Sunday, February 14, 2010

ESPN Changes Reap Big Rewards

It's been a tough three years for the NASCAR on ESPN team. After a long break from the sport and hard feelings on both sides, the gigantic media company returned to Daytona and NASCAR in 2007. It was a disaster.

Luckily, most of us have blocked memories of Brent Musburger, his pit road podium and his stick-and-ball mentality out of our minds. In one of our first blog posts three seasons ago, folks at Daytona reported that ESPN had roped-off an area to keep fans away from the announcers. That area was called The Fan Zone.

ESPN had decided it would dictate what NASCAR fans would watch. We had X Games interviews with cars whizzing by in the background during practice. We saw infield studio segments with announcers on camera while cars qualified. Fans got SportsCenter cut-ins and video race recaps while Sprint Cup cars raced under green.

The fan backlash against the ESPN production philosophy was a big part of what fueled the original growth of this blog. Fans who had never considered speaking up about the TV coverage of a sport found a place that served that purpose. As a former ESPN employee, the conspiracy theories began to fly that I had some sort of agenda.

The simple fact is this has been a three year learning curve for ESPN. It has directly affected the fans, the television ratings and the sport in general. This isn't baseball, it isn't football and it isn't basketball. NASCAR needed the kind of individual attention that ESPN was simply not willing to give.

The insanity of the 2009 Chase and ESPN's fascination with everything Jimmie Johnson was the last straw for many fans. Click here to read the final racing post for 2009 on the day after the Homestead event. Scroll down to the comments section. The anger of the fans at ESPN is amazing.

During the off-season, NASCAR spoke of making significant changes to the sport. ESPN joined that movement by making a big one. Removing Jerry Punch from the play-by-play role is something we had been suggesting for some time now. ESPN finally did it. Punch was moved to pit road and into the play-by-play role was placed TV veteran Marty Reid.

Saturday at Daytona ESPN walked into what could have been a disaster. Media darling Danica Patrick had entered the Nationwide Series race and twisted the normal dynamic of Cup veterans vs. Nationwide regulars. Now, there was an elephant in the room.

Allen Bestwick opened the one hour pre-race show by leading his team through twenty solid minutes of Danica. Then, it was over. Bestwick had acknowledged the big story, used his resources to report it and then moved on.

ESPN's pre-race show was crisp and featured Ray Evernham in the infield studio along with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. The interaction with Evernham brought out the best in Wallace. It was clear before the hour was done that those two will be key players when the network switches to Sprint Cup coverage in July.

What Bestwick delivered to Reid was multiple storylines and a challenge to keep them updated. In the past, Punch had failed miserably at keeping the excitement and momentum going that the pre-race team had worked hard to build. On this day, all that changed.

Reid's enthusiasm and ability to let everyone share the spotlight was exactly what ESPN needed. He instantly brought out the best in analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Then, he did the best thing possible. Punch was treated with respect in his new pit reporter role and it was as if he had never left.

Race coverage from ESPN in the past had consisted of poor choices by the producer and director in what to show the TV viewers. Too many in-car cameras, showing only the big names and even simply just following the leader had made the races a mess and sent fans scrambling for the Sirius radio coverage.

Saturday, ESPN made an effort to change all that. Long gone were gimmicks like Draft Track and endless appearances by Tim Brewer to point at shock absorbers. The infield studio crew did not appear on camera while the race was under green. It was clear from the start that ESPN was going to focus on the racing.

While Danica Patrick raced, she captured a slice of the coverage because of her rather unique status. Reid updated her progress, her pit stops and her radio conversations. When she exited the race, she was treated with respect and then she was gone. Her final interview answered the right questions.

Later in the race, NASCAR's most popular driver took a hard ride on his roof down the backstretch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. slid to a stop and after a moment, flipped down his window net. ESPN's correct choice of camera angles and Reid's choice of words made that moment work perfectly. It had been exciting and then everyone was OK.

Perhaps, the best part of the telecast for some was Punch. Speaking with drivers out of the race in front of the Infield Medical Center, he seemed to come alive. He asked the right questions with a passion and interest fans had never heard from him in three seasons of calling race action. Finally, the reporter had gone back to reporting.

After trying very hard to insert the new theme music from the teen rock group Comic Book Heroes, it seemed to dawn on the producer that perhaps fans would rather hear the sound of cars racing at speed as the telecast went to commercial break under green. These simple TV fundamentals changed the viewing experience for the better.

Reid never wavered down the stretch and brought the race home to an exciting finish with an energetic call. By this time, both Jarrett and Petree clearly understood their new roles on the telecast and let Reid set the pace. It worked.

