Saturday, July 25, 2009
ESPN's NASCAR Curveball
The buzz has been around for several days now, but ESPN has finally just confirmed what Ray Evernham told SiriusXM radio. The NASCAR on ESPN team is shaking things up and the Michigan Nationwide Series race in three weeks is when it will happen.
Here are some excerpts from ESPN's official announcement:
ESPN’s live coverage of the Aug. 15 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway will have a new and different approach as the telecast will prominently feature five former NASCAR champions and will be done without a traditional “play by play” announcer.
“Our goal is to give viewers a different presentation, one filled with discussion, observations, and stories from some of the most respected champions NASCAR has crowned, and their unique unfiltered perspective on an event,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports.
“This is an opportunity for our viewers to have the experience of sitting around watching a race with these champions from their couch at home, and without the traditional approach to sportscasting.“
The official release goes on to document that in the announce booth will be Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree and Evernham. Tim Brewer will stay down in the Tech Garage. Allen Bestwick will host, probably from his normal infield studio location.
ESPN's Feinberg took a bold step already this season by bringing veteran announcer Marty Reid over to NASCAR. Reid was available after ESPN chopped its IRL TV contract into pieces, leaving the vast majority of the races and other programming to the Comcast-owned Versus TV network.
Reid was tagged to come over and relieve Jerry Punch of having to call both the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races as well as the Nationwide events. This was a smart move and shows that ESPN recognizes things are not going well on the NASCAR trail where TV coverage is concerned.
This MIS experiment has several layers to it and they are all interesting. Despite the enthusiastic statement, Feinberg knows that every single live sports TV telecast needs a leader. As fans of TDP know from the past three seasons, there are duties to perform in the booth and an order to be established for a good telecast. We often refer to this as directing traffic.
There is little doubt from my vantage point that this exercise is about one individual. No, it is not the miscast Jerry Punch who has struggled with even the most basic play-by-play fundamentals for the past three seasons. This experiment is about ESPN's current NASCAR Lead Analyst Dale Jarrett.
Many TDP columns have thanked Jarrett for stepping in and taking over when Punch is unable to translate the excitement on the track to the TV viewers. Jarrett also offers a lot of the ordinary play-by-play coverage simply because the only alternative with Punch in the TV booth is silence. NASCAR on ESPN viewers are used to that.
This Nationwide Series race is a great opportunity to put Jarrett in a play-by-play role without ever admitting it. The Saturday race also saves face for Punch, who on the surface is not involved in this little experiment at all. Reid was listed as doing the Nationwide races down the stretch this season.
Jarrett gets to partner with Petree who is already his normal co-analyst. Evernham comes to the booth still learning how to handle the national TV spotlight. This should be a good test of just how much he has learned in his time with ESPN. Wallace is best in controlled doses and having four announcers in the booth will require patience from all concerned.
It should be Jarrett who calls the action on the track, leads into the replays and works to keep a good balance between announcers. Even with a Nationwide Series race, the TV skills of a play-by-play announcer are needed to keep order.
With four voices in the booth, four more on pit road, one in the Tech Garage and one in the Infield Pit Studio a large part of this broadcast is going to be what we referenced earlier, directing traffic. Jarrett should fill that role.
As this experiment gets closer, there is no doubt we will begin to hear a little more about the specifics. It certainly is curious that only a couple of days before Punch begins his Sprint Cup Series stretch, ESPN makes public plans to televise a NASCAR event with basically everyone else on the TV team except him.
Even in the heat of a NASCAR summer, who says sports television isn't interesting?
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