Sunday, October 21, 2007
ESPN Needs To Admit NASCAR Problems
Short track racing brings a very different dynamic to the TV networks who try to cover the action live. Gone are the long pace laps of a Talladega, gone are the long caution periods of a road course. From start to finish, things on a short track happen fast, and demand the full attention of the TV crew until the very last corner.
The last several laps of the Sunday NEXTEL Cup race in Martinsville, VA summed-up the fan frustrations with the ESPN on ABC coverage this season. Under caution, the TV Producer chose to replay once again the previous close finish between Jimmie Johnson and one of his car owners, Jeff Gordon.
What they did not do was reset the field. What they did not do was reset the positions of "The Chasers." What they did not do was put their head in the game. It was elsewhere.
Once again, ESPN confirmed to sports fans that this "new ESPN approach" to all types of sports involves promoting the stars of the sport and trying to manufacture drama where, in reality, there is none. At seemingly the most critical times in live sports coverage, ESPN seems to step-out of the moment for the sake of controlling the action and creating their own reality.
Some of the top sportswriters across the nation are livid with this "new ESPN" and their "hype and drama" approach to TV sports coverage.
Phil Mushnick of the NY Post begs ESPN to try and fix Monday Night Football. He says this NFL Series under ESPN is "the most insufferable, big ticket live game series in National TV history."
Mushnick asks "why must every play signal the start of a windy, tortured analysis, lines drawn by Telestrator, the discussion of silly stats, forced cross-promotions, or a throw to Suzy Kolber on the sidelines?" He closes by saying Monday Night Football is "a must-see game delivered in a can't-stand TV package."
These are the same complaints of NASCAR fans with ESPN. Why all the hype? Why all the phony bells and whistles when what all of us came here to see is the race?
We came to see NASCAR racing before ESPN "re-arrived," and we also watch this sport when ESPN is not broadcasting it. Fans are here to focus on the race, not the fact ESPN is covering it. That message has fallen on deaf ears.
On the studio side, Richard Sandomir of the NY Times reviewed the new ESPN magazine show E:60 and found it to be a copy of HBO's Real Sports with "more bling" and hype. The ESPN content was flashy and dressed-up, but absolutely had no originality or exclusivity. The only thing it had was the fact that this time, ESPN was talking about it. How does that make it count?
ABC viewers had to sit through a NASCAR Countdown studio show from Martinsville that insulted the intelligence of even the most basic race fans. It actually included a re-air of a feature shown earlier in the week on NASCAR Now, ESPN's daily racing show. It was the driver's "race" to the airport when the real race was over. The thirty minute program was worthless.
The inane ramblings of Brad Daugherty mixed with the perky but un-informed comments of Suzy Kolber created a fatal mix for fan interest. The NASCAR Countdown show is a disaster that is continuing to implode.
Rusty Wallace sweats his way through a brief appearance and then flees for the relative safety of the broadcast booth. Wallace and Daugherty are not on the same page, and several times this season Wallace clearly restrained himself in his comments about the "analysis" of Daugherty. Even Dale Jarrett took Daugherty to task for his "knowledge" level.
Sunday at Martinsville, ESPN just seemed to be going through the motions. Dr. Jerry Punch cannot rise to the occasion when the intensity of a true play-by-play announcer is required. On short tracks, it is required a lot. Listening to both the radio call of the race and the TV commentary of Punch is mind altering.
What viewers are seeing and hearing on TV is often times completely the opposite of what the radio announcers are describing. This is the quandary of ESPN. The struggle with reality.
Rusty Wallace was the subject of rumors this week about being replaced. While ESPN quickly chose to assure viewers Wallace was "their man" in the booth, it is clear that the threesome currently announcing for ESPN is in trouble. Wallace and Petree disagree a lot, and in this race Wallace was exposed time-and-time again for having less knowledge about many aspects of racing than the experienced Petree.
It often seems that Punch is speaking to Wallace, and Petree is just an afterthought. In fact, it is the competency of Andy Petree that has kept many of these telecasts from becoming almost slapstick comedy. Earlier this season at Bristol, TN and this week at Martinsville, Punch was absolutely tongue-tied as to the action on the track. Only Petree's calm nature once again allowed the ESPN crew to sort things out and save face.
In the final laps at Martinsville, David Ragan spun to cause the caution that ended the race. Never was this addressed or replayed. Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled to the inside and never even re-started. ESPN never said why. As the field thundered across the start-finish line at full speed, the network never showed us that Ragan's car was still in the middle of the track.
At Talladega, on the final lap, ESPN missed the daring move of Jeff Gordon for the lead that eventually won him the race. A complete whiff. Sunday at Martinsville, ESPN never went "wide" and showed us the spun car, the pack continuing to race, or NASCAR waiting until the last moment to put out the caution. Nothing.
The network was obsessed with their own created storyline of Jeff vs. Jimmie for the win. They stayed glued to the leader and never left. Once again, what was actually happening in a sporting event was interfering with the storyline ESPN wanted to playout. They stayed with their reality, and missed everything on the track.
Phil Musnick's statements about Monday Night Football and Richard Sandomir's review of E:60 fit very nicely into this column about Martinsville. For whatever reason, the struggle seems to be between ESPN and reality right now. The battle over who will control the content of your sports TV broadcasts is new and confusing.
ESPN on Sunday got in all of their ABC commercials, all of their ESPN/ABC promos, all of their sponsored features, and all of their billboards for the various products. They showed us the Infield Studio, the SportsCenter updates, the Tech Center, and even the live "helmet cam" on a pit crew member.
What they did not show us was the race. What they did not follow-up were the stories. What they confirmed was that content is secondary and ESPN's network agenda is primary.
Emails and comments to this site contained phrases like "lost me as a fan" and "had enough for this season." One viewer wrote that he had been a dedicated fan since 1959 and "he was done" simply because of the "horrible TV coverage." One female viewer called it a "sad, sad mess."
ESPN and NASCAR need to roll-up their sleeves and step directly into this sinking ship of TV ratings right now. Regardless of the money, regardless of the egos, and regardless of the public humiliation, something must be done before things get even worse.
By the close of The Chase, the TV audience for NASCAR may have been so deeply affected by the poor coverage of TNT and ESPN that the sport itself may take years to recover. If it recovers at all.
Update SportsCenter: Kenny Mayne spent the NASCAR highlights portion of SC referring to Jeff Gordon as "Gordo." He referred to Jimmie Johnson's #48 as the "per diem car" because that is the amount of money ESPN staffers get to eat per day when traveling. When Gordon's catch-can slipped out, and the gas man was forced to stop fueling, Mayne said "he dropped the catch-can, whatever that is." The NASCAR highlights were treated as a joke from start to finish on this national show which was taped Sunday night, as repeated many times on ESPN Monday morning.
Please note: This column was linked by Jayski.com on his articles/links page. We appreciate his continued support and want to thank him for his help this season.
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