Sunday, April 27, 2008
Following a big racing weekend, both ESPN and SPEED will pull-out the stops to offer their best Monday NASCAR programs. Fewer dates are bigger than this Talladega and Kansas triple-header, so both networks are breaking out the heavyweights.
First up will be ESPN. It will be the trio of Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree and Ray Evernham who will invade the Bristol, CT studios on Monday. Jarrett will appear on First Take in the morning and then join Evernham on ESPNEWS. Petree will be chatting on ESPN.com with the online set.
The day will conclude for these three when they join Allen Bestwick for the "roundtable" version of NASCAR Now at 5:30PM Eastern Time. This one hour show is a thinly disguised version of the old Inside Winston Cup Racing that was a staple on SPEED for over ten years.
Bestwick was the cornerstone of that show, and has brought his influence to bear on ESPN in a big way. He now has three panelists sitting on studio chairs engaging in casual conversation while reviewing video highlights of the weekend. Sound familiar?
This format has been a big hit since it was first unveiled, and continues to grow in status with the wide variety of NASCAR personalities that ESPN welcomes to the show. The combination on Monday is perhaps the most veteran panel ever assembled.
Over on SPEED, the network continues to work very hard on building the new This Week In NASCAR franchise. Monday at 8PM show host Steve Byrnes will welcome Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus to the program as panelists. Waltrip and Knaus were together on this series earlier, and actually had a good chemistry as things progressed.
This one hour show incorporates lots more video elements than the old Inside NEXTEL Cup, and is much faster-paced. The two elements that continue to trip-up the flow are now well known. There is no third panelist, and the program begins with a preview of the upcoming race rather than a review of the recent event.
The edited video elements from the NASCAR Media Group in this program are sometimes spectacular. Gathered together, they would be great in a stand-alone program or as an online offering. Inserted into the show, they sometimes steal the thunder of the casual conversation of the guests.
Byrnes has been working on his tone in this program, which has to be different from the raucous nature of Trackside. He had a good last show with Knaus and Waltrip, which included the fun and wacky humor of Waltrip once again coming to the surface. The future for this program will be what SPEED and NMG make it.
So, NASCAR fans get the A-team from both SPEED and ESPN on Monday. It should be interesting to see how both these programs pan out, and how the high-profile personalities mesh on-the-air. There will be reviews of both shows on The Daly Planet shortly after they end. Your comments will be welcome.
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Watching the Sprint Cup race at Talladega from the grandstands is a great experience for fans. Watching the race on TV is quite another.
Earlier this season, the NASCAR On Fox production group seemed to be focused on their new track-level camera. They created a personality called "Digger" and then "extended that brand" into a marketing and sales program. They sell "Digger" t-shirts and merchandise on both foxsports.com and Darrell Waltrip's personal website.
With the big wide track at Talladega, it looked like "Digger" would be featured extensively on Fox's Sprint Cup coverage. As it turned out, the NASCAR on Fox Director had already determined that it would be another group of "TV toys" that would be featured during the race. That one decision affected the viewing experience for everyone at home in a big way.
In-car TV cameras have been around for a very long time. At NASCAR races, the cameras are provided and serviced by an outside company. All the different networks that televise races from the NASCAR TV compound can use them. This season, those cameras are even in HD.
The dynamics of racing at Talladega in the Sprint Cup Series make for some good pictures from the bumper cams. It never fails to generate excitement when one car pulls up and puts a big bump on the other. The topper is that these cameras also have audio, and the hum of a Cup car at speed is something to hear.
The downside of the new COT cars is that the bodies do not allow for a very good bumper cam view. Nothing else can be seen but a big nose piece and hood from the car behind when they are drafting.
Inserting the in-car shots into the race is simple, the Director just calls for the camera. Knowing when to use this angle and how it should be integrated into the race is something all together different.
Once underway, the new and extended pre-race show from Fox was a mix of the semi-informative and the utterly ridiculous. While Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond answered some good questions from host Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel, there were several items that left NASCAR fans steaming.
