Sunday, September 2, 2007
ESPN's Late Night Busch Series Near Miss
As soon as the deal was done with ESPN for the Busch Series races, veteran TV executives were wondering where ESPN2 was going to put those live college football games that fans have been watching on that network for years. The answer was, all around NASCAR.
The kick-off of the college football season meant a new world for the Busch Series. In this first football Saturday, the live game preceding the race from Fontana ran about twenty minutes long. It pushed the scheduled NASCAR Countdown show off the air, although ESPN did air a live version on its Internet service, ESPN360.
If the football game had followed the same time pattern as many earlier that day, it could have run more than thirty minutes into the race itself. While Fontana and Richmond next week are night races, the Busch Series will shortly switch back to afternoon starts, which will be preceded by a live football game running directly into the race.
Several months ago, The Daly Planet wondered if this NASCAR eight year TV contract would be the catalyst for changing the ESPN Classic Network over to ESPN3. Earlier this season, ESPN Classic was pressed into use when yet another live event over-run forced NASCAR off its designated channel. The NASCAR program switched ESPN networks three times.
When the Fontana race actually hit the air, once again the ESPN technical gremlins appeared, and viewers heard nothing. The silence was eventually broken and the voice of Dr. Jerry Punch was heard in mid-sentence. With all due respect, ESPN2 has been telecasting NASCAR Busch races for seven months now. These problems did not begin to pop-up until network resources were re-allocated to college football.
Punch led almost directly into the race, and with Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree having a nice big track and some fast racing, they turned in a solid performance. Rusty was not on his game in the big Keselowski crash, but it many have been his first time trying to choose words on TV when a NASCAR driver was possibly injured.
Perhaps, next time he will step back and let Doctor Punch be put on-the-spot in a difficult situation. Phrases such as "walk away" and words like "Earnhardt Sr." need to be used only after serious thought and in complete sentences. Even a driver who appears to exit his car could have serious injuries when evaluated later.
The race itself worked well for the network, with good TV pictures, sound, and graphics. The hated Draft-Tracker revealed its head in this race, and once again made absolutely no sense to anyone in North America other than the ESPN TV executives.
This event was a great example of why TV networks should show the entire field scrambling for the finish line on the final lap. ESPN tried to show the finish with a big wideshot, but it mostly covered the area after the line. Viewers could see cars door-to-door, but had no idea who they were or what was going on in the final turn. Once again, when the winner of the race crosses the finish line...the race is not over. TNT never got this concept, so perhaps ESPN will before the end of the season.
Nice finish by Jeff Burton, great of the network and NASCAR to direct him into Victory Lane so he could be interviewed before ESPN2 left the air. Good performance by the pit reporters, but the animosity building between the drivers and ESPN needs to be nipped in-the-bud, and it needs more than a newspaper quote from the race producer. This is an issue right now, and trust me...its not going away.
Normally, ESPN provides the announcers of a live event guidelines and a script to read if their event runs long. On ESPN2, the college football announcers did not acknowledge that NASCAR Countdown was supposed to be on, never directed viewers to ESPN360, and never re-set the scene at the top of the hour when the race was to have aired live. This is a big fundamental mistake from a network who routinely does this for live events. Several weeks ago, even the racing-hating Cliff Drysdale played traffic cop in a tennis event and directed viewers where to tune for racing.
NASCAR fans are going to be in for a very interesting ride with the Busch Series for the rest of the season. As ESPN360 is not available on many Internet Service Providers, including Comcast, this option is ridiculous for NASCAR races. The only other option available for Internet users is the Turner-owned NASCAR.com, who carried the Busch broadcast on ESPN in its entirety. Think about that one.
ESPN scheduled a Busch race after live college football. When the game ran long, the best place to "see" the race was on NASCAR.com's Internet site. Does ESPN not understand that NASCAR fans do not need a lot more prodding until they abandon the old way of watching TV, and just rely on the Internet for the entire broadcast?
By the way, next week a live college football game precedes the NEXTEL Cup night race from Richmond on ABC Sports. I would suggest that fans plan well ahead for their viewing options, because all of the ESPN Networks will be busy with live football as well. Once again, NASCAR will be all dressed-up with no place to go.
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