Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Watkins Glen Coverage Did Not Click With Viewers
It was a beautiful day at Watkins Glen and the High Definition pictures from ESPN were spectacular. At the head of the field sat Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. At the tail of the field sat a hungry Aussie and a bunch of road course specialists. The recipe for good NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing was perfect.
When the green flag fell, the stories began to unfold and they were fantastic. Former champion Jeff Gordon struggling again, Earnhardt looking like a winner and Marcos Ambrose coming through the field like a snowplow. Unfortunately, that was not enough for the American public to tune-in.
In the first year of the new TV contract, ESPN managed a 4.1 rating for the Watkins Glen race in 2007. Now, even with Dale Jarrett added to the team and Allen Bestwick handling the infield studio, the 2008 effort did not come close. This year's event garnered a 3.6 rating which translates to a decline of over 12 percent.
When information like this becomes available, it starts a discussion on several topics. Some are TV-related and others are not. It would seem that the current ESPN team is having trouble generating the level of excitement and interest that NASCAR fans are looking for.
As ESPN TV viewers are aware, the network has an buttoned-up image and network guidelines that often result in an on-air look that resembles a courtroom or a meeting of the board. Nowhere is that contrast better illustrated than when RaceDay on SPEED transitions to NASCAR Countdown on ESPN.
The open-collared short-sleeve shirts of the RaceDay panelists and the casual pit road style of Wendy Venturini give way to the expensive suits-and-ties of the ESPN gang. While ratings for the ESPN races have been flat or in decline, RaceDay has seen double-digit growth in 2008.
While it may not help the ESPN ratings to have Brad Daugherty do Kenny Wallace's "booty dance" in commercial breaks, the fact remains that perhaps ESPN's current TV approach is just a little too "buttoned-up" for this sport.
What many fans have done is migrate to other available technologies to consume the Sprint Cup events. While that might be fancy talk, what it basically means is that ESPN must understand that NASCAR fans now have alternatives available to watch the races. Jerry Punch and company are not the only game in town.
DirecTV's Hot Pass, NASCAR.com streaming, Sprint Raceview, and even listening to the MRN or PRN radio broadcast allows fans to ignore everything ESPN is offering and still enjoy race coverage. How many fans watch the ESPN pictures, mute the TV and listen to the radio call of the race?
The picture above is ESPN's original NASCAR team of Bob Jenkins (left) and the late Larry Nuber (right). The person with them was serving as both the Stage Manager and Spotter. What Jenkins is doing might be very basic, but makes a valid point. He is watching the racetrack like a hawk. To see the picture full-size, just click on it.
This concept has been lost on ESPN since they re-entered the sport. Just like SportsCenter's baseball highlights now consist of only homeruns and not the story of the game, the NASCAR coverage mostly consists of the watching the leaders and replaying the accidents. The stories are not being told.
ESPN actually moves the three announcers to the Infield Pit Studio for televised practice sessions. Punch and company can only call the action from the TV screens in this high-tech trailer. In TV terminology, they are working "blind."
For the next three races, SPEED steps-in and takes-over coverage of practice and qualifying for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. All ESPN does is produce the pre-race shows and the races themselves. This break might provide a good opportunity for the NASCAR on ESPN gang to discuss the coverage philosophy before the TV telecasts switch to ABC for the final ten races.
There are so many positive elements and so many experienced personalities in the ESPN group that it is entirely possible good things can result with just a little more freedom for the on-air team and a little loosening of the corporate ties.
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