Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Streamlined Michigan Works For ESPN
After five days in Michigan at the same track, everyone was ready to go home. In fact, lots of network TV folks had already gone home. SPEED Channel had finally run out of topics for RaceDay, and sent their crew back to Charlotte. ESPN had chosen to close the Infield Studio, and send-off Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty.
Those hearty souls left included Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree, and Dr. Jerry Punch. Always smooth on-camera this season, the threesome showed immediately the foggy conditions in which NASCAR chose to start the race under caution. It was clear that NASCAR was going to get this race in despite the conditions...no matter what.
We have to give a call to NASCAR President Mike Helton for stepping directly into the TV broadcast booth and explaining in-person exactly what was going on with the Red Flag stoppage, and NASCAR's plans for the day. Helton has come a long way with his public relations skills, and is clearly comfortable with ESPN's broadcast crew.
I am a big fan of ESPN's crisp and clean graphics package, but not a fan of the bottom of the screen "sports ticker" on ESPN2. When the NASCAR graphics package is designed to direct the viewer's eye to the top of the screen for information, it is tough to be dragged back down to the bottom over-and-over again for information not related to the race. In other sports, the graphics package is based on "lower thirds" that keep the graphics at the bottom. Its just hard to watch two "tickers" running at both the top and bottom of the screen.
However viewers feel about Rusty Wallace, you have to give him credit for working hard on his TV skills. "I'll tell you what" were four words rarely heard on the telecast, and one gets the feeling that Rusty is kind of "forced" to be the King of the Draft Track. He must have aero-push nightmares by this time of the season.
Without the clutter of the Infield Studio, the Producer and Director of the race telecast were able to make great use of the "Crew Cam" throughout the entire event. This device is great live, and often even better when replayed with what is called "natural sound." Just the sounds coming from that camera's microphone, and nothing else. Viewers got several great pitstops, and the carb change during the race is exactly what NASCAR fans want more of from ESPN.
It really shows what can be done when Suzy Kolber and friends are not inserted coming back from commercials. If the role of the Infield Studio for ESPN is the pre-race NASCAR Countdown show, it makes sense. If they can voice the race highlights and recaps during the event that viewers would normally see, that's fine as well. It is when the on-camera presence of Kolber and Daugherty is inserted for the sole reason of seeing them on TV that makes fans get crazy. "Crew Cam" really made that point.
Before we go any further, lets get to the big issue. ESPN Draft Track is making fans nuts. It might have been a good idea to show the fundamentals of drafting, dirty air, and even getting air taken off the spoiler, but now its becoming a little too much. Rusty has given it his best try, but even he cannot explain some of the things replayed as "caused by the air."
Drivers "get runs" on each other, they pass each other, they draft on the straight-a-ways, we get it. Using specific examples of cars passing each other over-and-over again kind of makes the viewer feel that they are missing something. That something is what is going on in the race. Regardless of whether Draft Track is used under caution or not, there are other things that can be relayed to the viewer besides the redundant drafting lesson.
Surprisingly, I missed Tim Brewer and his Tech Center. There were several times, including the carb change, where I wished Tim would point and talk about what was going on. At high speed tracks like Michigan, I would have liked to know what gear choices were available, and also what his perspective was on tire strategy.
Sometimes, it seems that Rusty and Andy are watching their TV monitors, and not the action on the track. This is a tough choice for announcers, especially at a big track like Michigan. It puts them at a disadvantage when something happens, because they are always a beat behind, like the TV coverage.
This forces them to do their analysis on the replays, and not immediately after the action happens. Several times, both of them were forced to look at replays to actually figure out what had happened. This pointed to the fact they had been watching the booth monitors.
The pit reporters hustled as always, and these five very different personalities have been a good solid part of the ESPN coverage. It was a bit tough to understand why some of the drivers like Mark Martin and Joe Nemechek were not interviewed, even if they were heading for the helicopter after being put out of the race. Perhaps, if ESPN had said they were unavailable, it would have helped.
Somehow, ESPN has to agree on a tactic or a production element to update the drivers running outside the top fifteen. The scoring ticker at the top of the screen is great for position, but there are just a lot of stories that never get told in the back of the pack.
In NEXTEL Cup, there is always at least three hours to tell them. Big names like Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Elliot Sadler, and others were never mentioned. Even a backmarker like Tony Raines has Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman as owners, and deserves an update during the race.
ESPN's triple split-screens on pit stops, and their double-box split screens have been working great, and did in this event. Especially, when they mix a driver's in-car camera with a shot of his car racing hard, the combination is very effective.
The final couple of pitstops in this race did not go well for the TV guys. Focusing on things like bent car parts and sliding through the pitbox, the crew kind of missed getting across the strategy perspective of tires and tactics. Even when Jeff Gordon stayed out, ESPN immediately went to commercial and returned with an extended Draft Track featuring multiple replays of different cars.
Still not clearly explaining who did what, the race re-started with twenty laps to go and the action was hot and heavy. Then, out of the blue, with only fourteen laps to go in a multi-hour race, the network went to a nearly three minute commercial break and missed the Jeff Gordon spin.
With an early extended caution period, then a red flag, and finally a full race distance, ESPN should not have had to go to commercial inside fifteen laps to go.
Punch did his best to try and pump-up the finish, but no one had anything for Kurt Busch. Missing the Gordon spin and that heavy racing action was rough. Then, things got a little disjointed until ESPN decided to use the split-screen that contained the leader on one side, and good pack racing on the other. It worked on the final laps.
The network paid it off by keeping a wideshot and allowing the top twenty cars to cross the line live with electronic scoring. This really helped, but sure could have been better by letting viewers see more of the big front stretch as drivers battled to the stripe. But, from what viewers had to deal with earlier this season, it was a godsend.
Next week at Bristol, its mandatory. Fox showed only the winner cross the stripe in the spring at Bristol, and set the fans on fire by cutting out Jeff, Junior, Kevin, Clint, and The Biff battling in the top ten. Let us pray that does not happen again.
ESPN stuck around, interviewed the right people, and showed that producing events in the field is still their strength. After five days in Michigan, several false starts, and a difficult race to make exciting, the entire ESPN crew can head to Bristol, TN knowing they hung-in, got the job done, and now face one of the most challenging race tracks for TV coverage in the world.
The fishbowl awaits.
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