Monday, June 16, 2008
TNT Catches An Early Flight Out
It was another long day for the TNT gang, this time in Michigan. After ninety minutes of pre-race programming and a full Sprint Cup race, that was apparently enough. Somebody made the call to leave early.
Sunday began with a much improved pre-race program hosted by Marc Fein. Now in his second NASCAR season, Fein is finally getting comfortable in the sport. His sense of humor and well-paced conversation keeps things moving. Unfortunately, he started the show by telling viewers that the Petty merger was the biggest NASCAR news story of the week. Some might disagree.
TNT took the same approach as the other TV networks to the massive civil lawsuit filed by a former NASCAR employee. That is, simply state the facts very carefully and then move along. Eventually, it fell to Fein to handle this task and he did it well.
Having Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds together on the first pre-race show allowed viewers to see their very effective interaction. These two work together quite well, and with Fein offering the topics for discussion it has made things really click.
Marty Snider delivered the Pride of NASCAR feature, which focused on Ernie Irvan. Unfortunately, it was disjointed and hard to follow. Snider failed to set the stage for viewers who did not know Irvan or his history in the sport. Snider assumed that everyone knew the circumstances around Irvan's career, his injuries and what he was doing now.
In the feature, Snider never even established where Irvan lived or why there were horses and a ranch in the background. Irvan retired in 1999, so younger NASCAR fans were left asking...who? A little better producing would have made the piece "whole."
Lindsay Czarniak in a reporter role provided the Lindsay on Location feature and it had some good tidbits from both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chris Cooley. The Washington Redskins player talked about NASCAR and how he became friends with Junior. It was very apparent that Junior, who will never be mistaken for a linebacker, had secretly wanted to be an NFL player like a lot of folks.
"I would give up everything I got to be Chris Cooley for a season," said Junior. When asked by Czarniak if he was serious, Junior simply said "hell yes!" Czarniak is a full-time local TV station reporter in DC, and the Redskin connection certainly helped in this feature.
As Weber and Dallenbach took-over for the Countdown to Green program, they were perched at the now famous "TNT cocktail table" up in the announce booth. On Father's Day, it was a good choice to again detail the struggles of JD Gibb's son with Leukemia. The reaffirmation of religion and a strong belief in family served as the theme of the report which was well-done.
One interesting part of this show was Wally's World. This season, both Dallenbach and Petty drive matching cars during this feature to show different issues associated with each track.
The only problem this week is they were not at the track. Wally's World was taped in Pocono and not Michigan as any veteran fan looking carefully could see. Despite the tight editing and the claim by Dallenbach of being "here at Michigan," this was clearly not the case. Perhaps, not the best decision in hindsight.
Thankfully, the content of the entire feature was great. This season TNT has sacked the celebrity ride-a-long and the endless promos and switched-over to racing information from two veterans. When Dallenbach and Petty are done, McReynolds gets to "tag" the piece by using the cutaway car to illustrate the issues. Luckily, at least McReynolds was actually at the track in Michigan.
As the actual race coverage began it was a classy touch by Weber to pay tribute to the late Tim Russert of NBC. Weber is an outstanding writer, and this type of tough assignment is right up his alley. He always makes it personal, and that is why this honest story about Russert's connection with NASCAR worked so well.
Daly Planet readers loved the opening pit report that was new to TNT this week. Using a well-framed camera shot and graphics, each pit reporter ran down their slice of pit road and talked about the drivers and teams they were assigned. This was an outstanding way for viewers to get the layout of the pits on a track that featured critical green flag stops and strategies.
On the negative side, it only took a few green flag laps for viewers to discover that TNT again had a live ticker that only updated as the cars crossed the start-finish line. This was tough to swallow after seeing the technology used on the other TV networks and online services. Perhaps, just like Fox, TNT will deliver an upgrade to viewers during the middle of this six race package.
Outstanding directing made the vast majority of this race a pleasure to watch. The change of pace between the tight shots of Fox Sports and the broad sweeping views of the field on TNT is simply night-and-day.
When the Director uses the side-by-side video boxes, the content is great but the background is very difficult to deal with on HDTV screens. Lighter colors and less movement would allow the viewer's eye to be drawn to the action in the video boxes, rather than the dark moving shapes behind it.