This time, fans came to TDP after the race for one simple reason. They wanted to thank ESPN for finally listening. For finally understanding that the racing is the show and the network is simply there to put it on TV. There were good words for everyone involved, especially Punch. It had been a rough three seasons.

Did you watch the Nationwide Series race on Saturday? How about offering us a comment on the ESPN coverage? To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting.

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Haus14 said...

Watched the race on the DVR tonight. Awesome improvement by ESPN. Marty Reid and the guys in the booth had excitement and seemed to be enjoying the race. As JD mentioned, Dr. Punch seemed right at home on pit road and was terrific. Kudos to ESPN!

Spider said...

JD, you are one hell of a writer and observer of what's going on with the most important link to the sport we all love.

The dissection and flair that you have penned on the above story, shows your hard work and dedication.

Television is a complicated business and Fans now have you to un-weave parts of this intertwined media making some parts more understandable.

The fans and others in the sport are fortunate to have you providing this information and forum which allows the people that are most important to the success of NASCAR (fans) finally be heard.
Thanks for that! Oh and NASCAR is certainly listening to you! Good Job!

NorCalFan said...

Still awake watching NBC's tape-delayed Olympics for all us viewers on the west coast (irritates the heck out of me that I live in the same time zone as the games and have to wait 2 hours before it is broadcast). Sorry, I digress.

About the NW race today, it was a 180 degree different broadcast from where ESPN left off in Homestead. Loved the many aerial replays of the accidents so I could get a better idea of what might have happened. I don't think race fans can ever get enough wide angle shots but there was noticeable improvement in that today, loved the excitement level in Marty Reid's voice and there appears to be some chemistry working among the three in the booth. Time will tell for sure.

It was a welome relief to see Dr. Punch in his element on pit road and especially outside the infield care center where he asked the drivers questions fans would have asked them (i.e. no questions containing the word "feeling"). I gathered from the drivers' responses to JP's questions, that he already has already earned the respect from the drivers. I can't say the same for the rest of ESPN's pit road crew.

It's only race #1 but if ESPN can maintain this type of broadcast by keeping it simple and just showing the racing with lots of wide angles and blimp views, then I'll be one happy race fan. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

WickedJ said...

You summed up just about everything. the Disney band needs to go but i think that got that hint

alot less Danica would be nice.... any idea if theyre going to let Allen call a stand alone race later in the year?

Mike H in Dallas said...

Can't believe what I'm about to say....Good, no, GREAT job ESPN. I am a Tony Stewart fan and I was pretty sure he would win but I was still tempted to skip watching the race because of the dreadful coverage ESPN provided the last few years. I'm so glad I didn't.
Kudos for a job well done. Mr. Daly pretty much summed up what I was thinking. Please don't let this be an anomaly. I'm actually looking forward to Cali.

Anonymous said...

I definitely found myself yelling at the TV alot less during this race. The only thing that really bugged me was the silly bumper cams. I know we'll get them during the Fox Cup race today also. But all in all I enjoyed it and I didn't mind the Danica overload. I really hope she does well and the fact that she injected some life into the Nationwide Series is a good thing. Unfortunately she'll be AWOL after Vegas. It will be interesting to see how they handle her long absence. Out of sight, out of mind?
The good thing is that I'm not dreading the Brickyard and the start of ESPN's Cup coverage. You are looking live....

Ritchie said...

I thought one of the best moments was when Dale Jr. walked up to Jerry Punch after Dale had wrecked. I actually saw Dale smile after he had not only crashed, but wrecked the car he owned.

No one smiles after something like that unless you enjoy being interviewed by someone. I don't know anyone else but Jerry Punch that could cause a driver to be happy to be interviewed.

Sally said...

Apparently Nascar isn't the only one who decided to listen to the fans. Much as it surprises me, I congratulate ESPN for their coverage of the Nationwide race. Aside from the Danica phenomenon, they did a stellar job, especially considering how badly they did last year. By showing more wide shots, I didn't find myself floundering in the middle of the race trying to make sense out of following the leader camera work. Showing the whole field kept the racing in context. Judicious use of the in car cameras didn't break up the flow of the race. Excellent replays of the wrecks (especially the blimp shots) allowed fans at home to really see what happened. Dr. Jerry Punch back on pit road is like having your Mom's favorite comfort food. His knowledge and passion are outstanding. To say they exceeded expectations is an understatment. Thank you, ESPN, for finally showing us why your coverage of Nascar used to be the gold standard.

bevo said...

Amazing transformation for ESPN. What we had been hammering over the past, that two simple moves could change everything, proved to be correct. Jerry Punch is invaluable as a pit reporter. His relations with the teams, knowledge of the sport and calm demeanor are perfect for that role. He knows what he wants to ask. He knows what to look for in the pits. Please, please let this rub off on Welch and Little.

