Sunday, September 16, 2007
ABC Uses A Calm Race To Get Back On Track
Nothing works better to get a sports TV crew back on track than a nice orderly event. It could be a baseball game, a tennis match, or in this case...a NASCAR race.
The ESPN production crew that produces the races on ABC deserved a break, and they got one. A beautiful day in New Hampshire let everyone calm down and focus on providing a low-key and solid race telecast.
The only real excitement came in the pre-race show, called NASCAR Countdown. Brad Daugherty has walked a fine line this season. Sometimes, he is called "the voice of the fans" and is promoted as the common man. On other days, and on other ESPN shows, he is referred to as an "expert analyst."
On this Sunday, Daugherty was placed alongside both Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett in the beautiful ESPN Infield Studio. In talking about The Chase, Daugherty put forth his views as though he was an expert. Wallace and Jarrett ate him for lunch. Its rare to see this type of emotion from these two, and it was certainly interesting to see it on-the-air live.
This Infield Studio dynamic was made a bit stranger by Brent Musburger posed like an emperor behind a podium all alone on a hill. Musburger was relaxed this time, and did not hype the race as he did earlier in the season. Once the race began, Musburger was rarely seen again. The ESPN production team did a good job to balance his presence with the action on the track.
The pre-race show continued with the pit reporters towing the load and previewing both the race and The Chase. This group has been important to the ESPN and ABC telecasts since both Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty are limited in the racing experience they bring to the table. It is still a bit weird to see Kolber walk out to the starting grid for a final "feature" interview, while Daugherty sits all alone in the dark.
It was a strange time for a Jeff Gordon feature, but his 500th race brought a fun and interesting piece. It finally gave new fans a perspective on who Jeff was when he broke into the sport, and how far he has come. Once again, Shannon Spake flew under the radar, and simply asked the questions viewers want to know. She has a good working relationship with NASCAR's elite, and it shows on-the-air.
Once underway, the single file racing of Loudon was exactly what ABC needed. As the race began to become a semi-orderly parade, the network used the toys available to them in a conservative manner. The Tech Center, the side-by-side video effects, and even the FedEx race recap worked well all race long.
ESPN's graphic package looked great once again in this race, although the sound effects when graphics are inserted should be reserved for the studio. The fact that ABC does not continually keep a lower third sports ticker on the screen is a blessing. The backgrounds for the Tech Center and race recaps are fantastic.
There is no way to get around the ESPN cross-promotion or the SportsCenter Minute. At least ESPN limited the promos in-race and the SportsCenter cut-ins very well for the most part. Musburger could not help but use his college football references several times, but he should be reminded he is talking to the wrong bunch.
In "stripping down" the amount of replay material that surrounds the commercials, the ESPN crew finally solved their big problem of missed restarts. They used the pit stops and the on-track action to place the commercial load in the right spots, and what a difference it made in this telecast.
An added bonus for viewers was the continued presence of Dale Jarrett. Staying in the Infield Studio and actively involved, Jarrett really added another element to the broadcast. Credit is due to the Producer for allowing Wallace and Jarrett to speak freely with each other throughout the race, where they often played off each other's comments and brought their years of experience to the action.
The best part of today's race was that someone got ESPN to put their Dale Earnhardt Jr. hysteria behind them. What a relief it was getting to watch a well-produced race without having a "Junior update" every couple of laps. Even when he spun, the announcers handled it as they would any other car, and that was a great sign for the remainder of the season.
One awkward note was the Victory Lane interview by Jamie Little. She has been working very hard to transition from the IndyCar series to NASCAR, but has no place in Victory Lane asking questions whispered in her ear. There are several more experienced reporters on pit road, and they would have asked deeper questions involving Bowyer. Not yet knowing all the players has been her drawback in these type of spontaneous situations, and it showed again in New Hampshire.
On the positive side, the network stayed on-the-air and worked hard to fill over thirty minutes with interviews of the participants. As the time wore on, the reporters had to follow the exiting drivers all the way to the helipad as they left the speedway.
This might be somewhat ironic to veteran ESPN viewers, who remember the days when ESPN was locked out of the tracks. For many years, the lone figure of Mike Massaro would stand next to the helicopters trying to get interviews before the drivers flew back to Charlotte. Now, the company has come full-circle, as the ESPN crew produces the ABC telecasts nationwide and holds the exclusive TV rights to The Chase.
With the very tough grind of Dover looming as one of the most challenging tracks for TV coverage, this nice and orderly event in New Hampshire was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Next week the network will battle bad camera angles, a huge bridge over the track, and lots of accidents that happen so fast, its hard to even find the cars involved. Hopefully, they can capitalize on this positive telecast and continue to keep TV momentum on their side.
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