Wednesday, October 19, 2011

ESPN Halfway Home In Year Five

Five races down, five races to go in this season's Chase for the Championship. NASCAR has put the TV coverage of the final ten races in the hands of ESPN since 2007. Originally distributed on ABC, the coverage of all but one Chase race has migrated to cable TV. NASCAR has come home to the mothership.

It's been a long and winding road for the powerful media company since returning to the sport. This season has seen the lap-by-lap announcer changed days before the Sprint Cup Series coverage, free online streaming of cameras added and side-by-side commercials used in the second half of all the Chase races.

It was Dr. Jerry Punch and Rusty Wallace who first welcomed viewers to the Chase in 2007. Brent Musburger was the master of ceremonies in his sneakers. The coverage was overblown, scripted and awful. ESPN upset the drivers, NASCAR and lots of fans.

This season Allen Bestwick completed the cycle of working his way back from a Nationwide Series pit road reporter to calling every lap of the Chase races. He is now the face of the NASCAR on ESPN franchise. His TV comeback has been nothing short of amazing.

Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have teamed in the booth as analysts for several years. Petree is an original member of that team and has quietly and professionally been supplying information and opinions even as on-air personalities came and went.

Punch returned to pit road and brought a quick return to dignity for a crew that struggled in the early years. Limited amounts of ESPN practice and qualifying coverage meant that Jamie Little, Vince Welch and Dave Burns were not the faces Sprint Cup Series teams had been talking to since February.

Now called the Tech Garage, Tim Brewer has been trying his best to use an assortment of NASCAR-related props to offer examples of issues drivers experience at the races. While his response to specific on-track issues is outstanding, the endless repetition on the very basics of the sport is equally infuriating.

ESPN's answer to the Hollywood Hotel has been the Infield Pit Studio. Faces appearing in the host chair have included Musburger, Chris Fowler and Suzy Kolber. A while back, Bestwick was promoted from pit road and immediately put things in order. This season, Nicole Briscoe has stepped into that role for the Chase.

Over the years, ESPN has defined a production approach to the Chase races. It has been nothing short of a painful process. From flashy music videos, scripted stories and endless self-promotion has emerged a style we call "hyper-tight."

While SPEED's focus during the truck races is keeping a good chunk of the field in each camera view, ESPN's Chase approach is the opposite. During green flag action, the coverage is dedicated to one or two cars at a time. Often, the camera moves to cars that are not racing each other, but are rather part of the ESPN "storyline" for that event.

It's unfortunate that so much of the actual racing for position is never seen on TV. The shift from simply trying to show the best racing on the track to following the Chase drivers almost exclusively has been rough. It's a formula being repeated this season.

ESPN did not switch announcers, allow online streaming and provide side-by-side commercials because things were going well. Back in 2008, the first five Chase races averaged about 6 million total viewers for each telecast. This season, that number is 4 million. Click here for a ratings chart from ESPN-owned

Back in 2007, media writer Phil Mushnick of the New York Post was begging ESPN to "fix" Monday Night Football. His complaints were too many voices, too many stats, too many graphics and endless ESPN cross-promotion. "It's a must-see game delivered in a can't-stand TV package," he said.

After five years of fine-tuning, ESPN still brings 11 on-air voices to each Chase race. The in-race graphics are sometimes four different rows of information moving at different speeds in different colors. Despite the fact that points are only awarded after the race, the network hammers "points as they run now" endlessly.

Fans continue to flock to the Internet for sources of information during the Chase races. In the final ten events, drivers not in the Chase simply no longer exist for ESPN unless leading the race. The problem is the fans do not change drivers in mid-season. TV does not seem to understand that driver loyalty is a trademark of the fan base.

In these final five events, it should be interesting to see if ESPN steps outside of the box and tries some new approaches to race production. With a strong lead announcer, a solid infield host and plenty of technology, the opportunity to simply show TV viewers more cars racing at speed on the track might be a good idea.

Instead of the telescope intensity of the "hyper-tight" coverage, Talladega might be a great first opportunity to take a step back and let fans see what is going on from a broader perspective. We will all find out together on Sunday afternoon.

What is your opinion of the Chase race TV coverage this season? To add your comment, just click on the comments button below. We would ask for this topic that you limit your comments to the last five races. Thanks as always for taking the time to stop by.


Anonymous said...

