Sunday, May 27, 2007

Kyle Petty Gets No Respect From Fox Sports

It was a long day and night in Concord, North Carolina. Between the SPEED Channel shows and the NASCAR on Fox coverage of the NEXTEL Cup race, most of the TV crew had been working for over twelve hours. As the longest of all NASCAR races dragged on, it was apparent that a tired crew was running on empty. Unfortunately, the victim of their biggest mistake was Kyle Petty.

After years of breaking new ground in NASCAR technology and innovation, the NASCAR on Fox crew is going out this year on a strangely sour note. Beginning with the short track races at both Bristol and Martinsville, the Producer and Director of the NEXTEL Cup races made the decision only to show the first one or two cars cross the finish line. Just like that, it was decided that the race was only for the win, and nothing else mattered to the millions of NASCAR fans watching on TV.

This left a bad taste in the mouths of fans after Martinsville, but all hell broke loose after only the winning car was seen crossing the finish line in Bristol. Among the cars not shown were Dale Junior and Tony Stewart, both of whom finished in the top five. As the entire field came across the finish line beating and banging for every position, viewers were treated to shots of the winner's wife, crew chief, pit crew, and in-car camera. Basically, all the people we would see in Victory Lane anyway, including the driver. Not one other car was shown from the entire field.

The Daly Planet received several emails from friends indicating that this issue was being discussed in Fox Sports production meetings. It was assumed that this initial attempt at manufacturing some drama would go by the wayside. It was assumed that cooler heads would prevail and that the lead lap cars being shown crossing the finish line would be returned to the telecast. Fans of the lead lap drivers would get to see the stories that the on-air announcers had been documenting for several hours finally pay off. Wow, were we wrong.

What made this all so confusing was that Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip were often still calling the action of the other cars in the field racing to the line while the NASCAR on Fox cameras were showing all the "artsy" reaction shots of wives and pit guys. Even stranger was the fact that PRN Radio was still calling a race that was fully involved in heavy competition by the rest of the field roaring to the line.

Often times, watching the NASCAR on Fox pictures while listening to the Radio broadcast led one to believe that these people were at two different races. How could we be watching the in-car camera of the race winner slowing down on the track, while The Radio Guys were calling a side-by-side battle of two NASCAR Champions for a top five finish? Sound strange? Well, it happened already this season.

Lots of "conspiracy theory" folks have been emailing me this year with their ideas on why this very strange decision was put in place. One theory is to drive NASCAR fans to the DirecTV Hot Pass package. Only by buying the package of their favorite driver could any fan be guaranteed of seeing him finish. Fox can always say, "well we showed the winner, what more could you want on free TV?" If you want to be sure to see your driver finish, buy the package.

As "conspiracy theories" go, that's a pretty good one. With no pay-per-view package on either the Busch or Craftsman Truck Series races, both ESPN2 and SPEED make sure to show a ton of drivers crossing the line at the finish. There has never been an issue in the other two national touring series, even when they are produced from the exact same production truck with the exact same crew. This is a conscious decision by the NASCAR on Fox executives to "eliminate" the entire field no matter what the circumstance before they cross the finish line...unless they win.

The other working theory is that after several years of doing the same races on the same tracks with the same crew...things got boring. Since there is very little opportunity to change the "in-race" television production, the Fox Sports Producer and Director decided to use the football and baseball TV models to "build drama" and crown a single winner.

Lots of dramatic shots suddenly pop-up of the coach, the quarterback, and the team. Then, one long pass for the winning touchdown. Its a nice idea, and its always great to see the Wide Receiver make the catch, but this is NASCAR. As fans know all too well, every position in every race can make or break a team for "the chase."

In the overall scheme of things, someone who did not win may clearly be the story of the race. Sunday, at Lowes Motor Speedway, the NASCAR on Fox gang did a great injustice to Kyle Petty. The worst part is, they did it on purpose.

Kyle Petty is slated to step-out of his car and assume a broadcast position with TNT after just one more race. He has been working hard with SPEED at a television career this season, and his racing has been continually mediocre. Many assume that this is his last season as an active driver.

