Saturday, July 26, 2008
Sprint Cup Qualifying A Tough Start For ESPN
NASCAR fans have been watching practice and qualifying sessions for the Sprint Cup Series since the kick-off of the season in February. These sessions have been presented on SPEED and hosted by the likes of Mike Joy, Steve Byrnes and Bill Weber.
SPEED treats qualifying like gold. Each car is shown taking the full qualifying attempt and each story is told from the warm-up lap through the checkered flag. One TV twist that SPEED has worked to perfect is the "time shifting" of qualifying.
The cars are all continually recorded and the program itself continues to be recorded even as the TV network is in commercial break. Coming back from commercial, the network changes from being live to being "time shifted" as the program is picked-up right where it left off. This allows each team to have their moment in the national TV spotlight and all the stories to unfold as they actually happened.
Saturday morning, it was the time of the year when qualifying shifts over to ESPN. It was clear from the start that ESPN was going to be using a very different philosophy for qualifying than fans had seen this season. Unfortunately, many fans remember this same approach from last year. The on-track action quickly became a sideshow as ESPN once again decided that the network's agenda would come first.
It was Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree calling the qualifying session. Just like last year, ESPN has made the very strange decision to put the on-air announcers in the Infield Pit Center for this live action. Essentially, this forces Jarrett and Petree to watch TV and comment on the picture instead of watching the track and commenting on the car from a better perspective. The results were not good.
Mike Massaro, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake were the ESPN reporters from the garage area. It did not take long to have them begin talking about stories and news items that had nothing to do with qualifying. The reality was about to set-in that ESPN was back and the NASCAR TV world was going to be different.
There had only been three cars on the track, but that was enough for the network. ESPN2 was off to commercial break and several minutes later fans of Dave Blaney only saw him coasting back toward the garage with his time posted on a graphic. There would be no replays of cars that were missed during the commercials.
David Ragan may have been actually on the track, but it was Kurt Busch being interviewed and the tone of this coverage was clear. ESPN was in-charge and what was happening on the track was just going to be observed, not the focus of the program. Off to commercial again for two minutes of X Games, World Series of Poker and Brickyard 400 promos.
As Reed Sorenson slowed down and his crew looked at the clock, the ESPN cameras caught an orange glow coming fast around the corner. Fans knew instantly that it was "Tony time" at Indy. Stewart continued to build his speed and headed for the green flag. With all the pressure around him, it was going to be fascinating to see how Stewart and his team responded at Indy. Would this be a pole run or would he simply be going through the motions?
It was suddenly very clear that Dr. Punch had begun reading something. What he was reading was "intro copy" to a pre-recorded feature on Stewart winning the Brickyard 400 in 2005. As the orange glow hit full-speed and history was about to be made, ESPN played-back a 37 second feature as Stewart took the green flag.
Petree and Jarrett picked-up the end of Stewart's run and never mentioned the fact this was his final time in the Home Depot car with Greg Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs Racing. Moments after flashing across the start-finish line, the network was gone off to other interviews. ESPN refuses to tell the stories behind the qualifying attempts.
ESPN was now gushing about Dale Earnhardt Jr. going through tech and Tim Brewer was talking about fitting the NASCAR inspection templates. The network missed the entire run of Martin Truex Jr. and his DEI team. Another key story of the week, another struggling Cup team and another bad TV production decision to ignore this entire qualifying effort.
The cars that were lucky enough to get featured in the live telecast got generic graphics and one video box in the upper corner that contained a crew chief or owner. The moment the car posted a time ESPN was off to other interview, feature or promo. It was a disjointed TV mess for fans who had been watching this same activity covered in a very different way over the last six months.
Maybe things were a little off-balance for the NASCAR on ESPN gang as they had not done a Cup qualifying session in 2008. It was unfortunate that they chose not to recover during this session, but to continue over-laying an entirely different stream of programming that contained features, interviews and promos while live qualifying was in-progress.
One very interesting aspect of this year's ESPN coverage was drivers being escorted to the Infield Pit Center to appear as guests. They were actually interviewed on-camera by Punch, Jarrett and Petree while other cars were on the track. There could be no bigger insult to the teams trying to qualify then having sweaty drivers in the shiny ESPN mobile studio talking about their own sponsors while cars roared by in the background.
This seemingly arrogant behavior was never more clear than during AJ Allmendinger's time on the track. ESPN's coverage of the go-or-go-home cars was lackluster and Allmendinger's entire run was completely covered by a video recap of the earlier cars in the session. It was another strange TV production decision during an important moment on the track for a big team. Perhaps, some folks at the multi-million dollar Red Bull Racing team were not very happy with ESPN.
The challenge of TV qualifying is sometimes harder to deal with than the race itself. Imagine going to commercial and missing the run of the polesitter? That is exactly what will eventually happen using this format. The random cars that were shown made no sense. The on-going stories could not be updated and the network acted like only the Top 35 cars had value.
ESPN faces the challenge of seven Cup races and then the big move over to ABC for The Chase for the Cup. All of these races will have critical qualifying sessions for many teams that are barely hanging-on and others that want the pole for a variety of reasons. Coverage of this "race" should be just as important as the event itself.
This was a tough start on the Cup side to what has been a very solid year of Nationwide and studio coverage for the ESPN family of networks. From ESPNEWS to NASCAR Now, the change in priorities and the attention to detail where NASCAR is concerned has been nothing short of fantastic.
Hopefully, the positive changes that ESPN has made to the other NASCAR programs can migrate over to qualifying and the teams on the track can once again have their stories told and become the center of attention as NASCAR heads down the stretch.
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