Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sputtering To The Finish Line

Jimmie Johnson threw a wrench into the best-laid plans of the ESPN on ABC bunch. Once Johnson got down a lap and did not immediately race back into contention, the Texas Sprint Cup Series telecast began to sputter. It never recovered.

Drivers like David Reutimann and Juan Pablo Montoya suddenly began to get TV time simply because the scripted Johnson vs. Edwards scenario was not playing-out. In a matter of minutes, TV viewers saw drivers they had not seen since The Chase began.

The wheels were coming-off this telecast because the script could not be changed. ESPN still clung to every move Johnson made, despite the fact he was no longer a contender. TV viewers even got slo-motion replays of Johnson's crew chief and his "secret pit signs."

Several times during the event, infield host Allen Bestwick made rather pointed remarks to the team in the broadcast booth about what stories they should be following and why. It made no difference. In a matter of minutes, Dr. Jerry Punch had returned the telecast to the scattered and disjointed mess it had become.

The first race recap came with 88 laps run and did not last long. This race was essentially run under green with a few cautions. Long green flag runs did not work well for the ESPN team because Johnson was nowhere to be found. Instead, the car-hopping began and never ended. Random race cars came and went on the TV screen, some never to be seen again.

With over a hundred laps left to go, ESPN was missing all the drama of Edwards trying to lap as many cars as possible. This battle was lost as the network continually jumped from story to story and topic to topic. Punch was unable to put things in perspective for viewers and the big picture was left to Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. With no script to follow, things fell apart.

Several times during the race, the Infield Studio crew of Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty stepped-up and injected some enthusiasm and fun into the telecast. With 99 laps to go, this trio tried to reset the race and help the fans understand both the race and The Chase on the track. It was to no avail.

Drivers would suddenly appear after a pit stop in the top ten and TV viewers would have no idea where they came from. While Jarrett and Petree tried to keep things updated, that is not their responsibility. It was up to Punch to sort-out the racing reality and tell fans what it meant in terms of both the race and The Chase.

A restart with 82 laps left began a period of frantic high-speed racing, but the tone of Punch's voice never changed. At one point the ESPN production team had side-by-side races in two video boxes on the screen as the battles raged. If NASCAR fans wanted to hear the excitement, they needed to turn on the radio.

43 cars were still on the racetrack and ESPN had never done a full field rundown once during the multi-hour event. Cars seemed to come out of nowhere and then, by the next TV segment, were gone without explanation.

Pit reporter Shannon Spake had what may be her best race of the season. A lot of big stories just happened to fall into her lap and she handled them all with a very new sense of calm. While the other pit reporters worked hard, Spake really stood out on this telecast from beginning to end. She let David Gilliland off-the-hook, but it was clear he was clinging to his ludicrous explanation.

With thirty laps to go in the event the Infield Studio crew again reviewed the race with Bestwick leading the discussion. He covered all the race possibilities using all five of the ESPN race analysts and set the table for Punch to bring the race home.

Late pit stops for fuel shuffled the field and it was a tough task to put things back in order as the cars cycled through. The Carl Edwards fuel issue was being described by pit reporter Dave Burns and became the key issue of the late race. Lost in the shuffle was Johnson, who had suddenly faded to a non-story and was not seen again.

Jarrett and Petree were not buying the Burns story of Edwards going all the way on fuel. As it turned out, it was Bestwick from the Infield Studio telling fans with only five laps to go the real reason that Edwards would take this risk. Punch was silent and Bestwick continued to lead the telecast until two laps were left.

On the final lap, Punch tried to get the excitement flowing as Edwards sputtered across the finish line. It had been a very long four hours since ABC took to the air and it was fitting that Shannon Spake had the final interview with Bob Osborne, Edward's crew chief.

Johnson was now an afterthought and ESPN had a new story to follow. Edwards was now going to make things interesting right down to the end of the season. The TV crew closed-out the race with a variety of interviews and tried to get the stories of the race out to the fans.

This was a tough broadcast to watch without the assistance of a computer for additional information or by listening to the radio call of the race. NASCAR fans should not have to multi-task to learn where their favorite driver was running and how he got there.

Two races are left in the ESPN on ABC coverage this season. How did you react to the television coverage of the race?

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Just How Big Is The Cup Drivers vs. ESPN Feud?

Anyone remember Tony Stewart? The former Sprint Cup Series champion, new team owner and 2008 Chaser has been a personality noticeably absent from the NASCAR on ABC coverage for some time now.

Stewart does not suffer fools easily and this season the ABC pit reporters have often eagerly stepped-up to that role. Comprised of a mix of veterans and relative newcomers, the four pit reporters covering The Chase for the Championship are in some of the most high-profile sports TV positions in the nation.

Their job is a tough one. It mixes dealing with the the wide variety of personalities in the NASCAR garage with the reality of often being told what to ask by the race Producer or Pit Producer. The combination of serving two masters has resulted in some less than memorable ESPN/ABC TV moments this season.