For some strange reason, the Fox Producer decided to place a staff member in the grandstand and have him eat junk food. Located in a section that offers fans an "all you can eat" option with the ticket, this staffer was supposedly eating an obscene amount of "track snacks." If this was some sort of inside joke, it failed miserably.
The bigger issue is the struggle for fans to be represented as what they really are, a good cross-section of this country. What Fox chose to do, intentionally or not, was to present NASCAR fans as gross over-eating slobs. None of this made sense, especially when mixed-in with the upcoming challenge and very real danger of racing at Talladega.
The hot dogs and hamburgers were quickly forgotten when the race got underway for one simple reason. Lead change after lead change was missed on-the-air because viewers were watching the in-car cameras. It was being made clear that this race would be very different, and fans would simply have to accept this new approach.
While "Digger" made an appearance or two, there was no problem with this track-level camera and it wound-up providing a some memorable replays. The issue on the table was whether or not the Fox Director would continue his new fascination with the in-car cameras. Fans had little idea of just how big a role this issue would play in the critical parts of the race.
The Fox announce team had a great event. Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip were simply outstanding in pointing out the strategies and the scenarios that teams may be considering as the race progressed. Talladega is always strange, and regardless of who was lingering at the back of the pack and who was trying to take the lead, Mike Joy and company kept things in perspective.
The production team used the double video box effect throughout the race in a wide variety of ways and it worked quite well. Other than actually trying to show two in-car cameras at once, this tool was the most effective in the network's coverage. With a limited amount of pit stops under caution, the quad-split was no problem and the few races off pit road were captured complete with live graphics.
Often, Joy and company would be calling the action on the track while the folks at home were once again seeing an in-car camera shot of some kind. As the race wore on, the racing took a backseat to the fundamental problem of the TV viewers. They were simply not seeing what Joy was talking about. What they were seeing was a lot of big COT hoods.
Accidents or incidents were often seen on replay, while passes for the lead were sometimes not seen at all. This was a shame, but the in-car camera emphasis continued unabated. Even in the closing portions of the event, there was no change in the approach.
With 29 laps to go, Fox was in-car during the Paul Menard spin. Viewers saw it on the replay, even though Menard was in the lead group. With 9 laps to go, all viewers saw of Jimmy Johnson pushing Michael Waltrip into the lead was the big Lowe's logo on Johnson's hood.
Ultimately, it was a crash at the back of the pack that ended the race. Fox handled the Victory Lane and post-race interviews in veteran fashion. They had time to fill while the scoring was being sorted out, and left the air giving as much information as they could. It was a bittersweet ending to an exciting event.
Next week, the short track in Richmond should pose a challenge of a very different kind as there is usually action throughout the pack all race long. This true bull-ring will demand intensity from start to finish and feature lots of caution periods.
Talladega is a memory, but for many TV viewers that memory may be tinged with the the frustration of missing some key moments while the big hood of a COT car filled the TV screen.
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The age old question in TV is very simple. How much is too much? We see the clones of entertainment shows about every topic from cooking to dancing. One successful talk show seems to spring another and sitcoms swing wildly in bunches from legal dramas to moody teenage angst.
This Sunday, the issue of how much is too much came to NASCAR. The Sprint Cup race from Talladega, AL was going to start at 2:20PM Eastern Time. One thing was clear, the actual racing would be on the Fox Television Network. What had the heads of NASCAR fans spinning was the amount of TV programming before the race.
ESPN2 began the parade with one hour of NASCAR Now. SPEED followed with the two hour RaceDay that originated from the track. Finally, Fox unveiled a newly extended pre-race show from the Hollywood Hotel that ran for one hour and twenty minutes.
Just in terms of long-form programming, the NASCAR TV partners produced four hours and twenty minutes of pre-race content on Sunday. The vast majority of this programming was focused specifically on the Sprint Cup race. Ironically, this makes the length of the combined pre-race programming longer than the actual event itself.
Looking at the offerings from these three TV networks, one thing stands-out. Not one was offering anything that was truly exclusive or new. What they were all doing was covering the exact same content with different announcers involved in the presentation.
