Sunday, July 29, 2007
Finally, SPEED has broken through with its one hour NEXTEL Cup wrap-up show called Victory Lane. Normally a hap-hazard and casual affair, SPEED has worked very hard over the past several weeks to bring this show up to a "network" level with increased production efforts and manpower.
Even as ESPN was still on-the-air, SPEED was beginning to record this tape-delayed show by watching Tony Stewart and his pit crew climb the Indy fence. Host John Roberts set the scene, while trying his best to control the enthusiasm of panelists Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace.
SPEED's Bob Dilner immediately had great sound bites with Kevin Harvick venting his frustration on Tony Stewart and the way he was treated. Stewart's version of what happened on the last several laps differed greatly from Harvick's. Both Spencer and Wallace basically called it "racing action."
Victory Lane's subsequent video highlight package of the race was outstanding. Then, the crew took the time to go through the entire field and document what happened to each and every team. This is exactly what ESPN needed to do before signing off the air.
Sure enough, race winner Tony Stewart walked right over to the SPEED set and appeared as the featured guest. Tony loves Jimmy Spencer, and they had a great time talking about the battle with Harvick. Good old Kenny Wallace asked Stewart about his new clean-shaven look and the kids that rode with him on his celebration lap. Stewart looked relieved and talked very clearly about his feelings and how his luck has been holding out this season.
This type of interview is exactly why viewers enjoy SPEED. There was no hype, no drama, and nothing phony. Stewart said things like "I pray for days like this" and "I wanted the track to be as slick as it could be." Then, Kenny Wallace was hilarious in kidding Tony about taking a big drink out of a bottle with his hands off the wheel in the final laps. Wallace asked if Tony was driving with his knees, and Tony said yes. These are the conversations that only happen on Victory Lane.
Juan Montoya talked honestly about his Brickyard experience with Bob Dilner, and he continues to build his reputation as a fan-friendly favorite. Juan keeps things simple, and complimented his team mate Reed Sorenson. Wallace and Spencer "tagged" this story with their comments on the entire Chip Gannassi team.
SPEED then wrapped with interviews of Sorenson and Jeff Gordon before the panel gave their views of the race, the next six events leading to "The Chase," and their predictions for the championship.
For a TV series that started as an afterthought, Victory Lane has proven to be a critical program for fans who want to know the "why" and "how" of the race they saw earlier that day. Spencer, Wallace, and Roberts have proven to be as popular with the drivers in Victory Lane as they are with the fans that flock to their RaceDay program. Sunday in Indy, they put on a very good show.
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The email started pouring in minutes after Tony Stewart crossed the finish line of The Brickyard 400. It came from many different locations around the country, and represented fans of many teams in the sport, except one. Not one email was from a Tony Stewart fan, and that was for one reason. He was the only driver who fans saw cross the finish line at Indy.
Saturday night, the final lap of the Busch Series race on ESPN featured a group of tightly-packed racers who were thundering to the line at the wonderful short track near Indy called O'Reilly Raceway Park. As the winner closed-in on the finish line, ESPN took a wide camera shot and inserted the scoring graphic to show fans the finishing order.
Then, drama and inexperience took over and ESPN only showed the winner cross the line. They showed his pit crew jumping around, the winner slowing down, and then more of the pit crew. By that time, the entire field had finished the race, and there were cars spun on the track, paybacks still in progress, and at least one car with a window net down spoiling for a fight. Announcer Marty Reid was fit to be tied, because he knew fans had missed the entire thing.
The Daly Planet wrote in a Saturday column, "if ESPN decides that fans only need to see the winner of the Brickyard 400 cross the finish line and no other cars, there is going to be a problem." Well, Houston...we have a problem.
In what may be the most colossal sports blunder since the Heidi Bowl, ESPN welcomed themselves back to NASCAR by failing to show anyone other than the winner of The Brickyard 400 finish the race. ESPN had asked fans to join them for a one hour pre-race show, and then a three hour race. Unless you were a Tony Stewart fan, the reward for your efforts was...nothing.
If your driver was fighting it out for a top ten, or struggling for a top twenty finish, it did not matter to ESPN. All the stories they had been following for three hours suddenly did not matter. The fundamental fact that race fans want to see the battle to the line by the field did not matter. Even basic knowledge that people get passed in the final straightaway could not change ESPN's idea that what fans wanted was drama and not racing.
