Saturday, September 8, 2007
UPDATE 9/10/07: Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this article or post a comment. This was the most highly viewed column this year, and it was due to the quality of the reader comments.
The veteran ESPN TV crew made the transition to their sister company, the ABC broadcast network, Saturday night in Richmond, VA. The ESPN production team will produce all the NEXTEL Cup races on ABC for the remainder of the season.
Richmond is a short track, and ESPN struggled several weeks ago at another classic short track in Bristol, TN. Quick laps make it tough for a TV crew to incorporate elements of the telecast that do not relate directly to the racing action. This year, ESPN is loaded with those type of "away from the racing" production requirements.
The NASCAR Countdown pre-race show was shortened to thirty minutes in length, and hosted once again by Suzy Kolber. While Rusty Wallace appeared with Brad Daugherty in the new Infield Studio set, this program suffered from the same problem that would plague the telecast all night long. His name is Dale Earnhardt Junior.
Right away, the ESPN crew showed an elongated pre-produced "piece" documenting Junior's season up to this point. Pit reporter Mike Massaro appeared with Junior to "tag" the piece, and told him that viewers had just watched a video of his season. Junior said just three words..."pretty boring piece." That might have summed up this entire evening.
Something was then wrong between Kevin Harvick and ESPN. Having appeared earlier on other media outlets, Harvick was a no-show beside his own car and did not want to be interviewed before driver introductions. Pit reporter Allen Bestwick spoke with team owner Richard Childress in Harvick's place, but only asked one awkward question and then moved on. NASCAR fans were left incredulous.
Childress was one of the biggest stories of the week, with the legal wrangling between AT&T, NASCAR, and NEXTEL just having been settled. This was the first race back for Childress to have a sponsor on Jeff Burton's car. Nothing was asked, nothing was said, nothing was mentioned by the ESPN announcers.
Returning from commercial, Tim Brewer detailed the brake problems which always rear their ugly head at Richmond, and even more so now in the COT. To assist in the follow-up discussion, Kolber turned to a rock band named Daughtry. Incredibly, none of the musicians in the band chose to continue the discussion about brakes.
What they did do was play loudly in front of a bunch of awkward looking NASCAR fans who were taking time out from tuning their scanners and making sure they remembered a seat cushion this year. Everyone listened politely, as they always do when network TV sponsors this kind of thing. Nothing is worse than a rock band playing in the daytime on TV in front of a group of people who are completely mis-matched with their style of music.
Well, that was it for NASCAR Countdown. No mention of the bombshell press conference sending Gibbs Racing to Toyota, no Robert Yates selling his team and retiring, no Ricky Rudd missing his first race in forever...nothing. What a start to the biggest race of the season so far on national TV.
Kolber threw the ball to Dr. Jerry Punch in the booth, and from the beginning of the conversations it was clear that the single focus of the ESPN coverage Saturday night would be Junior. Sure, there were some other talking heads, the mandatory Aerosmith video, and even Jeff Burton as the in-race reporter.
ESPN, however, was not going to be distracted by the reality of the racing in front of its cameras in Richmond. They had already decided that they were going to make it all about Junior, regardless of what was actually happening on the track. They stuck with that philosophy all the way to the bitter end.
Maybe some production crew members were tired after a long Busch Series season, as ESPN's race Director often lagged behind the action, showing viewers taillights instead of headlights. On short tracks, the temptation not to "cut" a lot of cameras every lap is always there, and for ESPN it was certainly used.
This "being late" as it is called in TV land means the viewers always see the cars racing away from them, rather than toward them. While it is hard to maintain that pace of cutting several cameras every lap, this was a race that really needed it.
Between the slower COT and the pack racing early on, it was tough to watch things from literally a "behind the scenes" perspective. While the Director closed with a strong last fifty laps, the body of the race itself was tough to take. Its a good bet he was often busy setting up one of the many production elements ESPN mandates to be placed into each race. On this day, ESPN had one memorable classic moment.
The well-hyped Draft Tracker is an effect used at medium and large sized speedways to show viewers the techniques at each high-speed track for drafting and then passing other cars. ESPN has also used it to try and explain accidents that occur as a result of losing air off a spoiler or side of the car.
