Friday, August 24, 2007
Long Night At Bristol For ESPN
The NASCAR Countdown pre-race show is designed to set the table for ESPN viewers. The version of the show that precedes the Busch Series race is thirty minutes in length. After a lot of different faces this season, it seems that ESPN has finally decided to allow the popular Allen Bestwick to host this program.
Friday night in Bristol, Bestwick tried his best to keep things organized and flowing, but it was a tough task. Tim Brewer double-clutched right away in the Tech Center in a preview of a what was in store for viewers. It would be only the beginning of a very long night in sports TV land for the network.
The Countdown show works best when either Andy Petree or Rusty Wallace appear in-person on the Infield Studio set. The "voice of the fans" Brad Daugherty simply does not have enough driver or crew chief experience to understand and explain the nuances of tracks like Bristol. In this show, Wallace appeared on the set, touched all the bases, and then ran-off to the broadcast booth.
Someone has been working very hard with Rusty on his TV skills. Gone is the "aww shucks, I'll tell you what" version of Wallace. It has been replaced with a well-spoken adult who calls others by their name and is now on his best manners all night long. He thinks before he talks, and it has made a big difference. Even under adverse circumstances, like ESPN was about to experience, Rusty now stays composed and hangs-in like his part-time co-analyst Dale Jarrett.
Jack Ingram is a great guy, and was a tough driver in the old days of what is now the Busch Series. ESPN tried to help viewers with the link between Ingram and Kevin Harvick, but it was a tough sell. The NASCAR fans of today have no use for the Red Farmers, Tommy Houstons, and Sammy Ards of the past. Harvick and Bestwick did their best to make this segment fly, but it clearly did not lift-off the ground.
Next-up, poor Dave Burns got stuck in a pick-up truck on thirty-six degrees of banking with two drivers who clearly did not care to do anything with him except plug their sponsors and fool around. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards wanted to do anything but deal with Burns. Perky Jamie Little was a little luckier with new dad Jason Leffler and actually got a couple of good questions answered.
Brad Daugherty is just tough to talk about. He knows his NASCAR racing, he knows the TV environment, and he knows business. What is not made clear to the fans is why we need to know what he knows. His role is new, and ESPN does not let him interview anyone on the set, he does not do any kind of feature reports, and he basically agrees with everything Bestwick says about anything. I think he is a great guy, and certainly a super fan, but I just don't...get it.
Bestwick handed the program off to Jerry Punch, and away they went. It was amazing that during the on-camera open, neither Wallace or Petree mentioned the fact that it was the Craftsman Truck race on Wednesday night that confirmed a solid second racing groove on this re-surfaced track. Both analysts talked about cars racing all over the track, but they never mentioned how they would know this fact. Talk about avoiding the Truck Series and SPEED Channel at all costs.
ESPN's "start your engines" video and audio special effect is a good addition to the telecast. This montage is fun to watch. It is much better than the Full Throttle mess that still needs to be somehow limited to only the top ten cars. The in-car reporter Dale Jarrett did his best Juan Montoya imitation by blowing-off the pre-race ESPN chat. Punch and company showed some class by hanging-in and returning to him before the start.
When the green fell, ESPN knew they were going to be in for a challenge. The small lap times, the action all around the track, and the fast pace of position changes always make things tough at Bristol, where I have done many races. As a TV crew, you try to get some momentum going just like a good NASCAR team. Sometimes, things just fall your way, and sometimes...it just goes down like it did Friday night.
The live TV coverage missing accidents at Bristol is absolutely going to happen. Unfortunately, for ESPN it happened a whole lot during the significant commercial load in this Busch Series race. The partner to missing accidents is then missing the race re-starts coming back from break. It almost seems like things can just get out of rhythm and stay that way.
Let's face facts, ESPN missed a lot of on-track action. Sometimes, they were in commercial when an incident happened, sometimes they were in commercial when a lead change happened, sometimes they were in commercial and missed a re-start. Do you sense a theme here?
Allen Bestwick was often times the voice viewers heard when coming back from break. Still located in the Infield Studio, Bestwick hosted multiple recaps, talked directly to pit reporters, and tried with all his might to draw Brad Daugherty into the mix.