Another excellent recap. "It's a must-see game delivered in a can't-stand TV package." That statement sums it up for me, especially when you add the cot, chase playoff, and cookie cutter tracks to the mix. MC

Anonymous said...

Its better than years past, I think because they finally woke up and put AB in the booth and fired the producer of the series.

Still not as good as it was in the 90's , but okay


GinaV24 said...

My opinion of the TV coverage of the 2011 season is pretty poor overall.

The bright spot in ESPN's coverage for me has been Allen B back in the booth, otherwise, it is pretty much worthless to watch on TV. I use trackpass, this blog and twitter and get far of an idea of what is happening on the track than the useless random pictures that the TV partners (one and all) choose to show me.

IMO, I'm running out of good weather to spend outside - based on the coverage of the races so far, I won't waste this Sunday afternoon inside to watch the crapshoot race. It won't matter until the last lap anyway.

The quote you cited from the man about the NFL coverage sums up the same problem for NASCAR coverage.

Delenn said...

ESPN have certainly made progress.
Bestwick in the booth is the biggest thing. He seems to have focussed Petree and Jarrett somehow.
Nicole is rather good, even though she doesn't have much to work with.
Two big improvements. I am sure Nascar Non-Stop is good for the US, but in the UK, we can't see it - we see full screen picture as we always have.
Still to do:
Better shot selection.
Removal of Rusty and Brad.
Find something decent for Brewer to do (or remove).
Personally, I would prefer Nicole to become Krista Voda in the Trucks Setup. Pre-race from pit lane, with no-one permanently alongside her. ESPN would improve with the removal of the 3 voices identified.
Finally, again, show us the race. Watch the BTCC from the UK if you need to see that IT IS ACCEPTABLE TO SHOW A BATTLE FOR 23RD IF IT IS A GOOD BATTLE.
So ESPN, good start, still lots to do.

Dave said...

"Instead of the telescope intensity of the "hyper-tight" coverage, Talladega might be a great first opportunity to take a step back and let fans see what is going on from a broader perspective. We will all find out together on Sunday afternoon."

JD, You're like a kid right before Christmas hoping that Santa finally brings you that ultimate present.

Sadly, I think you along with the rest of us will be disappointed again.

The broadcasts are aimed at the lowest common denominator - "the casual fan". Dazzle them with flashy graphics and gimmicks and they'll watch.

The only thing ESPN has done for the real fans is bring back AB. And even then he's so handicapped by the package it doesn't really matter if it were him or one of Frank Caliendo's characters in the booth.

I long ago tuned out the TV audio for ESPN in favor MRN/PRN. Not that Fox or TNT is much better.

The radio broadcast fills in the gaping holes TV creates.

I have a faint glimmer of hope that one day the light will go on but, I just don't see things improving anytime soon.

The last five races, rinse and repeat.

Dave in Milwaukee

James said...

As always Thanks JD for the opportunity to express my frustrations. I have been a loyal fan of all things NASCAR since 1957. I have supported the series and attended many races over the years. I consider myself a FAN. I have commented here many times about my perception of the coverage. I usually agree with you, but not always. I DO NOT watch NASCAR races on TV anymore. The broadcasts are impossible to watch. The networks claim to make changes and the only good change was bringing back Alan Bestwick to the booth. I am sadden by this decission, but I can no longer watch endless garbage with small blips of actual racing. I know I am not alone, but the chase coverage only supports itself, not the series and its teams that make up NASCAR. The truth is, from the drivers to the sponsors, this is not the NASCAR of OLD. The focus is about self serving and the "Stars" of yesterday have made fools of themselves, by selling out the fans that supported them for many years, and it is time to say ENOUGH!

Michael Stoffel said...

Remember Erik Kuselias?

ESPN has come miles from the start of this....
We got AB, so things are much better, with still a long way to go.

On a side note, will the NASCAR drivers tiptoe through the Talledega races after the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon?

Anonymous said...

Not to quibble, but haven't we had AB in the cup booth since the Brickyard, not just for the Chase races? Minor point, but your column reads as if we still had Marty Reid for the ESPN cup races until the Chase.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 11:53AM,

Correct and I appreciate that. Changed the wording.


Anonymous said...