Marty Reid is perfect in his role. Genuine enthusiasm for the sport without the over-the-top stuff. He directs attention to the track. His energy fed Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. It was a perfect balance in the booth.

The one problem though continues to be the direction of cameras. The in-car shots have been scaled back but we still need wider shots especially at Daytona where you can easily have 20-30 cars separated by a second or two.

Finally the Danica coverage. The cold,hard reality for everyone to remember is she brings ratings and by extension new viewers who would not watch a race otherwise. ESPN did a great job of balancing their two stories. She was the story at the beginning of the race by either exceeding everyone's expectations or causing huge problems with her inexperience. When neither proved to be the case the coverage turned to the other drivers. Even her exit from the race wasn't overblown. It was examined to see if she could have avoided the incident and a solid follow-up in the garage was done. Unlike so many media people with their snarky comments about TV's turning off as soon as she was out of the race I think that the new viewers who saw a lot of action on the track and the professional race coverage stayed and enjoyed the action.

Palmetto said...

"...perhaps fans would rather hear the sound of cars racing at speed as the telecast went to commercial break under green."

Also when returning from commercial. Now if somebody would tell Fox...

51 yr. fan said...

Thanks JD for all your efforts to
bring "the race" to the fans. Without your column and the Planeteers, I would have given up on NASCAR viewing.

Thanks ESPN for listening and FOX
please pay attention. The respect
shown by the drivers to Punch allowed us to get a real insight.
Save the "warm and fuzzy" questions
from the Bobsy Twins for the studio.

red said...

the single best part of the entire broadcast for me was having dr punch back on pit road! his talents, skill and professionalism were on display for all those who thought some of us were crazy when we wrote about how amazing dr p is in that role. now folks can experience "the best" for themselves!

i agree with ritchie's post about dale's post-wreck interview with dr punch: to see dale's big smile (AND whipping off his sunglasses!) as he approached the good dr for the interview spoke volumes to me. dale is an historian of the sport & i could see the pleasure he took from being interviewed by punch. i absolutely believe that no other reporter could have gotten that interview at that moment from a driver/owner who just felt and saw 200K+ go down the sheet metal tubes!

in addition, as someone posted during the race, he gave a lesson in how to do the interview: no big lead in, no "touchy/feely" question, just get to business, treat the drivers and fans with respect and let the interview flow. he also LISTENS to the answers & builds on that for the next question.

a big "welcome back" to the Dr Jerry Punch: i have missed you in the pits & i'm so very grateful you're back there. everything else that espn did well yesterday -- and there was PLENTY! -- became icing on the proverbial cake for me.

(i'll be at our traditional daytona watch party today so i will likely not be joining TDP for the biggest race of the season. have a great time, gang, and i'll catch up with you later tonight!)

trophyguy said...

You said it all JD!

What a difference a year makes. GREAT JOB BY ESPN. I didnt doze off once. Marty Reid was the choice that should have been made for the booth long ago. DJ & AP needed someone like him up there.

Dr. JP was just the way I remembered him from years ago as a pit reporter. He doesnt ask stupid questions and is the best pit reporter of the bunch.


majorshouse said...

A much better telecast and putting JP back on pit road is the ticket and Marty Reid definitely provided excitement and it shows that ESPN finally listened to the fans and it was a breath of fresh air and made watching the race not only exciting but fun.

Chris from NY said...

Thank you, JD, and thanks to ESPN. Finally it's understood that NASCAR fans demand more performance and better execution than any other type of fan. ESPN finally learned that you can't shove things down the throats of NASCAR fans.

2009 was a complete disaster, but the way it's going now, 2010 will be a near-complete recovery. If they keep this going, this could be one of their best seasons yet.

Now we wait and see what FOX and HotPass have for us in 2010.

Mike said...

I think the newness of HD broadcasts is wearing off, resulting in the producers being less inclined to give us those shots that look good but don't contribute to the broadcast.

Vicky D said...

What someone else also pointed out, I noticed Jr's smile when walking up to Doctor Punch to be interviewed. And also spotted him removing his sunglasses I like that. A couple of times I heard MR tell the director to go to a certain place to show something that was happening on the track. I was pleased that DP wasn't on air all the time I was kind of expecting that before the race. I think ESPN should have gone thru the field maybe the regular full time NW only drivers should have been shown at least once during the broadcast. Great column, JD.

Newracefan said...

