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.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email editor@thedalyplanet.tv if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.


Anonymous said...

This is going to sound insane, but I think ESPN and all of the NASCAR television rights holders need to take a big cue from soccer. Yes...soccer. Get a few sponsors to blanket sponsor a race. No commercials. Worst case scenario, do the "big/little" box effect, where you show a commercial in the large box, and in a smaller box during commercials, the race still goes on.

I'm not even a soccer fan, but you have to hand it to the way they can sell it. I'd understand if it were just international. Then you could chalk it up to the sheer enormity of how popular soccer is overseas, more than even the NFL or NASCAR. However, even our own Major League Soccer, which doesn't exactly do well on TV, can get blanket sponsors for the games. I say next year, ESPN should take the lead, like they did for the 1994 World Cup, and get some companies like Budweiser, Sony, and Pepsi to sponsor these telecasts so we could go the entire way without a break. Then we wouldn't have to ever complain about a station missing something that happened during a race because they were paying the bills.

Sometimes these guys miss what's happening, not because they're looking at monitors, but because when you have 43 cars circling a track, you can't have your eyes on all of them. The four races I went to this year, Dover, Pocono, Pocono, Loudon, all present the same issue. You're watching something specific, a wreck, spin, or something happens, everyone goes "ooooooh, ahhhhh" and we all turn our heads. You can't catch everything.

John, I know you missed the tech center today, but doesn't it seem like the less ESPN has to work with, the better they do?

The draft track is a neat idea for pre race coverage. I wouldn't mind seeing it on Countdown to show the casual fan what's happening when cars are drafting. Much like the notorious glow puck in hockey, the draft track is there to get the casual fan interested, with hope that once they get past the initial parts of the sport you need to understand to become a die hard, they'll have them hooked every week. On a side note, my wife never watched football, but with the introduction of the first down line, she was able to follow better, and now she watches weekly. But the draft track just doesn't seem to work during races. It's overused, it's somewhat inaccurate, and regardless of when it's uses, it only shows two cars, thus leaving 41 others we can't see.

Overall, I thought ESPN did a great job with this race. I know there are a lot of Fox loyals on this site, but I just can't take them. I'd much rather hear Rusty than DW. The more races I can go without hearing "Boogity boogity," the better.

SophiaZ123 said...

Holy smokes! I TOTALLY missed Helton in the booth. When I saw them come into pit road to sit awhile, I took advantage to go out and feed and water the birds, and fill squirrel feeders and water for them. Made coffee and came back and missed a lot I guess.

I would've liked to have heard him but certainly UNDERSTOOD the delay was needed.

Hmmm...Glad others noticed Rusty DID INDEED cut back on the "4 words". But the aero loose deal..please! I was reading on other boards it's driving folks nuts...but if he got rid of those FOUR words, perhaps that 'cat' can learn.

I was TOTALLY GLAD not to have Suzy and Brad. They add NOTHING but annoyance and take away from the race.

Glad to see the draft tracker is annoying everybody.

It must be my Time Warner cable but the COMMERCIaL breaks STINK here in SW OHIO. Often Jerry Punch is cut off MID SENTENCE and the cars are too as they go down the track...BANG commercial. Then the commercial is running over things as we go back to the race. Either they miss lots of restarts or something is wrong with the commercials.

I figured they would cram in commercial time while I was outside feeding critters, gathering mail and dead heading the marigolds.

I was happy to see them show the end of the race in wide angle albeit briefly.

But I still have gripes about the camera work. I stated elsewhere they need to focus on groups of cars better and not change so quickly. maybe focus on cars 8 seconds. I realize that is really LONG in "tv time"..but something IS OFF about the camera work...sometimes it's too quick and they just miss a helluva lot of stuff.

other times, they, JUST LIKE FOX AND THE OTHERS, waste too much time with the fixed "zoom, zoom, zoom" camera. I would rather see more distant wide angle lens to tell me the racing story.

Also the guys in production need to learn when a car crashed into the wall, keep ONE camera on it if it's smoking or parts are flying off....that there can mean tire trouble.

