Monday, July 25, 2011
Last Chance For Romance
Donna Summer thumped out the classic disco tune "Last Dance" in 1978. It was simple and to the point. As the final song was played in the club, it was her last chance. In order to find romance she had to do just one thing. She had to dance that last dance.
Next weekend, ESPN returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the fifth time to begin the network's Sprint Cup Series coverage. In many ways, it is ESPN's last chance at romance with the NASCAR fan base.
The network's coverage of the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races last season was an unprecedented disaster. TV viewers fled in record numbers and left NASCAR mired in simmering frustration.
In 2010, TV ratings for the first four Chase races were down almost 30%. ESPN executives were summoned to Charlotte for an October meeting. They pointed to the NFL, they pointed to earlier race start times and they made a lot of excuses.
What ESPN did not do was look in the mirror.
Since 2007, ESPN has struggled to figure out how to present a Sprint Cup Series telecast that engaged the fans. While the network's online and studio news coverage of the sport has been sorted out, the live event production has become a running joke.
In a company known across the board for pioneering the coverage of many sports, this situation is almost unheard of. Despite the commitment of technology and manpower, the issues for ESPN have remained unsolved.
There are some things ESPN cannot change. The commercial load will remain the same, the network will never influence the racing and Mother Nature will ultimately decide if the weather will cooperate.
The problem is that ESPN refuses to solve the issues within its control.
There are eleven on-air voices in every ESPN Sprint Cup Series telecast. This format has never worked. The two analysts based in the infield have just as many opinions they want to share on the air as the two analysts in the TV booth.
The host in the infield is often more informative and energetic with his updates than the play-by-play announcer upstairs calling the race. Toss in a former crew chief in the Tech Garage and four pit road reporters who also want a share of the TV spotlight and you have a pretty fundamental problem.
"Overproducing" is a term that is being used a lot where ESPN is concerned these days. Instead of simply focusing on the sporting event in progress, the network seems to be concerned with other agendas.
For NASCAR coverage, these have included forcing new technology into the telecasts and creating storylines during the race that echo the pre-race comments of the ESPN analysts. Often, it appears as if the producer is following a script written in advance.
ESPN has seven races before the Chase begins to show NASCAR fans what the network has to offer. Nothing is more important than these seven telecasts. Without TV viewers being drawn in by good coverage during this stretch, it's almost impossible to get them to return once NFL football has started.
Once the NASCAR playoffs begin, the teams outside of the Chase simply disappear on ESPN. Fans invested deeply in specific drivers, teams and manufacturers for perhaps years are suddenly out in the cold. If fans of twelve drivers stay and fans of the rest of the drivers change the channel, the TV math is not hard to figure out.
Turner Sports developed the online RaceBuddy for NASCAR fans. On the surface, it just provides a few video sources that allow fans a more interactive experience. In reality, it provides fans a place to go and view the one-third of the racing action that will be covered by TV commercials.
ESPN has again decided not to include RaceBuddy in this season's Sprint Cup Series coverage. This transition is especially tough because all six TNT races made extensive use of this platform. From the moment ESPN hits the air, the familiar pattern of several minutes of coverage followed by several minutes of commercials will begin again.
The commitment by ESPN to use the side-by-side commercial format for the second-half of the final ten races this season doesn't fly. If there is no RaceBuddy and ratings last year were abysmal, it might be time to embrace this new approach to commercial integration for the entire seventeen race package.
The big on-air change that ESPN has announced will be positive. TV veteran Allen Bestwick will be moving from the infield studio into the TV booth to call the Sprint Cup Series races. Since 2007, Bestwick has been quietly working hard for ESPN in a variety of capacities.
After early chaos with the NASCAR Now series, Bestwick suddenly appeared one day to host just one episode of the show. Click here for a 2007 TDP column on that day. His appearance started the ball rolling in the right direction after four months of struggle. He still hosts most Monday shows produced in a format he helped design.
Following a run as a pit reporter in season one, Bestwick was moved into the Infield Pit Studio to bring some organization to the host position ESPN was unable to fill. Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler and Suzy Kolber were just some of the faces who hosted NASCAR pre-race shows in the early days of this contract.
Next weekend, with Bestwick now steering the ship and Nicole Briscoe handling the infield studio, ESPN is putting a new face on the coverage. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree work well with Bestwick, while Briscoe has shown the ability to keep a short leash on Rusty Wallace and his cheerleading partner Brad Daugherty.
In the end, it will all come down to the willingness of the production team to make changes. Embrace the entire field, respect the sport and show the best racing on the track. Tone down the Chase points updates, the pit reporter hype and Tim Brewer talking fundamentals of the sport.
Fans have faithfully shown up on weekends since late February for NASCAR races on TV. July might be the start of the ESPN season, but viewers have already invested five months of time watching races on two different networks. Respect that commitment in the coverage by the third.
Well, this is it. The last chance for ESPN to romance the NASCAR fans. For the past five seasons, we have rarely seen any signs of life from this disjointed coverage. The music is about to begin and ultimately ESPN has to do just one simple thing. They have to dance this last dance or risk going home empty-handed once again.
The Brickyard 400 is on ESPN Sunday, July 31 at 1PM Eastern time.
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