Sunday, July 27, 2008
ESPN's Disaster Management Drill
Every TV crew brings a wide variety of skills to the track when they assemble to telecast a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Many times over the last two years we have heard that the amount of equipment and manpower used for a race like the Brickyard 400 is bigger than for the Super Bowl.
Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard, the NASCAR on ESPN crew was asked to look deep into their TV bag of tricks. They were searching for the network's Disaster Management Plan.
The Goodyear tires were only going to last about ten laps before failing and everyone on the TV crew knew this going into the race. Even with additional tires shipped into the track, the situation was simply not going to change. Tony George's track had a surface that was just not "taking rubber" no matter what was done.
Allen Bestwick led ESPN into the network's second season of Sprint Cup coverage and fans were very glad Bestwick was on-board. His years of experience were crucial in trying to navigate through the nightmare of only ten lap runs being the norm on one of the biggest stages in motorsports.
Bestwick led Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham through a one hour pre-race show that explained the problems. Evernham showed his value and his technical knowledge once again as he skillfully talked viewers through this problem situation. Wallace and Daugherty were not in Evernham's league and it showed.
The tire story wound its way through the entire pre-race, but ESPN carried-on valiantly by interviewing the big names and keeping up appearances. The pit reporters worked well, but Jamie Little and Shannon Spake were having a tough time understanding the seriousness of the tire situation. They eventually got on-board as the race progressed.
Dr. Jerry Punch was not seen during the lead-in hour and when he took over the live telecast of the race the only thing he had on his hands was a mess. The saving grace in all of this was Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree showing that they are going to be effective on this coverage for ESPN. These two are often carrying-on conversations that Punch seems to be interrupting when he gets back to trying to call the race.
As the first several cautions and the first blown tires began to paint a picture for viewers it was clear that both the teams and the TV network were going to be moving to survival mode. Instead of the grandeur and majesty of Indy, NASCAR was going to be lucky to survive without an open fan revolt. Many of these same folks were no doubt present for the Formula-1 debacle earlier at the same track.
In terms of the overall broadcast crew, it was Bestwick, Jarrett and Petree who kept their wits about them and spoke to TV viewers in realistic terms about the things NASCAR was doing as the race progressed. Multiple competition cautions, closing the pits early and getting a new set of Pocono tires ready if needed were easily understood by even the most casual fan.
Earlier on RaceDay over on SPEED, reporter Hermie Sadler showed the surface of the track and the way it had been ground into unique grooves. ESPN would have been smart to frequently show fans this surface to make the point about the tires.
The pictures and sound from ESPN were outstanding. The network dropped the music videos, the SportsCenter updates and the celebrity interviews. Green flag racing was not interrupted as if it was a sideshow and the network made a commitment to wider camera angles which showed a lot more cars than last season.
The "triple split" on the caution flag pit-stops came into play as never before. With the frequent NASCAR cautions, this patented ESPN coverage of the pit-stops and the race off pit road was outstanding. It was always instantly clear who had gained, who had lost and what the restart order would be.
This type of racing allowed ESPN to slip-in commercial breaks without any real problems. If there is one thing that caution flags every ten laps will help it is commercial integration. Thankfully, ESPN did not insert live X Games promos this year and limited the hype to the creepy Darkmane and his "really cool" costume.
As the race progressed, ESPN did not use the comparison of this tire problem to the issues experienced with the Formula-1 race a while back at Indy. It was strange that this situation was treated as unique when most of the Formula-1 cars actually pulled off the track and boycotted the race.
It was very clear as the telecast progressed that ESPN was managing the on-air disaster, but lacking the comments of two very important people. The first was NASCAR President Mike Helton, who did the right thing and subsequently walked right into the ESPN announce booth.
Helton was candid in his comments, told viewers exactly what the sanctioning body was going to do and the frustrations he felt in this situation. It was a reminder of the many positive things Helton has brought to the table over his years in this sport.
One voice, however, was missing. The high-profile Tony George from IMS was never heard from and that was a shame. Regardless of the problem, a track operator like Humpy Wheeler or Eddie Gossage would have been ready to go on-the-air and talk about the issues involved. George should have been front-and-center. Instead, he was invisible.
One big breath of fresh air from the NASCAR on ESPN gang was the final run to the checkered flag. The Director worked very hard to keep a perspective on a large number of cars even though it was a two-car race. As the winner crossed the finish line, ESPN swung wide so fans could watch the field race hard off Turn 4 and sprint to the finish. The big graphics were tough, but the information was accurate and worked well.
Fans of drivers like Marcos Ambrose and others who never ran in the top ten were frustrated that there were almost no full-field rundowns, but the tire situation and the frequent caution flags really had some production elements out-of-sort.
While this broadcast was clearly not a good test of ESPN's new NASCAR commitment, it was a solid start under tough circumstances for a crew with several new additions. This may be the one time that the TV crew is actually looking forward to heading for the hills. Pocono is next on the Sprint Cup agenda.
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