Sunday, September 30, 2007

ESPN's Long Day's Journey Into Night

The premise was simple. Telecast one fast-paced NASCAR race from Kansas on ABC and then get off the air. Unfortunately, the weather and the television reality associated with broadcast networks had other plans. It truly was ESPN's long journey into night.

Earlier this year, ESPN telecast a full day of practice, qualifying, and then the Busch Series race from Watkins Glen. By the time the race actually started, the TV broadcast team had been on the air for over six hours. It was brutal.

Sunday, rain interrupted the NEXTEL Cup race twice and forced the ESPN production crew to switch the telecast of the race from the ABC broadcast network to ESPN2. Broadcast networks have "windows" of time that they schedule for sports broadcasts, and when something out of the ordinary happens its always tough.

Most of the time, golf is the culprit. Two or three PGA golfers in a playoff can set the network off schedule for the entire night. On this Sunday, the TV executives made a good decision to move from the over-the-air network to cable TV. Mother Nature had closed the ABC "window."

This major sports property was moved away from the ABC facilities over to the ESPN Broadcast Center in Bristol, CT. There was only one problem. The commercials were still over in the ABC world. Viewers may have noticed the absence of commercial inventory on ESPN2, despite the fact that a live and exciting NEXTEL Cup race was in-progress. Somewhere, an ABC salesman was crying in his Crown Royal.

This race marked the reunion of the original ABC/ESPN broadcast crew of Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and Rusty Wallace. They had been broken up twice as Brad Daugherty first replaced Andy Petree, and then Rusty Wallace, on the last two Busch races.

While many viewers were wondering how this trio might be affected by the "substitute announcer," the attention of the fans was instead drawn to another ABC personality who had a tough day. Brent Musburger outside in the Kansas wind was just flat-out a bad idea.

This man has put his life's work into sports television. We used to love Brent on pro and college sports. How is it fair to put him behind a pulpit with his script blowing away and his hair in his eyes? Not only that, but what kind of a TV network sees that Brent is wearing sneakers and then shows them on camera? Could the Producer have made Musburger look any worse?

The Infield Studio crew and the pit reporters earned their money on this telecast. Suzy Kolber used her fundamentally sound TV skills to negotiate her way through a very long day. Brad Daugherty ran out of gas during the second rain delay, and that crew certainly found help from guests like Ray Evernham. The fundamental truth is that Daugherty only "works" when there is a NASCAR veteran alongside of him.

Once the race was underway, the challenge of The Chase continued to dog the ESPN production team. Even with only eight races left, there were still over forty cars on the track racing, not just twelve. Achieving the balance between the race and The Chase has been a tough task.

By now, viewers know what to expect from the ESPN announcing team. They have been together since February, and this is the result. Dr. Jerry Punch is a grizzled veteran who continues to have our respect. He is just a tough sell in a multi-hour play-by-play role. On this seven hour plus marathon, he hung-in there and kept things flowing the best he could. Unfortunately, his supporting cast is not rising to the occasion.

Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree have just not meshed like many (including me) thought they would this season. As the high-profile leader in the booth, Rusty is just hard to figure out. He talks about a lot of things without leaving an opening for anyone else to join-in and make his thoughts "bigger." Its tough to compliment his style.

When Andy Petree joined Dale Jarrett in the broadcast booth for several ESPN races earlier this season, there was a magic that Petree has not found with Wallace. Rusty was always outspoken, and he continues to say things that Petree does not agree with. How to politely offer a different point of view has been a season-long pursuit.

Over a marathon like this, it is almost impossible not to have some bumps along the way. Struggles with re-setting the field and very light coverage of any "back of the pack" racing was almost unavoidable. Kudos to the technical crew for keeping the pictures and sound flowing through daunting weather conditions.

One strange thing that happened this week was a re-surfacing of Tony Stewart's problems with ESPN. His little issue during practice was talked about to no end. On Sunday, Stewart's lack of presence on ESPN before the race and after his accident was very noticeable. This situation is going to get worse before it gets better if ESPN continues to chase Stewart like Pedro Gomez chased Barry Bonds.

After switching networks, it did seem a bit strange to go off the air without an official NASCAR explanation of how and why Greg Biffle was declared the winner. We also deserved a bit more post-race, even from a very tired crew.

NASCAR wanted their Chase on broadcast network TV, and they got it. What they also got was all the pros and cons that go along with it. Sunday, one big problem named Desperate Housewives proved to be the ultimate con. Once again, cable TV proved to be the solution only because ESPN2 had a "window" of time available. If ESPN2 had been busy with a contractual obligation to a live event, things might have come to a very different conclusion. I guess we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for stopping-by.


slithybill said...

