Saturday, July 7, 2007

TNT's "Wide Open" Coverage Divides NASCAR Fans

Since the TNT broadcast team had already produced several NEXTEL Cup events, fans knew what to expect from Bill Weber and crew. TNT's new infield "lift and spin" set had been unveiled, and Marc Fein had been introduced as the new pre-race host. The only thing new for fans at the Pepsi 400 would be the presentation of the race itself on their TV set. The results were mixed.

TNT presented its "Wide Open" coverage as the elimination of national commercials on the TV. OK, technically they said "full-screen" commercials. In what proved to be an easy to understand approach, the Turner tech guys simply put the standard TV picture into the longer and narrower High Definition "format" for the entire race.

This allowed a designated "dead zone" of space at the bottom of the screen to be used for the graphics and sponsor logos. When a national commercial was run, a special "flying box" appeared at the lower right and what Turner called the "branded sponsor content" played back. It was pretty simple stuff.

Turner produced specific commercials for this event for every sponsor except one. This content ran just like a normal spot, with the audio from the program muted and the video of the race behind the "flying box." It allowed fans to watch and hear the spot and keep an eye on the race as well. That was the positive aspect.

Many racing fans may remember the Indy Racing League broadcasts a while back that originated their races in "side-by-side" format. This squeezed the broadcast of the race into one box, while the commercial aired in another box on the other side of the screen. That would be "side-by-side," got it?

TNT's approach to this same situation left a couple of things to discuss. First, when the field was under yellow, there was no racing on the track. When the TNT "box" was on the screen, the field was just circling under yellow as the commercial played. The specific benefit of the TNT "box" comes when the field is racing. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the racing action was blocked by the part of the box that overlapped the picture.

So, this meant that the real key to the broadcast was how things worked at a crucial time under green while a commercial was running. The answer was...not too well. It turned out that the camera shots from TNT on a big track like Daytona often ran the drivers right into the area behind the "box," and they were blocked from view. Because the racing area and the commercial "box" overlapped, it caused another "dead space" that TNT failed to mention. Unfortunately, that space contained racing.

One hilarious note about this broadcast was the total disdain that Bill Weber had when explaining to viewers that the reason they were about to be "interrupted" for a commercial was because it was from their "local cable system." Suddenly, the three minutes an hour that cable systems insert automatically for local breaks was a big deal. This is from the network that ran 60 minutes of commercials in the last 190 minute race at Loudon. Weber threw the cable companies under the bus time-and-time again.

At, they have a forum that allowed fans to voice their opinion of the TNT coverage. Most of the one hundred or so comments pointed out two issues. The first was the overlap of the commercial "box" into racing action, as we have discussed. The second is the on-going difficulty with the TNT Director getting "in sync" with the announcers. TNT seems to follow a pattern of covering laps, without listening to the announcers or allowing the camera to follow the actual racing action.

My only complaint is that I viewed the race on a standard TV, and will never know what I missed. The "widescreen" format pushes a lot of video out of the visible frame on my TV, as with Bill Weber, who disappeared during the on-camera open. That was the first clue that there was a lot of "stuff" viewers might be missing.

Finally, there is no doubt once again that the Most Valuable Player Award for this race goes to Larry McReynolds. Away from DW, McReynolds has been given the green light to "just speak up." Thank goodness he does. Neither Kyle Petty or Wally Dallenbach have the "crew chief" perspective or overall strategy knowledge of McReynolds. Time after time, everyone called on "Larry Mac" to address the issues.

Its always fun when someone tries something new to make things better, and that is certainly what TNT did tonight. It was nice to see more racing action, but annoying that the commercials were custom-made and extended length. Several of them were just plain weird. The Larry Mac Subway commercial was just plain dumb.

Hopefully, this telecast might spark some more debate about the proper way to air a NEXTEL Cup race. Already, fans have many alternatives, and this season they seem to be using them in droves. Something has to be done about the main network broadcast, or NASCAR will find themselves continuing to push fans away. TNT's efforts were a good step in that direction, and you have to give credit where credit is due...they pulled it off. Of course, a photo finish never hurts a TV broadcast.

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ESPN's Saturday Busch Coverage Still Damp

There are few things harder to do than trying to arrange all the logistics of a NASCAR race that has been postponed by rain. NASCAR wants to get the race in now, the TV network wants time to set the table, and the TV viewers want some action.

Saturday, ESPN's coverage of the Daytona Busch race had many positive elements and several interesting decisions. Rather than begin the telecast with the ESPN Infield Studio and host Allen Bestwick, the network decided to go directly to play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch. On Friday night, Bestwick had done most of the "heavy lifting" for the network through a multi-hour rain delay.

