Monday, November 19, 2007
Homestead Hangover Has No Easy Cure
The simple reason that we started The Daly Planet this February is because it was the first year of the new NASCAR TV contract.
It was a time of great excitement and anticipation for all parties involved in the big announcement. Back on February 8th, it was an ESPN press release that reminded us "the network's (previous) award-winning, flag-to-flag NASCAR coverage was honored with seventeen Sports Emmy Awards and credited with helping to popularize the sport nationwide."
The head of TV production for ESPN's NASCAR events is Rich Feinberg, and he said "We're not here to re-invent the way NASCAR is covered because we have tremendous respect for what has been accomplished. We are proud of our history, (and will be) pushing the limit up, and upgrading the experience. We're here to serve the NASCAR fans, but also to bring on new viewers."
Dick Glover, NASCAR's VP of Broadcasting said "The huge thing is ESPN and ABC will expose NASCAR to the casual fan, and that's a sweet spot of growth for us."
Taking a moment to remember what ESPN laid-out as their agenda for NASCAR in 2007 can be important in making a judgement about the success or failure of their participation in the sport now that the season is over.
In December of 2006, Feinberg said the ESPN production team had three goals in broadcasting each race. Here they are in the order he presented them:
1 - Documentation of the race from start to finish.
2 - Storytelling, or creating emotion.
3 - Entertainment through technology, graphics, music and directorial approach.
Feinberg said "If we keep that approach, we have a chance to be successful and pick-up where we left off."
In closing, Feinberg added two points. "If the ratings from today (2006) do not improve, I for one will not be very satisfied," he said. He also added that he will read "the blogs" on Mondays to find out how his telecasts were received by the fans.
While that was Mr. Feinberg back then, this is Mr. Feinberg on November 18th of this year while answering reporter Mike Mulhern about why the ESPN produced NEXTEL Cup telecasts failed to increase viewership or TV ratings for the sport.
"I wish I knew (the reason)," said Feinberg. "Our marketing groups are working closely with NASCAR and we're all looking in the mirror and and asking...what's going on?"
"The product, in terms of television, we're proud of the job we've done this first year. Mulhern asked if there were too many TV announcers and too many TV gizmos in the ABC and ESPN coverage. "No, I don't think so," said Feinberg. "We do have a lot of voices and a good mixture of voices and we are proud of that."
"We are in the storytelling business," he continued. "And it's not Team A vs. Team B...we've got 43 teams. So, we've got to find those stories."
To that end, Feinberg talked about his most recent NASCAR announcer. "Just like we want to broaden our audience and bring new viewers in, we've been using a broader perspective in our (on-air) talent," he said. "Like Suzy Kolber, who is a highly respected journalist and very successful on Monday Night Football. I am so proud of what she has done on the air as our host these last seventeen weeks. She works as hard as anyone or harder, and I believe she is being accepted (by NASCAR fans)."
Feinberg has a theory about why TV ratings have been down this season. "I wonder if it's just a time of change," he said. "We've got a lot of the greatest drivers, cult figures if you will, who have retired. Rusty Wallace has hung it up, Mark Martin has cut way back, Dale Jarrett hasn't been competitive lately. Ricky Rudd is hanging it up after some unproductive years."
"The research shows we have done a good job of bringing in new viewers," he continued. "And we're doing well in the coveted younger demographics, but in the 55 plus...(demographic numbers are down)."
Finally, he offered some other suggestions for what might be wrong. "Well, are there too many races, have we lost too many of the great stars, is there too much international now, or is it that (Earnhardt) Junior isn't winning?" he asked.
Mulhern's story was offered on the Winston-Salem Journal's website. Below it were the comments offered by NASCAR fans. They did not seem to agree with Mr. Feinberg about ESPN's coverage of the sport.
"Stop trying to copy Fox...Eliminate announcers with no connection to the sport like Suzy Kolber...ESPN throws too much talk and too many gimmicks into the coverage...The ESPN primary focus should be on covering what is happening on the track...I went to an ESPN marketing seminar and a race broke out...At the end of a race, ESPN does not interview the top five drivers, last Sunday at Homestead they did not interview The Chase drivers...Brent Musburger knows nothing about NASCAR...ESPN has the worst coverage of NASCAR I have ever seen after ten years of watching every race."
This is just a brief sampling of some of the over one hundred comments on this one story on this one website alone. As readers of The Daly Planet know, there has been a wholesale outcry from the fans about some of the things that they believe ESPN was able to "get away with" this season.
So, now it is done. Before we go back and look at the TNT and Fox Sports portions of the Cup races, there is time now to consider Mr. Feinberg's remarks and then ask for your opinion. This time, we will look back at only the final seventeen Cup races of 2007.
This is the big money part of the ESPN and ABC TV deal that cost the network hundreds of millions of dollars in rights fees. The network's Programming Department bought these races, and then gave them to Mr. Feinberg and his group to produce.
Before we ask for your comments, let's take a moment and consider what Mr. Feinberg did not talk about. That would be the performance of his own TV production team. Mr. Feinberg carefully navigated around his own inability to deal with the mounting problems that ultimately resulted in one of the worst produced NASCAR TV telecasts in history. Unfortunately, that would be the 2007 NEXTEL Cup final race in Homestead.
This season, ESPN has left crashed cars on the track with drivers inside and never mentioned them again. I know, because my driver, Dale Jarrett, was one of them. They refuse to update the drivers condition, or speak with them when they leave the Infield Care Center. At Homestead, it happened again many times.
This season, ESPN has refused to tell viewers which car gets a lap back during a caution, the Lucky Dog. They have also steadfastly refused to reset the field after a commercial and before the green flag. Instead, they insert a production element like a recorded team radio blurb or a Draft Track demo. At Homestead, it happened again many times.
This season, ESPN has decided before the race what "story" they are going to tell, and they stick with that theme despite the reality of a major live sporting event unfolding right in front of them. Often, their chosen "story" is so ridiculous to NASCAR fans that it borders on the laughable. At Homestead, as Jeff and Jimmie know all too well, it happened again.
This season, ESPN has refused to do regular "full field" rundowns with the pit reporters who are assigned to the teams. Instead, the silent ticker at the top of the screen is the only way for fans to understand every fifty laps or so where their favorite driver is on the track. There is no way to understand how he got there. At Homestead, this happened again.
Finally, this season it was possible for ESPN to go through an entire four hour NEXTEL Cup race and never mention the name of a driver after reading it one time when announcing his position on the starting grid. No matter what actually transpired in the race, unless certain drivers got into one of the top five positions on the track, they would never be heard from all race long. At Homestead, in the final race of the season, this happened again.
When a network builds coverage of a major event series, they build it from the bottom. They establish a fundamental credibility through their announcers and their TV production team that lets the viewers know that what they are seeing and hearing is the best choice of pictures and commentary available.
When a network uses "TV toys" on a live broadcast, these gizmos are used to embellish, not interfere with the live action. They appear at a time when they make sense, and not at a time when they can be inserted to show-off new technology or pad an announcer's ego.
When a network deals with athletes from any sport, they use a level of restraint and fairness that does not exploit the emotional or difficult moments that professional athletes will always encounter in their careers. The TV network shows both the viewers and the athletes that it knows where to draw the line.
In the last seventeen NEXTEL Cup races of the season, what did you think of ESPN's TV production team? Did some of Mr. Feinberg's points hit home, or did some of the gaps in the coverage get your attention? Think about it, summarize it, and then add it to our end of season comments so we can read and discuss it.
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