Monday, September 1, 2008
Pretty Pictures Can't Help ESPN With The Racing
The momentary excitement of several restarts worked to give TV viewers a small taste of the Sprint Cup Series actually racing in Fontana, CA. Even during these special moments, the ESPN broadcast booth was silent.
Sunday night, it had come down to the "COT fleet" to deliver the thrills of high-speed racing to the fans. ESPN was simply not going to help.
During the pre-race show, Allen Bestwick and company worked hard to present a diverse group of stories and had several discussions that involved all four of the race analysts. Give it to Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. They delivered to the ESPN broadcast team a solid set-up for the race.
Once the transition "upstairs" was made, a familiar scenario occurred. Unlike last week at Bristol, the old ESPN was back. Analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were put in a tough position that they have come to know all too well.
These two have been stepping-in to describe accidents, restarts and even crew members having trouble in the pits. The reason is simple. No one else is doing it.
After producing the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night, the NASCAR on ESPN team knew full-well that Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race was going to need all the excitement possible from the announcers to keep viewers interested. Instead, the broadcast slowly ground-down to another low-key affair where the only thing exciting from Jerry Punch was reading the promos and "throwing" to commercial.
It was clear early-on that the pit reporters would be used extensively to update the progress of both the race leaders and The Chase participants. ESPN offered two comprehensive rundowns of the field during the 250 lap race. Each time, they stopped at the top 15.
This season, ESPN has offered a very complicated picture of how the Sprint Cup Series is being presented to the remaining fans. Looking at the ESPN on-air team there are all-stars, grizzled veterans and rookies. It's a good combination.
Fontana told the story of a TV team that has all the ability on paper, but cannot find a chemistry to make NASCAR racing exciting to the TV viewer. This has been the challenge for ESPN since they took over the coverage. Lack of excitement.
Before all the blame is put on the COT, remember the outburst from Bestwick in the Infield Pit Studio slightly after the halfway point in the race. Punch was once again droning-on about the dominance of Jimmie Johnson while the ESPN pictures showed Johnson endlessly lapping alone on the big track.
"Remember who won last week?" yelled the normally reserved Bestwick. The message he was trying to send to Punch was that the race is not over when one car is dominant. Punch had completely given-up calling the action and was just content to let Jarrett and Petree add any content to the program other than positions on the track.
By the halfway point of this race, any fan who had not left this telecast was multi-tasking. It was only by using DirecTV's Hot Pass, listening to the MRN radio broadcast, or using one of the online scoring services that viewers could truly get any kind of perspective on the race. It was sometimes as if ESPN just did not care.
The network focused once again on the top five or ten cars and never even acknowledged that the rest of the field existed. The triple splits on the caution flag pitstops were great. The new driver "soundbite" effect that keeps the race in the background was fine. The graphics were great and the audio was crystal clear.
What was not fine was the commentary. Yes, this was not Richmond or Darlington. Yes, the track is going to string-out the field. Yes, this race is going to take a lot of work to make it exciting. Yes, there will be long green flag runs.
All of this was known well in advance and ESPN could not answer the bell. Last year at this time, we speculated that this ESPN crew was tired having done the Nationwide Series races since February. Last year at this time, we wondered what was wrong with Jerry Punch. Last year at this time, we wondered why ESPN only covered the leaders and the stars of the sport.
This season, fans are simply getting more of the same. Here is a final example. With 28 laps to go, an exciting restart let over forty cars loose to run to the finish.
This was the entire commentary of the play-by-play announcer.
"28 laps to go on a two mile oval here in Southern California...Fontana," said Punch.
After five seconds of complete silence, Jarrett jumped-in and started to call the action on the track. As he knows all too well from his first season in the booth for ESPN, if he does not do it...no one will.
Something has to change before ESPN heads into Richmond and transitions over to the ABC Television Network. Fans are not going to stick around when college and pro football is underway to watch this low-key and almost numbing TV commentary of Sprint Cup races. What a shame for all involved.
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