While this was well-intentioned, it often drew attention to the fact that Dr. Jerry Punch is primarily a reporter, and is "moonlighting" in the NASCAR booth as ESPN's play-by-play announcer. Somehow, if these roles were reversed, it might give Punch a break and let Bestwick carry the heavy load for the Busch Series races as he did earlier this season.
Andy Petree continues to cruise though all the chaos without a problem. He has been the surprise of the TV crew this season, and continues to be a clear and authoritative voice for ESPN on the NASCAR scene. If only he could lend his credibility to the network's daily racing show called NASCAR Now. Apparently, Petree is a bit busy during the week.
It was such a pleasure to see two-wide racing return to Bristol after all the years of "the chrome horn" being the only way to pass. Actually seeing the occasional three-wide alignment on the straightways was amazing. ESPN tried to mix the low angle, in-car, and up high camera shots to keep the feeling of speed and intensity for the viewers. Regardless of the crash captures, the network stayed intense and focused on keeping ahead of the racing action lap-after-lap.
As we noted in an earlier Daly Planet column, ESPN needs to aggressively keep changing the Tech Center until they get it right. It needs a Steadicam instead of a shoulder-mounted camera, because almost all of Brewer's toys are on ground level. During green flag racing, it needs to only be put in a side-by-side split screen box. That would avoid a moment like tonight, where Brent Sherman's accident was missed for a full screen report...on a broken wheel.
What a difference it made when ESPN left the Draft-Tracker at home this week. Once or twice in a broadcast to help viewers understand drafting, this effect is absolutely fun and interesting to watch. Unfortunately, last week at Michigan ESPN beat this poor special effect to death. The lack of Rusty being forced to say "aero push" fifteen or twenty times a show was a refreshing break.
When the red flag came out for the Marcos Ambrose accident, Bestwick and Daugherty took over in the Infield Studio. This would have been the perfect time to allow Tim Brewer to update any topic relating to the race from the Tech Center. Instead, the broadcast talked to ESPN's own Dale Jarrett, who was absolutely not a factor of any kind in the race.
Having come a long way in a short period of time, pit reporter Jamie Little has got to get the hustle award for this telecast. Little jumps-in and frequently contributes great information to the broadcast booth from a pit road perspective. She is still working on her volume control, but once again put her best foot forward as a new member of the NASCAR TV team.
ESPN was on top of the Kyle Busch pit violation, and both Petree and Wallace were outspoken in their criticism of NASCAR's officiating. The network had all the replays, spoke with his crew chief, and then remembered to follow-up with Busch even after the race was over.
We need to make two more points in this telecast. The first one is easy. It is ridiculous for a national TV network to go to commercial with twenty laps to go at Bristol...period. With the high number of cautions, and even a red flag period, there was absolutely only one reason to head to break...make even more money.
If the in-action commercial rotation was not finished with twenty laps to go, the NASCAR production team needs to have a meeting. If they pull this stunt on Saturday during the closing laps of a key NEXTEL Cup race, the roar from the fans will be clearly heard in the halls of both NASCAR's Daytona and Charlotte offices.
Finally, while TV relies on people, it also relies on equipment. We talk a lot at The Daly Planet about the decisions actual people make that affect our TV viewing, and love of this sport. Equipment is different. Digital TV with High Definition and all the bells and whistles has been fantastic this season for ESPN.
It was simply a shame that with three laps to go, ESPN lost their satellite pathway for transmission of the program. While I am sure we will get an official press release about this soon, it certainly cannot be blamed on the production crew, the engineering staff, or even Erik Kuselias. Yes, even the K-man is off the hook for this one.
The network recovered the best it could, replayed the lost portion several times, and then continued with a good array of post-race interviews. Maybe this signals the one technical problem the network will have this season, and now it is out of the way. Just too bad it happened at such an exciting race.
It was a rough Friday night in Tennessee for ESPN, and now they face perhaps the toughest test in NASCAR...the NEXTEL Cup night race at Bristol. The crowd will be wild, the action will be crazy, and everyone on the TV crew had better show-up with their game faces on. Let's hope momentum swings, and finds favor with the NASCAR on ESPN crew Saturday night. After Friday, its has to get better...right?
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