Friday, August 3, 2007

ESPN's Still Sorting Out Qualifying

As ESPN moves deeper into their NASCAR TV package, they are beginning to experience the same type of logistical growth pains that their NASCAR Now show did earlier in the season.

When ESPN was not showing any NEXTEL Cup action on "their network," NASCAR Now was pre-empted or delayed several times. As I remember, the culprit was women's tennis.

The Daly Planet spoke earlier this season about the challenges facing the ESPN2 channel. This network has been operating for over five years without one minute of live NASCAR programming, and now it has to accommodate many hours of coverage each racing weekend.

As veteran ESPN viewers know, the ESPN2 channel has been used extensively for tennis, because it is a sport that is played on TV on Fridays. In many tournaments, the quarterfinals occur on Friday with four big live matches. The one key element that tennis and NASCAR share clock. Both these sports "go" until there is a winner, and stop playing outdoors when it rains.

Friday at Pocono, ESPN stepped into qualifying mode once again with very mixed results. SPEED has worked very hard for the last several years to figure out how to do good solid qualifying coverage, which is a lot harder than it looks. Since cars do not "pause" for commercial breaks, a network has to decide whether to miss cars on the track while in break, or use a "TiVo style" delay mechanism to show every car.

As Daly Planet readers have pointed out, this often allows the drivers in reality to be back in their motorhomes watching the end of "qualifying" as the "TiVo delay" slowly moves the "content" of the show back due to commercials. The positive element is that everyone qualifies on-the-air. The negative is that the show takes a much longer time to air.

ESPN has decided to do qualifying the old fashioned way, just let them run. The network is going to commercial break and allowing cars to be "missed" on the air. How ESPN2 decides when to go to break, and who not to show, has got to be an interesting story. Friday at Pocono, it appeared to be rather random.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree used the ESPN Infield Studio to host the qualifying coverage. During the show, they added a nice element by inviting various drivers on the set and allowing them to add their voice to the qualifying while also answering questions from the analysts. Mark Martin in a DEI hat was certainly an interesting site for veteran fans.

Unfortunately, ESPN's first commercial break in the program covered completely the qualifying run of Jimmie Johnson. Viewers returned to find Johnson already slowed down and heading for pit road.

At this moment in time, ESPN found out the big problem with trying to replay a qualifying lap at Pocono. It is actually even more boring than watching the live lap. The bottom line is, the only real appeal of qualifying is the drama of a live lap as it happened.

ESPN's next commercial break found it missing Ricky Rudd's lap, and setting the tone for the telecast. Qualifying on the track was going to be shown when ESPN wanted to show it, and not one moment more. As NASCAR fans found out at Indy, as the live show progressed, it became more about the off-track ESPN content, even as the cars flew-by in the background.

ESPN2's graphic package and on-screen technology for qualifying is just fine. The black background, the big video box for the live laps of the car, and the "upper third" crawl of in-progress times and positions is super. The only problem is the lower third "sports ticker." It sure is tough to process all that information and then have your eye drawn over-and-over to the bottom of the screen every time the ticker tells you the baseball match-ups for that night.

Even though it quickly became apparent that the drivers were only running one lap at speed, ESPN was unable to cover the first laps and then air the other content like interviews and features. It was a struggle to get comfortable with this format, and the fact that the drivers and Mother Nature were dictating "reality" to the network.

As the show progressed, pit reporter Jamie Little took center stage as the network tried repeatedly to "pump" their live coverage of the Busch Series race in Montreal on Saturday. Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, and lots of in-program promos reminded viewers of that event. Of course, had the ESPN announcers in Montreal forwarded what is called an "advancer," viewers might have been able to see the track, hear from the announcers, and actually be excited to tune-in on Saturday. No such luck.

Done with their Montreal promos, ESPN brought-in live Jeremy McGrath from the X-Games. McGrath is a great guy who would like to have a stock car career, but the interview went way too long and completely covered the qualifying effort of fan favorite Kenny Wallace. That was a shame after viewers saw him have motor problems earlier in the show and then the team's struggle to find a solution was well documented on-the-air.

For ESPN, promoting the X-Games was the priority, but for NASCAR fans the Kenny Wallace engine problem and his last try at qualifying was important. He missed the race.

ESPN chose to not show one moment of Kenny at speed, and keep McGrath and Jamie Little talking on the screen the entire time. The ultimate irony was ESPN's NASCAR analyst Rusty Wallace, who had to sit silently while McGrath and Little traded words about the "step-up" competition. Rusty did not get to comment on his brother's continuing efforts to make races, and it seemed he had absolutely never heard of "MotoX Step-Up."

What a great example of NASCAR's agenda to televise qualifying and ESPN's agenda to promote itself coming head-to-head. It was very easy for viewers to see who won.

ESPN lucked into a nice moment when Kurt Busch was on the infield set as Dale Earnhardt Junior beat his time and took the pole. Junior's "rain delay" set the network schedule off-balance, and in the most ironic twist of the day, pushed live qualifying overtime...right into women's tennis. What a small world.

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