Saturday, August 23, 2008
ESPN Bends And Good TV Things Happen
We hear a lot of drivers who say they race the track and not the other cars. At tough places like Darlington and Bristol the drivers will say that the track can just reach up and bite them even while running alone.
Bristol was the nemesis of ESPN last season and the Friday night Nationwide Series race had continued those struggles. ESPN tried to overlay an entire large-scale TV production on the little bull-ring and the track bit them. The sixteen second laps and fast-paced action just did not permit all the bells and whistles that a big network like ESPN brings along to a live TV event.
Saturday night, things had changed. ESPN made the decision to race the track.
Gone was Tim Brewer and his Tech Center updates under green flag racing. Gone were the pit reporters appearing on-camera during the racing action. Gone were the intrusive SportsCenter updates forced into the program. Gone was the the Infield Pit Center crew appearing on-camera under green. Gone was the continual lower-third on-screen sports ticker.
Added were live interviews with almost all of the drivers out of the race as they departed the Infield Medical Center. Added were race recaps from the pit reporters who were covering the cars and done through the top fifteen. Added were mentions of the veterans like Bill Elliott. In this second swing through Bristol, ESPN had finally gotten it right.
The spirit of Bristol is like no other track on the circuit, so it was a shame that ESPN seemed determined not to share the opening festivities with the viewers. Instead, tired pit reporters asked tired drivers the same tired questions. Luckily, no one fell out of the pick-up trucks as they slowly made their way around the oval with the waving drivers. Meanwhile, skydivers landed, planes roared and the spectacle of it all was unfolding right over the shoulders of the ESPN firesuits.
While Dr. Jerry Punch tried to set things up as full-contact stock car racing and a NASCAR slugfest, veteran fans had other ideas. Wednesday, the track had hosted a fast-paced and exciting Craftsman Truck Series race over on SPEED. Friday, the oval had seen a Nationwide Series race that ended a full 45 minutes earlier than ESPN had predicted. This one was going to be fast.
The TV directing leads the way at Bristol, as the short laps mean the pictures can make or break a telecast. On Saturday, the images were superb and the decisions of what to show the viewers were solid all night long. Lost in translation were still the teams outside of the Top 35 in points and the Top 20 on the track, but the nature of the race kept the focus elsewhere.
After a blistering start, two big wrecks slowed the pace and allowed the network to take a deep breath. The ESPN Producer has opened the door for Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree to jump-in and contribute at anytime. This has greatly helped Punch who is sometimes not the best at live action. In this race, it was Petree who often told viewers when the caution was out and who was involved in the accidents.
Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty were used sparingly when the race was under green due to the reality of the action. All three did have the opportunity to contribute during caution periods and several times to add their audio comments to the on-going discussion. It worked very well.
By mixing the in-car cameras and the "speed shots" around the track, the Director kept the perspective of speed in the broadcast and worked the TV viewers into the action like ESPN rarely had this season. This short-track challenge had been handled by the camera, audio and graphic freelancers. Pictures, sound and info worked well.
The racing contributed to the overall success of the telecast with a good mix of stories. With 30 laps to go, ESPN focused on the fight for the lead and let some other stories lag, but that was a function of the short laps and good action up front.
This was a great recovery from a Friday night of TV misery. It is hard to put away the TV tools, gizmo's and additional announcers that are all right there at the fingertips of the Director and Producer. ESPN focused the telecast on Jarrett, Petree and the pit reporters. Punch was directing traffic and allowing a good portion of the action to be described by his two analysts.
Punch still has a tough time figuring out how to call the final lap, but even he rallied while calling Edwards across the stripe. It was Dale Jarrett who described the rest of the field crossing the line. The ESPN team now moves back to the California Speedway and gets out all the bells and whistles for that big track.
This year, they can look back on Bristol with a batting average of .500 for the weekend and a strong performance on Saturday night.
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