Saturday, July 7, 2007
TNT's "Wide Open" Coverage Divides NASCAR Fans
Since the TNT broadcast team had already produced several NEXTEL Cup events, fans knew what to expect from Bill Weber and crew. TNT's new infield "lift and spin" set had been unveiled, and Marc Fein had been introduced as the new pre-race host. The only thing new for fans at the Pepsi 400 would be the presentation of the race itself on their TV set. The results were mixed.
TNT presented its "Wide Open" coverage as the elimination of national commercials on the TV. OK, technically they said "full-screen" commercials. In what proved to be an easy to understand approach, the Turner tech guys simply put the standard TV picture into the longer and narrower High Definition "format" for the entire race.
This allowed a designated "dead zone" of space at the bottom of the screen to be used for the graphics and sponsor logos. When a national commercial was run, a special "flying box" appeared at the lower right and what Turner called the "branded sponsor content" played back. It was pretty simple stuff.
Turner produced specific commercials for this event for every sponsor except one. This content ran just like a normal spot, with the audio from the program muted and the video of the race behind the "flying box." It allowed fans to watch and hear the spot and keep an eye on the race as well. That was the positive aspect.
Many racing fans may remember the Indy Racing League broadcasts a while back that originated their races in "side-by-side" format. This squeezed the broadcast of the race into one box, while the commercial aired in another box on the other side of the screen. That would be "side-by-side," got it?
TNT's approach to this same situation left a couple of things to discuss. First, when the field was under yellow, there was no racing on the track. When the TNT "box" was on the screen, the field was just circling under yellow as the commercial played. The specific benefit of the TNT "box" comes when the field is racing. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the racing action was blocked by the part of the box that overlapped the picture.
So, this meant that the real key to the broadcast was how things worked at a crucial time under green while a commercial was running. The answer was...not too well. It turned out that the camera shots from TNT on a big track like Daytona often ran the drivers right into the area behind the "box," and they were blocked from view. Because the racing area and the commercial "box" overlapped, it caused another "dead space" that TNT failed to mention. Unfortunately, that space contained racing.
One hilarious note about this broadcast was the total disdain that Bill Weber had when explaining to viewers that the reason they were about to be "interrupted" for a commercial was because it was from their "local cable system." Suddenly, the three minutes an hour that cable systems insert automatically for local breaks was a big deal. This is from the network that ran 60 minutes of commercials in the last 190 minute race at Loudon. Weber threw the cable companies under the bus time-and-time again.
At NASCAR.com, they have a forum that allowed fans to voice their opinion of the TNT coverage. Most of the one hundred or so comments pointed out two issues. The first was the overlap of the commercial "box" into racing action, as we have discussed. The second is the on-going difficulty with the TNT Director getting "in sync" with the announcers. TNT seems to follow a pattern of covering laps, without listening to the announcers or allowing the camera to follow the actual racing action.
My only complaint is that I viewed the race on a standard TV, and will never know what I missed. The "widescreen" format pushes a lot of video out of the visible frame on my TV, as with Bill Weber, who disappeared during the on-camera open. That was the first clue that there was a lot of "stuff" viewers might be missing.
Finally, there is no doubt once again that the Most Valuable Player Award for this race goes to Larry McReynolds. Away from DW, McReynolds has been given the green light to "just speak up." Thank goodness he does. Neither Kyle Petty or Wally Dallenbach have the "crew chief" perspective or overall strategy knowledge of McReynolds. Time after time, everyone called on "Larry Mac" to address the issues.
Its always fun when someone tries something new to make things better, and that is certainly what TNT did tonight. It was nice to see more racing action, but annoying that the commercials were custom-made and extended length. Several of them were just plain weird. The Larry Mac Subway commercial was just plain dumb.
Hopefully, this telecast might spark some more debate about the proper way to air a NEXTEL Cup race. Already, fans have many alternatives, and this season they seem to be using them in droves. Something has to be done about the main network broadcast, or NASCAR will find themselves continuing to push fans away. TNT's efforts were a good step in that direction, and you have to give credit where credit is due...they pulled it off. Of course, a photo finish never hurts a TV broadcast.
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