I rarely disagree with JD, but I think he's a bit more complimentary regarding the Chase TV coverage then is warranted. The change regarding Bestwick has been an improvement, but he could do better. Lately he seems like he is on cruise control without having an edge to his delivery to seek out developments and situations out on the track. Superficial is another way I'd describe him. DJ and Andy are very low key and reflects their personalities. No surprises there if you've listened to them for the last 10-15 years in this sport. By the way, the last thing we need is a Kenny Wallace in the booth. All the ex drivers and crew chiefs have succumbed to the pressures from Nascar to not criticize Nascar or Goodyear. The one guy who has been a real breath of fresh air lately has been Ray Evernham on Speed Center. He's always very professional and analytical. Right away, someone will comment here about personal issues. All I know is there are several ex drivers on TV this year whose off-track exploits are hardly those of Boy Scouts. Nascar has long abandoned Racing. Now its a show where they rely on routinely trying to inject "sizzle" into their offerings. Whether its the Chase, a new points system, the Hall of Fame. smaller fuel cells so there are more pit stops and fuel mileage,etc. A few of the drivers have let it slip lately how difficult it is to pass with the COT. So we're stuck with three hour, drawn out parades punctuated with convenient 'debris' cautions in an effort to create drama. Progress has been made from 3-4 years ago,but much more is warranted but is unlikely to occur.

Anonymous said...

I think careful will last about 100 laps on Sunday, but at some point, all heck will break loose like usual. A lot will depend on whether the changes have any effect on the tandems. I guess we'll know when they practice. In my mind, the changes may only dictate more switches, which increase the potential for mistakes....

In any case....I would like to hear more about Charlotte from people who were actually there. In other words, was it, as some suggested, much better than what we were seeing? If that's the case, then certainly the broadcast is still the issue. It's usually a good race there, so that's my suspicion. And that may be part of why the booth can't shine. It's hard to talk about things that the viewers cannot see. I hate turning to MRN when these guys do have good things to say, but if I can't see it, well...that's that.

I wonder what would happen if you exchanged Ray E for Brad right now. I think Rusty might be better paired with someone who isn't such a chucklehead. He & Ray might have an interesting dynamic considering all the stuff that happened back in the day.

BTW, not that I disagreed with him on the issue, but Mushnick's NY Post is a News Corp paper...just sayin'...

old97fan said...

The truth is that Fox Sports came on the scene a number of years ago and tried all kinds of gimmicks. Some worked and some didn't, I think there is an aspect of the current popularity of the NFL that is owed to Fox even though they drive me nuts anymore. ESPN saw what they were doing and combined their ego of being the big dog on the block with an attempt to imitate their style. What you end up with is an arrogant network with and overbloated ego that doesn't realize that it is slowly creating it's own personal demize as the top dog. They've catered to one corner of the sports audience that doesn't even understand what a sport really is and started believing their own publicity. This isn't just an ESPN problem or a sports broadcasting problem but in actuality the underlying problem with most of journalism right now.

For this to change in sports or news a new broadcaster is going to have to come along that wants to get back to the tenets of journalism. Who, what, when, where, how, politically correct or not and relegate the commentary to the opinion/editorial segment. In a current climate of journalistic cowardice and pandering I don't see that happening.

old97fan said...

by the way with the exception of the initial accident and the closing credits, you can tell ESPn has really gotten bad at handling anything not scripted if you viewed the broadcasting debacle that ensued from the horrific accident at the Indycar race in Las Vegas. The even managed to miss the initial announcment from Indycar of Dan Wheldon's passing and then managed to botch the replay a few minutes later. The coverage was almost inexcusable. Thankfully track personnel covered up the car or we would have been barraged with all kinds of speculation about what happened. We would have had a replay of the infamous helmet rolling down the track episode that happened years ago.

Anonymous said...

old97fan, you need to read the other post on ESPN's Indy coverage. IndyCar was more to blame for all that than ESPN.

Roland said...

Theyve come a long way. Still have a long way to go. Not only are they halfway home, they are halfway towards having consistently good broadcasts.

Anonymous said...

A lot of good points in this blog JD. You sure do give us a lot of info. We won't comment on the chase as that is one thing we take no interest in. Just like to see good racing and sensible people in the booth. So far ESPN is doing quite well. At least they know enough not to inundate us with Waltrip drivel. Keep up the good work JD.

Bill said...