Earlier this season, viewers went through a run of this with Fox Sports. It infuriated fans when at a short track like Bristol or Richmond, the Fox gang chose to show only the winner, and purposefully excluded the entire rest of the field. Now, on its first race back into NEXTEL Cup, ESPN does the exact same thing...and at The Brickyard of all places.
Imagine being a fan of Juan Montoya, and about to watch him finish second at The Brickyard where he has already won the Indy 500 and participated in a Formula-1 race. How frustrating to have that moment yanked away so viewers could see Stewart slowing down, hear him yell on the radio, or see his crew jump around?
As The Daly Planet has said so many times, how can NASCAR continue to permit this to happen? One reader sent in this analogy. The Kentucky Derby only happens once a year, and it only takes several minutes to run. Imagine if the TV Director chose to only show the winning horse cross the finish line and exclude the rest of the field? Even in an annual horse race, with only fifteen participants, the TV audience would be outraged. The bottom line is, it would never happen.
Here in "NASCAR land," drivers race for about three hours with no break. Millions of fans nationwide support their driver and team with great devotion every week. They gather in all kinds of settings to "pull for their guy." If the driver finishes in the top ten, or even in the top twenty, doesn't that group of fans have the right to see him finish?
In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, SPEED puts up a scoring graphic, "takes" a camera wideshot, and lets the trucks race to the line every time. When I spoke to a TV crew member about this issue, he said "how is that so hard to do?" It only takes literally a minute to watch a screaming NASCAR field thunder across the stripe.
This year in Charlotte, Kyle Petty guided his Coca-Cola sponsored Petty Dodge to a third place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. The ovation when he crossed the finish line was overwhelming, as it was his best finish in a long time and he had earned it. On TV, however, no one saw it. The only people who saw Kyle finish the Coke 600 in the Coke car at Charlotte were the fans in the stands. The NASCAR on Fox Director chose to show TV viewers the winner...slowing down.
Sunday's Indy mistake was huge because of the high-profile drivers excluded from the coverage. Montoya, Gordon, and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Two of the best stories were Mark Martin finishing sixth, and Ward Burton leading his rag-tag underfunded team to a fourteenth place at Indy. If you are a NASCAR fan, you understand that these things are moments in history to be enjoyed.
What they are not, are moments to be taken away by a TV crew inexperienced in the sport or driven by an agenda of fake drama or hype. What fan would rather watch Tony Stewart slow down than see the entire field rumble across the finish line?
As The Daly Planet wrote on Saturday, "does anyone believe that there was even one fan at the track that watched the winner of the race cross the stripe and then put their hands over their eyes?"
While this may not apply to even one of the two hundred thousand plus fans at this race, TV viewers certainly know a group to whom it applies. Anyone unfortunate enough to watch The Brickyard 400 on ESPN.
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Everyone was eagerly awaiting the first NEXTEL Cup race coverage by ESPN. Viewers had seen the broadcast team of Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree working on ESPN's Busch Series this season. What they had not seen was the added layer of "special TV stuff" that ESPN was going to bring to the table for The Brickyard 400.
Brent Musburger was heralded as the telecast host, although he played no active role once the racing began. After hosting the NASCAR Countdown show, Suzy Kolber, Brad Daugherty, and Dale Jarrett remained on the set and were featured frequently in the racing portion of the telecast. ESPN also bought Tim Brewer a new "Tech Center" to be used in explaining the technical issues that popped-up during the race.
Finally, ESPN had promoted their "Draft Track" coverage which allows an animated version of the air flow on the track between cars to be displayed on the screen by using colored graphic elements. All of these elements were newly added for the NEXTEL Cup coverage, and definitely changed the on-air dynamic that ESPN's Busch Series viewers had come to know.
No one was more deeply affected by this "shared attention" that Jerry Punch. Now, Suzy Kolber was being featured as a co-anchor, and she often voiced the program elements in the show like billboards and promos. The Infield Studio was used frequently during a caution period instead of the normal flow of pit reporters bringing viewers up-to-date about activity on pit road. Punch was not the star of the show, as he had been for the Busch Series races.
