Sunday, November 9, 2008
Phoenix A Watershed Moment For ESPN Team
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No one can blame the NASCAR on ESPN gang if they were a little grumpy and tired going into the Sprint Cup Series race in Phoenix. It had been a very long season and there was only one more event in Homestead after the Sunday afternoon racing was over.
Instead of turning-in another bland effort, the entire ESPN team seemed to be energized and organized for the first time during the 2008 Chase for the Championship. It was actually amazing to see the changes in this telecast.
Allen Bestwick had Ray Evernham as the fourth member of his Infield Pit Studio team with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. Bestwick did a solid job of setting the table for the race, including showing TV viewers the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series highlights from Friday and Saturday.
The panel addressed a wide variety of issues from The Chase to the economy. Bestwick referenced the fact that Brian France had a press conference in Phoenix, but no video was shown to viewers.
It was the Producer and Director that changed the direction of this telecast. Suddenly, the ESPN pit reporters were interviewing the non-Chase drivers who were out of the race. During a brief rain delay, there was even a Tony Stewart appearance during an impromptu interview with Shannon Spake. Both of these things have been unheard of over the past eight weeks.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have taken to adding race descriptions to their color analyst roles. Regardless of the reason, Jarrett and Petree have taken to filling-in the gaps left by Dr. Jerry Punch as he continues his low-key approach to his play-by-play role.
It was really the wonderful selection of cameras and the lack of hype that helped to make this one of ESPN's best races of the season. Stories were followed-up as well as can be expected and the crew tried at least twice to give a field rundown.
Even with the ticker at the top of the screen, this was a race where fans of non-Chasers may have been forced over to Foxsports or NASCAR.com for some additional details in terms of live scoring. This is a hole in the ESPN coverage that something like RaceBuddy could fix where additional cameras are made available to TV viewers using the Internet. ESPN would be well-served to add an online component for next season.
Credit goes to pit reporter Dave Burns, who was clearly under the weather all day long but hung-in for the entire race. While not exactly pulling what has come to be know as "a DW," Burns was croaking his way through his updates and pit stops. Burns often flies under the radar, but he is a TV veteran who could hold his own in the studio or host role.
Just like earlier in the weekend, the audio from PIR was outstanding. It just worked well to complement the camera angles selected by the Director. There was no over-use of in-car cameras, no gimmicks like Draft Tracker and limited use of Tim Brewer in the Tech Center.
Allen Bestwick and his crew were used several times to provide updates and recaps of the race, but they cannot reset the field before a caution or during the race. Ray Evernham meshed well with the crew and brought a more technically-oriented perspective to the panel.
The stars of the show were definitely Jarrett and Petree. At this crucial time of the season, it helped to have former champions in the booth. Jarrett worked to keep things in perspective from an overall race viewpoint and Petree was outstanding in relaying the crew chief concerns of the Johnson and Edwards teams.
During the final red flag for a late race wreck, Bestwick took control and allowed Ray Evernham to offer his perspectives on the options available to those teams chasing Johnson. This is Evernham's strong point and surely makes him very attractive to ESPN as a possible full-time member of the TV team in 2009.
As the delay ran past 7:20PM Eastern Time, Bestwick informed viewers that ESPN was going to split the viewers into time zones. Eastern and Central time zone viewers had to move from over-the-air TV to cable and tune-into ESPN2.
Meanwhile, the Mountain and Pacific time zone viewers would continue to watch the ABC network feed. This served to effectively allow both groups to watch the race until the end. Only those in the Eastern and Central time zones watching ABC without cable TV access were left out of the equation.
Unfortunately, DirecTV got bit and had to pull their race feed because it was suddenly America's Funniest Home Videos. The driver channels had no problems, but the DirectTV control should have been up-to-date on this issue. It returned shortly before the end of the race.
When racing finally resumed with 23 laps to go, Punch again stepped aside and let Jarrett and Petree call the action. Their excitement is contagious and it really helped to bring this telecast home. ESPN failed to reset The Chase points at this time, which would have helped to set the overall picture.
Ultimately, the telecast staggered home through several more caution flags and ended at 8PM Eastern Time. Hopefully, the issues with later race start times will be something taken into consideration for next season.
What was your experience in watching this race? Only one race remains in the season, so let us know how you liked the ABC and ESPN2 coverage from Phoenix.
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