Terry Blount, Wendy Venturini and Steve Byrnes discussed the same topics as reporters on ESPN2, SPEED and Fox respectively. On those same networks Nicole Manske, John Roberts and Chris Myers hosted programs that covered the news, reviewed the past races and talked to Dale Earnhardt Junior. Ultimately, it all became a blur.
One reason that Sunday was so memorable is because both Fox-owned SPEED and the Fox Broadcast Network were on-the-air simultaneously for thirty minutes. For NASCAR fans, Fox and SPEED are interchangeable and seemingly feature one big collection of announcers who work on both networks.
The topper on this issue is that Fox was broadcasting from the Hollywood Hotel. It was located behind pit road at the start-finish line. SPEED had moved their on-air talent from outside the track during a commercial break. Roberts, Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace were now located just before Turn 1 at the end of pit road.
Quite literally, the two Fox networks were both on-the-air live from the same track talking about the same things only feet away from each other. In terms of NASCAR TV, this might have been the moment when the question of "how much is too much" was finally answered.
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The anticipation is high as many feel this may be the day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to break through and capture his first high-profile victory driving for Rick Hendrick.
The NASCAR on Fox crew will be judged on how they strike the balance between Junior and "the rest of the field." Chris Myers will lead Fox on-the-air at 1PM for an extended pre-race show of one hour and twenty minutes from the Hollywood Hotel.
Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond will be on-hand to anchor the show with Myers. There is a lot of information to cover, and plenty of stories to follow. Joe Nemechek is on the pole, Kyle Petty made the race, and Tony Stewart continues to make news about his future.
On pit road will be the veteran team of Krista Voda, Matt Yocum, Steve Byrnes and Dick Berggren. This is a long pit road, and with the frequent pit stops it should be a hard day for all four of these TV professionals.
Mike Joy loves the superspeedways, and does a great job with his race calls on big tracks like Daytona and Talladega. This Sunday should be an opportunity to add yet another classic race to his TV resume. Having Larry McReynolds alongside is never a bad thing, as McReynolds has updated his COT knowledge and is on-top of the new technology as if he was an active crew chief.
Fox will bring "Digger" along and with plenty of slow caution laps it should be interesting to see how many times fans see the gopher animation. This track lends itself to the type of "speed shot" where the camera remains fixed and the cars fly-by at high speed. One thing to make note of is whether or not the audio "tracks" along with the video. When "Digger" appears, he should be seen and heard.
Last season, it was tough to tell the TV story of the event because of the strange racing that happened. There was lots of action early, and then basically a single-file test drive for several hours. The challenge for the TV crew will be to adapt to whatever the drivers throw at them in terms of wanting to race or simply following in line.
Finally, the Talladega finish is awesome in person. Unfortunately, most TV viewers have never seen it because of the NASCAR on Fox finish line "formula." The winner alone crosses the finish line, then the camera zooms in on the NASCAR flagman. After that, various shots of the pit crew and wife/girlfriend fill the screen. Meanwhile, the rest of the field screams across the finish line at full-speed off-camera. The actual finish of the race is only seen by those fans in the stands.
This season, the last lap of the Fox races has been a disaster. The "winner only" issue has been discussed, diagnosed and examined in detail. Fans on the Internet have begged, pleaded and screamed to no avail. What Fox wants to show is the winner, and any story or action behind that car is simply eliminated.
The Fox philosophy is that anything other than "the win" can simply be replayed later because it does not matter. Veteran fans know that nothing could be further from the truth. The big story of the race might be the car that came from the back of the pack to finish third, or the three-wide battle for positions in the top ten.
As the Fox portion of the Sprint Cup schedule heads into the final stretch, it should be interesting to see if the network sticks with this finish line format for a big race like Talladega.
The pre-race is on the air at 1PM Eastern Time, the green flag is at 2:20PM and the race is scheduled until 6PM. Please read the comments for the weather updates from the Daly Planet amateur meteorologists.
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