Saturday, October 10, 2009
ESPN Stumbles Into Sunday
Jeff Gordon is very smooth on TV. He is a popular talk-show guest and has even hosted national TV shows like Regis and Kelly. On this Saturday afternoon, however, Gordon was clearly uncomfortable.
He was seated in the Infield Pit Studio of ESPN and all six of the on-air announcers were taking turns asking him questions during the Nationwide Series race. Gordon had stopped by to promote the documentary film called Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story. A one-hour preview of the full-length DVD airs Sunday on ABC before the Sprint Cup Series telecast.
Gordon was not uncomfortable talking about the film, his season or even his painful back. What made him squirm was the fact that one of the best Nationwide Series races of the season was unfolding out on the track and clearly no one from the NASCAR on ESPN crew gave a damn.
As the TV team peppered him with ridiculous questions, Gordon would often interrupt them to get excited about the action on the track. He repeatedly pushed the focus away from himself and back onto the high-speed racing. This veteran of both NASCAR and the media knew something was very wrong.
Dale Jarrett cheerily asked Gordon about his aching back as the three and four-wide action continued out the infield window at almost 200 mph. Allen Bestwick promoted the ABC airing of the documentary as Gordon nervously glanced at the TV monitor. He was the only one watching the race.
Ultimately, Gordon actually apologized to the ESPN2 viewers for interrupting the race telecast to promote the TV special. He was a gentleman the entire time, even when put on the spot to criticize fellow competitors. In the end, he departed while ESPN thanked him profusely and then went to another commercial break. In the meantime, the race was raging.
What ESPN should do is apologize to NASCAR fans for the entire Saturday telecast. Instead of another Busch vs. Edwards stinker, the dynamics of this event played out to make it one of the best races of the season in all three national series. That apparently was not in the ESPN script.
From the drop of the green flag the producer and director hopped randomly around to cars that seemed to be running closely together. Quickly, the silent ticker at the top of the screen was the only thing allowing viewers to understand who was where. Unfortunately, it could not tell them why.
Steven Wallace and another car got a penalty on a restart. It was never followed up until he magically appeared in the final laps having spent the entire race coming back through the field. Driver Michael Annett was never even mentioned until ESPN discovered he was running in the top ten toward the finish.
The TV chaos in this race was over the top. Marty Reid desperately tried to reset the top five or six cars before restarts. He was never allowed enough time to do more with all the ESPN and ABC promos. Allen Bestwick tried to put things in order when he did an infield recap, but it was almost always too late.
This telecast relied on replays to tell the story to the viewers because the production team missed almost everything on the track from the opening lap through the finish. The final lap was a NASCAR TV disaster that should live for a long time on YouTube. Smoking cars with bent sheet metal, super-tight camera shots and totally confused announcers made for a fitting end to a three hour NASCAR TV disaster.
After the cool down lap, ESPN chose to follow Steven Wallace down pit road because he was supposed to be angry and possibly going to fight. Instead, he got out and walked off slowly. Away from the ESPN cameras and without a second of coverage, winner Joey Logano's father ran to the Biffle car and apparently made his feelings known about an in-race altercation.
Fans were later advised that Mr. Logano had his full-time NASCAR "hard card" immediately pulled by NASCAR. Despite the fact four pit reporters were present, none of this was relayed to fans. Mr. Logano now gets to stand in line and apply for a paper credential for the remaining races.
ESPN's wonderful NASCAR Now series will set the stage for the Sunday coverage from Fontana with a 10AM preview show. Mike Massaro and Boris Said will no doubt recap these issues and more. Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis will report from the track.
Then the very same producer and director will present the Sprint Cup Series race beginning at 2:30PM with the pre-race show. Race coverage starts at 3:15PM with Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Tim Brewer will be in the Tech Garage. Shannon Spake, Jamie Little, Vince Welch and Dave Burns will be on pit road.
All these guys can do is shake off the bad Saturday telecast and try to learn for Sunday. Wideshots are mandatory on this track when the pack is running two and three wide for laps at a time. The stories of both the race and the Chase will make this challenge even more difficult.
This is big time sports television and the third season of NASCAR coverage on the ESPN family of networks. Fans have seen both Fox and TNT make changes to their coverage while ESPN continues to flounder. Making a commitment to the fans for solid coverage on Sunday would do a lot toward fixing the ongoing production problems. Green flag is scheduled for 3:31PM ET.
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