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.