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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