Monday, May 4, 2009
Almost All The Pieces In Place For ESPN
The Friday night Nationwide Series race in Richmond provided Rusty Wallace an opportunity to move from the infield back to the broadcast booth as lead analyst Dale Jarrett had the weekend off.
Wallace has been consistent this season with his approach to TV and his excitement for racing is clear. Joined by Andy Petree on the commentary team, Wallace was pumped-up to call a race again and it showed.
Petree and Jarrett have become one of the top duos in NASCAR TV because of their complementary relationship. They respect each other and often find that listening is the key to continuing a good on-air conversation. That element continues to be a struggle for Wallace.
While Petree tried to provide substantial help from his perspective as both a crew chief and owner, it was Wallace who often spoke over top of Petree and kept portions of the telecast off-balance. It was clear Wallace was speaking with honest enthusiasm, but as ESPN viewers found in 2007, that does not spell success on TV.
The casualties of Wallace and his continual conversation were substantial. Brad Daugherty and Greg Biffle could not get a word in edgewise from the Infield Pit Studio and were able to get airtime only when prompted by infield host Allen Bestwick.
Unlike Jarrett, Wallace did not go out of his way to continually include the infield personalities as the racing unfolded. Also silenced was Tim Brewer in the Tech Garage. Despite winning an Emmy recently for technical innovation, in this race the expandable trailer could have been left in the hotel parking lot.
The reality of this situation is that none of it is really Wallace's fault.
Normally, this type of problem would have been sorted-out on the air by a professional play-by-play (PXP) announcer. The "TV traffic cop" would have stepped-in and made sure that every member of the broadcast team got a fair share of the on-air exposure. Now in his third season, this is still not a challenge that Jerry Punch has mastered.
If an ESPN announcer struggled on a PXP assignment involving the NFL, college football or Major League Baseball like Punch has with NASCAR, he would have long since been replaced.
It is hard for veteran fans to watch someone who has valuable skills and a wealth of knowledge about NASCAR being forced into an on-air role that simply is not working. Regardless of who is involved in the changes, there is absolutely no doubt after Friday night that Punch needs to be moved before the Sprint Cup coverage begins for ESPN and ABC.
The Punch monotone never changes. Incidents, accidents or even great racing will not raise the excitement level one notch. As TDP has noted many times, he is unable to speak spontaneously as action on the track unfolds, especially accidents. This was again the case in Richmond.
ESPN has been able to get by despite this issue because Jarrett jumps into the PXP role on a regular basis. Often, it sounds like Jarrett is the PXP announcer, Petree is his analyst and Punch is a reporter in the booth.
With Jarrett gone this weekend, the true role of the PXP announcer was returned to Punch who reacted as usual. There was no excitement, no vivid descriptions of the action and no relating to the TV viewer directly as a partner in the telecast.
Instead, there was the constant identification of drivers, car numbers and the recent histories of the cars on the screen. The only real excitement Punch could muster was when he read promos or led the network to a TV commercial break.
The ESPN team has so many pieces of the puzzle in place. The changes over the last several years have almost all been tremendously positive. There should not be a need for fans watching TV to listen to the radio broadcast of the race. The same level of information and excitement should be offered by the TV announcers.
Perhaps, one more shuffle in the ESPN line-up may ultimately result in the right people in the right places and a big shift in the current TV rating momentum for both the sport and the network.
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