I wasn't paying close attention to the finish under yellow because I assumed it was going to be a green/white/checkers finish. Then they showed Biffle's crew celebrating before the announcers told us the race was over. I had no idea Biffle was so close to running out of gas (maybe I missed them discussing that). I couldn't believe the controversial finish wasn't mentioned by the announcers before Jimmy Johnson talked about it in his interview.

The ABC/ESPN announcers seemed to do a good job focusing in on a few specific events or drivers and then repeating that info ad nausuem. They don't seem to appreciate the bigger picture except in passing.

It just seemed to me that something was missing from the broadcast. For a sports network, the coverage sure doesn't seem intuitive. All of the NASCAR experience that most of the on-air talent has just isn't translating into an exciting broadcast. And this was a very exciting race, especially after the second rain delay.

The commercial-free last hour(?) or so was nice, but Punch, Wallace and Petree could have used a break or two to confer with each other and the producers/director. Then maybe they would make sure they were telling us the whole story of the race.

They definitely should have stayed on air after the race until the top of the hour. They needed to get Robin Pemberton back on to explain the finish. Or even Mike Helton. Yes, I know they were tired and exhausted after over 8 hours on the air, but this is "The Third Race in The Chase" afterall. We deserved a better wrap-up than they gave us.

SophiaZ123 said...

Ditto to what the first poster said. I was so tired from watching so much tv that I was not sure what the deal was with Biffle..then he claimed he did not run out of gas but was told to turn the car off in the grass or something...I found that odd..but can't remember if that was on PeeSPN or VL.

Also, would've liked explanation to the crashes..with tv, I can walk thru 3 rooms n the house and see the race.

With MRN I can ONLy hear in one room due to only one radio can dial in the station. Without a stronger MRN signal and THEIR DETAILS, race fans are screwed.

I would LOVE to know how MRN DETAILED the end of the race.

It was the most bizarre finish to a very long day and I was comatose from fatigue and very low blood pressure issues and difficulty paying attention.

When I saw Biffle's crew celebrating, I thought I had nodded off or something....and some sites said Bowyer was the winner...and Clint looked STUNNED when interviewed about the outcome.

NASCAR is losing more credibility each day with their wording for the RULES DU JOUR according to said driver involved.

Anonymous said...

Impeach Rusty Wallace.

He said "The Late Richard Petty" and tried to smooth it over, while trying to explain the high-line being used by Earnhardt Jr.

Rusty started the band wagon for the green-white-checkers finish which was never going to happen.

And as for the telecast, if I hear about Toto and freakin Dorothy one more time during a Kansas event -- I am going to create my own tornado of destruction.

Lord give us the strength to make it through the remainder of the ESPN contract.

I really figured since the Kansas Speedway was of considerable size and length ESPN could manage to televise the restarts, and perhaps the caution periods in the pits.

I hereby conclude that will never happen due to broadcasting greed.

If the track were 23 miles in length ESPN would find a way to play it the same way.

There is no chemistry, there is no method to the madness -- its just madness.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. Far too many things said by the ESPN/ABC guys in the booth come with the word "apparently" or similar. It is their job to KNOW wht's going on.

The viewers can guess just fine without their help--the talent's supposed to have the expertise and background to speak authoritatively, not guess, about what's going on.

2. To ABC/ESPN: If you can't handle covering a live sporting event that may go long, then don't buy the contract.

Busch Series Fan! said...

I had Nascar's "Live Leaderboard" on my computer and it clearly showed Clint Bowyer winning the race. I was also very confused until I watched Wind Tunnel and Jim Hunter (I think that's his name) explained the ending of the race. Yes clearly Biffle ran out of gas and his explanation was stupid.

jfs-va said...

I guess I could list a bunch of complaints about coverage, but honestly, I loved the race. Lots of drama and even though I'm a Tony fan, I still had a good time watching it.

Yes, the ending with Biffle could have been explained a bit better. I did appreciate the explanation of the cameras and how they make it look lighter out than it really was.

Bobby said...

The controversy over the Live Leaderboard came because Biffle slowed to what seemed to be in violation of the safety car speed; there have been situations where cars slow below safety car speed when feigning a pit road entrance (Jimmie Johnson is most notable at Pocono). The penalty for feigning a pit road entrance by slowing below safety car speed is to be passed.

Someone has paid a protest fee and it could go to a few boards for hearings before it is declared official. It happened in Nashville in 1984.