I traditionally DVR the race and watch it later so I can FF through much of the frustration. That didn't happen this time, I started live and stayed there. Doc was the man we all knew him to be, professional, informatative and asking the simple question the right way so we all get answers. I tend to multitask during a race I did much less and caught up on commercials but if I happened to look down Marty always made sure I looked up at the right time. It was a pleasure to watch this race, only suggestion for improvement little wide camera angle and less bumper cams. (I actually wonder if the use of the bumper cams is help with the shifting from 1 camera angle to another, the switch isn't as smooth when so many cars are in the same shot, I'll be interested to see how they use it in a none plate race)

Anonymous said...

This was mentioned earlier:

"Dale Jr. walked up to Jerry Punch after Dale had wrecked. I actually saw Dale smile after he had not only crashed, but wrecked the car he owned.

No one smiles after something like that unless you enjoy being interviewed by someone."

Jerry is a true link to the good old days of NASCAR on ESPN and is soooo good at the pit reporting. And Dale Jr knows that.

This was a good broadcast, kudos ESPN.

Denver, Colorado said...

I watched with great anticipation, but I have to be honest: The Danica show was moronic at best. Plain over-rated at worst. Even the crawl on the bottom updated that she had wrecked out, all the while Dale Jr. had a violent crash that could have been really bad (read:2001). Even a car had crushed in his windsheild, but the constant Danica-watch was overwhelming. I mean, really. She did NOT find a cure for cancer. Shawna Robinson finished higher in 1991 than Danica did this year, but she never got the publicity she deserved.Even when Danica wrecked, all, and I mean ALL camera angles were on her, even though two cars got a little bit airborne after hitting others. Is she the shot in the arm that NASCAR needs? Perhaps. But ask Dale Jr. about how good equipment, the best crews, and deep pockets can only carry a name so far...The rest is talent.But all in all, I will give ESPN, and I can't believe my own typing, a B for the coverage overall.I wonder how Dale Jr. feels like? Maybe like a childs' toy on December 26th...

Anonymous said...

Great to see Dr Jerry back on Pit Road where he shines. Race coverage was very much improved. Still too much Danica and Rusty's me, me, I -- otherwise fair, balanced, and professional. Plenty of time in pre-race and post-race shows to feed those addicted to the celebrites rather then the racing. ESPN: Work even harder to keep it out of the race telecast itself when it's not relevant to what's happening on the track.

Anonymous said...

ESPN wasnt nearly as bad as Speed was during the ARCA race for all Danica all the time. But holy hell it was awful. I firmly believe ESPN will singlehandely turn the fans against her just by the hype vs her performance.

Jim M said...

I know first-hand how challenging it can be to put together a good broadcast for a sporting event. I, too, have been among the chorus of critics of how ESPN has handled its coverage of NASCAR.
I concur that this was a HUGE step in the right direction. Punch is professional "old school" in the pits and I love Reid's enthusiasm. Seems like the booth chemistry is good.

MRM4 said...

ESPN's coverage was much better other than the excessive attention paid to Danica Patrick. One negative is ESPN continues to pipe in fake crowd noise when the race starts.

tfs102080 said...

Strangely enough, several times after listening to Dr. Punch sum up an interview I was expecting to hear either Bob Jenkins, Ned, or Benny respond. Very nice to see the good doctor back where he is obviously very comfortable.

Smiff_99 said...

A lot of people have been on here championing Allen Bestwick (he IS good, but a little too 'buttoned down' for me), but I'll tell you what, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Marty Reid is a GREAT PxP guy and he proved it in spades on Saturday. I was watching him 10 years ago when he was doing the truck races and he great then. Not much has changed in 10 years. And expect the same from him all year long.

And JP back in the pits? was like going back 15 years in one day. And like evrybody else already pointed out, you could tell just by his interaction with JR. that he never missed a beat....and JR was MORE than happy to answer his questions.

JS said...

Pit road for Jerry Punch may seem like a demotion, but I tell you, it was fun seeing him on pit road again. It was where we saw him for most of the races throughout the '90s and where we got to know him. He was always one of the best at it & proved Saturday he still was. Gave a feel of "the good ol' days" in 2010.

The only thing I can complain about from Saturday's ESPN coverage was Danicamania, but I'll give them a pass because we knew it was coming. Just as long as they don't dedicate extensive coverage to her 12 more times this season...if they turn it into the 2005 IRL coverage, I'll tape down the MUTE button on Saturdays & listen to MRN.

I still much prefer Allen Bestwick over Marty Reid & hoped the shakeup would see AB upstairs, but Reid does a good job in his own right. Get LaJoie in there with him a few times this year & it'll be real fun.

Anonymous said...

Way late to the party as usual, but had to add my 2 cents.

Thank you to ESPN for listening finally.

It is wonderful to see Dr. Jerry back on pit road where he shines so beautifully.

Just a huge thank you to ESPN for making positive changes.