Sunday, September 2, 2007
ESPN At Fontana: Too Many Voices In My Head
In sports television, some announcers are legendary. Most of them have earned their stripes by being closely identified with either one team, or one network. Just as Harry Caray was identified with both baseball and ultimately the Chicago Cubs, others like Frank Gifford came from professional sports and then transitioned to a franchise like Monday Night Football.
Over the years, NASCAR fans have fond memories of hard-working TV announcers like Ken Squier, Eli Gold, and Bob Jenkins on the play-by-play side of the business. Others, like the late Neil Bonnet, Ned Jarrett, and the late Benny Parsons came directly to the TV world from racing.
In NASCAR, the play-by-play man used to control the action. He was the big fish in the small pond, and everyone else played second fiddle to him. He often had a designated partner, with whom he will forever be identified. He was the focus of the TV coverage, and the face of racing for his network. Not any longer.
This NASCAR season, Fox Sports returned their veteran announce team. TNT threw together a patchwork team from freelance announcers that were the remnants of the NBC package. It was ESPN, however, that faced the toughest task of starting from scratch and putting together a totally new crew for their race broadcasts.
As the Busch Series season began ESPN rolled-out a disaster. The column on The Daly Planet from February 17th was entitled "ESPN Implodes At Daytona." The network debuted with Brent Musburger in the special "host" position. We said at the time that "Brent Musburger in the NASCAR Fan Zone looked like Rush Limbaugh at an ACLU meeting." ESPN actually roped the fans out of the Fan Zone. Nice touch.
Believe it or not, Chris Fowler was the Infield Studio host, seated alongside Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace. After almost losing his patience on the set, Wallace fled the infield to join Jerry Punch and Andy Petree in the booth. Add in four pit reporters, and things were interesting. Then, add in Tim Brewer in the Tech Center and things were a little confusing. Basically, it was over-produced chaos with ten announcers in the broadcast.
As the season progressed, Musburger and Fowler were gone. Hosts came and went in the Infield Studio. Eventually, the network allowed Allen Bestwick to step-in and bring some calm and order to the infield. His presence also calmed down Punch and the gang, and allowed the network to concentrate their efforts on the racing...at last. Then, ESPN stepped into the NEXTEL Cup world, and things got off-track again.
Sunday's NEXTEL Cup race in California might have been exciting on the track. Perhaps, for fans listening on the MRN radio network or DirecTV's Hot Pass it may have made sense. Unfortunately, TV viewers trying to both watch and listen to ESPN were in for a challenge. They heard eleven voices talking to them endlessly for the entire broadcast...eleven people.
The death knell for this event was the presence of Brent Musburger, Dale Jarrett and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Studio. Jarrett is the star of the show every time he opens his mouth, and ESPN allowed him to converse openly throughout the race. Then, everyone decided to get in on that act.
If you have watched ESPN recently, you have seen that they are virtually destroying many of their venerable sports TV franchises by adding too many voices to the programs. What the network has done to shows like Mike and Mike In The Morning and SportsCenter is just criminal. Even as these new age shows like Cold Pizza and Quite Frankly fail spectacularly, the network just plows ahead un-phased.
Sunday in California, ESPN opened all the microphones and just let everyone talk. The result was pit reporters who suddenly knew everything, an Infield Studio gang who had their own inside information, and a very frustrated trio of booth announcers who were no longer the stars of the show. Anything that was said by anyone was suddenly up for "one up-manship" by anyone else. What an on-air mess.
The casualty in all this endless conversation was both the race and the viewers. ESPN's nice pictures in both daylight and at night were over-shadowed by the coverage jumping around between Brent Musburger's on-camera inserts, SportsCenter cut-ins, and the use of production elements when returning from commercial.
No one is saying that ESPN's information was wrong, or that the staff in-place was not capable. But, as with so many things on ESPN these days, there was too much "TV stuff" packed into this race. Just like SportsCenter, it had no focus.
ESPN again showed the top twenty cars cross the finish line, and did a solid job with the winner interview and follow-up with other drivers. The good coverage is there, its just buried under eleven different voices, the Tech Center, Draft Tracker, Full Throttle, SportsCenter cut-ins, NASCAR Icons, the In-Race Reporter and the Infield Studio. Did I miss anything? Oh, yes I did.
Next week, Suzy Kolber returns to the coverage as the full time host of the Infield Studio. If Musburger continues as the "show host," ESPN on ABC has the possibility of having twelve announcers on their next race. That's right, twelve voices on a three quarter mile bull-ring in Richmond at night. Make sure to set your DVR, it might just be a classic.
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