Monday, July 19, 2010
ESPN Hopes Fourth Time Is The Charm
It has been a long three years for ESPN where the Sprint Cup Series is concerned. The network stepped into the sport back in 2007 with tons of hype and Brent Musburger at the helm. "You are looking live" did not ring a bell with NASCAR fans and Musburger shuffled off quietly.
This year at Indy, ESPN is hoping the fourth time is the charm. Motorsports veteran Marty Reid has been tapped to lead the network through the final seventeen races of the season, including The Chase for the Championship. Dr. Jerry Punch has returned to pit road after three seasons in the play-by-play role.
Reid will be joined down the stretch by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the TV booth. These two analysts work quite well together and Reid might be the right person to make them click when the pressure is on. This season, the pressure is on in more ways than one.
Last year at this time, ESPN began to hit fans over the head with the Jimmie Johnson stick. By the time the final Chase races rolled around, it was an adoration society complete with slow-motion replays of Johnson's pit stops and stats on each lug nut.
The fan backlash against Johnson was amazing and due in no small part to ESPN's decision to make the world revolve around his every move. At the same time, the network had a real problem. NASCAR was asking one TV telecast to cover three separate agendas.
Click here to read "TV's Rock and a Hard Place" from November of last year. Here is an excerpt:
First, NASCAR fans across the nation are sitting in front of the TV and waiting to see their favorite driver. It does not matter where he is running, how he is running or if he made the Chase. Fans of a certain driver want to see that driver on TV, period.
Secondly, the actual race is underway and the dynamic of the fastest car is being played-out at the front of the pack. There is a story unfolding about who can win the race and who hopes to challenge before the day is over. That has to be followed.
Finally, NASCAR created a playoff points system that demands that 12 cars be treated differently by ESPN for one simple reason. Those cars are now the only 12 that can possibly win the season championship. NASCAR has added a third storyline that trumps the first two and skews the final ten races for many fans.
In many ways, it's a no win. Our suggestion since 2007 has been to simply cover the races as usual and let the points get tallied up at the end. How else can ESPN hope to serve three very different masters?
Reid has shown himself to be independent of the "happy talk" that NASCAR encouraged this season. He has called out the start-and-park cars in each Nationwide Series race and often puts his analysts and pit reporters on the spot where controversial issues are concerned. This is exactly what the sport needs right now.
There is little doubt that ESPN was shaken-up after another tough Sprint Cup Series run last season. This year, fans are coming off a tech-friendly TNT that offered live online video for every race and had reporters Tweeting with fans during the races. ESPN has no online applications other than a scoreboard. Social media plans are still sketchy.
The final TNT race was so loaded with commercials it was almost impossible to watch. Reporter Jeff Gluck's experience of watching this race at home was chronicled in his now infamous "Writer Discovers Unwatchable TV Broadcast" column. Click here to read it.
The good news is that this ESPN crew has been working together on the Nationwide Series races since February. The telecasts have been looking and sounding good. Reid is a feisty leader and the rest of the team feeds off his energy. There is, however, another key element to ESPN turning things around. His name is Allen Bestwick.
This season, Bestwick will not have to deal with the unfortunate circumstance of Punch being in the booth. Bestwick's anchoring from the Infield Pit Studio will be part of an overall exciting telecast. That has never happened in three years.
Bestwick and Reid are going to be the best one-two punch ESPN has ever put on the Sprint Cup Series races. To his credit, Punch landed on his feet and has been working hard on pit road. It might be that the pieces of this puzzle are finally in the right places.
ESPN is in the NASCAR game until 2014. So far, it's been a mixed blessing of exposure for the sport tempered by some very different approaches to televising the actual racing. This season's economic woes and low television ratings promise to bring even more pressure to bear on this very expensive sports property.
Where are you on this issue? Optimistic that new blood will bring positive change or resigned to being hit over the head by the Chase for seventeen weeks?
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