Sunday, November 18, 2007
ESPN On ABC Goes Out Like A Lamb
There were certainly some high hopes that this final weekend in Homestead would see the ESPN on ABC gang come through with their best telecast of the season.
The stage had been set with an outstanding Busch Series race on Saturday featuring the same announcers, the same TV crew, and the same track. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, for NASCAR fans nationwide...the answer was almost everything.
Sometimes, the poor ESPN guys just cannot buy a break as they try to navigate their way through the twisted world of the ABC local stations. On this Sunday, KABC in Los Angeles, the number two TV market in the US, somehow forgot to show the first thirty minutes of the live NASCAR Countdown pre-race show.
Can you believe it? Even with thousands of angry calls pouring into the KABC and ABC Network switchboards, the fans could not convince the Master Control operator at the station that he probably should switch to the live final NEXTEL Cup race instead of running the children's show the station was airing.
Thirty minutes into the forty-five minute program, the greater Los Angeles area joined the final NASCAR Countdown right in the middle of a Tim Brewer Tech Center update. What a way to kick things off for the West Coast viewers.
The amazing thing is that those viewers missed the best thirty minutes of the entire five hour telecast. Jerry Punch offered a great feature, and Suzy Kolber did her best to lead her cast through the top stories of the weekend. Thankfully, this included both the Truck and Busch Series highlights from the final races.
The only glaring omission by ABC in the pre-race was the lack of any interview or brief tribute to Ricky Rudd. This tough and strong-minded driver still has a big fan base and will be fully retired after the race. Rudd is "old school" and will be missed in the grandstands and around the nation.
When the ESPN race team took over, things from pit road were being followed quite well, but that could not be said for the announcers upstairs in the TV booth. Quickly, Jeff Burton and Martin Truex Jr. had incidents that were first missed, and then brushed aside by the ESPN on ABC crew. It was clear that despite the reality of the situation, it was going to be "all championship all the time" for this race.
Even good old Junior got into the act by being spun coming onto pit road. A yellow flag coming out during green flag pit stops quickly put the network team right over the edge. This set the tone for the night, with the TV crew forgetting to reset the field after a caution. They forgot to even mention who the Lucky Dog was for the first of many times this night.
They were obsessed with the Johnson and Gordon cars, although for experienced race fans there was no drama to be had. As we have said many times this season, how can two sets of announcers at the same track be describing two completely different races?
The radio call of this event had exciting racing, two and three wide action, and lots of updates on drivers from all different teams, big and small. The ESPN on ABC presentation consisted of the top three cars on the track and then Mr. Gordon and Mr. Johnson.
As cars began to fall out of the race, their stories were never updated. After several accidents, no one was interviewed outside the Infield Care Center so fans would know they were OK. Several accidents were very hard hits. This practice used to be a very fundamental part of NASCAR coverage. Now, ESPN cannot be bothered because they have a pre-determined storyline to tell.
It only got worse from there, and it was a shame. Perhaps, too many cooks were trying to create the Homestead "soup" in the TV truck. ESPN never did regular field rundowns with the pit reporters assigned to the drivers. Only the silent ticker at the top of the screen had any reference to what was happening on the track.
In The Daly Planet forum, readers kept asking "how did he get so far back?" or "how did he gain ten places in two laps?" as the disjointed coverage stumbled along. Nothing in the field was being updated except the top three cars and the two points contenders.
As we all know, the key issue that NASCAR fans want the TV networks to understand is that each and every driver is represented in the fans watching the race on TV. No one misses that point more than ESPN, who can literally not mention a driver's name after reading it on the starting grid. How is this possible?
The reason is clear, and has been made clear by this production staff all season long. The network creates a storyline to follow prior to the event, and despite the reality of the race itself, they will not bend. No matter how completely foolish or amateur it makes the announcers appear to be, live NASCAR racing cannot make ESPN change their story. They are simply sticking to it.
At Homestead, the story was the "threat" that Jimmie Johnson was somehow going to mysteriously lose his championship if Jeff Gordon won the race. Jeff would lead one lap, then get more points for leading the most laps, then win the race and it would be the greatest...ok....I can't even deal with trying to type that hype.
The biggest shame of the poor job ESPN did televising this race was the lack of exposure for the fulltime NEXTEL Cup teams that ran hard all season. The stories of both the drivers and the teams went untold in what should have been a balanced and informative multi-hour telecast.
When Jarrett and Reutimann ran well, nothing was said. The drivers still chasing rides for next season were never mentioned. Rudd was never shown. It was just a very poor excuse for network TV coverage of the field in the final race.
Then, to put a cap on the night, only the winner and the new champ were shown crossing the finish line. It almost appeared that the Director did not know where to go or what to do. ESPN had been doing a fine job of showing the lead lap cars racing to the stripe, but that went out the window along with almost any other positive elements of the on-track coverage.
Strangely, we did not see the Draft Tracker at Homestead, where the cars run well over one hundred and fifty miles an hour. Earlier this season, we did see it explaining how Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond while going almost eighty. It was the dreaded low-speed aero push.
Another element missing from both the pre-race and the race itself was Aerosmith. Where they went, why they went, and who made them go was never explained. In the final race of the season after ten long months of being back in the saddle again, Aerosmith had taken their motorcycle song and left the building.
Luckily, the saving grace for this night was Allen Bestwick. He quietly went about interviewing the key players in the championship, and then handled the awards presentations with dignity and his normal good humor.
When the network had additional time to fill, it was Bestwick who waded into the masses and pulled out interviews with Johnson's interim Crew Chief and even the champ's dad and grandmother. Let's face facts, the only thing Allen Bestwick has not done for ESPN this season is change the oil in the TV truck.
Bestwick has done play-by-play for races, been a pit reporter, hosted the NASCAR Countdown show, hosted NASCAR Now and been a feature reporter for that same show. On several occasions, he hosted the pre-race show, did the play-by-play and then handled the post-race segments by himself. If there is a Most Valuable Player award for this season, Bestwick gets the nod.
As we close out the final race of the season, it is tough to defend any of the glaring and almost strange problems ESPN had with this race. How tough is it to tell us who the Lucky Dog is after a caution? How hard is it to reset the field before a restart? Its great to know who was first off pit road, but who stayed out?
Fans want to hear from their driver after an accident. Fans want to hear from their driver when his car is retired from the race. Fans do not need to hear pre-recorded team radio conversations, pre-recorded crowd noise, or pre-recorded team speeches after the engines are started. All of this combines for one big mess.
Later in the off-season, we will be discussing the ESPN NEXTEL Cup season as a whole, but for right now we need time for the memory of Homestead to fade. I never saw my favorite driver after the green flag. I did not see him finish. He was never mentioned in a race recap. I never saw one of his pit stops.
My personal memory of Homestead is watching the race ticker to see where my driver was, and coming to the grim realization that the official NASCAR TV network of The Chase for the Championship was not going to mention him. He never ran in the top five and his name was not Johnson or Gordon.
Halfway through the race, if I did not have to write this column, I would have turned the TV off and never turned it on again. I wonder how many people across the nation, wearing the t-shirt and ball cap of their favorite driver, reached for the remote and voted on the ESPN coverage with one swift click. What a season.
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