Friends, the race track in Richmond is three quarters of a mile long. It is one of the most well-known and loved short tracks on the NASCAR circuit. I am going to say it one more time...short track. After Clint Bowyer drove into the corner too hard and spun himself out against another car, someone at ESPN made a very bad decision.
To the amazement of NASCAR fans nationwide, the ESPN Draft Tracker appeared to explain that Clint had the air taken off the nose of his car and this aero problem caused the accident. If there was ever a moment where the fact that ESPN defines its own reality where NASCAR is concerned was verified...that was it.
Poor Rusty Wallace stuttered and stammered through a forced "explanation" that somehow at a short track aero problems had caused a crash. My opinion is that half the NASCAR fans were howling with laughter and the other half were looking for someone to help them up off the floor. This is certainly going to be a YouTube.com classic clip for many years. Clint Bowyer's aero problems cause his crash...at Richmond.
In the body of the race, a hard crash resulted in a red flag. What a great time to catch viewers up on all the news stories of the week that could not be placed in the NASCAR Countdown show. Well, that was a good thought. Instead, ESPN melted down in front of a national TV audience. It got so bad, Suzy Kolber wound up talking with Brad Daugherty about NFL Football on ESPN in the infield studio.
Anyone who reads Jayski or the other Internet websites knows this was one of the biggest weeks for NASCAR News in recent years. Somehow, despite the ten adults involved in announcing this broadcast and the many others involved in its production, ESPN's crew could do nothing but follow pit reporters as they talked to crew chiefs while the cars were stopped.
Incredibly, as the cars returned to the track the network went to commercial. In yet another defining moment, the ESPN crew missed the restart of the race...after a Red Flag period. This put Jerry Punch in a position to say the magic words viewers of ESPN and now ABC have heard so many times this season.
"We are just underway" says Punch repeatedly. "The green flag has just come out" is another Punch favorite. While this may have worked for TV announcers back in his earlier NASCAR stint with ESPN, someone should tell Punch about DirecTV's Hot Pass. Fans who are watching that coverage are seeing the entire race live, and they understand that often times Punch is not exactly saying what is true.
When ESPN returns from a commercial at a short track after a restart, they are often several laps into the green flag run. Something has to be addressed at the network with the timing of commercials after cautions. There is so much self-serving promotion and slick production elements forced into the races, the Producer cannot simply go to break and come back in time for the restart.
Viewers who watched the race know that the network's decision to follow Junior constantly resulted in the TV coverage missing all the racing incidents except one. Punch never gets excited, never calls the action, and simply looks at the TV when a big pile-up has happened and blurts out "trouble on the backstretch" in a monotone. This event was no exception. He looks, and sounds, like one tired guy.
ESPN again made great pictures and sound, with their sharp graphics package working well on ABC. The lack of a constant lower third sports ticker as viewers have on ESPN2 was wonderful, and their choice of other sports information graphics to include went very well. The use of side-by-side video boxes was fine for the Tech Center and interviews, but it was a tough sell on a three quarter mile track to have two video boxes both showing race action.
Blessed with a good finish, the network remained to do interviews for several minutes. Again, someone in the TV truck made a very bad decision. Neither David Ragan or Johnny Sauter was interviewed after the race. Only the big names, and the drivers in The Chase were included. With some more laps, Ragan may have won the event, while Sauter was just off his appearance in the NASCAR in Primetime TV series and finished in the top five. That series...is on ABC.
Finally, Mike Massaro was put in perhaps the worst position a pit reporter has ever endured. Interviewing a tired and disappointed Dale Junior, Massaro finished his couple of questions, and then something strange happened. He was told to start again and ask more questions. No doubt fans felt for Junior even as he was hugged by his crew chief and looked like he wanted to cry.
That was not enough for the ESPN crew, who forced a clearly dumbfounded Massaro to keep peppering Junior with questions. For the first time, it was clear to many viewers at home that the ESPN guys are out for blood. They want someone to melt down, someone to fight, someone to cry. In order to get that, they will do anything they need to. This was painful to watch.
Some NASCAR teams will just come right out and say that short tracks are not their specialty. They like the longer and faster superspeedways and that type of racing. After Bristol and now Richmond, I think it is fair to say that the ESPN crew would rather have the long fast laps of a Talladega or Fontana than the quick and difficult action of Bristol and Richmond.
