Sunday, November 16, 2014
ESPN Faces Season Six Challenge
It's that time of the year once again. FOX and TNT are done with the Sprint Cup Series and now ESPN adds that coverage to the network's ongoing Nationwide Series effort. In other words, it's crunch time.
The Worldwide Leader returned to NASCAR in 2007 and quickly found that times had changed. The on-air product was just not clicking with the fan base. As a result, there have been many changes in key on-air personalities over the years. This season, former crew chief Tim Brewer has been quietly phased out and his Tech Garage has been parked.
Starting with the Brickyard 400, it will be Allen Bestwick calling the Sprint Cup Series races with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside in the TV booth. Marty Reid will step-in to call the Nationwide Series races. Once again this season Jarrett and Petree will do double-duty on both series.
Nicole Briscoe will anchor the telecasts from the infield with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. The versatile Briscoe has been co-anchoring the "NASCAR Now" news program and also working as a field reporter for ESPN since coming to the network from SPEED in 2008.
Moving Dr. Jerry Punch back to pit road from the announce booth was a solid move. It let him return to his best role as a reporter. This season Punch will be joined once again by veterans Vince Welch, Dave Burns and Jamie Little. Also working on pit road assignments will be Mike Massaro and Shannon Spake.
A welcome addition to the Brickyard 400 coverage will be Ray Evernham. Located in the infield, Evernham will provide a unique perspective that Wallace and Daugherty simply cannot. Evernham is long since removed from controversy and now can speak to a wide variety of topics as a major figure in the sport's history.
In terms of technology, ESPN's Sprint Cup Series coverage will once again use ESPN Non-Stop. That is the network's name for the split-screen commercial format shown above. During the second half of each Chase for the Championship race, the national commercials will be shown this way. That means the first seven races, starting with this weekend's coverage, will be presented in the traditional full-screen fashion.
14 of the final 17 Sprint Cup Series races will be on ESPN with the other three on ABC Saturday nights. The ESPN races will be available online through WatchESPN, but only to select ESPN cable TV subscribers. The WatchESPN service basically allows the cable network's feeds to appear on laptops, tablets and smart phones. The good news is that it makes ESPN's family of networks portable. The bad news is that not all cable companies offer it.
While ESPN did not update this information, all 14 of the ESPN Sprint Cup Series races as well as the Nationwide Series events will have the online RaceBuddy located at the NASCAR.com website. This property is managed by Turner Sports, so ESPN chooses not to include it in any media materials about NASCAR.
Just like last season, the transition between the tech-heavy TNT and the traditional ESPN coverage should be a tad rough. Hopefully, this weekend RaceBuddy will be aided by the fact that both MRN and PRN radio networks stream every Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series race online for free. Unfortunately, those things cannot help with the biggest TV issue of the season.
The amount of TV commercials shown in Sprint Cup Series races has not changed, but the expectations of the fan base certainly have. Now informed by social media, fans are acutely aware of just how much race content and information is being swept aside during commercial breaks. The tipping point was the TNT race from Kentucky, where one-third of the racing was covered by what seemed to be the same three or four commercials.
In the ultimate irony, TNT then presented the Daytona race without any full-screen commercials and used the "Wide Open" coverage to show the real potential of modern TV production techniques. The final TNT race from Loudon quickly restored the grim reality of what ESPN will face at Indy. That is trying to integrate commercials into a race where passing is done on pit road and long green flag runs are the order of the day.
In the past, ESPN has over-hyped the Brickyard 400 by trying to make it NASCAR's version of the Indy 500. This year, instead of the Infield Pit Studio, Briscoe and her three analysts will be sitting outside on a terrace of the famed infield Pagoda for the pre-race show.
One of the Saturday pre-race features will be reported by Katie Couric, now an ABC journalist. She will speak to part-time Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick. The topics Patrick will discuss are listed as "her transition to NASCAR, how people perceive her as a person and possible sexism she might face on a daily basis at the racetrack."
The hype of 74 cameras, a Super Slo-Mo cam for pitstops and the return of the 80 mph frontstretch "bat cam" will be over after the Brickyard. What comes next is something so familiar to fans it has become a running joke. The focus on the Chase for the Championship begins right after Indy.
For the past six years, ESPN has taken out the Chase hype stick and beat fans over the head with it for the better part of four months. We have repeatedly answered that loyal fans of one driver do not make a change if their driver is not in Chase contention. Eliminating TV coverage of these drivers simply eliminates the fans of that driver as TV viewers.
Fans of Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya want to see coverage of these drivers. All three may miss the Chase. Should that change their TV coverage? If history repeats itself, all three may not be even mentioned in an entire race telecast during the Chase unless leading the race or crashing.
The fundamental problem with NASCAR's "playoff system" is that all the teams are still out there racing. While TV tries to show the race leaders and also constantly update the Chase, the sad reality is that entire teams fall off the radar. This year those teams may be from Hendrick, Ganassi and other powerhouse players in the sport.
As it has for the last several seasons, ESPN must ultimately decide to cover the race or feature the Chase. We certainly know what that choice has been in the past and welcome your comments about ESPN returning to Sprint Cup Series coverage for season six.