers creates massive brand confusion and does not give these sponsors the mileage they would get if they were tagged to the hottest young stars in the business available at much lower fees. No matter how many times you stamp your logo on a Cup driver racing in Busch, he is still known by the market for his Cup brand. Sorry Slim Jim, but Tony IS Home Depot and our apologies BB&T (whatever that is) but Clint Bowyer IS Jack Daniels.

ESPN-Take a Stand with NASCAR and Clarify the Marketplace:

Work with NASCAR and help them understand the realities of the marketplace. They are racers. Non-racers need to make the strategy decisions.ESPN could prevent NASCAR from watering down their Cup branded stars, which is what they are doing, and regenerate the excitement and exclusivity that propelled the ratings growth once enjoyed by the sport.

It's really simple, Busch is Busch (Not Cup-Lite) and Cup is Cup. Easier for everyone to understand. Easier for the networks to market. Easier for the teams to plan and finance. Easier for companies to brand and sell their wares. Easier for drivers. Easier for crews. Easier for the marketplace.

ESPN, you have the credibility and reach to pull this off. Why not build a presentation to NASCAR and get them to understand they are watering down their brand and destroying their (and your) ratings and market power. I, we, urge of you to take a stand and resolve this issue once and for all.

In closing, how much sense would it make for Peyton Manning to drop down on Saturday and play with one of the college teams (a different one every week) and then quarterback the Colts on Sunday? Oh yeah, and on Saturday, give him two hours of warm-up on the actual game field and make the college guys come out cold and compete. Then try to build ratings and brands off of such nonsense. It will not, and with NASCAR, does not work. The mass market does not understand it and can not relate to it.

There is FAR MORE well-trained young talent than the sport has ever seen so take advantage of it and make the changes necessary to clarify the landscape. Seeing the likes of the same Cup drivers on every marketing venue and every broadcast gets very old very quick.

Cup is Cup. Busch is Busch. Brand it, broadcast it, and promote it as such and you will grow NASCAR in ways even they never dreamed possible. With ESPN taking over the broadcasts, announcement of the NEW Sprint Cup brand, and the NEW ???? brand for the Busch Series on the horizon, the stars are alligned for a successful move to bring this whole industry together and maximize the potential for everyone.

We urge you to please take the stand and solve both of these big issues in one bold move. The timing is right!

Best Wishes for Success,

C. O'Brien

BruSimm said...

I've been having issues with ESPN coverage myself and just found your newsletter here.

My biggest constructive observation is when Brad Daugherty, during the last Talladega event, cheering on a wreck whose carnage was still developing and slid past the press booth and ESPN showed Daugherty shaking his fist in triumphant glee while the wreck was happening.

They cut away from obvious fan favorites like a Carl Edwards flip after winning, or have a pretty disappointing camera angle.

The shows opening sequences are of Cup events, though as the season progresses, we're seeing more Busch scenes.

And as the crew develops their style, they are pretty awkward or stiff.. and it's just not getting it done for me.

Maybe I've been spoiled, or I am expecting more than I should, but that's where I stand at the moment.

Bruce Simmons

Anonymous said...

Jerry Punch and Allen Bestwick definitly need to switch jobs Jerry is a great pit reporter but he doesent have that excitement in his voice that Ken Squier,Mike Joy,and Allen Bestwick.

Tim Robinson said...

FULL THROTTLE sux, plain and simple, and it is very annoying.

PLEASE ESPN dump it, for the sake of all mankind!