Sunday, October 7, 2007

ABC Struggles With Multiple Storylines At Talladega

One of the most interesting things about NASCAR is that no one can predict what is going to happen in a race. The experts can offer opinions, but once things get underway there is a living and breathing animal created that follows no pre-set course. This was certainly the case at Talladega on Sunday.

When the experts believe that the animal will be calm, it is chaos that often ensues. When the danger level is said to be high, things are sometimes so boring that no one can believe it. Race fans experienced both of those in the Truck and ARCA races leading up to the Sunday NEXTEL Cup event.

Single line "racing" was the order of the day for the Trucks, and the experienced TV crew on SPEED had to work to generate excitement into the racing action. By the time the Sunday NEXTEL Cup event rolled-around, ABC may have had a clue that this one would require a lot of effort to keep the viewers involved.

Pre-race host Suzy Kolber suggested that "big wrecks might be getting bigger" because of the COT. Brad Daugherty said no one could "lay back." Well, in fact the track and the drivers had other opinions.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree led the viewers through the pre-race stories of the COT, the slow cars at the front, and even the presence of Formula-1 star Jacques Villeneuve in the race. Then, reality began to take hold and by lap twelve it looked more like a tire test than a race.

When the Ford guys fell to the back of the field and formed a line, it was a preview of things to come. ABC decided to play it straight, and kept the focus on the leader of the race and the speed that the COT was carrying. By lap fifteen, it was clear that the old days of "no passing" were back in full force.

Even after a series of caution flags which allowed ABC to insert a big commercial inventory, things had returned to single file racing by lap 35. This was the signal for ABC to switch modes and realize that they were going to have to contribute their own excitement to keep this event interesting.

ABC has a lot of TV gizmos and pre-produced features, and by lap fifty they began to use them. With no big crashes, ABC decided to reach way back and show the Kyle Busch accident from a Busch Series race. This graphic crash footage was intended to show bored viewers what might happen at any moment. If the action on the track continued to be this calm, it was clear ABC would do anything to spice it up.

Early contact between Greg Biffle and David Gilliland was missed by the TV crew. Punch was not watching the action on the track, and the announcers had to wait until the TV replay to find out what had happened. As we have spoken about before on The Daly Planet, the choice between watching the TV monitors in the booth and the action on the track is a tough one for the TV announcers. The ABC gang has been having a tough time with this issue all season long.

As racing resumed, Jerry Punch was put in the difficult position of talking non-stop because of the calmness of the race itself. There was nothing for Rusty and Andy to analyze, nothing for Tim in the Tech Center to talk about, and nothing for Brad in the Infield Studio to ask about. Punch dug deep for anything and everything he knew about the drivers being featured. It made for a long day.

Rusty Wallace can watch the action and then comment on it, but it is tough to make casual conversation with him on-the-air. He speaks in short and choppy statements, that do not really allow the topic at hand to be expanded. His intensity was high early on, but he does not allow Andy Petree to talk with him, rather Wallace talks at him and then Andy reacts.

When Jeff Burton blew an engine at lap 91, it began a series of events that would throw the ABC gang off their plan, and affect the rest of the race. Punch reminded his own experts that others in the race had the exact same engine package as Burton, and certainly this was going to be a key element for Tim Brewer to explain. While Brewer later showed the general area of the engine failures, he never explained to viewers what these teams had in common. This should have been a moment for him to shine, and it was not. In this race, mechanical failure was the number one story.

Since things were calm, ABC unveiled a new wrinkle to the Draft Track feature. This time, their contention was that two cars who shared the same column of air were in "draft lock." Veteran NASCAR fans might have been laughing, but for new fans the point was well made. Two cars on this big track exactly in line can gain speed.

Around lap one hundred, there was a spurt of racing that excited the ABC crew and especially Rusty Wallace. This real racing deterred the network from following up aggressively on the engine failure issue. There still had been no Tim Brewer information on that topic offered to viewers at all on this point.

By lap one hundred and twelve when Martin Tuex Jr. had his engine failure, the warning bells should have gone off for the ABC gang. Petree and Wallace pointed out the DEI/RCR engine cooperative effort, but no pit reporter ever tracked down the engine man at the track. Brewer only appeared after this latest failure, and referenced several things like lighter oil and bottom end failures. Brewer should have had a picture or model of what an engine looks like after this failure.

