Saturday, March 22, 2008
Nashville Misfires For ESPN (Updated)
In some ways, the ESPN coverage of the Nashville Nationwide Series race echoed the fate of Kyle Busch.
ESPN brought all the bells and whistles to the track, including the entire Pit Studio and production team. Kyle Busch brought a fast car and was poised to run away with the race from the start.
ESPN2's Saturday morning coverage consisted of Friday's final practice session. Since ESPN chose not to televise qualifying live, it would certainly be reviewed for the fans on NASCAR Countdown...right?
Kyle Busch was starting in the front of the field and from the drop of the green flag he left everyone else in his dust. He began lapping cars shortly thereafter and threatened to dominate the entire event.
ESPN's Allen Bestwick started-off the telecast with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty in the infield Pit Studio. There was tension on the set between these three, and it showed in the attempts to conduct conversation. Wallace and Daugherty have been working well on the broadcasts so far this season, but something was off-kilter. It quickly became apparent what it was.
ESPN had decided to return to the coverage philosophy of last season. This race would be about ESPN, and not the Nationwide Series. Just like the endless questions about naming the Fox "gopher cam," Nashville would bring a slew of ESPN agenda items that viewers would be dealing with for the entire event.
Kyle Busch had begun to "stink-up the show" with his performance. Veteran fans, however, sensed that perhaps he needed to figure out how to pace himself for the long haul. The coverage became a "TV vigil" to see what would happen to him...again.
ESPN had already decided to ignore qualifying completely. Since they did not show it, it simply did not exist. What ESPN did have time for is to hammer home the fact that the network's fascination with Carl Edwards was going to continue.
Edwards would be the in-car reporter, and in this race he would be answering questions from viewers that fans could send in to the ESPN.com website. Just like Kyle Busch, veteran TV viewers were just waiting for the disaster that would follow.
On the practice coverage, an bubbly pit reporter asked Edwards if he was excited about being the in-race reporter and taking questions from fans during the race. The look on Edward's face was priceless as he said that he knew absolutely nothing about it. What he did mention was that the ESPN in-car camera was right in his face and it distracted him while he tried to drive.
Thus set the tone for a disjointed ESPN presentation of the first stand-alone Nationwide Series race. After ignoring qualifying, ESPN replayed Jeff Burton's amazing "slam" of the Nationwide regulars and jumped into the hype mode once again.
Without setting any kind of parameters for discussion, Bestwick let Rusty Wallace say that the Nationwide Series "is very, very strong." Even as the Nationwide-only teams struggle to get cars to the track, Wallace called the series "the second most popular form of motorsports in the USA." On the real question of what to do to allow the regulars to survive the season, Wallace said NASCAR needs to "do something."
A case in point was the studio interview of Stephen Leicht. Despite being a talented driver and good on TV, Leicht only found his way back onto the track in the Nationwide Series by working for a Sprint Cup car owner. There were no solutions being offered by the panel, and his case made for a sad story about NASCAR in 2008.
Marty Reid was filling-in for the vacationing Jerry Punch, but was not seen or heard during the entire one hour pre-race show. Reid is a veteran, but his knowledge of the Nationwide Series and the constantly shifting driver line-ups did not work well for this telecast.
Even through Reid was scheduled to call the action, it was Bestwick that had his hands all over this telecast. Reid struggled to know the right names and follow the action. Wallace and Petree tried to get back in sync, but they settled-in to the same relationship they had last season.
With Busch still dominating, Wallace went to Carl Edwards for the first time as the in-race reporter under caution. These two do not hit it off, and Edwards wound-up pulling his face shield down. He had just about had enough of a competing car owner asking him about his race tactics. Needless to say, not one fan question was put to the in-race reporter on the entire telecast.
An extended caution pushed Bestwick back into the TV forefront, and turned the remainder of the race into a battle for control. Bestwick has been known to want the ball, and the Producer slowly built the remainder of the telecast around him.
ESPN again made good pictures and sound. The graphics package worked well this week once the race started, and it was nice to see the triple-split on the pit stops. This allowed for a great wideshot of pit road to see the cars pulling out and the race to the line. The recap of the newest Nationwide Series drivers mentioned in the pre-race show also worked well in the video box effect.