It seems to me that coverage of non-Chase drivers during the Chase is worse than mentioned. TV rarely talks about the bottom three Chase drivers either! You'd think Denny Hamlin was a go or go homer!

I'm such a big fan of Brad Daughtery, and I hate to see him used this way. As with Chris Myers' goofball routine on FOX, Brad is merely playing a role, and doing what he's told.

Tim Brewer is also strangulated with the topics he's forced to rehash every other race. Nicole has shown amazing growth since she has been there, despite having to deal with two buffoons, and Bestwick and Petree are two of the best in the business at their positions.

DJ is no Gentleman Ned, that's for sure, but he's better than Rusty in the booth. But the biggest mystery to me is that with NASCAR Now sadly fading off into the sunset, where's Ricky Craven?

Remember that simply incredible on-off booth at Iowa last year? Dave Burns, Evernham and Ricky? Wow! No expectations, and perhaps each of them a little nervous, but one of the best-called races in years.

Yeah, so Ricky Craven isn't the household name of a Jarrett, nor is he a past champion, but what difference does that make? I've seen plenty of NFL superstars fumble in their booth.

Well, that's the least of ESPN's problems. Taking some cues from the way SPEED covers races would be a great step in the right direction. And let's all hope that Talladega doesn't become another Jimmie-fest.

GinaV24 said...

Anon 2:20 - you asked about being at the race in Charlotte. There was no more action to see AT the track than what I imagine they showed on TV. For the first 2/3 of the race, it was simply single file running except for KyBu who moved up several positions - not a surprise since he was at the back of the field and Gordon who moved up 2 over the first run.

I could see the entire track from our seats and my brother even said in the car on the way home that he was having trouble staying awake.

Pretty poor product when you're in the stands and want to take a nap.

Garry said...

One thing that needs to be dropped right now, is the stupid "interview with a driver and his thoughts on racing at (insert track, driver, etc. here)" in one screen, while the driver is actually racing on the track behind himself. Although ESPN's coverage is overall poor, I really dread David Hill's playmate in the sandbox coming up in February. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Shut uppity, shut uppity, shut uppity!

Garry said...

It's also funny to watch Nicole Briscoe wince everytime Brad or Rusty start dumbing down the topic at hand or start clowning. She's priceless in her demeanor. You can tell she wants to back hand the both of them at times!

GinaV24 said...

Garry, Nicole's not the only one that wants to give both of them a headsmack. As a TV viewer I've had to settle for turning it off!

To be fair, they are no worse than any of the pre-race shows have become IMO. I used to really enjoy them, now I seldom watch because it's all hype and no substance.

Buschseries61 said...

ESPN has improved greatly since 2007. Only a few problems drag ESPN from becoming a fan favorite.

An obvious positive, the five years of commentator swapping has paid off. As you said, Bestwick has improved the booth with his positive demeanor and clarity delivering information. Andy Petree is well liked for his vast experience in the sport and confidence in his opinions. Dale Jarrett has his father's class, and is slowly relaxing as he works more with Bestwick.

Dr. Punch is now placed in a position that requires his best strengths. Jamie Little has moved beyond 'how do you feel' in her questioning. She's the most daring, trying to get right to the answers. Jamie has worked the greatest and darkest assignments in motorsports this season. Dave Burns remains under the radar but reliable on pit road. Nicole Briscoe has done a nice job controlling the infield, compared to the NASCAR-illiterates from 2007.

ESPN has done its best job so far balancing the race and the Chase this season. Both groups have recieved near equal treatment.

ESPN has introduced less toys. The most recent, the quad pits, was a great improvement on pit road.

But I mentioned problems, and there still are some. Words and pictures work together on tv. The director's hyper-tight choice is not a fan-favorite. Single car shots is another unpopular choice. As is following the leader for dozens of laps. ESPN needs to find the racing and find the stories. Their reluctance to follow the racing and stories was obvious Saturday, and many here were wondering if ESPN was waiting for someone to hand them stories to cover. Jimmie Johnson's mistake saved ESPN from embarassment Saturday night.

ESPN also needs to work on the infield mess that flip flops between an informative success and a comical Nascar Now rerun. Rusty and Brad haven't added much this season besides laughs and shouts, while Ricky Craven tweets about mechanics from his couch. Brewer is full of personality and knowledge on SPEED The Day, but contibutes less than 5 minutes of pointing at car parts race day.