Veteran ESPN viewers who watch other sports on the network have seen this approach before. The actual sporting activity becomes almost secondary to the many announcers, the technical TV "tricks," and multiple TV studio sets that seem to be present on many ESPN events.
Punch was working hard to maintain his focus on racing as things on the track began to tell the "real" story of the race. Give Rusty Wallace credit, he was as plain spoken as he has been on the Busch Series, and so was his partner Andy Petree. Unfortunately, this flow was often interrupted by the Infield Studio crew who had their own agenda.
One program element that did not work out was the use of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as ESPN's in-race reporter. Although his crew chief was helpful to Andy Petree, Junior was having absolutely none of Wallace asking him questions and seemed to be on the edge of being very annoyed. Maybe we will subsequently find out what that was all about.
Tim Brewer was the mystery man, as he and the "Tech Center" were used sparingly. After all the hype in the media, Brewer was the odd man out because there was no real time for him to talk. He also did not appear well-informed on several occasions, but did a nice job with the Junior engine failure. The Infield Studio and Suzy Kolber took-up a lot of the content time that normally would be given to the "Tech Center."
Musburger returned about halfway through the race, and after asserting his presence Suzy Kolber appeared and allowed Dale Jarrett and Brady Daugherty to offer their analysis of the race. Once again, this would have been a perfect time to allow Tim Brewer to point out the "tech issues" that were key to the race. Instead, Daugherty again summed-up the obvious and led into a pre-produced feature on Jeff Gordon actually placed in the middle of the race. This was a big wow for veteran fans. What was happening on the track, and in the race, was again made secondary.
Around 5PM Eastern Time, ESPN cut-into the NASCAR race to update viewers on Barry Bonds and his baseball pursuits. Musburger followed with another trivia-style factoid before returning the broadcast to Punch and crew. Unfortunately, the racing action on the track was sizzling, and it included both a car into the wall and a head-to-head battle for the lead. Again, the actual racing action appears to be "secondary" to ESPN's pre-planned production features. Perhaps, many NASCAR fans are asking...Barry who?
With less than fifty laps to go, ESPN finally offered an actual race recap using the pit reporters. This helped viewers to get a clue about the on-track activity of the non-leaders because the network was having a hard time following the stories of the teams coming back-up through the field. Clint Bowyer was a good example.
In this race, even under green flag conditions, ESPN used Kolber and the Infield Studio to show video highlights of the race in-progress. Jarrett and Daugherty commented on the highlights and then returned the broadcast to Punch and company in the booth. In the "old" ESPN NASCAR days, there would never be an interruption of green flag racing by a pre-produced element. Several key points of this race had to be replayed because of ESPN's own production elements being played.
As usual, ESPN continued to have a good technical season in "NASCAR land" this year. The Brickyard pictures were excellent, the audio was consistent, and the graphics were crisp. The "triple split" on pit stops worked well, and the in-progress race graphics scrolled at a good speed. Very quietly, the ESPN technical operations gang has put together an excellent season of quality TV for NASCAR fans.
With twenty laps to go and the race raging, ESPN finally let Dale Jarrett talk directly with Wallace and Petree in the booth. DJ really lent another veteran perspective to the coverage and helped bring this broadcast another point of view. Wallace and Petree really click well with Jarrett, and it allowed the announcing crew to end their part of the race on a good note.
Unfortunately, Dave Burns conducted a horrible interview of winner Tony Stewart. It was clear that Stewart was increasingly annoyed with Burns inept questions, and this anger ultimately resulted in a profanity on national television. Perhaps, Mr. Burns will be relegated to the goofy stories which are his specialty.
The final lap of this race is going to be the subject of an additional post. Please leave your opinion about the ESPN general coverage of this event on this column.
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The opening "tease" for the NASCAR Countdown show on ESPN was a strange mix of hype and drama. It assumed that NASCAR fans were tuning-in to the first race of the season. In fact, there were only seventeen races remaining in the year long schedule. ESPN had just not televised any of them.
Brent Musburger opened the show with a very strong statement that Indy was the top race in NASCAR for history and drama. What Brent really was saying is ESPN does not telecast either of the races from Daytona. So, for ESPN, this is their Daytona 500 and they are going to eliminate all references to the earlier part of the season.
