Sunday, October 26, 2008
Even Atlanta Can't Provide TV Excitement
There is just no doubt that one of the problems the NASCAR TV networks are running into is the fact that there just does not seem to be a solid level of excitement in The Chase for the Championship.
Sunday in Atlanta, ESPN put an all-star line-up on-the-air. Ray Evernham was added to the duo of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Studio. Allen Bestwick was hosting that venue. Three NASCAR owners with a veteran TV personality were ready to go.
In the broadcast booth was Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Two veterans that have a combination of being drivers, crew chiefs and owners. Alongside was Dr. Jerry Punch, who may well be one of the best-known NASCAR TV personalities in ESPN history.
Down on pit road was the most veteran NASCAR reporter in the ESPN stable, Mike Massaro. He was joined by the versatile Dave Burns, Jamie Little and the team's full-time rookie Shannon Spake.
That put eleven voices on this multi-hour live telecast. Add-in the veteran ESPN production team in the TV truck and the potential for a very good sporting event was certainly at hand.
Bestwick and company had fun and previewed the Sprint Cup Series race during the one hour preview show. It would have been nice if the team acknowledged the new multi-year Camping World sponsorship of the Truck Series.
Daugherty has been working his enthusiasm for all it's worth, but Wallace and Evernham were the two NASCAR veterans who could really preview the event from an experience standpoint. They kept the energy high and handed-off to Punch and company for the start of the race.
As we have seen over the past couple of events, the choice of ESPN was to focus on a story that had been decided in advance. That story was named Jimmie Johnson. While fans are well aware of The Chase, what they were actually watching on TV was the race. From the drop of the green flag, ESPN made it clear the race itself did not really matter.
This is the exact same problem that plagued these ESPN on ABC telecasts last season. Why should The Chase spoil the race? With all the cars on the track, shouldn't all of the teams be treated equally by the TV crew and the announcers?
ESPN lucked into Johnson having a good first part of the race, but absolutely got lost when Johnson was hit with a penalty and dropped a lap to the field. Why this obsession with Johnson is anyone's guess.
Once again, listening to the radio call of this race was a surreal experience. ESPN focused on single car story after single car story while the PRN radio broadcast was calling the racing in the middle of the pack.
Dale Jarrett is clearly frustrated with the ESPN production team, as he mentioned many times on the broadcast that there was good racing going-on back in the pack. There was no response from the production team as the focus on the leaders and Johnson continued unabated.
When the Infield Pit Studio crew was allowed to talk, they injected the kind of excitement into this race that was lacking with Punch. Ultimately, Jarrett stepped-in and handled much of the play-by-play role for the final one hundred laps. He and Petree handled the load, but they were slaved to the pictures that had been selected for them to describe.
The crew offered a couple of half-hearted recaps, but they never just took a deep breath and ran-down the field for the fans. It is almost as if they are scared something will happen to the leaders while they are updating the field. Even the video recaps were quick and very basic. This is a shame, because the pit reporters were on top of their assigned teams and performed very well.
ESPN again blasted oldies as the music leading into the commercial breaks. The transition from themed music and expensive videos to oldies from a "Best of the 70's" CD continues to be rough. In the business, this is called using "random cuts."
The directing was solid, with the early over-use of the in-car cameras fading away and the good pictures and sound lasting throughout the broadcast. No technical problems on a location shoot this big is kind of like never mentioning the referees after the game. Solid tech job all around.
The use of the double video boxes was outstanding, but the pit stops lacked the pop of earlier broadcasts. No timers or triple splits was the order of the day, whether under caution or green flag racing. The pit reporters, however, were excellent in calling the pit road action.
There was a restart with 23 laps left, which led to the big accident of the race one lap later. ESPN caught the accident as it happened and showed all the replays. During this incident, Jarrett again tried to assume both the role of calling the action and offering analysis. Jarrett truly is ESPN's star of the show.
With an extended clean-up, the Producer turned the upstairs talent around and put them on-camera. This should have been done more this season and resulted in a short but smart appearance by all three booth announcers.
The final 16 laps of stop-and-go racing left things a bit in a lurch. Spake and Burns came through with good pit reports while Punch had a tough time filling the air with commentary. With 11 laps to go Jimmie Johnson hit the pits and the TV team was lost.
The restart with 9 to go had no reset of the field because ESPN chose to replay the first Edwards win at Atlanta years ago. Other than the ticker at the top of the screen, TV viewers had no clue who was where or why. This is the big problem with ESPN, the lack of basic information for the fans. Even Johnson's position was not reset after his late pit stop.
Luckily, Jarrett and Petree had Johnson to feature in the closing laps and gave all the information they had on his situation. With Edwards checked-out, Punch had to call the action as Johnson cut through the field. What viewers heard was silence and car numbers. Jarrett called the race to the end.
Nice coverage of the finish line and a great late pass by Johnson helped to end the race on a high note. Somehow, that did not really make-up for the previous four hours of mediocrity. Another tough day at the office where NASCAR and ESPN are concerned.
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