Dave Burns referenced that Truex had "just talked to" the DEI/RCR engine guys, but Burns himself never asked that key player any questions. Once again, the story was right in front of them, but ABC stuck to driver interviews.

With under seventy laps to go, everyone was single file and content to stay there. The pit reporters tried to update their assigned teams, but even the engine tuner for Harvick was not the right person to comment on this situation. Where were the RCR and DEI executives? If they would not speak on camera, then tell viewers they refused.

When Dale Junior also blew his engine, even Rusty Wallace said "this has got to be killing Richard Childress." The only problem was, we never heard from Childress. The network was now really off-balance, and the problems began. They would continue through the network's sign-off.

Dale Jarrett sat on the track in his crashed car. Even as Jerry Punch tried to dance around the issue, it was clear that no one in the announce booth had a clue to what had happened. Right now, it was all about Junior. This was the turning point of the race for ABC, as they never showed or followed-up about the Dale Jarrett accident.

Something threw the ABC crew for a loop around lap fifty, and they never came back. Even as Dale Jarrett's car was shown being towed away, the ABC gang broke out the Draft Tracker and their new "draft lock" concept. Imagine that. One former champion and current ESPN/ABC analyst had been involved in an accident, and then totally ignored. We never heard from Jarrett again.

Then, the ABC crew was never informed that Jeff Gordon had a drive-thru penalty. It took them by surprise when he appeared on pit road, and Punch was especially rattled. Luckily, the network found the footage of his pit stop, and was able to save some face on this one. Someone in the production truck missed a big one.

Now, only forty-six laps to go and the worst interview of the century happened for the NASCAR on ABC gang this year. Reporter Dave Burns was following the ABC/ESPN model of just asking one too many questions, and Junior unloaded. When Dave Burns asked Junior about the "racing" and the fact he was "mixing it up" there was only one good response, and Junior gave it.

"I don't know what you are watching" said Junior. "Ain't all that running around the top boring?" he continued. "It was really boring riding up there, first, fourth, whatever..just nothing going on." That was not what NASCAR and ABC wanted to hear.

Suddenly, the cameras captured a big wreck on the track. Incredibly, it was almost ten seconds before Jerry Punch exclaimed "Oh, there is trouble on the race track." Once again, the ABC crew had been caught not watching the action on the track, and this time it was clear to all they were focusing on Junior alone. Punch had no clue what had transpired, and once again it was going to take replays to sort it all out.

This is a big pitfall of this crew. Any of the three top-side announcers should call out when something is happening on the track. How many times have we heard Larry McReynolds or Jeff Hammond do this on Fox? Kyle Petty on TNT was not shy about interrupting Bill Weber when something occurred and he saw it first. No one on the ABC crew said a word for the first ten seconds of this accident.

Wallace and Petree were also silent as it was clear they had not seen it as well. Only when the TV cameras started to focus on the car numbers did Punch and company begin to sort it out. How is it possible that one member of the crew is not watching the track at all times? Petree and Wallace were seeing this incident for the first time when it was replayed, and that was made very clear by their remarks.

ABC took this opportunity to insert several more commercial breaks, so they could pave the way once again to offer the critical final laps of this race without commercial interruption. Well, that was the theory. NASCAR fans were about to find out that was not the reality. Not by a long shot.

Viewers had still not heard from Dale Jarrett about his crash and had not heard from Richard Childress about his engines, and their critical failures. Now, with thirty five laps to go Kenny Schrader had slammed the wall and a caution had come out. Viewers knew that because they were watching, but what they were hearing was a meaningless interview of Kyle Busch, which ABC would not end for a crash involving a "non-Chaser." What a poor decision.

With thirty laps to go, ABC finally got their wish of good racing that was not single file. Immediately, the network went to commercial break. When they returned, Kyle Petty had slammed the wall and the race was under caution. After several replays, the network went to commercial break again.

It was during these replays that Kyle Petty was interviewed. For the first time ABC viewers found-out that it was Kyle that had wrecked Dale Jarrett earlier in the race. The irony was, the ABC reporter had not even asked about that incident, and probably did not know about it. Petty simply brought it up.

