Saturday, November 27, 2010

2010 Flashback: NASCAR Issues Still Confusing ESPN

Update: Well, it's over for another season. The Chase is done and some time has passed. Before the banquet, we thought it only fitting that we offer one last opportunity for comments about the clash between trying to cover the race and trying to cover the Chase in the same live telecast.

This specific column was a response to ESPN attempting to blame everything under the sun except ESPN for the ongoing problems with TV ratings and fan reaction to the coverage.

The content below was originally published on October 5, 2010:

October 2nd was perhaps not the best Saturday for ESPN programming executive Julie Sobieski to address the network's NASCAR issues. Once again, poor scheduling had allowed a college football game to preempt the pre-race show and start of the Nationwide Series race from Kansas. That was nothing new for fans.

Earlier in the week, Sobieski had stood by while the NASCAR Now program was preempted on the day of the recent RCR appeal. This original ESPN series has taken it in the teeth this season. Shows have been cancelled so often fans have come up with a new slogan for the network.

ESPN: Every Sport Preempts NASCAR

Click here to read about Ms. Sobieski's recent concerns. Bob Pockrass from put together an article that certainly got the attention of many fans.

Let's face facts. Ms. Sobieski is trying very hard to dance around a huge topic that has plagued ESPN since they rejoined the sport in 2007. Despite some outstanding reporting, a solid daily news show and an extended post-race the real NASCAR problems have all come from the live event coverage.

Sobieski is confused simply because she will not look in the mirror and see her own reflection. The problem isn't the fans, it's ESPN.

While memories of Brent Musburger and Suzy Kolber have faded, they have just morphed into the production catastrophe that is ESPN's fourth attempt at covering the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races of the season. It's flat-out awful.

For many, the commercial run with ten laps to go in the Dover race was the straw that broke the camel's back. Those fans sent us nice notes and left to watch the NFL. ESPN is burdened with too many commercials, too much scripted storytelling and an impossible job of trying to sell a Chase within a race.

In Kansas, the first in-race commercial came before lap ten. That has been the rule this season. Fortunately, ESPN allowed the end of the race to play out without interruption. That has normally not been the case. Let's look at the reality of ESPN's commercial overload.

Like most cable networks, ESPN has what is called a dual revenue stream. Money is made not only from commercials, but from the fees paid by cable and satellite companies. This has allowed ESPN to pay billions of dollars in rights fees to get a wide variety of programming while also remaining very profitable for its Disney shareholders.

The ultimate irony is that fans watching at home are getting hit twice. First by all the commercials in the event and then by having to pay their cable or satellite provider just to watch ESPN every single month.

You can click here to review the recent TDP column calling for side-by-side commercials in the sport and the truly positive effect that would have on the TV ratings. Sobieski never mentioned this topic.

ESPN has been NASCAR storytelling since 2007. Back then, it was endless hype and a pre-determined script that the production team brought to the table. They failed miserably. Last season Dr. Jerry Punch stuttered and stammered his way through the Chase as the play-by-play announcer and was immediately sacked after Homestead. Instead of being fired outright, he was allowed to return to pit road as a reporter.

In the new world of ESPN, something called "hyper-focus" is king and that is exactly what the NASCAR TV team did to Jimmie Johnson last year. It got so bad, it was laughable. Analyzing his pitstops lugnut by lugnut. Watching his car get fixed in the garage while a Chase race roared in the background.

The TV battle was the reality of the race vs. what ESPN chose to show of it. Often, those two did not match. The Chase is everything and the race is nothing. Ask the teams that fade from view despite hard racing and good performances. Unfortunately, they are not Chasers. Suddenly, they simply do not matter to TV.

Whether it's a script, a network agenda or just the love of celebrity there is no doubt that ESPN has disconnected from the fans once again this season. Names like Earnhardt, Logano, Sadler, Newman and Martin should not be invisible on TV unless they are leading the race.

As the TV Chase coverage clearly showed last season, featuring the Chase contenders from the pre-race show through the checkered flag results in nothing but a decline in viewers. Those Junior, Joey, Mark and Ryan fans did not change their shirts and hats because their driver did not make the Chase.

There is no doubt that ESPN has talented people on the production team. There is no doubt that the on-air staff means well and is working hard on this series. None of that matters if the producer and director again narrow the focus of the coverage on cars and drivers selected in advance to meet a scripted NASCAR and ESPN agenda.

What are your feelings of how ESPN is handling the Chase coverage this season? To add your opinion on this topic, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting.

Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.