Friday, August 22, 2008
Nationwide Race Becomes Background Noise
The short laps of Bristol Raceway force the TV crew to strip-away all the bells and whistles and focus on the racing action. The Nationwide Series poised just that challenge to the NASCAR on ESPN gang Friday night.
The network decided to keep the "bottom line" graphic insert on the screen during the entire race. Then, it added SportsCenter "right now" updates during green flag racing. Even with laps of under twenty seconds, ESPN added pre-recorded "bumpers" leading into the commercials that featured the drivers standing and staring into the camera.
From the start of the race, the commercial rotation was crushing and often resulted in only small "snapshots" of racing or simply recaps of missed action before another commercial. Also under green, Tim Brewer in the Tech Center provided updates without the racing action in a second video box.
By now, you may have caught-on that ESPN changed nothing for this race. In fact, features and pre-determined storylines caused this broadcast to become almost a highlight show. The racing action had to fight against the ESPN agenda. The racing action lost the fight.
Early in the event, the graphic information showed four cars had fallen out of the race. There had been no caution periods. These teams had never been mentioned on the telecast when they were running. They were never mentioned when they retired. Since they were not star drivers or star teams, they simply did not exist to ESPN.
Ten ESPN announcers surrounded the action at Bristol with four pit reporters, three on-air talent in the infield and three more upstairs in the announce booth. Ten voices trying to talk while sixteen second laps and great racing flew-by resulted in nothing more than a complete mess.
Just like last season, ESPN suddenly decided that the Nationwide Series Championship fight was going to "trump" the actual race and the network followed that agenda to the end. The focus on the potential champions left the reality of those cars running outside of the top five to become nothing more than something to be tracked as the graphic crawl went slowly by at the top of the screen.
Commercial-after-commercial ran as ESPN found themselves constantly in commercial break during incidents on the track but never returned early. Nothing was worse than the timing of the TV commercials in this race. Veteran fans may remember that this was the same problem ESPN experienced at this track last season.
With 25 laps to go, viewers had not seen any racing outside of the top ten or had a full-field recap. It was going to be the Clint Bowyer show to the bitter end until the unthinkable occurred.
The car ESPN had focused on all race long was about to be passed for the lead of the race and ESPN missed it. Not because the network was in commercial, but just because they missed it. The winning pass had to be replayed.
Some late attempts at showing other racing momentarily added nothing and made no sense. By now, Jerry Punch was just talking about what was appearing on his TV screen and any hope for a perspective on the race itself was gone.
The new pavement at Bristol allows for two-wide racing and the races take less time because of fewer cautions. With only two laps to go at 9:45PM Eastern Time, Punch had not called any significant racing action. This ended in one of the most amazing moments in recent NASCAR history.
As Keselowski made his final lap and won the race, Punch called no other cars coming across the finish line. Suddenly, silence ruled. Let's repeat that one item. The ESPN play-by-play announcer called only the winner crossing the line and did not mention one other car or team as the rest of the field screamed around on the final lap.
Cars were crashing and the normal last lap chaos of Bristol was in full-swing. What NASCAR fans nationwide heard was silence until Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree jumped-in once again and tried to help. ESPN actually had to replay the finish so TV viewers understood what had happened on the final lap.
The blunt reality of the short laps at Bristol mandate that TV networks change to cover this event like no other. ESPN was unable to deviate from the three pre-planned agendas of featuring JGR, the Nationwide Championship fight and the top two or three cars on the track. That resulted in a loss of any information on the vast majority of the drivers in the field for the entire evening.
As the network filled the remaining program time with interviews, fans learned who finished where and what really happened in the race. They got this information from the drivers. Punch and company were long-gone and it was Bestwick who led the way through the post-race interviews.
Many of the drivers interviewed had not been seen on-camera during the race itself. The stories were almost all new to those who watched the ESPN coverage. The reality of ESPN's race production problems was being exposed by the drivers themselves.
Perhaps, the opinions of the fans who will be posting their comments on the television coverage of the Friday Nationwide Series race might help to put things in even better perspective for both NASCAR and the ESPN production team prior to the Saturday night coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race.
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