With only thirteen laps to go, an incident brought out the caution. It was clear by this time that Jerry Punch had run out of gas. He does not bring any excitement or intensity to his commentary, and this is especially true late in races. He simply comments on what viewers are seeing on the TV as a "reporter." In this incident, it took Rusty Wallace to point out that pole-sitter Michael Waltrip was in the middle of it.

ABC also chose to show three commercials during this time, rather than reset the field because there were less than ten laps to go. With all the commercial inventory that ABC ran earlier in the race, viewers were anticipating a commercial free period at the end. This was the perfect time for a race recap and a reset, not another rather adult promo for Desperate Housewives.

Punch called the last several laps of pushing and shoving with Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree trying to keep the excitement level high, but the inability to pass was a problem the ABC bunch could not solve from the booth. Luckily, the late move of Jeff Gordon worked to end the race on a good note. There was just one problem.

Incredibly, ABC completely missed it. Jeff Gordon moving-up in front of Tony Stewart to win the race was only seen live by the fans at the track. ABC showed a close-up camera shot of the middle of the pack on the last lap when they should have been using a shot that showed all the cars.

All of a sudden, the next picture showed Gordon in front of Stewart, and only Andy Petree recognized that this had happened. The bottom line is, ABC missed the winning move of the race on the final lap.

As Gordon began his cool down lap, the word came down from NASCAR. Get to Victory Lane if you want to be interviewed. The clock on the wall said it was almost 6PM, the race was over, and ABC was about to leave the building. Only then, as Gordon was heeding their call, did viewers get a replay to show them what they should have seen live. Gordon's move for the race win was both fantastic, and lucky.

The winner's interview was short and sweet and ABC was gone. No Tony Stewart. No Jimmie Johnson. No Kurt Busch. No Ryan Newman. No Richard Childress. The stories that ABC had built-up during this last exciting run were not going to be paid-off because this was broadcast TV and they were out of time. Just like that, it was over.

ESPN was involved in NFL football highlights, ESPN News never followed-up, and once again the inability of ABC and ESPN to coordinate NASCAR post-race activities drove the fans directly to SPEED Channel.

This ABC telecast had been the only thing the network had done from the track all weekend long. SPEED handled the practice and qualifying, and also carried the ARCA and the Craftsman Truck Series races live. ABC was only there for the NEXTEL Cup Chase for the Championship, and left the air without interviewing any of the other Chase drivers or following-up on any of the stories of the event itself.

In this first year of ABC as a NASCAR TV partner, there certainly have been some interesting decisions involving on-air activity. Perhaps, with only a handful of races left this season, giving NASCAR fifteen more minutes on ABC to talk to the key players in the race, and The Chase, would have been the right decision.

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Sunday's "NASCAR Now" Different Without Bill Lester

UPDATE: For those of you asking, chose not to link this story. That is Jay's right as the editor of that website. You can make your own judgements about the fact that ESPN owns the website.

"You want wild, we got wild." said NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias about the track at Talladega, AL. "This is the place with its own infield jail."

So began the Sunday morning one hour edition of NASCAR Now, the most talked-about racing TV program of 2007.

Kuselias had on the set with him current Truck Series driver Stacy Compton and Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw. This trio has been playing out the same strange scenario for several months now. Sunday morning's show was no different.

Kuselias makes outrageous statements, often in the form of a question. The pattern is to hype a certain topic using help from Cowlishaw, and then give Compton a small amount of time to speak to the racing reality.

The biggest story of this week for those outside the ESPN bubble was the continuing problem between ESPN and Tony Stewart. In this program, the "voice of the fans" Brad Daugherty was put in the position of actually reporting on the fact that he had talked to Tony.

That's right, instead of a Tony interview, Daugherty was put on-camera talking "for Tony" about "what Tony was thinking" and "how Tony was feeling." He actually had to say those words several times in his piece.

Once again, Daugherty was ESPN's fall guy. If Daugherty had talked to Stewart, could he have maybe brought a camera along? A sound man? Then ESPN could have taped the interview, and NASCAR Now viewers could be watching Tony Stewart instead of Daugherty talk about the issues. The network had three days to get Tony Stewart do to an interview for this show...and failed.