After Dale Jarrett missed the race, he was added to the Infield Studio panel. Suzy Kolber hosted, with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty alongside. Kolber has been a quick study in NASCAR, and rarely misses a beat. She quickly sent the telecast down to Allen Bestwick for an interview with the pole sitter.
That done, ESPN had to decide on how to fill the remaining hour. Apparently, an Aerosmith music video was just what the fans needed. It certainly was strange that almost none of the racing video used during the song was footage from The Brickyard. In fact, the video featured lots of Daytona footage. That must not have made Mr. Musburger very happy. Maybe, "Sweet Irony" could be the next Aerosmith CD title.
Suzy Kolber left the studio for a pre-recorded interview with Chip Ganassi and Juan Montoya. Why this was not done by Rusty Wallace or Brad Daugherty is a good question. Kolber asked scripted questions that resulted in a fun interview but did not get across the kind of information that NASCAR fans needed about this race. Once again, ESPN's perspective is that this is the "first" race, while fans have been on this trip since February.
Brad Daugherty has been hanging in there since his introduction as the "voice of the fans" back in February. Alongside of Rusty and Dale, he was limited to answering general questions about non-technical issues. Why Daugherty was not allowed to interview anyone, prepare any kind of feature, or do anything outside of his little "box" begs the question of why he is along for the ride?
ESPN carefully avoided the reality of the DEI/Ginn merger. During a Dave Burns interview with Martin, nothing was said about the points situation, or the abrupt lay-offs of both drivers and crews. Mark Martin was never put on-the-spot about anything, and he carefully stated the company line that this merger was all about improving DEI as opposed to a sell-off of a failing team with only two assets, Mark Martin himself and a car in the top thirty-five.
Musburger returned halfway through the show to re-direct the focus of the telecast to Midwestern drivers who grew-up racing dirt. This was another professionally produced ESPN feature, and it gave fans a view of the sprint and midget car series that spend summertime racing across the Midwest. This feature would have been better served to appear in NASCAR Now, ESPN's weekly show.
It actually had nothing to do with the race itself, and took time away from the "hard news" stories that ESPN ignored like DJ missing the race, the "hired guns" in the field used to qualify, or the fact that NASCAR decided this would not be a a COT race. The COT for next year was never even mentioned.
In a very strange twist, ESPN re-aired a feature on Kevin Harvick that viewers had already seen earlier this week. NASCAR Countdown is the big time, and using dated features that have already aired is a bad decision. In addition, there was no live folow-up or "tag" with Harvick. Instead, Dale Junior was interviewed by Mike Massaro and gave fans solid information about his car, and his feelings about his chances.
Finally, with only ten minutes left in the show, ESPN's NASCAR "Insider" Marty Smith appeared to address some "hard news" issues. Following up on the Dale Jr. interview, Smith updated the DEI details with regards to "number gate," DEI sponsors, and for the first time exposed Mountain Dew as a player in the sponsor game.
Incredibly, Kolber then lead Around The Horn's Tim Cowlishaw and Brad Daugherty on a completely speculative "pick 'em" feature about who gets in "The Chase" and who does not. The transformation between the "NASCAR experts" like Wallace and Jarrett and the "ESPN experts" like Cowlishaw and Daugherty was harsh.
With only minutes to go before race time, this topic was off-center and bordered on the ridiculous. One spin, one blown tire, one bad pit stop, and these "expert" picks go right out the window. Maybe that stuff works in baseball, but not NASCAR.
With only minutes left in the NASCAR Countdown show, viewers finally saw Allen Bestwick. Following a feature on Jeff Gordon's Bowling Tournament, Bestwick only got a minute to try and get Jeff's feelings on the actual race and his chances. Then, Dr. Jerry Punch was finally introduced and his on-air team took a quick look at the race and the field.
Wrapping-up NASCAR Countdown was Brent Musburger in the new ESPN "tech center." The network's attempt at expanding the cut-a-way car has resulted in a stand-alone unit that gives Tim Brewer a quiet location to offer his technical information. Incredibly, with both Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick only a short distance away, it was studio host Suzy Kolber who interviewed Jimmie Johnson on the starting grid.