I think the in car driver thing is a dud. Poor Biffle was getting a drink of water when Rusty barked into his car and it looked like he had to hurriedly finish his drink.

Enjoyed the show with Boris and Burr!

John, your "Hmmmm" about Erik being on radio has me curious. If only the Hmmmm could mean Erik is gone from NASCAR NOW.

I hope I can remember the truck race AND the ABC show!!! Odd having a truck race on WEDNESDAY!!

Not a fan of crashfest Bristol but am hoping the new surface will mean better racing.

Look forward to your report and the feedback of the savvy posters here.


SophiaZ123 said...

P.S. Though it got mixed reviews...I thought TNT small commercial in a box for DAYTONA 400 was TERRIFIC!!!

SOMEBODY needs to copy that idea for the last few races of the Chase?

And next years DAYTONA 500.

jfs-va said...

It wasn't until I read comments on another site that I realized Brad, Suzi, and Tim weren't around. While the tech center is a good thing, it's clear that Brad and Suzi aren't needed. I like Brad's energy and enthusiasm, but in all honesty it just detracts from the race overall.

John, I love reading your blog but I must admit that you have competition. Sophia cracks me up. I mean where else can I read about someone watching racing and dead heading marigolds.

I've never felt that the in race reporter was worth much, but I feel like Biffle did a better job than some others. But overall, I don't think much is learned from it.

Overall, it wasn't too bad for a Tuesday race and a scaled down crew. Now let's move on to Bristol!

Anonymous said...

I spent a frantic period tying to reschedule a business lunch appointment, but alas....I missed the last half of the race. However, I did watch the beginning of the race. The ESPN that we remember from the old days was back!

The infield studio concept has resulted in irritating, irrelevant interruptions of the race's flow. It adds little information and subtracts from the momentum of the broadcast. Unfortunately, it will be back this coming weekend.

Based on the first half of the race that I was able to watch, I LOVED ESPN's streamlined broadcast.

Komoman said...

"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."

Wow am I now glad I was in the office with my Sirius radio on instead of at home in front of the TV. Mike Bagley on MRN nearly blew a gasket with the call when Kenseth turned the 24 and follwed up with him after the race to find out what happened. THAT is reporting.

MRN also talked to Mark Martin AND Joe Nemecheck so they were both available. ESPN clearly decided that since those 2 aren't involved in the Chase they weren't worth talking to - for shame.

I think ESPN has fallen into the same trap that NBC did - putting the championship above the individual event. Yes, the championship is important but each individual race is far more interesting than the championship. Take a cue from what golf is discovering with the lack of buzz over the "Fedex Cup" - it's about the event, NOT the big picture. Great, give us chase coverage, but FIRST cover the race.

Statboy said...

ESPN is more useful now than they were at the start of the season. I mean, when they tried everything they could to cram Juan Montoya down our throat at Mexico City, I thought there was no way I was going to be able to stand watching this.

They have a long way to go in my opinion, but they are getting better. Yesterday's broadcast seemed to flow a lot better without the pit studio. And honestly, do we have to have an hour and 20 minute pre-race show every week?

Maybe ESPN should pull out some old tapes from the archive and see what they used to do back in the late 90's when racing coverage was at it's best. Nothing could beat ESPN, TNN, TBS, and CBS's coverage back then.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cwebs said...

JD - Thanks for covering all the bases with your review of ESPN's Michigan coverage. As I commented yesterday, the worst problems from my perspective were the Draft-Tracker, the ill-advised late race commercial break, and especially the fact that ESPN (and hence, the viewer) was out of the loop on the tire strategy (and the Truex clutch problem) at the end of the race.

One of the commenters in yesterday's thread made the point that the ESPN announcers act more like three fans "watching" the race instead of real professionals who are "working" the race. You made the observation here in this blog post that it seems like Wallace and Petree have their eyes on the TV feed, and not the track. I think this issue may just be the root of the problem, and the major difference between this crew and the other broadcasts earlier this year that Larry McReynolds was involved in.