It is obvious that Stewart and ESPN are on different wavelengths. It is high time that the ESPN executives sit-down with this high-profile driver and settle these issues. They cannot wait any longer to clear the air. If this issue blows-up again it could over-shadow The Chase itself and that would not be fair.

One big mistake that NASCAR Now has created simply to fill time in this one hour show is a feature called The Eliminator. Supposedly, it uses data from past races to pick a winner analytically and without the "human factor" involved. Basically, to race fans, its hilarious.

Imagine having the focus of this program shift from talking about the upcoming event to everyone on the show being forced to pick a winner against an artificially created TV feature? The minutes of this show burned-up with this could be better used to go and stay at the track for better race preview coverage. This is where ESPN is light years behind SPEED.

Kuselias said the Eliminator was "like an Oz...and its scientific" when Cowlishaw complained about this ridiculous feature. Compton was more succinct in his response to the Eliminator's "pick" of Kasey Kahne. He said "absolutely not." As the season roars down the stretch, the best thing NASCAR Now could do is "eliminate" this concept and focus this one hour on track side activity and a recap of all the NASCAR action from Friday and Saturday.

ESPN has used rookie reporter Shannon Spake in many roles this season, but NASCAR Now has really featured her in key interviews. Why Brad Daugherty has not been able to share this work load is unclear, but Spake interviewed Greg Biffle on this day and missed the boat in pinning him down about running out of gas at Kansas. Only a few hours later, Biffle would appear on tape during RaceDay, and admit to Wendy Venturini that he had run out of gas and the fuel light was on.

Spake also interviewed Jacque Villeneuve on his weekend racing in both the Truck and the Cup Series. She appeared right after the Craftsman Truck race highlights, but her interview never mentioned the Truck Series race, in which Villeneuve crashed.

This was the entire point, that Villeneuve had crashed in the Truck Series after swerving to avoid Trucks that were simply heading to pit road. None of the appropriate questions were asked of this open-wheel veteran. This is typical of the problems with NASCAR Now, sometimes the pieces don't fit together.

Last week, after a season of struggle, both Compton and Cowlishaw did not appear on the Sunday show. The new face on-the-air for ESPN was NASCAR veteran Bill Lester. An ESPN spokesperson told The Daly Planet that Lester's presence on NASCAR Now over the weekend was simply a one time experiment. I read that as an on-air audition.

The network has to make some changes to this daily series for next season. While the NASCAR Insiders of Marty Smith, Angelique Chengelis, and Terry Blount have been solid all season, the same cannot be said for the other spokes in this TV wheel.

Compton is knowledgeable, but his TV presence leaves a lot to be desired. Bill Lester is the type of NASCAR veteran who can bring the same level of experience and push the diversity agenda simultaneously. Compton has done a lot to establish a basic level of credibility, but in 2008 this needs to move up to the next level.

Lester handled everything Erik Kuselias threw at him during the weekend "experiment." His answers and opinions blended the personal and the professional in a way that Compton simply cannot. In addition, Lester appeared to match the controversial Kuselias in intellect and vocabulary stride-for-stride throughout his time on-the-air. That was certainly a new twist.

Just as the NASCAR owners use this time of the year to step-back and make their plans for 2008, so do the TV networks. NASCAR Now needs some re-tooling, and ESPN2 has stuck with their core crew through a lot of adversity this first year. Perhaps, now they have an idea of who will be the key players on the only daily NASCAR show on national television for next year.

ESPN has been shaken by the effect of SPEED's RaceDay on ABC's pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown. Moving RaceDay to a position of competing head-to-head with the actual ABC pre-race show was a bold move by SPEED. Now, the driving force behind ESPN re-tooling NASCAR Now might be SPEED's possible creation of a daily NASCAR news program of its own.

Having just made a multi-million dollar commitment to High Definition for 2008, SPEED may well be planning to step-up to the plate and take another swing at a daily NASCAR program. With SPEED just passing the seventy million home mark, they are closing in on ESPN2 at a rapid rate.

It will be interesting to see if ESPN "auditions" anyone else on NASCAR Now before the season is over. Viewer suggestions have ranged from Bob Jenkins as the host to Dale Jarrett as the Monday night "review" analyst. With only a handful of weeks left, it should be interesting to see who else "shows up" on NASCAR Now.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by, and leave your opinion.