Sunday, November 4, 2007

ESPN Finds Their Rally Caps To Save Texas

Suddenly, there was silence. One day after The Daly Planet described the stark contrast between the pounding rock and hip-hip music of the ESPN on ABC NASCAR broadcasts and their middle-aged "on-air" line-up of announcers, it was gone.

For the first time since February, ESPN on ABC viewers were not "Back In The Saddle Again." The network has not only been endlessly playing this song, but actually bought the "master recording rights" to this tune. That, to say the least, is very expensive.

ESPN also shot their own custom music video in which the band slightly changed the lyrics for the network. But, on this Sunday and for whatever reason, Aerosmith had left the building.

Brent Musburger opened the show using SPEED Channel's idea of anchoring the pre-race show from the end of pit road. The ESPN on ABC executives enjoy the idea of having a "presence" like Musburger, but once he finished his "set-up," he could have boarded the plane back to his Montana ranch. He simply is not needed.

This week the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show was only thirty minutes, which left little time for Suzy Kolber to do anything but direct traffic. She had a lot to direct, with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty talking a lot in the Infield Studio. Wallace is still gun-shy of Daugherty, with whom Rusty has disagreed with a whole lot this season. Most of the time, Rusty is right.

As the program continued, the ESPN pit reporters worked all the normal pre-race stories of both "The Chase" and the race. But, somehow things just seemed to be off-kilter at the track, and that was indeed the case. NASCAR had decided at the last minute to move the start time of the race up by ten minutes. In TV land, that could be a disaster.

Credit goes to the ESPN on ABC gang who just went with the flow and covered this big change without letting-on that chaos was underway behind the scenes. This switch in plans really took both of the TV networks on-the-air by surprise. RaceDay on SPEED actually signed-off while the command to start engines was being given. That is cutting it close.

Once Dale Earnhardt Junior had been established as the "in-race reporter," it was time to go racing. ESPN barely got to show their in-car cameras and the track description before the green flag was in the air. Someone in NASCAR's executive ranks needed this race underway in a hurry. If the information comes along about why this situation occurred, we will update it here.

In a way, this quick start forced Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree to get into the action immediately. Punch still has all the drivers "sailing" throughout the race, but he was on his game early. Unfortunately, as we have seen so often this season, things would change in the later stages of the race.

Rusty Wallace unveiled yet another toy with the Draft Tracker now using green electronic "smoke" to try and explain downforce, clean air, or something like that. While the concept may have been great, the visuals left a lot to be desired in terms of convincing viewers that this effect was "real" and not manufactured.

Wallace himself had a good race, interacting well with Andy Petree and avoiding the emotional outbursts and the slow destruction of the English language that had plagued earlier telecasts. Several times, he was able to laugh and poke fun at himself, which is exactly what he should have been doing from the start.

Rusty has a very distinct personality, which veteran fans know all too well. Love him or hate him as a driver, Wallace has put in some hard work this season and improved his on-air presentation. Perhaps, it did not hurt that Dale Jarrett just announced his retirement and was once again featured as an announcer on ESPN2's Busch race on Saturday.

The term "natural sound" in television means using the actual noise that a certain event makes for the background audio of a telecast. Sometimes, it might be as loud as the roar of a NHRA Top Fuel Dragster. Then again, sometimes all a telecast needs is the chirp of the birds at Augusta as Tiger Woods stands over a putt to win the Masters. Effectively using "nat sound" at a sports event is an art.

Finally, ten months into the NASCAR season, ESPN's award-winning audio group was allowed to create some art. The network did not return from commercials with blaring music, but with the very sounds that a fan at the track would hear. What a wonderful change of direction and a solid production decision.

TV viewers heard the cars slowly circling at low idle behind the Pace Car under caution. They heard the field shifting through the gears as the network caught a re-start in-progress. They even heard the yells of the crews on pit road as they sent their drivers out ahead of where they came in. This approach set a new tone for viewers. Suddenly, it was important to listen again.

Somehow, ESPN also managed to find their focus on pit road and keep it sharp for the entire telecast. The Pit Producer had the reporters hopping, and the pit stops themselves were documented in the type of detail that we have not seen from this TV crew all season long. Added to that was the effective use of big time "nat sound" that suddenly made even green flag pit stops exciting.

ESPN's "triple split" video effect during caution flag pit stops was used to perfection. Keeping an eye on The Chase contenders, the network used additional graphics to show the locations on pit road of the same cars stacked in the video boxes to the left. It was a good connection, and a great idea.

The Texas track is big, and several times ESPN launched their on-air talent into replays that did not agree with the commentary they had just provided. Basically, the announcers were wrong because they cannot see every incident.

