Tuesday, September 2, 2008
ESPN Event Coverage May Be Shifting
It is time once again for Monday Night Football to begin. As most fans know, ESPN has been in-charge of this franchise and last season the coverage bore a striking resemblance to ESPN's first year of NASCAR telecasts.
NFL fans were furious over the fact that the game on the field was sometimes nothing more than a distraction. There was an entirely different agenda going-on in the broadcast booth.
It featured ABC celebrity interviews, long-winded discussions on various NFL topics and lots of fancy graphics and features. What is did not feature was the football being played on the field.
Click here for a summary of what just one guest did on-the-air during a game. Jimmy Kimmel wound-up being banned from ESPN as a result of this effort.
Over in NASCAR land, this (click here) column spoke to the insanity of the ESPN coverage. On that day, the pre-race TV show for the Busch Series race at Talladega never even mentioned the race. The entire program was focused on the next day's Sprint Cup Series event and the top Cup drivers.
Unfortunately, there was one little problem with that approach. ESPN was not televising the Sprint Cup race. The network wanted to be associated with the big stars and the big series, so that is exactly what they did.
Once ESPN's Sprint Cup coverage got underway, this column (click here) spoke to the disaster that was Pocono in 2007. The "shut up and drive" weekend featured X Games athletes being interviewed, the infield studio on-camera discussing issues and pre-recorded features being played back. All of these things were done while 43 drivers were racing under the green flag in the background.
Just like Monday Night Football, NASCAR racing had been relegated to background noise for ESPN's network-wide agenda of conversation. Also, just like NASCAR in 2007, the fan reaction to ESPN's event coverage had been a tad less than favorable. The network was roundly ridiculed in the media and across the Internet.
With the coverage of the Sprint Cup recently underway and the MNF franchise just about to begin, reporter Jim Carlisle (click here) caught-up with some ESPN executives and heard a very new tune. It was a melody that might be music to the ears of some NASCAR fans once The Chase begins.
"I think we may have been trying to over deliver for all audiences and casual fans," said Senior Coordinating Producer Jay Rothman. "You could call us the old ABC on steroids, but the truth of the matter is we are a sports network and people tune into ESPN for a sporting event."
"One of the things we heard was you're trying too hard. Well, we're going to pull back. We may not put 20 pounds in a 5-pound bag; we'll give you 5 pounds in a 5-pound bag. But guilty as charged: I think we were trying to service too many and found we were doing too much."
ESPN Senior VP Jed Drake was directly involved in putting together the 2007 NASCAR coverage and the Monday Night Football package. Drake is the Executive Producer who is responsible for how events produced in the field by ESPN look on-the-air.
"The feedback that we got was that they love our coverage, they want us to focus on football and that when we do that, we do it really well." With The Chase about to begin, things for NASCAR fans may be looking up if Drake changes the word "football" to "racing" in that sentence and then delivers the goods.
Earlier this season, Drake took ESPN Senior NASCAR Producer Neil Goldberg to a track in the Midwest. They decided to fix a big problem that had been a thorn in the side of ABC for several seasons. It is a little race called the Indy 500.
Stripping the hype, the glitz and keeping Brent Musburger on a very short leash, Drake and Goldberg put on one of the best Indy 500 telecasts in recent memory. Click here to read a TDP column about the event coverage.
What this proved is that when the pressure is on for big events, ESPN can re-focus on the action and leave the hype to the endless talking heads of studio programs from First Take to SportsCenter. People tune-in to event coverage to watch the athletes, not the announcers.
“We've become more aligned with what they (fans) want versus what we think they want,” said Rothman to the San Diego (click here) Tribune. He added ESPN learned more of its audience was avid fans, not casual fans. "And we may have been not aligned in that area over the last couple years,” Rothman said. He admitted ESPN was trying to serve too many masters.
“But the truth of the matter is, we are a sports network and people tune in to ESPN for a sporting event," said Rothman. "There are many other entertainment options out there."
While Rothman is not involved in NASCAR coverage, both Drake and Goldberg play key roles in the entire NASCAR on ESPN TV package. Richmond will be the highest-profile Sprint Cup race of the ESPN production team's season. It will also be the first Cup race in prime-time on the ABC Television Network.
If this new ESPN focus on directly covering the action can make its way to the ABC portion of the Sprint Cup Series package, it will make the same dramatic difference that the commitment to football rather than conversation will make for the MNF franchise.
The "Rock and Roll 400" will take to the air on ABC at 7PM ET on Saturday night. The challenge will be to cover the entire field, to show the best racing on the track and limit the interruptions under green flag racing. This TV crew did an outstanding job on the short track at Bristol, so Richmond may be just what the doctor ordered to start the broadcast network coverage and kick-off The Chase in style.
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