Protecting Desperate Housewives has been a concern I listed would be an ABC anamoly. Fox never protected their Sweeps programming when NASCAR races ran long; a 2005 Busch Series race at Talladega ran until 8:15 ET, and Fox kept airing it until 8:30 ET, the first time a Busch race went on broadcast network television in prime-time.

Anonymous said...

And as for the telecast, if I hear about Toto and freakin Dorothy one more time during a Kansas event -- I am going to create my own tornado of destruction.

Seems this crew has a very limited supply of cliches it must rely upon, and this was one of the worst.

Anonymous said...

With MRN I can ONLy hear in one room due to only one radio can dial in the station. Without a stronger MRN signal and THEIR DETAILS, race fans are screwed.

This isn't MRN's problem. The station in your market that broadcasts MRN is at fault. In my city, it's just fine.

You can also hear it by using the services like PitCommand or RaceView, even when your local station isn't carrying the show, like for qualifying.

Lisa Hogan said...

All in all, I would give the coverage an “o.k.” I have sympathy for fans that don’t have access to ESPN2. I have made full use of my remote mute button whenever one of the non-NASCAR readers appear on the screen. In fact, my mute button got a full workout during the marathon coverage. In fairness, I have to say that would have been the case no matter the network.

Kevin in Indy said...

Does anyone remember what happened to Robby Gordon when he failed to maintain pace car speed in the Montreal race? He was told to vacate first place and go back into the field. In that race, Gordon was in first place when the yellow came out but it didn't matter to NASCAR then. I am so sick of NASCAR giving the Roush teams breaks. 25 points for a COT violation? Other teams its 100 points. My enthusiasm for NASCAR has waned recently. I dread next year with The Car of IROC, I mean The Car of Tomorrow being run all the time.

Anonymous said...

Why do none of the "NASCAR media" have the guts to ask NASCAR the hard questions:

Example: JPM flips-off a camera while walking by and gets a penalty; Tony Stewart uses the f-word while walking by a camera and gets...away with it, even though he is supposedly on "probation."

Example 2: Robby Gordon drives slower than the rest of the field under caution and he's sent back; Greg Biffled drives slower than the rest of the field and he's awarded a win.

Example 2A: Anyone who passes under caution is penalized; but when Jimmie Johnson passes Clint Bowyer under caution just before the finish line, there is no penalty.

Example 3: Anyone who does anything deemed outside the rules to the COT is subjected to harsh penalties (See Earnhardt, Jr., among others); Carl Edwards COT is found to be too low in post-race inspection, and he's given a substantially-lower penalty because, although the car is a COT model, it's "not a COT infraction."

There are lots more. So why don't the intrepid reporters who cover this sport ever ask NASCAR officials how this goes on?

LuckyForward said...

I totally agree with Anonymous' last comment. Why DO NASCAR reporters continually give NASCAR a "free pass" on asking tough questions about their actions? NFL and MLB get asked direct questions by reporters about their actions, but NASCAR is continually treated as the "holy grail" of sport and appears not to ever be questioned, criticized, or confronted in any fashion by ANY reporter, TV or radio.

Erik said...

One thing ESPN should try to do is something FSN started to do with its own college football broadcasts. It created an overflow channel channel when it airs back to back college football games.

FSN schedules a 3:30 window for the games, though plenty of times this gets exceeded. FSN has the ability to regionalize coverage, where they can cut away to the start of a Big 12 game in the central US, while still keeping the Pac 10 game in the west.

Though, if you are a Big 12 fan on the west coast, or if two Big 12 games are aired back to back, somebody is going to lose out.

What they have done is have a special channel where you can turn to see the start of the broadcast, and once when the previous game finishes, it will then pick up the next game.

This overflow channel is created soley for this purpose, so no other live event programming would be carried there. It is available 100% of the time.

The problem with this, or any other solution involving creating new channels isn't necessarly the cost of the channel, but getting cable operators to pick it up.

ESPN still is trying to get their college sports channel, ESPNU picked up. It took awhile before ESPN2 became almost universally available on all cable systems.

There may be hope in the near future. Soon market forces will make cable operators to remove all of their analog channels and go 100% digital. That will be the only way they can keep up with satillite, Verizon FIOS, and newer IPTV services from AT&T.

The downside is everyone would need a cable box, though the upside is a tremendous increase channel capacity. 2 digital HD channels or anywhere between 7-12 digital SD channels can be shown in the place of 1 single analog cable channel.

When this transition occurs, this hopefully will ease the pain we have to go through in just not having the capacity to show everything.

SophiaZ123 said...

Note to ANON poster about my MRN radio comment.

