Sunday, August 5, 2007
ESPN Says "Shut-Up And Drive" Disney Style
ESPN play-by-play analyst Dr. Jerry Punch choked the words out of his mouth. "Shut-up and drive" he said. Three little words that may have a pretty broad-reaching effect on ESPN's coverage of NASCAR for the rest of the season.
Instead of offering information for fans, the Disney entertainment influence in ESPN programming continued to come to the forefront as pop star Rihanna's new music video featuring scantily-clad women played on ESPN's coverage of the NEXTEL Cup Series.
Shut-up and drive they said. Although the original music video has absolutely nothing to do with NASCAR, that just does not matter in the new ESPN/Disney world.
Fans may notice that ESPN's pre-race show, NASCAR Countdown, also closed their first segment with a full length music video. Disney is an entertainment corporation, and the changes that they want to make to the fundamental way in which we all watch NASCAR on TV is going to be very interesting.
The Rihanna music kept pumping coming back from commercial while the network ran "mini-videos" to keep this music theme going. In addition, Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty were featured regularly from the ESPN Infield Studio with commentary while the race was under green. As we talked about last week, the actual on-track racing action has been quietly de-emphasized to make room for selected ESPN "content."
This "content" could include the Tech Center, Infield Studio, Music Video, Celebrity interview, or anything else that gets the viewer away from the "mindset" that they are supposed to be watching every lap of the race.
It seems that to ESPN, the actual racing is just "background noise" to be joined and then left whenever they see fit. This is a big change in the NASCAR on TV philosophy.
One of the special effects from ESPN is called "full throttle" and lets the audio from all the team scanners be played on-the-air during a restart. Originally a good idea, this concept needs to be limited to the top ten cars. The "thrill" of this audio is now gone for fans, and the confusing voices now do not relay any kind of useful information.
Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace continue to be enthusiastic and informative in the announce booth. Often, they would lead to Tim Brewer in the Tech Center for more information. Thankfully, this week ESPN used a split-screen effect and allowed viewers to continue watching the race during Brewer's reports.
One of the biggest issues for the fans in ESPN's coverage is their lack of "full field" rundowns. As we have seen with other networks in the past, taking the time to use the pit reporters and "rundown" the fates and fortunes of the entire field is worth its weight in gold to the fans. With ESPN, if a car is not involved in an incident, or in the front pack, it is just not mentioned.
ESPN has chosen to insert "feature content" in the races instead of going back and talking about the non-top ten drivers. The network has so many toys, and so many video features available and waiting to be used, that it must almost be overwhelming for the Producer. The focus on the actual events unfolding on the track has lessened.
Without the commitment to recap the field, it is difficult to understand where the players in "The Chase" are running, where the "non-top 35" drivers are racing, and finally where the drivers involved in the on-going race stories have gone. This is a big hole in the ESPN coverage. Just ask Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, or Juan Montoya.
While Kolber and Daugherty offer a "McDonalds mid-race recap," this feature is basically a SportsCenter highlight package. It only contains the obvious, and does not help fans get any information other than exactly the same video clips they have already seen several times. For fans of the drivers running outside of the top ten, this coverage has really gotten hard to take.
Unfortunately, the big crash with less than twenty laps to go told the story of ESPN's approach to NASCAR this season. The network was following the single file "non-racing" when the mad scramble in the middle of the field resulted in a melee. That pack was where the racing action was for several laps, but ESPN did not care. They have the replays, and that is good enough for them. Just follow the leader.
Still undecided on how to handle a NEXTEL Cup finish, ESPN showed the winning pit crew jumping around just long enough to miss the top six cars finishing behind Kurt Busch. Then, the camera wideshot and the scoring graphics came...just a little too late.
Even as Busch did his burnout, the Aerosmith music began to play as if to remind viewers that this was the new ESPN, and things were going to be very different. One thing is very clear after Pocono, the one group that is clearly not "back in the saddle again" is ESPN.
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