Friday, August 3, 2007

ESPN's Still Sorting Out Qualifying

As ESPN moves deeper into their NASCAR TV package, they are beginning to experience the same type of logistical growth pains that their NASCAR Now show did earlier in the season.

When ESPN was not showing any NEXTEL Cup action on "their network," NASCAR Now was pre-empted or delayed several times. As I remember, the culprit was women's tennis.

The Daly Planet spoke earlier this season about the challenges facing the ESPN2 channel. This network has been operating for over five years without one minute of live NASCAR programming, and now it has to accommodate many hours of coverage each racing weekend.

As veteran ESPN viewers know, the ESPN2 channel has been used extensively for tennis, because it is a sport that is played on TV on Fridays. In many tournaments, the quarterfinals occur on Friday with four big live matches. The one key element that tennis and NASCAR share clock. Both these sports "go" until there is a winner, and stop playing outdoors when it rains.

Friday at Pocono, ESPN stepped into qualifying mode once again with very mixed results. SPEED has worked very hard for the last several years to figure out how to do good solid qualifying coverage, which is a lot harder than it looks. Since cars do not "pause" for commercial breaks, a network has to decide whether to miss cars on the track while in break, or use a "TiVo style" delay mechanism to show every car.

As Daly Planet readers have pointed out, this often allows the drivers in reality to be back in their motorhomes watching the end of "qualifying" as the "TiVo delay" slowly moves the "content" of the show back due to commercials. The positive element is that everyone qualifies on-the-air. The negative is that the show takes a much longer time to air.

ESPN has decided to do qualifying the old fashioned way, just let them run. The network is going to commercial break and allowing cars to be "missed" on the air. How ESPN2 decides when to go to break, and who not to show, has got to be an interesting story. Friday at Pocono, it appeared to be rather random.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree used the ESPN Infield Studio to host the qualifying coverage. During the show, they added a nice element by inviting various drivers on the set and allowing them to add their voice to the qualifying while also answering questions from the analysts. Mark Martin in a DEI hat was certainly an interesting site for veteran fans.

Unfortunately, ESPN's first commercial break in the program covered completely the qualifying run of Jimmie Johnson. Viewers returned to find Johnson already slowed down and heading for pit road.

At this moment in time, ESPN found out the big problem with trying to replay a qualifying lap at Pocono. It is actually even more boring than watching the live lap. The bottom line is, the only real appeal of qualifying is the drama of a live lap as it happened.

ESPN's next commercial break found it missing Ricky Rudd's lap, and setting the tone for the telecast. Qualifying on the track was going to be shown when ESPN wanted to show it, and not one moment more. As NASCAR fans found out at Indy, as the live show progressed, it became more about the off-track ESPN content, even as the cars flew-by in the background.

ESPN2's graphic package and on-screen technology for qualifying is just fine. The black background, the big video box for the live laps of the car, and the "upper third" crawl of in-progress times and positions is super. The only problem is the lower third "sports ticker." It sure is tough to process all that information and then have your eye drawn over-and-over to the bottom of the screen every time the ticker tells you the baseball match-ups for that night.

Even though it quickly became apparent that the drivers were only running one lap at speed, ESPN was unable to cover the first laps and then air the other content like interviews and features. It was a struggle to get comfortable with this format, and the fact that the drivers and Mother Nature were dictating "reality" to the network.

As the show progressed, pit reporter Jamie Little took center stage as the network tried repeatedly to "pump" their live coverage of the Busch Series race in Montreal on Saturday. Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, and lots of in-program promos reminded viewers of that event. Of course, had the ESPN announcers in Montreal forwarded what is called an "advancer," viewers might have been able to see the track, hear from the announcers, and actually be excited to tune-in on Saturday. No such luck.

Done with their Montreal promos, ESPN brought-in live Jeremy McGrath from the X-Games. McGrath is a great guy who would like to have a stock car career, but the interview went way too long and completely covered the qualifying effort of fan favorite Kenny Wallace. That was a shame after viewers saw him have motor problems earlier in the show and then the team's struggle to find a solution was well documented on-the-air.

For ESPN, promoting the X-Games was the priority, but for NASCAR fans the Kenny Wallace engine problem and his last try at qualifying was important. He missed the race.

ESPN chose to not show one moment of Kenny at speed, and keep McGrath and Jamie Little talking on the screen the entire time. The ultimate irony was ESPN's NASCAR analyst Rusty Wallace, who had to sit silently while McGrath and Little traded words about the "step-up" competition. Rusty did not get to comment on his brother's continuing efforts to make races, and it seemed he had absolutely never heard of "MotoX Step-Up."