I was NOT BITCHING about the MRN signal. Many stations are like FAR AWAY or weak stations. some we can only get in the car. BUT my GRIPE WAS, if you were listening, WITHOUT THE GREAT guys of MRN to "give us real racing information" we the race fans are screwed with what is happening.

Sadly, I have come to think of ESPN as a "moving picture" to bring the race in between commercials. The commentators leave us in the dark in the light of day. I count on message boards (where many have access to HOTPASS or Satellite radio) Or VL to have things explained or even INC.

HOWEVER it is nice to have things explained DURING the race. The boombox with the best power recently got broken but still we have to be careful of placement of radio.

I could sit in the car in the garage and hear MRN PERFECTLY! :-)

Anonymous said...

We didn't see the rest of the race after second caution as we TIVO the race to watch in the evening. Guess we'll have to catch the replay. Very frustrating. Do they do this with playoff games in stick and ball? Rusty just has a limited vocabulary and view of what is happening on the track. Sad. Have to give Brad D. some kudos for work on Busch race. At least he was catching things on the track not on the screen. Of course the producer chose not to follow up on any of that action. Sorry I missed Bill Lester. I love his enthusiasm.

Ed said...

I agree with Ms. Hogan. I would give the broadcast an "ok"--a far cry from what we have been used to with other networks but an improvement nonetheless. Sat.'s Busch race with Brad Daugherty on board is clearly an improvement over the Cup trio. And I think most posters here today are right: the chemistry with the three right now just isnt working right now. And right now I don't see anything but marginal improvement right now. I don't want to pick on a professional but the guy has a ways to go before he is ready for prime time. Speaking from being in the PR profession and having to respond to live print and electronic broadcast questions and do live emergency response TV, I do speak with a little knowledge. It's hard doing live TV. And I did it in 15 second sound bytes and it was hard. A four-hour marathon is tough. But ABC/ESPN went with a crew that was not ready for prime time. I think Andy Petree believe it or not has improved with on-the-job training. And I think he will only get better. Lookit Wally Dallenbach was tight and nervous in the beginning of his run and he improved greatly. And in fact he might not be your favorite but he is at a level now that I think he is highly proficient at his job.

Maybe it's the production guy in Rusty's ear. I dunno. It seems like he has to take back about 45% of what he says and only believes in 30% of the rest. This behavior to me can only be attributable to the production team in his ear to "mix it up." Otherwise why would a guy with nearly 25 years experience in Cup say some of thing he says? He wasn't THAT goofy when they interviewed him as a driver. Sorta like Speed's Jimmy Spencer. "Just say it anyway no matter if it's even light years near the truth so you can 'mix it up.'" Sorta like political campaigns in the new Millennium. Used to you have to have proof someone was an adulterer before you accused him or her. Now just the accusation starts an avalanche before any proof is offered. Seems that way now with Cup reporting and play-by-play. You can hear it now in the way these drivers answer on-air questions. They don't believe what they are hearing either. Spencer calls out Earnhardt-Elledge for a hyphenated name...what's that got to do with the price of Goodyear Eagles? Rusty makes so many demonstrative statements without backing...what gives? So I can only deduce that it is big-time inexperience or the producer pushing it. Either way it's not as professional as it used to be. But 4 hours in Kansas had to be a challenge. So the team gets a C-. But when we are used to A and A-, rarely a B+; well they have a ways to go. And maybe the fact that they didn't cut to Tim Brewer that much at all Sunday shows that they are hearing what viewers say. And maybe Tim Brewer does has a place on the team but he needs a coach and practice practice practice.

I never thought we would be in a position where we would have to give the broadcast team the benefit of the doubt so many times.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the coverage was terrible. Appearently there are only 12 cars that are worth mentioning during any portion of the race. During the second rain delay instead of doing a "through the field" and catching the viewers up on ALL the cars in the race they decided to replay features from the pre-race. If this were Baseball playoffs do you think that ABC would have switched the coverage to ESPN2?? I DON'T!!!
Again NASCAR fans get treated like 2nd class citizens.

ACEr in TN said...

Anonymous said...

We didn't see the rest of the race after second caution as we TIVO the race to watch in the evening. Guess we'll have to catch the replay. Very frustrating. Do they do this with playoff games in stick and ball?

I was in the same boat, I recorded the race on my DVR. I had been expecting the race to be called on account of rain, but when I went to Nascar's website and found that there was an interesting, controversial and possibly exciting finished. Naturally, I was frustrated once I found out the race had continued.

I'm sure they didn't want to delay the "Desperate Housewives" season premiere. (No offense to fans of that show. I'm sure you would be just as frustrated if you had recorded the show and saw Nascar instead.) Of course, there will be less "Desperate Housewives" as more Nascar fans stop watching.

