Sunday, September 23, 2007

ABC Continues To Tweak NEXTEL Cup Telecasts

There was no doubt about it, Sunday afternoon at Dover was going to be a long day. Four hundred laps on a one mile high-banked track is like super-sizing an afternoon at Bristol, TN. The grind takes its toll on the teams, the equipment, and even the TV crew.

Saturday afternoon the NASCAR on ESPN gang that produces the telecasts for both ESPN2 and ABC presented a sparkling Busch Series telecast. Stripped of many production elements that have bogged-down earlier productions, the ESPN2 telecast sizzled. It was all about racing, and the pieces just clicked.

NASCAR viewers this year have seen ESPN move announcers around and change production elements as they tweak their first TV season back in NASCAR. Using their Busch Series coverage as a production model, they rolled out their portion of the NEXTEL Cup schedule loaded for bear. They had all the latest bells and whistles.

Unfortunately, NASCAR does not lend itself to the type of "extras" that the TV crew was trying to insert. The telecasts on ABC had a show host, lots of Infield Studio segments, SportsCenter updates, promos for other sports, and many glossy pre-taped "bumpers" that showed the driver's faces as the program went to commercial break.

By the Pocono race, things got out-of-hand. The race itself became a distraction. The hip-hop music was pounding, the announcers seemed to be on-camera more than the drivers, and the hype for other sports on ESPN was everywhere. Give credit to the ESPN production executives, who jumped right-in to fix things. They have been working on the Cup telecasts race-by-race, and viewers have noticed the changes.

The Sunday Dover telecast retained the SportsCenter updates, the Infield Studio recaps, and the dreaded Draft Tracker. But, the show host was gone. Tim Brewer was also used frequently in the Tech Center as issues in the race presented themselves. It was a balancing act between an action-packed race, and the use of all the ABC TV "gizmos."

Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree have been talking about the sport in their own way since the beginning of the season. Rusty has worked hard to eliminate his "catch phrases," and Petree has been trying to focus on his role as the "TV crew chief."

Today, Wallace continued his "aero loose" theme that viewers know all too well. Certainly, it appears that sometimes when the Draft Tracker effect is used by Wallace, maybe it isn't actually "all about the air."

In the second half of the race, when the drivers are tired and hanging-on for their very survival, things also got that way in the TV booth. The Daly Planet has mentioned several times that Dr. Jerry Punch seems to be very tired, and in this race he had trouble raising the excitement level no matter what was transpiring on the track. These telecasts really miss a high-energy play-by-play announcer who can pump-up both the volume and the viewers when things get exciting.

The pit stop "triple split" and the side-by-side video boxes worked very well again in this telecast. The Director and Producer are getting more comfortable mixing different video and camera elements in this effect, and its flowing smoothly. Strangely, many camera shots were framed too tightly for the upper and lower third video "tickers" on the screen. Sometimes, wider is better for the TV viewer...even in HD.

The ABC Network Master Control had some problems early in the race. Viewers in the Pacific Time Zone saw an entire segment of NASCAR Countdown appear out of a commercial break and air completely about one hour into the live race. While this was a mistake, it was not mentioned on the air or explained on any type of graphic to apologize for the error. Daly Planet readers from Alaska to San Diego were not very happy.

Jerry Punch promoted the commercial free final portion of the race as he did on Saturday in the Busch Series event. Unfortunately, things in the Cup race put ABC in the position of over-ruling that Producer decision and inserting additional commercial inventory. Apparently, there is a bit of a revenue difference between ESPN2 and the ABC national television network.

Punch's explanation that the caution flags somehow "caused" several more commercial breaks just did not wash. Even during the red flag, the choice to stay or go to commercial is something to be honest about to the viewers. If you are going to commercial, then say you are paying the bills...and go. However, if you commit on-the-air to this being the commercial free portion of the race, then don't.

Thanks again to the production team for letting viewers watch the top twenty cars cross the finish line. Even at a fast-paced track like Dover, there was plenty of time to watch all of that, and still capture the excitement of the winning driver and team. What a positive change embraced by the network for the viewers.

As the season winds-down, Dover really battered some Chasers, and threw the plans of many teams up in the air. Hopefully, this will give the NASCAR on ABC gang some new pep as well. Kansas is a nice track for TV, and has none of the logistical hassles of Dover. Now, with the standings shuffled, and tempers a bit tight, the TV gang can go at this race with no pre-set agenda and no pre-produced hype.

This is the time of the year that fans live for. Eight straight weeks of racing ahead, and suddenly no one is a favorite. This is exactly the type of situation that ABC and the ESPN executives had hoped for. Now, there is a storyline to follow, and a reason for new viewers to tune-into what had been a boring season. Kansas should be a crucial TV telecast for ABC in terms of capturing the NFL Football viewers as the race goes head-to-head with the Sunday 1PM early games. No easy task.

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NEXTEL Cup at Dover: In-Progress Comments

Today ABC Sports presents the NEXTEL Cup Series race from Dover, DE at 1:30PM Eastern Time today. The race is preceded by a thirty minute edition of NASCAR Countdown at 1PM.

Suzy Kolber hosts NASCAR Countdown with Brad Daugherty alongside. Dr. Jerry Punch calls the play-by-play with Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree as analysts. Pit reporters are Allen Bestwick, Mike Massaro, Dave Burns, and Jamie Little.

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