What a great example of NASCAR's agenda to televise qualifying and ESPN's agenda to promote itself coming head-to-head. It was very easy for viewers to see who won.

ESPN lucked into a nice moment when Kurt Busch was on the infield set as Dale Earnhardt Junior beat his time and took the pole. Junior's "rain delay" set the network schedule off-balance, and in the most ironic twist of the day, pushed live qualifying overtime...right into women's tennis. What a small world.

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 and leave your comments.


Anonymous said...

During the Jeremy McGrath interview they also missed Bobby Labonte's qualifying run. It was also a good call to go to commercial during Jimmie Johnson's run to get back just in time to see Johnny Sauter's.

ESPN doesn't care about NASCAR, they just want the money the ratings for the races bring them on Saturdays and Sundays.

I wish they would just do what TNT did, just cover the race and leave practice and qualifying to a real auto racing network (Speed Channel).

ESPN is doing NASCAR fans a major disservice on the weeks they choose to air just qualifying and happy hour. Not only with their terrible coverage of those events, but also with the fact that Speed Channel gets locked out of televising the Friday and Saturday morning practices ESPN omits during those weeks, leaving the NASCAR fans with nothing to watch.

Thankfully though we get a three race span starting at Michigan where ESPN is apparently too busy to televise anything but the races themselves, so Speed Channel will be back with their great qualifying coverage, as well as coverage of EVERY Cup practice.

I'm just hoping that Tony Stewart will lash out at ESPN the next time he's interviewed live on their network and call them out for being a network that doesn't care about the sport. Now that would be great television! He bashed DW live on Fox (actually FX, but same difference) several years ago and I'd love to see him do it again.

cwebs said...

Same old, same old from ESPN. What happened to their qualifying tracker after the rain delay? Rusty tried desperately to explain the problem, but none of it made any sense. The Rusty Experiment just isn't working out, hope they have different plans for next year.

Anybody else notice that Mark Martin made sure to emphasize that they (the broadcast crew) were doing a great job? I wonder what prompted that? He really seemed to want to make a specific point of it. It wasn't just the usual small talk.

Unknown said...

Was it just me or did ESPN randomly show the qualifying lap tracker? Sometimes it was on screen, sometimes not. Kinda makes it hard to get into a qualifying run when you don't know if he's close to scoring a pole or coming in last.

I don't recall that every happening during qualifying on SPEED TV.

Tripp said...

The drama of qualifying extends beyond setting the starting order to the struggle of "go-or-go-homers". While ESPN did focus on the laps of those drivers outside the top thirty five. The MWR cars were in the TV spotlight while on the track. Those fans of Mikey, DJ and Root got their opportunity to cheer when their drivers were on the track.

Where ESPN fell down was in the final summary at the end of the broadcast. Although each of the 43 drivers set to be on the grid were listed in the rundown, ESPN did not tell anyone who had to go home because they were not fast enough.

ESPN, while providing great HD images still has not figured out how cover all of the important stories on the track.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much, everything has been covered in this article or by the comments. I just wanted to add that when some of the drivers were on the track qualifying, instead of showing that, ESPN chose to take the entire qualifying time to show you what that driver did last year or give you his life's history pre-recorded. I am interested in qualifying, I already know what the driver did last year.

Anonymous said...

Soooo frustrating. Was it really qualifying? Hard to tell, there was so much other stuff going on. The McGrath interview was ridiculous and the fact that it was Jaime Little doing it made it more frustrating. Where is Krista Voda when you need her??? The biggest story in qualifying this year has been the drama of the go or go homers. They don't even highlight the names in the ticker so you can visually catch where everyone is. They also don't give updates regarding who's in and who's out. They just don't get what the fans care about. RACING!!! This is going to be a long rest of the season.

Anonymous said...

The only thing important about qualifying are the go or go home guys. On SPEED, all I have to do is glance at the screen for a couple minutes to figure where everyone is. Simple color changs in the number backround make all the difference. With ESPN, it is difficult to see who is where.
Also, Petree said that this is the first race Blaney didn't have to worry about qualifying for. Dead wrong. Blaney was in the top 35 in points last year, with a spot for the first 5 races this year. He should pay attention.

Anonymous said...

I think the ESPN qualifying screen looks like Bloomberg television.
Too much to digest, and at the end of the day, they still wait for the official track time to say " new polesitter!"

The graph and red/green line is so small as to just be annoying and completely uninformative.

Lord, how I despise their coverage

Sophia said...

"The graph and red/green line is so small as to just be annoying and completely uninformative.

Lord, how I despise their coverage"

August 4, 2007 12:28 PM

AMEN to your comments!!!