With 62 laps to go, the end came for Busch. Once again taking himself out of contention, the network got a brand new story dumped into its lap with Busch no longer a factor. Andy Petree stepped-in and took control when the key issue of fixing Busch's car was on the table.
Petree had been enjoying life this season with Jerry Punch and Dale Jarrett. Now once again alongside the opinionated Wallace and the struggling Reid, Petree continually spoke-up and often did it to quietly correct Wallace.
With less than fifty laps to go, it was the voice of Allen Bestwick who took over to lead an entire segment from the infield Pit Studio. Bestwick led to each of the pit reporters for a summary, and then spoke with Brad Daugherty. After voicing the entire segment, Bestwick threw to break with forty laps remaining.
The shift between Reid and Bestwick as the "lead voice" of the telecast while the field was under green continued to affect the overall program. Reid was given the race back with thirty-five laps to go, but had never really gotten an opportunity to get himself in rhythm. Reid was the substitute teacher who was very nice, but who could be taken advantage of by the class.
Even with all of the extra commercials during an early extended caution, ESPN forced Reid to go to break with thirty laps to go. The coverage returned with only twenty-four laps remaining, and the voice that viewers heard...was Allen Bestwick.
It was Bestwick that would close-out the race from the infield Studio and allow Daugherty to predict that Clint Bowyer would run out of fuel. Viewers heard Marty Reid again only to throw to a completely ill-timed video soundbite from Scott Wimmer about his goals for the 2008 season even as he raced hard with twenty laps to go. Reid should have been working hard himself to build-up the excitement for the finish, but it was not to be.
By the final laps of the telecast, viewers had heard so many voices and had their focus shifted so often that the end of the race was anti-climactic. No one ran out of gas on the track, Scott Wimmer led clearly to the line, and the announcers never pointed-out that Wimmer and Bowyer were teammates.
Once again, ESPN fell victim to "the curse of the winner." Only two cars were shown crossing the line, with the ESPN Director choosing pit-crew members high-fiving and cars slowing down over the rest of the lead-lap cars racing to the line in a fuel mileage contest.
At the end of the race Reid was done. Bestwick handled the extended post-race activity beginning with a poorly-handled winner interview by Shannon Spake. She seems to be unable to process what the driver is saying and react. She has her next question already prepared, and uses it no matter what the circumstances. This effort showed exactly that problem from beginning to end.
Mike Massaro was lucky enough to catch Clint Bowyer before he headed for the airplane, but Kyle Busch was having absolutely none of Vince Welch. His pressing style showed ESPN's lack of understanding of how to work with high profile NASCAR drivers in stressful settings. I doubt Welch would have approached many IRL drivers in the same blunt manner. With plenty of time on the clock, giving Busch a moment to cool-off may have resulted in a very different outcome.
It was wonderful of ESPN to show a wide variety of drivers in post-race interviews. Unfortunately, even with a highlight package shown in the post-race show, none of the drivers being interviewed had been shown finishing the race. As the pit reporters talked about great finishes and final lap action, the reality of ESPN's Nashville effort was revealed.
Just like Kyle Busch, the day had started with a lot of promise and ended on a low note. Eight of the key drivers that ESPN had profiled during the pre-race show had been interviewed after the race. None of them had their final lap shown. No one knew how they finished or what had happened because ESPN did not show it.
Somehow, the lure of the winner and the drama has taken the common sense away from the NASCAR TV networks again this season. Fans of the winner might be happy that he was featured, but that leaves the fans of forty-two other cars wondering what happened to the driver they had been keeping track of for the past several hours.
The stories ESPN had been building were never paid-off with a race to the line. Brad Keselowski finished fourth. Kelly Bires finished fifth. Cale Gale finished eighth, and sentimental favorite Bobby Hamilton Jr. was tenth. These were the stories of the race.
Saturday in Nashville, only the fans in the stands knew what happened on the final lap to any car other than Scott Wimmer and Clint Bowyer. Now in the second year of Nationwide Series coverage, ESPN has to ask itself some hard questions about why fans would return to watch the next race when the prospect of never seeing their driver finish is a very good possibility.
Update: I woke-up to a phone call on Sunday morning. The voice of the NASCAR TV personality said he had good news and he had bad news for me. When I asked for the good news first, he said "at least you got the State right." This is going to be an Easter to remember.
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