Saturday, February 16, 2008
Bittersweet Ending For Nationwide Series on ESPN2
The new network TV partner last season for NASCAR was ESPN. This company has a long and proud tradition of pioneering sports on TV for over twenty-five years.
Names of programs like SportsCenter and Gameday have become part of our culture. Celebrities have been made out of on-air personalities from Chris Berman to Dick Vitale. The mix of sports and twenty-four hour coverage changed the sports television landscape in America.
This rich TV history is what made the problems with NASCAR coverage in 2007 especially difficult for ESPN to swallow. No matter what the network tried last season, it failed. Technical problems, ABC station issues, credibility problems and even issues with the fundamentals of TV sports production plagued the season.
This February, ESPN came out of the box ready for action. The company had made wholesale changes across the board, and rolled-out those changes at Daytona. Their daily NASCAR Now show had new hosts, a re-vamped format and a commitment to on-location reporting.
The Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series team boasted the addition of Dale Jarrett and Ray Evernham. Allen Bestwick would host an experienced crew in the infield, while Jerry Punch would have his high school friend DJ alongside in the booth.
As the first Nationwide telecast began with the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show, it was clear that ESPN has finally found a leader. Allen Bestwick set a relaxed and professional tone that carried all the way through the race broadcast and post-race coverage.
Jerry Punch seemed to finally be able to express himself and not have to worry about carrying the load when it came to commentary. Jarrett is always polite, but he is quick to step-in and voice his views as the action on the track is in-progress. That is exactly what Andy Petree needed to re-define his own role on these telecasts.
Last year, the ESPN pit reporters were pushed by their superiors to ask the extra question and explore the topics that drivers did not wish to discuss. Needless to say, memories of that treatment still linger in the Cup garage. This is not a baseball locker room or an NFL coaches news conference.
The faces that the ESPN reporters deal with in NASCAR will be staring back at them until November. As we all know, and Jimmy Spencer will confirm, race car drivers have very good memories for who has treated them right and who has treated them wrong.
At Daytona, all four of ESPN's pit reporters opened the season with a new and friendly approach which seemed to go over quite well with the drivers. In addition, the network made sure to track the drivers who were admitted to the Infield Care Center, and provide updates as they left the facility.
Dave Burns post-race interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved once again that Junior's patience has grown a lot since his DEI days. Burns pushed Junior into commenting on his very personal Shifting Gears TV series, and it was ironic that Junior chose to apologize for so many commercials featuring him in the programs.
Action on the track was once again well-represented as the technical staff made outstanding pictures and sound. Even the Draft Track worked well with Jarrett explaining the issues associated with Nationwide Series drafting as opposed to the Sprint Cup Series. Another strong technical performance to start the season for ESPN.
In every sport, the TV crew knows there will be a "crunch time." It may be a late and desperate pass by Eli Manning or a critical drive off the tee on 18 by Tiger Woods. It is a moment in the telecast that requires only one thing. That is to be seen by the viewers.
This fundamental issue is a key building block of effective TV sports coverage. Three hours of a football game can be forgotten quickly if the winning pass is not captured by the TV crew. Losing sight of the ball on Tiger's drive that sets-up the Eagle to win the tournament immediately becomes the focus of an otherwise outstanding telecast.
Saturday afternoon, ESPN fumbled the ball at "crunch time." Tony Stewart had the strongest car and was leading the field as they approached the finish line. The only real issue on the track was how would the rest of the field finish? They were in a tight pack of nervous cars and the veterans were mixed-in with the rookies.
Moments after the all the cars finished, that question still remained in the minds of viewers nationwide. The reason was simple. NASCAR fans had been watching ESPN2 for three hours only to have the Director decide to show just Tony Stewart and the NASCAR flagman at the end of the race.
All the stories Jerry Punch and his analysts had built-up over the course of the race were swept away. All of the young drivers who had finally gotten themselves in the hunt on the final lap were never to be seen finishing by their sponsors and fans. The most unfortunate thing is that a great start to the NASCAR season had been ruined by a miscue at "crunch time."
Every TV network has the right to show sports in whatever way they choose. ESPN certainly has the right to decide in advance at a production meeting that the final lap will conclude with a tight shot of the leader and a zoom into the NASCAR flagman. That is what the ESPN executives decided, and that is what we all saw.
The problem with that approach is, why would fans come back for the next race?
My driver was in about fourth and I had been rooting for him all race long. I kept up with the stats, used my computer for additional info and was absolutely happy with the ESPN produced coverage. Things were shaping up for a thrilling finish.
On the final lap, as the camera took the infield shot, I could not believe it. As ESPN2 showed Stewart cross the line and then zoomed into the flagman, I began to yell. There was no drama here for Stewart, the Nationwide Series is just fun for him. There was no story to tell, as his car had the field covered since the green flag dropped. He confirmed that in a post-race interview.
ESPN VP of Motorsports Rich Feinberg told reporters at Daytona on Wednesday that the new group of on-air talent and the new line-up would allow the network to cover this series better and tell viewers the stories they needed to know.
What NASCAR fans needed to know on Saturday was pretty simple to understand. Who finished the race behind the winner?
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