The NFL would NEVER let a network get away with this. It happened in the late 1960's in the infamous "Heidi Game" where NBC left coverage of a Jets-Raiders game that the Jets led 32-29 with 65 seconds. NBC switched off the game and broadcast the movie "Heidi." Football fans were enraged enough to call in even before they found out the next day that the Raiders had come back and won 43-32 by scoring two touchdowns in the final seconds. Now, the NFL and the other 'stick and ball' sports have, I assume, written in their contracts that games must be shown in their entirety on one network. I think Nascar should demand the same!

Lastly, why can't the TV networks and the makers of Tivo's, DVRs, and similar devices allow those devices to automatically record a show if it runs long, is delayed, or switches networks. As a computer progammer of over 20 years, I know it can be done, but it probably would cost too much money.

Anonymous said...

"Now, the NFL and the other 'stick and ball' sports have, I assume, written in their contracts that games must be shown in their entirety on one network. I think Nascar should demand the same!"

Well the answer to this is Cup coverage has reached its plateau. It's fast becoming irrelevant; "junk" as drivers say. Its run its course. Humpy Wheeler said about 10 years ago to me that Cup growth was at about in its 6th year of a 12-year run up. So if you do that math then its about 4 years past its prime. I would say 2 years because the growth in at least TV ratings was explosive until 2 years ago. Now its done, toast. So why pay attention to 5 millions viewers at best, maybe 2 million hard core when you have 25 million waiting on a hot blond in a skirt? What sells on TV is T&A--always has, always will. Cup coverage can't compare; can't compete. So that's the simple answer. We are fast becoming a "niche market" again (Cup racing).

Anonymous said...

To Kevin in Indy who thinks Roush has gotten a free pass from NASCAR obviously isnt watch the same thing I am. Roush has continuously gotten the raw deal from NASCAR since it was formed. Who comes up with a strange 46 point penalty to keep Mark Martin from winning the championship?
I have no idea why Tony Stewart wasnt fined. The precedent is there in JPM's penalty, and Tony is on probation already.
Robby Gordon's car stopped on the track, Biffle's was able to keep going. That's the difference. Also, the other 99% of that is NASCAR wanted to end the race due to darkness. Go read Jayski, there is a statement from NASCAR on it. Since Biffle's car was able to coast and pass the finish line, he is able to keep his lead. Had the car stopped before the finish line, he would have lost the win.
Jimmie Johnson passed Clint Bowyer, but allowed Clint to pass him back before the finish line. Therefore, no penalty.
A racecar being too high or too low after a race is a general racing rule, not a COT rule. Edward's team did not modify the COT body as the 24 & 48 teams did, or have the wrong part on the COT spoiler as the 8 team did. Therefore, its not a COT violation, just a general racing violation.
Yes I would love it if our TiVo's were smart enough to keep recording or switch channels when the program we want runs long or changes channels.
Kevin in SoCal

Anonymous said...

While I hope that ESPN does change some broadcast elements in the off season, I hope they keep Andy Petree. He's very calm and knowledgeable and doesn't seem afraid to express an opinion.

I was not familiar with him before this analyst job, but he's really good - and he's the one broadcast element that I would be disappointed not to see next season.

Anonymous said...

Hours and hours of coverage and Rusty never said "car of tomorrows"? I think he even pronounced "Kenseth" correctly! Hey, it's a start.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't ESPN know Biffle was low on gas. And why don't they ever tell us who the lucky dog is?

Anonymous said...

To answer the question:

"why does the media give NASCAR a free pass".

Its because NASCAR holds a reporters Hard-Card (credentials) and this little plastic card offers huge rewards.

If you dont have a Hard-Card you may be lucky enough to obtain creditials, but even then you will be standing in a long line each time you go to an event.

If you cross the line with NASCAR and/or the ISC you will find your Hard-Card revoked.

So, its about happy face reporting and rose colored glasses for the NASCAR media.

Anonymous said...

How was it good that they moved to ESPN2? Im from canada and i dont have it!!!!

If im watching the NFL Playoffs and the game goes into overtime on NBC or Cbs will they put the game on another channel? Didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

Regarding reporters not asking NASCAR reporters hard questions: NASCAR officials have even had a "talk" with some of the hosts of the shows on Sirius' NASCAR channels because they were being too "negative" about NASCAR! I am not talking about NASCAR's own media outlet (MRN is owned by NASCAR and does all the radio at the NASCAR owned tracks), but other hosts on the shows! What a crock!