Sunday, July 12, 2009

TNT Ends Another Summer Adventure

It certainly was a summer to remember for the NASCAR on TNT team. They lost their veteran play-by-play announcer after an internal dust-up at a hotel in New Hampshire. Then, the network got a tremendous present from NASCAR to spice up the traditionally boring TNT events. The new restart rules changed everything.

One trademark of the TNT broadcasts has been the simple and straightforward pre-race shows. Marc Fein has done a good job of letting Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds have the spotlight this summer. Both Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon stopped by for interviews this week.

TNT has paid tribute this year to NASCAR's history with the Pride of NASCAR series. This week, former driver Fred Lorenzen showed that his passion for the sport had not diminished over the years of his retirement. Matt Yocum handled this assignment with just the right touch.

Ralph Sheheen took a tough situation and made the best of it with his play-by-play ability. Replacing veteran Bill Weber was not easy and Sheheen pulled it off with class and dignity. From expecting to be one of four pit reporters to suddenly being the face of NASCAR on TNT, Sheheen certainly deserves a lot of credit.

The personality of the Chicagoland track was quickly on display once the race started. The TNT team kept the camera shots wide so that viewers could see groups of cars racing and eventually who the leader was about to lap. There was no real strategy involved early in the event, effectively muting Larry McReynolds.

It was up to Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach to keep the conversation going. Luckily, the production team continually peeled back through the field to tell the stories of those teams struggling and those on the move. TNT has also been very careful to treat Dale Earnhardt Jr. as just another driver this summer. That has been noticed and appreciated.

Now, after six TNT races it is hard to even remember the Fox hype and single-minded focus on Earnhardt and Kyle Busch. Even more amazing is the fact that the same TV producer handled both the Fox and TNT races. That certainly says a little something about the influence of the Fox Sports executives in what is shown on TV.

There were some tough moments in this telecast. From the beginning, the commercials inserted by the TNT Master Control were much louder than the audio from the track. TV viewers had to ride the remote every time a commercial break aired until just before the halfway point of the race.

When NASCAR waved the caution flag several times, TNT was unable to deliver the debris. That might not be a big issue, but certainly with the complexion of this event the famous mystery caution was going to be alleged. Once again, TV allowed the debate to continue.

Great pictures from the track only got better when the sun went down, but it appeared that TNT's announcers treated the Sam Hornish wreck rather casually. On TV, smoke seemed to be filling the driver's compartment and putting Hornish in danger. Simply by reassuring viewers that it was only tire smoke from the spin, a lot of fans would have relaxed.

The pit reporters meshed on this event and simply provided information whenever needed. The pit producer worked to integrate the reporters through pit stops both under caution and green flag racing. This was an outstanding feature of the telecast and continued with focused and timely interviews after the event.

NASCAR's restart present to TNT eventually paid off with some excitement in the closing stages of the race. This has been the best improvement of the season and took viewers minds off the sheer boredom of this gas mileage track. No fuel strategies came into play and the race was decided with some drama.

Mark Martin continues to be a popular winner, but Tony Stewart is the talk of the season. Stewart has been wonderful with both Fox and TNT so far this year. It should be very interesting to see how he reacts when the ESPN team comes calling in two weeks at The Brickyard 400.

TNT came into the sport this year at a time when fans desperately needed a change of pace from Digger, DW and the Fox attitude. Boy, did they deliver. Suddenly, boring races like Pocono and Sonoma were fun again and this TV team is a big part of the reason why. Petty is the star and his outspoken and technology-driven approach to announcing is going to be missed.

As TNT departs, please take a moment to add your thoughts on the Chicagoland race and the overall TNT coverage this season. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

"Diamond In The Rough" Not Shining On TV

It was 2006 when the details of the new NASCAR TV contract were released. In addition to the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races, ESPN was going to be televising the entire Nationwide Series beginning in 2007. It was a wonderful opportunity.

ESPN President George Bodenheimer praised the series as a diamond in the rough that would be polished by the single-minded attention of the NASCAR on ESPN production team.

Friday night, TV viewers saw just how polished the coverage of the Nationwide Series has become as ESPN televised the race from Chicagoland Speedway.

It was NASCAR TV pro Allen Bestwick who led his team of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty through the pre-race show. Bestwick used his pit reporters to offer interviews with selected drivers and let Wallace and Daugherty crank-up the enthusiasm. Then, the race coverage began.

At Chicagoland, the field gets strung-out and it is up to the TV network to scan the track for racing and storylines. Right from the start, the production approach was a familiar one. Tight shots of selected Sprint Cup Series drivers were mixed with in-car camera shots to create yet another forgettable telecast.

Quite simply, it feels like ESPN has given up on the Nationwide Series and is patiently awaiting the network's return to the Sprint Cup telecasts. This monochromatic approach is led by Jerry Punch, who once again rattled off car numbers and driver names while leaving any attempt at excitement to analysts Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace.

These telecasts are led by the producer, who instructs the director on how to present the race and then leads the talent through the live event. Quite simply, nothing was shown on the TV screen for the vast majority of the race except camera shots of single cars. There was a lot of zooming on this telecast and none of the cameramen were zooming out.

When the pit reporters took a moment to recap the top ten, it was as if TV viewers were being introduced to teams that they had never seen before and would probably not see again. Where ESPN is concerned, the Nationwide Series is about Sprint Cup drivers and nothing more.

There is a fundamental belief that what TV viewers should be seeing at home the vast majority of the time is what the fans in the stands at the race are watching. It was highly doubtful that fans were cupping their hands around their eyes to watch either Joey Logano, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards one car at a time.

The "racing perspective" was never established and the stories of all the teams on the track were never told. As TDP has said for the past three seasons, NASCAR races are not about who is leading at lap 50 when there are hundreds of laps and several fuel runs left in the event.

Regardless of the driver names, the Nationwide Series teams all deserve TV coverage and not just a mention in passing. Good racing in the middle of the field is more interesting than single-file cars holding the top five positions. How has this not translated itself to the ESPN production team three years into this TV coverage?

Give credit to Petree and Wallace who tried with all their might to inject some excitement into the race. When they paused in their commentary, however, the emotionless monotone of Punch continually sucked any energy from the telecast. Even two hours into the race, Punch was still offering car numbers, driver names and lap counts.

How can it not have sunk in to ESPN that every Nationwide Series team running the entire race needs an opportunity to be on national television? In a multi-hour event, this should not be a problem. It seems ironic that ESPN took the time to discuss Brad Daugherty's team starting and parking, yet never took the time to show the other teams who entered to actually race.

Two moving sports information tickers, fancy graphics and snappy video bumpers leading into commercial cannot take the place of telling the story on the track. Single car camera shots more suitable to practice coverage can never relate the story of where that car is on the track and what is actually going on in the race.

Next Saturday night at 9PM, ESPN will telecast the Nationwide Series stand-alone race from Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis, MO. It is the final event before ESPN starts coverage of the Sprint Cup Series. The race is in primetime and should have a strong field.

This will be an outstanding opportunity for ESPN to change the superficial coverage of this series and work hard to get the remaining TV viewers to continue watching down the stretch.

Fundamental lessons learned from the TNT coverage this summer include keeping a broader perspective, moving through the field to find the racing and telling the stories of the event as they unfold regardless of the driver's popularity rating.

TDP welcomes your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.