Saturday, August 25, 2007
ESPN Rebounds With Bristol NEXTEL Cup Telecast
Often in sports, teams stumble upon circumstances that just naturally help their efforts. Sometimes, things start out rather grim and then begin to work themselves out, seemingly without any effort. We refer to those moments as "blessings in disguise."
This weekend, ESPN gave away the practice and qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway to the SPEED Channel. ESPN had schedule problems, so SPEED covered both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series on-track activities. Since SPEED already was showing the Craftsman Truck Series race on Wednesday night, ESPN was basically on the outside looking in most of the time.
Friday night, the network stepped back into the deep end of the pool with a high energy Busch race under the lights. It was a disaster from start to finish. No matter what ESPN tried to do, it simply did not work.
When they showed the leaders, a wreck happened in the pack. When they showed the hard racing, someone passed the leader. When they showed the pit stops under caution, the missed the restart coming out of commercial. They simply could not buy a break, and they certainly needed one.
Saturday night, as the NASCAR Countdown show continued its mediocre stagger toward the race, it seemed that a lot of the Friday ESPN mistakes were repeating themselves. A technical problem appeared on-the-air again, and then another horrible Suzy Kolber live-on-the-grid interview of a top driver. Does anyone ever listen to her questions? The pit reporters must cringe to see her coming their way.
Then, with the turn of the first wheel, the Bristol track delivered a big and unexpected gift to ESPN. Talk about a blessing in disguise. The most aggressive drivers in the top racing series in America lined-up like fifteen year-olds in Driver's Education class and began their Safe Driving lesson.
The long green flag runs at the beginning of this race were just what the doctor ordered for all of the ESPN announcers and production team. It gave everyone a chance to shake-off the problems of Friday night and get back in the groove of delivering a good effort.
Just like a baseball player in a slump, the NASCAR on ESPN gang went back to basics and concentrated on the fundamentals. Staying ahead of the leaders, listening to the announcers, and watching the action on the track really paid-off for this bunch tonight. A two groove track and lots of green flag racing let them do just that.
At Bristol, ESPN learned the hard way that almost anything "extra" that needed to be shown under green flag racing conditions required special treatment. The ESPN video split screen effect of two side-by-side video boxes is outstanding. It is sized correctly, and has a background that does not distract from the live action.
ESPN used the effect for pit reporters, live interviews, and most effectively to showcase more than one on-track battle simultaneously. It worked all the way up until the end of the race. In trying to show viewers that there was action all over the track, the production crew showed so many battles it was just confusing. There was no perspective on the leader inside the last fifteen laps, just lots of "battles in boxes."
In the end, however, the network really showed that they listen to the fans when they again went to a nice big wideshot and showed the top twenty cars battle to the line with the electronic scoring inserted. What a great way to end a race, so fans can not only see where their driver finished, chances are they actually saw him do it. Great move by the Producer and Director to coordinate that in advance.
As we mentioned in an earlier Daly Planet article, someone has been working very hard with Rusty Wallace on his TV performance. It took him a while to acknowledge his rough edges were just not going to make his TV career a smooth one. Also, the absolutely professional performance of Dale Jarrett in relief of Rusty on ESPN telecasts might have hastened that realization.
Wallace is thinking before he speaks the vast majority of the time. Gone are most of the emotional outbursts that consisted of catch phrases and run-on sentences. Saturday night, Rusty handled TV duties by calling the other on-air announcers by name, flowing smoothly between thoughts, and often times handling the "tosses" down to the pit reporters. He is very much improved, and just in time for The Chase.
Our friend Dr. Jerry Punch is having a tough time. He seems to be tired, and at crucial times when the action is hot he simply does not speak and then talks quietly in a monotone. His delivery is still as a reporter, and this was tough at Bristol.
When a former radio guy like Allen Bestwick or even a veteran TV personality like Marty Reid stepped-in for Punch, the difference in the energy of the telecast was amazing. Bestwick may not be "Mr. Personality" on-the-air, but he is clearly a consummate professional who can keep the energy high in a very "Dave Moody" kind of way. Reid was just happy to be there and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Needless to say, long green flag runs at Bristol need some big energy. Searching for something to say while the field tools around nose-to-tail with no one on pit road is a tough row to hoe. Andy Petree again stepped-in and was solid in his information. One of his best abilities is to admit when he has said something wrong before a replay or after a pit report. Fans love a good guess, and they also love someone not too high and mighty to admit they missed something.
Perhaps, the intense media hype of shows like NASCAR Now is interfering with ESPN's ability to speak to drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like he was just about ready to deck Mike Massaro when he had to again speak about his step-mom in the pre-race. Jamie Little had several drivers who were almost flinching from her high volume in-your-face style of reporting. Friday night, Dave Burns had two drivers who almost totally ignored him, goofed on him on national TV, and then looked like they wanted to push him out of their pre-race pick-up truck ride.
NASCAR is now seven months into the hype machine of ESPN News, NASCAR Now, NASCAR Countdown, ESPN.com, and even SportsCenter. It looks like this approach has been weighing very heavily on the drivers who are targets of the hype. Tony Stewart already got into it very publicly about ESPN and their "knife in the back" style of reporting on NASCAR.
As the season heads into its most intense time, ESPN may be well-served to make a little peace with the NASCAR drivers instead of reporting on every little family squabble and off-color comment. The lack of happy cooperation with the pit reporters was clear for all to see on this telecast. This is the time of the season when people are tired, tempers are tight, and careers are on the line.
ESPN again finds itself surrounded by SPEED next weekend. SPEED shows the Craftsman Trucks on Saturday late afternoon at Gateway, and they again show the practice and qualifying for both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series in California. ESPN has the late Saturday night Busch Series race, and the 7PM Eastern NEXTEL Cup race on Sunday.
California is the last NEXTEL Cup race on ESPN, as the coverage shifts to ABC Sports for the rest of the season. This can only mean one thing for most viewers...two weeks to Brent Musburger.
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