Several things are clear from ESPN's first NASCAR Countdown show before a NEXTEL Cup Series race. Everything that happened in the past, broadcast by either TNT or Fox Sports, will never be mentioned or referenced. For ESPN, the NEXTEL Cup series starts with The Brickyard 400 and continues to Homestead.
In addition, fan favorites Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick have been pushed aside by Shannon Spake and Jamie Little, true ESPN "cast members." Finally, everything revolved around Suzy Kolber and Brent Musburger. Neither of these two even took a minute to offer an introduction of Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, Tim Brewer, or any of the pit reporters. This was ESPN's first NEXTEL Cup race, with many new fans tuning-in.
What was new to fans, and should have been addressed, was ESPN's own history with NASCAR, who was going to be on-the-air this season for the NEXTEL Cup broadcasts, and what other NASCAR-related programs like the Busch Series and NASCAR Now are also on the ESPN family of networks. None of this was done.
Dr. Jerry Punch is the face of NASCAR on ESPN at the track. He has put his heart-and-soul into the year-long ESPN efforts with the Busch Series races. He should have been an integral part of this pre-race show, instead of being excluded. He could have interviewed Ganassi, done the feature with Gordon, or been able to offer his views on the topics discussed in the pre-race instead of Daugherty. Punch was the odd-man out on NASCAR Countdown.
ESPN now has sixteen more versions of this show to produce, and soon Kolber will also be doing double-duty as the sideline reporter for Monday Night Football. Now, with the glitz and glamour of Indy gone, the crew will move to the Pocono hills and be faced with the daunting task of focusing on the actual racing, the team stories, and the beginning of "The Chase."
It will be interesting to see how things go on NASCAR Countdown when Brent Musburger has to say "You're looking live at a big, boring track in Pocono, its really hot, and there is no room service at my hotel."
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With The Brickyard 400 looming, SPEED decided to split their popular RaceDay program in two. The first thirty minute live show aired at 10AM Eastern Time, and the full two hour show would follow at noon. This was a new approach for the network, and the first thirty minute show required some collective thought about what to include.
Instead of twisting the program around to serve as a "teaser" for the following two hour show, SPEED tried to "squeeze" everything down to fit in this version. Unfortunately, it was a little off key and disjointed.
The RaceDay set is one of the best in racing. The crowd loves to be on camera, and even though SPEED cannot bring itself to focus on one sign or family at a time, its always good to see Americans out and having fun. Indy was no exception, with a great crowd enjoying the sunshine and the TV antics.
John Roberts, Jimmy Spencer, and Kenny Wallace were in a great mood, and had a great time over-stating the importance of this race, just as they over-state everything. That, of course, is one of the reasons fans watch RaceDay. Wallace and Spencer are hilarious in their enthusiasm and opinions. So far this season, its been a roller-coaster ride for those two in the credibility department. But, its always fun.
Roberts and company should have used this show to "set-up" their feature program, but other than "teasing" Wendy Venturini's Real Deal interview with Jeff Gordon, nothing else was focused on that goal. Spencer and Wallace both reacted to the DEI/Ginn merger with some politically correct answers after a colorful explanation of the merger by Venturini.
Unfortunately, SPEED inserted Ricki Rachtman for a weak feature about golfing at Indy. This was time consuming, and ultimately cost Wendy Venturini an opportunity to speak with the key man of the day, Chip Gannassi. Rachtman should have been saved for the two hour show, where his scripted antics can simply fill some time.
This edition of RaceDay was off the mark, and you had the feeling that both Roberts and Venturini knew it. There was no mention of SPEED's Friday night Truck Series race, and no highlights of the Busch race at ORP from Saturday. Team mates Reed Sorenson and Juan Montoya should have been interviewed live, or on tape, about their pole runs. Fans needed news, not goofy golfing.
If SPEED splits RaceDay in the future, perhaps they will focus on the fact that twenty-two minutes of content goes by quickly, and designating a significant amount of that time to preview the "big show" would be a better focus.
With ESPN going head-to-head with this early show with a one hour version of NASCAR Now, SPEED is going to have to clearly understand, as The Daly Planet pointed out earlier, things in "TV land" have changed. Now, when SPEED turns around, they are face-to-face with the most successful TV sports network in the history of cable television. The eight hundred pound gorilla has moved into their house, and is not leaving. Its time to acknowledge that fact, and deal with it.
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