Sunday, July 5, 2009
TNT Sets The New NASCAR TV Standard
It took a little while for fans to get the hang of TNT's Wide Open coverage. The network inserted a white-framed video box in the lower right corner of the screen and played the commercials in the box. Meanwhile, on the rest of the screen the Sprint Cup Series race from Daytona continued without interruption.
This was very popular when TNT did it last season and this year it was even better. Host Marc Fein is pictured above on the infield set with guest Richard Petty. Fein set a relaxed tone with panelists Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds on the pre-race show. The conversations on this program are mixed with a variety of features.
To have TNT take the time to profile veteran owner Junie Donlavey by sending his former driver Wally Dallenbach to handle the interview shows that the TNT guys just get it. Lindsay Czarniak's JP Montoya feature perhaps needed some more organization, but Dallenbach made up for it with his look at Mark Martin and his fitness routine.
This irreverent look at the sport is just what it needs right now. TNT has managed to take the spotlight off the manufacturer troubles and the economic woes. Petty's ability to make fun of himself and keep things loose has been a big key to this success.
Most NASCAR fans know that Ralph Sheheen was called-up from pit road to step into the high-profile play-by-play position for TNT. At Daytona, in only his second time in this role, Sheheen was outstanding. A sports TV veteran with a diverse past, Sheheen directed traffic and let the other members of the TNT team shine.
Petty and Dallenbach have formed a very comfortable pairing that features a mix of humor, experience and opinion. Neither of these former drivers tries to compare their experiences with the veterans currently still racing. In fact, they often joke about their shortcomings on the track and have conversations about real issues just like NASCAR fans.
Petty is still the star of the show and seems to be comfortable in this role. It will be a shame to have him leave NASCAR after just one more event. His candid comments in Daytona were mixed with his continual use of technology while the TV coverage was in progress.
At one point in the telecast, we asked Petty via Twitter why more drivers in the big accident were not interviewed on TV. Not only did he answer the question on the air in about two minutes, he responded with a return message in the next commercial break. Petty even took the picture used on this post during the pre-race show and sent it out to the fans. Now, that is multi-tasking.
NASCAR gave TNT a bonus with the first restarts at Daytona under the new rules for the Sprint Cup Series. It really paid off as the action on the track kept things interesting and the intensity high. For the first time in a long time, this race seemed to fly by in a hurry.
Director Mike Wells chose pictures that told the story all night long and framed the camera coverage so that the commercials never interfered with any of the action on the track. The flexibility of the entire TV team to integrate these frequent breaks was simply outstanding. The bottom line was that it worked.
TNT's pit stop effect of three video boxes at the top of the screen was framed for High Definition TV sets. Standard sets lost a bit of the picture at the top of the screen, but the overall effect was the same. Viewers got to see three leaders and the race off pit road.
One dent in the night was the late caution that appeared to be more competition oriented than actually caused by debris. Nothing was shown to viewers and this is a TV crew that has been pretty reliable on the reasons for caution flags. I guess you can't show what you don't have, but the topic was not pursued.
The final lap was a disaster that was quickly turned into a TV recovery. Everyone watched Kyle Busch's car while those fortunate enough to get through the accident crossed the finish line. Sheheen called it like he saw it and then led the network through a series of replays from every angle possible.
Dallenbach and Petty took the lead and TNT replayed the entire lap from start to finish. This was the only way TV viewers at home would have any perspective on the finish line mayhem. Once it was clear what had happened, it was the words of the drivers themselves that put things in perspective.
This time, TNT stayed for a while as the pit reporters chased down the key interviews. Adam Alexander was the new guy on the TNT crew and handled his pit road assignments flawlessly. It was Tony Stewart set the tone by saying he did not want to win in that fashion, a statement echoed by others. Unfortunately, Kyle Busch again took the easy way out and declined to comment. This continues to be a very bad public relations error.
This TNT production really showed what NASCAR TV could be if the three networks involved got together and pooled resources and ideas. This single telecast put the Hollywood Hotel, Digger and Fox's endless "Junior hype" in a new perspective. In a short time, ESPN will take over the Cup coverage with no online video, full-screen commercials and one pre-race driver question as the only connection with the fans.
Saturday night in Daytona was memorable for many reasons. One of them may be for a type of NASCAR TV broadcast that we will not see again until next July. That would be a shame.
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