Sunday, September 21, 2008

ESPN Adds Some New TV Wrinkles For Dover

ESPN's NASCAR team continues to mix things up down the stretch as the network goes head-to-head with the afternoon NFL Football games. TV viewers noticed several changes in the ABC telecast designed to help some struggling areas of the coverage get better.

Allen Bestwick welcomed drivers in their firesuits and ready to race into the Infield Pit Studio during the pre-race show. This was quite a switch from having the frantic ESPN pit reporters tracking down the drivers for interviews. The quality of the questions from Bestwick and Rusty Wallace were far superior to the one or two question interviews with the pit reporters. Nice move by ESPN to fix a problem.

What ESPN could not fix was Brad Daugherty. In some situations, his constant cheerleading and discussions of the obvious waste time that could be used for much better purposes. By now, viewers understand that Brad likes NASCAR and all the good drivers are "wheel men."

Another switch was getting the pit reporters to climb the ladder and go get the interviews with the crew chiefs. This was a glaring hole in the Sprint Cup coverage and the network made a first attempt to fix it. Ultimately, it paid big dividends after key pit stops to hear first-hand why decisions were made that were about to change the complexion of the race.

A nice day in Dover made for great pictures and sound throughout the race. The Directing was solid and made the two bridges across the track invisible for the entire event. Adding in the speed shots and the aerial angles really helped to make a long and sometimes boring race fun to watch.

The ESPN team worked hard to catch-up with drivers in The Chase when they ran into trouble, but non-Chase drivers still get the second-class treatment where interviews are concerned. The same can be said for pit road penalties, lucky dog awards and cars spending excessive time in the garage.

Luckily, the drivers put on a very good show with a lot of changes for the lead and some good stories happening throughout the event. The problems with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were well-documented. The Denny Hamlin situation was not. This has been a tough two weeks for Tim Brewer and his Tech Center.

As viewers have seen over the past three races, it is often Dale Jarrett who steps-in and takes-over the play-by-play role when the situation is crucial and the excitement level needs to be high. Sunday afternoon in Dover was no different.

Andy Petree and Jarrett have proven to be a combination that clicks where frank and honest commentary is concerned. They can disagree, discuss topics on-the-fly and interact with anyone on the ESPN production team. In this event, they sometimes talked overtop of Jerry Punch when a point had to be made and Punch was trapped in his rambling metaphors and catch phrases.

While pit reporter Jamie Little can sometimes be too harsh, she worked well in the new environment of aggressive reporting and on-camera interviews. Her post-race face-to-face questioning of Carl Edwards was still off-base. She needs to learn to ask the same questions without the urgency or volume that she used with Edwards. That simply does not play well with the NASCAR audience.

The Chase has sparked a good variety of stories that will serve ESPN well for the week. Hopefully, the team radio hype and the singling-out of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will cease. Fans deserve the focus of ESPN and the daily NASCAR Now show to be on the racing and the teams down the stretch.

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Sprint Cup Series on ABC Sports From Dover

The chaos of Dover is about to unleash itself on the 43 teams in the Sprint Cup Series. That is the known. The unknown is how that chaos will be handled by the ESPN on ABC production team.

Just as Dover calls for the drivers to be "up on the wheel" all the time, the track also calls for the TV announcers and crew to be "alert and focused" for the entire event. Which will be the bigger challenge is yet to be seen.

It will be Allen Bestwick anchoring the pre-race coverage from the Infield Pit Studio. If there was ever a track that sends Brad Daugherty completely over the edge, Dover is it. Look for the cheerleading volume to be set on high. Rusty Wallace rounds-out the infield panel and he has a great perspective on this track. Look for the Producer to try and use Wallace during the race for observations and questions to Andy Petree and Tim Brewer.

Petree will be with his broadcast partner Dale Jarrett and the face of ESPN's NASCAR coverage, Jerry Punch. This trio hosted the Nationwide Series race on Saturday and Punch struggled to even remember the names of the drivers in the cars. Often, it was Jarrett or Petree who called the action on the track or alerted Punch to a caution flag. This on-air dynamic will be key to watch as the 400 laps slowly tick away.

The pit road at Dover is completely inadequate. The four ESPN pit reporters are going to have to put in a little extra effort all day long where pit stops are concerned. Things happen quickly and there were both pit crew injuries and a pit road accident during the Nationwide race.

Unfortunately, all 200 laps of the Saturday race clicked away without ESPN being able to offer even one full-field rundown. While the ticker on the screen may carry the position of the cars and even some minimal data, only the pit reporters can fill-in the fans on the stories behind the positions on the track of the teams. Keep an eye on how often a rundown is offered, and what positions the network chooses to update.

There are two bridges over the Dover track and it is important to note how hard the Director has to work to eliminate them from the TV coverage. While they will be seen on replays and aerial shots, the ability of the cameraman to frame the shot just under the bridge on each and every lap makes for smooth coverage for the viewers at home.

Dover also lends itself to "speed shots" on the front stretch and from track level. Mixing these into the coverage helps the Director to convey to the fans the real feeling of speed as the hundreds of laps wind-down. The "speed shot" is where a small lipstick size camera is mounted in a fixed position and the cars speed by close to the lens.

Replays under green have been an issue at Dover for years. Choosing to replay a pit road incident or even a pass on the track while the race is green means flirting with disaster. Showing the replay full-screen is the big risk, but by using two video boxes on the screen and keeping the "line cut" of the race visible the Director can always switch quickly to the live box in the event of an accident.

On Saturday, pit reporter Shannon Spake moved to the Infield Medical Center and attempted to interview the drivers involved in incidents on the track. This is a crucial issue for the fans. In last week's race, ESPN was only interested in interviewing drivers if they were involved in The Chase. Anyone outside of the top 12 was suddenly not important.

What the network forgot was that NASCAR fans keep their drivers all season, and in many cases for a lifetime. Simply because that driver did not make The Chase does not change the loyalty of the fans. With all the incidents at Dover, watching to see who ESPN chooses to interview could be a big tip about the network's coverage philosophy over the final Sprint Cup events.

In the old days, the TV crew used to call this race "The 24 Hours of Dover" because of the multiple caution flags and the grinding 400 laps. Perhaps, the dynamic of The Chase will lead to more conservative racing and long green flag runs.

NASCAR Countdown hits the air at 1PM and race coverage begins at 2PM. You should be able to find both programs on your local ABC television station.

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Morning NASCAR TV: RaceDay and NASCAR Now

Boris Said joined Ryan Burr for the one hour morning edition of NASCAR Now on ESPN2. This team has an interesting chemistry and Said has been working hard to keep his answers concise and his opinions unbiased.

Burr is locked into the ESPN Chase script, but did a good job of covering the news issues of the day with Angelique Chengelis and others on the program from Dover.

Burr will return Sunday night at 11:30PM ET for the wrap-up edition. Fans recording this show should add at least an hour to this time, as live events may back ESPN up during the evening.

RaceDay from Dover is always a happening. There is a big crowd and no doubt Kenny Wallace will keep the volume level high. Host John Roberts is on a roll after his long-time pick Greg Biffle finally won a race. Jimmy Spencer will be alongside of those two for the full two hours.

Wendy Venturini's Real Deal is an interview with Greg Biffle. Rutledge Wood plays billiards with some drivers for charity. Roberts reviews the problems Chase contenders have experienced at Dover and looks at the win streaks that are in trouble for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon if they don't win over the next couple of races.

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