Now, the network returns to its stomping grounds in nearby New Hampshire, and a big flat track. Hopefully, this should allow for a return to sanity and end the hype of Junior vs. the world. With twelve drivers about to enter the play-offs, its going to be interesting to see where ESPN puts their ABC focus next weekend.
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Back on July 15th, The Daly Planet published a column about the RaceDay program on the SPEED Channel. The idea was that SPEED had hit on a combination for a NASCAR pre-race show that the actual networks showing the races had not found.
Simply by putting everything under the sun into RaceDay, SPEED was able to expand it to two hours in length. Then, when the program continued to remain strong, the network made one of their biggest programming decisions in their history.
SPEED decided to change the time of the show and schedule it so that the final hour of RaceDay overlapped with NASCAR Countdown. The Countdown show is the pre-race program for both ESPN and ABC.
After multiple problems establishing a host, the ESPN family decided on an in-house selection. They pulled Monday Night Football sideline reporter Suzy Kolber over to NASCAR Countdown. The results have been mediocre at best.
This weakness was quickly exploited by SPEED. The network poured a lot of additional resources into this program, and it began to show. SPEED already had an established host in John Roberts, and a trusted reporter in Wendy Venturini. What the network needed to do was get Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace focused on their roles in the show.
Both Spencer and Wallace have "grown-up" on SPEED in their TV experience, and now it was time for the network to turn them loose. This unlikely pair has become cult celebrities among NASCAR fans, and are enjoying much greater popularity on the TV side of the business then they ever did as drivers.
Along the way, both Spencer and Wallace have stuck their collective feet in their collective mouths, but that was also part of their role. No one has said that these two will be performing brain surgery anytime soon, so the expectation of their role is some veteran perspective and then some good old-fashioned fun.
After the first couple of weeks overlapping ESPN's coverage, SPEED found that ESPN did not respond with any additional features or resources, they just kept to the entertainment-style formula that ESPN seems to be forced into this year.
SPEED mixes the outlandish with the honest. They work the outrageous comments right alongside the serious interviews and news items. This fluid movement between the over-the-top commentary of Spencer flowing right into a serious "Real Deal" segment with Venturini makes this program work. Viewers never know what is coming next, but they want to see it when it does.
This Saturday, as ABC took over the NEXTEL Cup television for the rest of the season, SPEED again stepped-up to the plate. This time, they swung for the fences. It was the final race before The Chase, it was at night, it was in Richmond. SPEED decided it was time for a special three hour version of RaceDay.
This extravaganza played up against a thirty minute abbreviated version of ABC's NASCAR Countdown that experienced big problems. Few of the top NASCAR stories were mentioned, ESPN's fascination with Dale Earnhardt Junior continued, and a rock band performance was inserted into the shortened twenty-two minutes of pre-race show. This was the worst NASCAR Countdown of the season by far.
SPEED, on the other hand, brought-in their Trackside team to bolster the announcing corp and establish a second on-location set at the track. Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond, and Larry McReynolds bring a tremendous amount of NASCAR credibility to the airwaves, and their appearance in this special RaceDay worked well.
The one common thread noticed by viewers watching SPEED's NASCAR coverage is that no one takes anything too seriously. Certainly, hard news and personal stories of struggle are covered honestly, but there is always the feeling that fun is lurking right around the corner. Even the good natured teasing between the regular RaceDay and Trackside crews on this show was just fun.
In the end, SPEED had pulled-off a live pre-race program that was longer than many of the Busch races. Fans who like the Wal-Mart approach to TV while they are waiting for the actual race continue to be attracted to RaceDay. There is always something for everyone, there is plenty of time to enjoy it, and when its over...you think it might be fun to do again soon.
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Tonight, ABC Sports will be showing the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race live from Richmond, VA. The NASCAR on ESPN production team will be producing the race.
Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree will host the coverage from the booth, with Allen Bestwick, Mike Massaro, Jamie Little and Dave Burns on pit road. Tim Brewer will be in the Tech Center.
NASCAR Countdown runs thirty minutes tonight, starting at 7PM Eastern Time. Suzy Kolber will be hosting alongside Brad Daugherty.
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