Using Bestwick during this "opening" sequence would have allowed things to be orchestrated from the infield all the way through the first pace lap. As it was, TV viewers did not see or hear from Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree in the announce booth until that time. Punch tried his best to coordinate things, but it would have been a lot easier from the million dollar infield studio.

The Daly Planet receives a lot of email about the rock music "thing" that the networks have embraced in regard to a NASCAR theme song. ESPN's tired Aerosmith tune and TNT's motorcycle anthem "Born to be Wild" are just a TV phenomenon that will fade over time. There were many years of country music, then many years of dramatic orchestra style themes, and now we have hard rock. It certainly is...interesting.

ESPN continues to do a good thing with a designated in-car "reporter" and then an in-race crew chief. Kevin Harvick shows that he "gets it," as he looks into the camera with his racing helmet visor raised and uses hand gestures to make his point. Things have come a long way since one of the first ESPN in-car cameras caught driver Dick Trickle smoking a cigarette as the cars ran around during a caution period. Trickle had his smokes taped to the roll bar and a lighter in his pocket. How things have changed.

ESPN's "full throttle" feature is either loved or hated by fans. It certainly brings a lot of information to the viewer through the TV speakers, but also confuses, with many voices saying exactly the same thing. It might be fun if ESPN isolated a group of radios, say the top twenty cars, and lets fans hear the results. In the meantime, it always better on a green flag when the audio is from the participants, and not the announcers.

Viewers did not see or hear Allen Bestwick until well into the race. Like many others, I thought ESPN had closed the Infield Studio for this postponement. Never did Punch or any other announcer include, or reference, Bestwick. When he and Brad Daugherty did speak, it was a reminder of just how much fun the Saturday night rain-out telecast was with Bestwick at the helm.

Shannon Spake has really been a surprise this season. She has got to be one of the most hardworking people on the ESPN team this year. She is on pit road, reporting for NASCAR Now, and often featured on other ESPN NASCAR "content" programs and websites like In this race, she was all over the place from pre-race through the post-race interviews while asking good questions. What a transition from her SPEED Channel days.

ESPN continued to make good pictures and sound with its slightly damp equipment. Viewers have become so accustomed to superior technical operations, it is just taken for granted. It was interesting that ESPN's Programming Department did not use the lower third "ticker" on the screen to tell viewers why the normal programming had been pre-empted for this postponed race. They tried to use a "now" and "next" graphic, but it did not contain the right information. This should have been done both in graphic form and by the on-air announcers every thirty minutes. Its called a "scene set," and is TV 101.

Rusty Wallace once again faced the familiar situation of dealing with his son involved in another accident in a Busch race. Rusty has been doing a pretty good job of walking the line, but its obvious that things are not exactly going the way he had envisioned for his son's season. This is one element of the ESPN telecasts that viewers do not miss when Dale Jarrett steps-into the play-by-play role.

As usual when the NEXTEL Cup gang is out in full force, the Busch Series becomes nothing more than "Cup Lite." ESPN enjoyed good racing, but the drivers battled aero problems that made it tough to pass on the final couple of laps. The finish was under the green, but it was single file. Fans of this series will understand that when Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Brad Coleman, and Stephen Leicht are battling for the win, the Busch Series is really showing its true colors.

In this broadcast, nothing was more obvious than the fact that Allen Bestwick should have been in the broadcast booth, and that Jerry Punch should have been the infield host. Bestwick's play-by-play skills are superior to Punch, and often times Punch is busy following stories in the a reporter. ESPN truly needs a "voice" in the booth to simply call the action and direct traffic. That is Allen Bestwick.

In addition, this would unlock the "box" that Punch is contained inside in his current role. He would be a great host of NASCAR Now, a great host of NASCAR Countdown, and a great feature reporter and voice of the sport on SportsCenter. Think of the in-depth features that Punch could contribute to the network with his years of perspective. Reporting is his comfort zone. What he is not comfortable in, and clearly so, is three hours of directing traffic on a live race.

It was fitting that ESPN chose to allow Bestwick to close out the program from the Infield Studio. It seems that with some simple changes ESPN has found a good combination of talent in the Bristol HD Studio, on the infield NASCAR Countdown set, and in the broadcast booth. In a couple of days, we will be told by ESPN which personnel they will put in what positions for the Chicago race.

This decision by ESPN will be critical, as Chicago is the last "dress rehearsal" before the network takes over the NEXTEL Cup Series for the rest of the season. The ESPN NASCAR team had a very solid weekend, including a one hour news show, a rain delay, and a Saturday race. With a couple of small changes, they might be ready to return to the position the network held with fans many years ago.

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