The FOX guys, and to some extent, (usually when Larry Mac. was talking) the TNT guys were getting involved and being PROACTIVE about reporting on developments as they emerged on the track. In contrast, the ESPN crew seems to always be in REACTIVE mode. Instead of getting “ahead” of the story like they should, ESPN is often simply reacting to something that has already happened.

I’m hoping they can rectify this, but somehow, I’m not very optimistic about it. They made the same mistake of not covering the pit strategy near the end of the race at the Brickyard, and it seems like there’s been no improvement since then. I wonder if they even realize that they have a problem.

ESPN really dropped the ball in the last 25 laps at Michigan. If something similar happens at Bristol, I hope the rest of the media and the NASCAR bigwigs will take notice!


SophiaZ123 said...

ESPN is REACTIVE!!! Yes!! That is so true.
And they always seem about 3 steps BEHIND!

Holy Toledo, say what you want about Fox, DW and Larry CAUGHT THINGS AS THEY HAPPENED a LOT!! so when something big happened, we saw it LIVE and by the time the replay was done, they often could explain what happened. or by the second replay.

I so miss Larry Mac.
*butchered grammar and all with hisself*

Anonymous said...

first of all when they ran 11 laps under the yellow then stopped the race till the fog cleared was uncalled for, they should not have counted the yellow laps, that took away from some of the bubble boys to advance, bet they all wish they had 11 more laps to run, I think Jr. does. SPLIT SCREEN is the way to go for commericals. Another thing that has my shorts all knotted up is, why do the races have to start after 2:00pm? does helton have to sleep till noon?

MemphisMojo said...

I add my agreement to the "better without the Infield Studio" group. Things seemed to flow easier without the nonsense of the Infield Studio during the race. That's what the folks in the booth are supposed to do - handle the race. (Hear that Hollywood Hotel and whatever TNT calls their tool box booth?)

Anyway, going to commercial with less than 20 laps to go should be avoided at all costs. I realize that sometimes the race doesn't play out for this to happen without cramming in those last minute required commercials, but this is the time when things start to happen that either make or break a racers day. Spin-outs, blown engines, blown tires, out of fuel and those types of things.

Catching the majority of the field crossing the start/finish line is much better than the crew jumping off the tool box or wall. There's time for that in replay. ESPN has done a better job of covering the finishers lately.

It would have been nice to hear Front Row Joe's version of the accident with MW.

All-in-all the delayed race at Michigan has been one of the better productions from the ESPN team this season.

Anonymous said...

The telecast was terrific considering it was a Tuesday. I think everyone was just glad to get out of Michigan.

And to the "anonymous" that said running 11 laps under yellow was uncalled for. It didn't matter much, unless your a Jr. fan. Which it sounds like you are. 11 Laps at Michigan would not have made a huge difference. No one could catch Kurt Busch.

Uncle Dan said...

"But I still have gripes about the camera work. I stated elsewhere they need to focus on groups of cars better and not change so quickly. maybe focus on cars 8 seconds. I realize that is really LONG in "tv time"..but something IS OFF about the camera work...sometimes it's too quick and they just miss a helluva lot of stuff.

other times, they, JUST LIKE FOX AND THE OTHERS, waste too much time with the fixed "zoom, zoom, zoom" camera. I would rather see more distant wide angle lens to tell me the racing story."

Thank goodness someone sees this same problem. I have been griping about this for a long time. Seems the broadcast directors think they are creating a music video instead of telling the story of a race. The way it is currently covered, you can never watch a driver catch up to another. It's just switch camera angles every 5 seconds. Wake up directors!!

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 2:20pm,
NASCAR starts the races after lunch to give everyone (on the East coast, at least) a chance to go to church in the morning.
Kevin in SoCal

Anonymous said...

Actually it is so they can have more west coast viewers as well. If NASCAR started a race at NOON ET, it would only be 9 AM on the west coast and very few woulf watch. Thats why races begin at 2:00 PM ET, so west coasters can watch at a decent hour.