This problem was especially harsh on Jerry Punch, who clearly went with the information told to him by the Producer, only to be contradicted by the video. As we learned with both Fox and SPEED on their NASCAR coverage, its OK not to "know" before the replay. Sometimes, the fans like to experience what happened along with the announcers.

As the race progressed, several cars went to the garage. Since these were not "Chasers," we did not see any follow-up of what transpired. In addition, the almost immediate struggle of Carl Edwards slipped right past the TV gang for way too long. By the time the network caught-up with his situation, it had already been in progress for most of the event. When a "Chaser" falls to 40th place, it should get the network's attention.

This same situation occurred with Bill Elliot and Kyle Petty later in the race, when there was no follow-up after a hard crash for both these veteran drivers. Instead, the network continued the "Chad Knaus telethon" at a time where other racing priorities should have been addressed. This lack of racing information was also true of the "lucky dog" drivers and the field resets prior to re-starts. Both were missing.

Things got a little rough when the network went to commercial with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth running side-by-side for the lead. Hamlin was in the wall and Kenseth was limping in on a flat tire by the time the network returned from break. At this time of the season, waiting until one of them completed the pass would have been the call.

A positive element to the telecast was limiting Suzy Kolber to one celebrity interview and then field recaps coming out of commercial. Kolber is fine, but ESPN's earlier attempts to push her on-camera from the Infield Studio with her partner Brad Daugherty threw the entire announce team off-balance. Allowing Daugherty to ask questions while not on-camera has worked much better.

By this time of the season, ESPN has mastered the split-screen effect with two distinct video boxes, one larger than the other. The smaller box has proven effective for putting pit reporters, drivers, and crew chiefs on-camera while keeping viewers watching the action on the track. Its a nice touch.

When NEXTEL Cup races get into the final hundred laps, Jerry Punch begins to fade. It is not his attention, or his pronunciation. It is his excitement level. As The Daly Planet has detailed this season, Punch just runs out of gas. When exciting moments happen in the latter stages of the race, both Wallace and Petree have become adept at stepping-in and calling the action. This race was no exception.

With about sixty laps to go, ESPN began to slam commercial breaks every couple of minutes. It was tough to take. Finally, Greg Biffle hit the wall and caught his car on fire. Punch's only comment was "Greg Biffle, um...brings out caution."

It was Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree who jumped on the fact that Biffle's car was still pumping out fluid and feeding the fire. Both Wallace and Petree were concerned about Biffle when ESPN suddenly decided that it was time to show Chad Knaus once again sitting quietly on the pit box. By the time they returned to Biffle, he was struggling to exit his vehicle. The ESPN of old had returned.

Now, the critical pit stops took place. Returning from commercial, ESPN made their big mistake. Instead of re-setting the field with less than thirty laps to go, Rusty Wallace broke-out the dreaded Draft Tracker and tried to show more examples of downforce.

Needless to say, when the green "smoke" cleared, the race re-started with TV viewers having no idea of who stayed out, where The Chase contenders were lined-up, or any other information than the top five cars.

What followed was a furious charge by Jimmie Johnson toward the front of the field. The words from Rusty Wallace were profound. "He doesn't have time to waste right now," said Rusty. This was the moment of the race. The ESPN on ABC gang chose to celebrate that moment by...running another two minute commercial break.

As the network returned with eighteen laps left, the story had been told. Jimmie Johnson was now in second place, and right behind leader Matt Kenseth. Viewers had missed Johnson's run to the front, and who he had passed to get there.

As the two raced side-by-side in one of the final NEXTEL Cup races of the season, it should have been Jerry Punch adding the enthusiasm and the excitement to these laps. Unfortunately, there was none to be found. Punch talked about points, being careful, and even called the wrong replay when it suddenly appeared. This was the time to be building the excitement to a fever pitch, but it never happened. Once again, viewers got to see Chad Knaus. At least he was excited.

After the race, ABC made a very solid production decision to stay for an extra five minutes and make sure to interview the race winner. Earlier this season, that decision would have gone the other way. Now, along with interviewing the key drivers, Jimmie Johnson would have his day. This time, America's Funniest Home Videos could just wait.

The late start time, the NFL games, the long race and the event ending late all combined for an interesting afternoon...and evening on ABC. It was clear that the TV crew broke out their rally caps and tried to return some normality to the telecast. Great "nat sound," less production clutter, outstanding pit coverage and the lack of the pounding music made the broadcast more interesting.

It was just tough after a great start to have those problems inside the last fifty laps. Just like rookie drivers, the TV production crew seems to struggle with the actual length of the races. The attention drifts, the mind is tired, and sometimes bad decisions are made. One less Draft Tracker, one more field reset, and things might have been different.

Two races to go, and then two months to talk about it all over again. The NEXTEL Cup season ends on ABC in Homestead, FL on November 18th.

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