What makes this job even more thankless is the choices made by the TV production teams of NASCAR Now and the Nationwide Series races. Often this season, by the time Sunday rolled around, one team or driver was already upset at ESPN over a specific issue and the Cup Series pit reporter was going to get an earful.

That was the case earlier this year when ESPN finally discovered team radios. All of a sudden, conversations in the heat of the moment were being replayed hundreds of times all over the ESPN Networks. It was as if ESPN was a child with a new toy. Then, just as quickly as this fad arrived, it was gone.

Left in the lurch were victims like Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. Team radio comments by them or about them were public media fodder for weeks because the NASCAR Now production team chose to promote them out-of-context and make them into stories.

Waltrip made his feelings known on This Week in NASCAR on SPEED while Junior and Stewart responded publicly with Stewart speaking directly to the credibility of the ESPN personalities in the NASCAR garage. This echoed the sentiment Stewart expressed in 2007 when he openly clashed with ESPN reporters David Amber, Bob Holtzman and Wendy Nix.

In terms of the three Sprint Cup TV partners, ESPN has been having the biggest struggle with driver relations. Both Fox and TNT once again navigated through their portions of the schedule without this kind of incident. By the time ESPN came to the Cup Series in late July, both NASCAR Now and the Nationwide Series TV coverage had been underway for six months.

Many of the Sprint Cup drivers had already been dealing with personalities like Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis since February. These professional reporters operate in sharp contrast to the ESPN pit reporters. Smith and Chengelis have the advantage of working in a journalistic context and editing stories before airing.

Unfortunately, the pit reporters are often stuck standing face-to-face with someone and being pushed to satisfy the agenda of the team in the ESPN/ABC production truck. This was the case in Saturday's Nationwide Series race.

After Kyle Busch dominated the on-track action from the start, ESPN pit reporter Mike Massaro spoke to Joe Gibbs live with only fourteen laps to go and the race under green. Massaro exchanged compliments about Busch, but then hammered Gibbs by reminding him of the harsh penalties his Nationwide Series teams had received earlier in the season.

Massaro's interview was poorly-timed, it was tasteless and it interrupted the action on the track at a critical time in the race. In other words, it was another example of the way ESPN has chosen to treat this sport since 2007.

No one knows why targets like Gibbs, Earnhardt and Stewart are chosen. No one really understands why an off-hand insult about Michael Waltrip should be national news for days. These choices are mystifying.

As the season winds down, it will be very interesting to see if Stewart or Earnhardt Jr. appear on the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show on ABC. Both of these drivers are regulars on SPEED and seem to be having fun with the other members of the media.

Veteran fans know that messages are sometimes delivered in the two races before the finale in Homestead when everyone has to be on their best behavior. Earnhardt Jr. spoke out Friday about some internal NASCAR problems and Stewart recently said on SPEED's Trackside show that he is not going to change his media style now that he is an owner.

What pit reporter gets assigned to Stewart on Sunday and who gets Earnhardt may go a long way toward determining if fans get to see or hear from either one before or after the Texas event. Chances of a Stewart sighting are not very good.

The bottom line is, there is a tinderbox of emotion that has been building up for fourteen races where the ESPN broadcast team is concerned and it may just be the high-speed chaos and intensity of Texas Motor Speedway that lights that fire.

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Are Fans Burned-Out On NASCAR TV?

There has been a theme emerging during The Chase this season that we really did not see last year. Remember, 2007 was the first year of the current NASCAR TV contract and lots of the Sprint Cup Series television coverage was brand new.

Now, as this season draws to a close, the ESPN and ABC portion of the Cup coverage has basically been a ratings disaster. Instead of building on the first year, fans have been heading other places and the ratings have been flat or declining.

This kind of flies in the face of what is happening in the sport. Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are three very popular drivers. The stories of Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continue to be interesting almost every racing weekend.

Despite the issue of fans not attending the races, the ABC coverage is specifically on free over-the-air TV for the entire Chase. The ABC announcers are all experienced and well-known NASCAR personalities. The HD pictures are great and the sound is fantastic. So, why are TV viewers staying away?

In this discussion, forget the normal NASCAR complaints. Let's put the COT, Brian France, and Goodyear on the shelf. Forget the vanilla drivers, the super-teams and the endless mergers. Our topic today is just one little fan-related question.

Are you burnt-out on NASCAR TV?

The Budweiser Shootout kicked-off the season way back on February 9th. If you have been watching only the Sprint Cup Series coverage, you have seen over 100 hours of live racing on TV already this season.

Fans who watch all three national touring series and the other NASCAR TV programming like NASCAR Now and the weekend SPEED coverage might need to sit down before reading further. If you have been hanging tough with the sport since February, you have watched over 400 hours of NASCAR TV in 2009.