After watching both ESPN2 cover the Nationwide Series and the first group of Sprint Cup races on Fox, TNT's live coverage is almost "old school." There is no second annoying ticker running on the screen, extra graphics are used only when they are needed and there are no sports updates.
The screaming exception to that is the "restart" graphic inserted by TNT into the wideshot as the green flag waves. The network has gotten rid of all the other retro graphics, and now is the time to retire the "restart tower" permanently.
The story of this season on-the-air has been the chemistry that has developed with the addition of Kyle Petty, Larry McReynolds and Lindsay Czarniak. The entire TNT group gives viewers the feeling that they have been working together since February, when in fact they are only assembled for six races.
Again this week, McReynolds made the viewers at home feel that there were four people in the broadcast booth with his constant flow of information and commentary. He is equally effective with the cutaway car and adds a new twist to NASCAR coverage in his flexible role this season.
As the Michigan race progressed, it was interesting to note that most of the time there was more than one car on the screen. In sharp contrast to the single-story coverage of Fox, TNT's production team has widened-out the coverage to tell fans the story of what is happening among groups of cars. With the racing dynamic of MIS, this style of coverage was particularly effective.
Commercial breaks were well-timed, but it was unfortunate that TNT chose to create only one promo for Bill Engvall's show on TBS. As the event wound down, the use of this one promo spot now seemed endless.
Like a bad commercial, the karma turned ugly very quickly where this comic and his program were now concerned. It is ironic that he actually wound-up being one of the key stories of the race. More on that topic later.
TNT and NASCAR.com's RaceBuddy was again available to broadband computer users for this race. A couple of questions were emailed in and answered in the pre-race show. The video was sharp and clear, but the team scanner could not be heard over the loud "mix" of natural sound from the track. Also, the newly added MUTE button did not function on the scanner side. The chatrooms continued to be a disaster.
All season long, The Daly Planet has taken exception to the NASCAR on Fox team making the decision not to show any car but the winner finish. It is a choice between racing and drama. This week, it was Dale Junior who pushed TNT into the same position of making a choice between continuing their fine race coverage or creating drama with Junior. As the TNT motto says, they know drama.
Not only did fans miss the other drivers finishing the race, but the saga of Junior was almost overwhelming. There were other teams on the track that did not win, but does that diminish their importance on TV? For Fox the answer has always been yes, and now TNT has joined the club.
TNT took Junior across the finish line with no graphics telling viewers who else was finishing. Even under caution, viewers had no idea where their favorite driver finished unless it was Junior. It certainly was a strange decision not to insert the finish line graphics at the conclusion with the race under a yellow flag.
It was all Junior while the story played-out, and then Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers were interviewed. They were second through fourth respectively. As the network went to commercial, there were still ten minutes left to recap the race, update the important Top 35 and follow-up on other race stories with the drivers.
When TNT returned, they updated the top 24 positions in the point standings and then promoted the next race from Sonoma. Something was not quite right. Just like last summer when the network left the air fifteen minutes early to show a vampire movie, TNT had decided to pack-it in.
Weber signed-off by telling TNT viewers that the post-race would continue over on the NASCAR.com website. TV was done. Instead of following-up on the stories of the race left untold, it was time for the Grand Marshal to make his entrance. It was time for a special edition of the Bill Engvall show on TNT.
Stories like Ryan Newman and Dario Franchitti's engine woes were left unfinished. The final accident that ended the race was never fully explained. In the brief post-race, Brian Vickers complained about being told to move-over for another driver. No time to expand on that.
The bottom line is that the TNT post-race show was not even allowed to fill-out the timeslot allotted for the telecast. Think that would happen on ESPN or Fox?
Like many big sporting events on TV, there were a lot of positive and some negative issues associated with this race. Leaving the air early and no graphics at the finish did not play well as the ending to a multi-hour effort. But, good pictures and commentary again helped to keep TNT on an even keel.
I have a feeling that those of you who have read this until the end may have some opinions of your own about TNT at MIS. Here is your chance to share them with many members of the TV crew, the NASCAR media and other fans.
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