In a world where we often ask just how much is too much, this might be a very good topic for discussion. Could it be that fans are just burned-out on NASCAR TV and have opted for NFL football and other TV sports?

NASCAR finally has a daily show on ESPN2, a duo of one hour review shows on Monday and a slew of programming from the SPEED Stage each racing weekend. The races are in HD right down to the in-car cameras. All three Sprint Cup Series TV networks are experienced with sports and have been involved in NASCAR prior to this season. What could be wrong?

This weekend the action shifts to the Texas Motor Speedway. Another high-speed 1.5 mile oval with a dogleg on the frontstretch. A track with a mixed history and a whole lot of hype.

The 334 laps will take several hours and the event will not even take the green flag until 3:47PM Eastern Time. By that time, viewers will have seen four hours of pre-race shows from ESPN2, SPEED and ABC.

Once again, NASCAR will be running a race that will probably stretch well beyond dinner time on the East Coast. With a rain delay or red flag, it could go well beyond 8PM.

When the race is over, there will be three hours of NASCAR-related programming on SPEED and a one hour wrap-up show on ESPN2. Sunday alone will have 12 hours of NASCAR TV headed in your direction.

When you take a step back and look at this year of watching NASCAR on TV, are you happy that the season is almost over or have your viewing habits already changed? Even for the biggest fan, is it possible to actually be burnt-out on NASCAR TV?

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In-Progress From Texas: Sprint Cup Series on ABC

Three races to go and this may be the one that confirms Jimmie Johnson as the 2008 champ. The ESPN on ABC bunch is going to be facing a very high-speed track with multiple grooves and lots of fast-paced racing.

Allen Bestwick will start the show at 3PM ET with NASCAR Countdown. Bestwick will be joined by Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. There have already been two races at TMS this weekend so it will be interesting to see if Countdown chooses to show Nationwide and Truck Series highlights.

The knock on the ESPN production team is that this stretch has been "all Chasers all the time" since the final ten races began. Today may be the litmus test of that theory as Johnson is in position to lock things up with a strong performance. Keep an eye on the topics discussed in the pre-race show and which drivers and personalities are interviewed or profiled.

Once the race coverage begins at 3:30PM, Dr. Jerry Punch will have 17 minutes before the teams take the green flag. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree will join Punch to call the event. On Saturday afternoon, this trio handled the Nationwide Series race and ran out of gas long before the cars on the track.

This is the second season of NASCAR on ESPN and the network is looking like a group of outsiders. Racing action on the track is now pushed aside for Chase-driven coverage. Interviews and features are all about Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Perhaps, there might be a Jeff Gordon soundbite thrown-in for old times sake.

It seems as if the reality of this bad coverage has put the ESPN group into some kind of denial. Unfortunately, anger is not going to solve the problem of never telling the story of what is happening on the track beyond the first five cars and the Chasers.

Even in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, the ESPN crew could never pull-off a full field rundown and struggled to keep viewers understanding who was where and why. Today, with the double agenda of the racers and the Chasers running side-by-side that challenge will only be much more difficult.

Jarrett and Petree are again going to be asked to carry a significant portion of the play-by-play load as Punch has relegated himself to repeating car numbers, driver names and the most basic of information. It is only when he is sending the network to commercial break or reading a scripted promo that Punch regains the excitement that fans used to know from his NASCAR days in the 1980's and 90's.

The ESPN pit reporters are going to have to be ready to deal with a wide variety of issues. This is the time of the season where the casual words and happy chats are over. Tight tempers and drivers fighting for jobs will dominate the agenda in Texas. One too many questions from a pit reporter may result in some rough answers.

With only Phoenix and Homestead left to go, this Texas race is going to be the last truly high-speed and fast-paced live TV race for the NASCAR on ESPN team. A good broadcast will go a long way toward putting things right for next July when the group again takes over the Sprint Cup Series coverage.

This post will serve to host your TV-related comments about NASCAR Countdown and the Sprint Cup Series race from Texas on ABC. To add your opinion, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

Early "RaceDay" Highlights Pre-Race TV Shows

There is the normal array of pre-race programming this Sunday leading up to the Sprint Cup Series race from the Texas Motor Speedway.

The six hours of shows before the race this week have some interesting twists. Chefs Mario Batali and Rachael Ray will be stopping by RaceDay on SPEED. This two-hour program is split in half this week because of the live coverage of the Brazilian Grand Prix Formula-1 race.

Before RaceDay is the normal line-up of Tradin' Paint, NASCAR Performance and NASCAR in a Hurry on SPEED. ESPN2 offers the one-hour morning edition of NASCAR Now at 10AM.

The complete list of the pre-race shows is located on the right side of the main page. This post will serve to host your TV-related comments about this block of programming. There will be a new post up for NASCAR Countdown and the Sprint Cup Series race later this afternoon.

PS - Thanks to some good folks at SPEED, I got my hands on some great Halloween pics of the SPEED gang at TMS. Will post them tonight after the TMS race.

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