Sunday, just days short of his 47th birthday, Kyle Petty finished third in the Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest races of the year. Other than the people in the stands and on pit road, no one saw him finish. Fox Sports got caught up in the excitement of Casey Mears first Cup win, and then got lost. What may become Kyle's last moment in the sunshine was ruined by this strange focus on the winner. Once again, no other cars were shown finishing the race...including Kyle in third.

With only one race left in Dover, the NASCAR on Fox gang leaves a great legacy behind this year of drama, change, and excitement. Those elements are generated by the forty-three drivers that take to the track each race to provide the "content" that Fox Sports needs to make its millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

The ultimate irony is that often the cars "eliminated" by Fox because they did not win the race are sponsored by the heaviest advertisers in the Fox telecast. That leads to a very good question. I wonder if the Fox Sales Department ever watches these races?

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"NASCAR Now" Rocks "The Spot"

Sometimes, as the long NASCAR season begins to grind on those associated with it, things become funny a lot easier. TV people have a warped sense of humor, and the things that just "happen" along the TV trail make it all the more fun. This week at Lowes Motor Speedway, ESPN had a long trail of people standing in one line. They were not giving things away for free. It was not the line for the restroom.

The line included news reporters, NEXTEL Cup drivers, newspaper columnists, feature reporters, pit crew members, and Busch Series drivers. They were all in line to appear on NASCAR Now, ESPN2's daily racing program. The line was very straight and orderly because there was only one location where everyone had to go. One small round circle that everyone who appeared on this show all week had to stand in. That place became known as "the spot."

Halfway down pit road, twenty feet or so behind the pit wall was the single "cable drop" that ESPN used for every driver interview, every news report, and everything else that required Bristol, CT to communicate with Concord, NC. It was a hilarious keystone cop act that often times required the quick change artistry of Houdini to move one person off "the spot," and another person in.

According to my sources on the ground, ESPN was so "thrifty" that they even used the same microphone for every liveshot all week. One "spot" person would go "off-camera," and while the Bristol-based host was speaking, the new "spot" person would get their earpiece hooked-up and grab the mic. Erik Kuselias would say, "and we go back to the track for..." and the next person would start talking.

After a while, it became more fun to watch the action behind the person speaking than to listen to what they were saying. Viewers got to watch Legend Cars racing, caution flags waving, and lots of people on cell phones waving hello. Sunday, on the one hour edition of NASCAR Now, viewers got to watch laughing crew members negotiate their way around the long line of "spot" people waiting to appear on the show.

Marty Smith showed us empty pit wagons ready for the race, Mike Massaro showed us military men in camouflage, and then Tony Raines showed us security guards in golf carts. "The spot" was suddenly a happening place. Shannon Spake stepped-in and showed us that pit tours had started and the first officials were trickling onto pit road. Spake had been in "the spot" so many times this week she might have been dizzy by now. "The spot" can do that to people.

That led to NASCAR Now's "Mr. Obvious," Tim Cowlishaw in "the spot." Behind him, the first teams were peeling the covers off the pit wagons and laying out equipment. Cowlishaw appears on this program only to add "opinion" to the mix by doing his best Around The Horn impression. As Cowlishaw made his race pick, the crews were testing equipment and marking off their areas. As I watched them, I never heard a word Cowlishaw said. "The spot" has good things about it as well.

His report marked the end of "the spot," and added to the legend that ESPN is so dysfunctional they could allow all their on-camera interviews at a huge speedway to originate from the In TV land, when you have multiple reporters that have to share the same location, you simply "pan" the camera to the left or right a bit to "create" a new background for the next reporter. Its called "re-framing" the liveshot. I learned that in high school in the 1970's.

What made this production problem worse was the fact that ESPN in Bristol has a new High Definition TV studio and a high dollar NASCAR Now set. The contrast between the high-tech studio and the liveshot participants standing amid the noise and trash of pit road was glaring. The drivers being interviewed actually had a crew member headset "placed" on their heads so they could hear over the car and crowd noise.

Perhaps, the "spot effect" could have been softened a bit if someone...anyone had taken thirty seconds to "re-frame" this shot with other background scenery even once during this three day period. In a way, it kind of showed the low level of respect that the Bristol production team has for the "NASCAR gang." No one took a second to whisper into the cameraman's headset "why don't we re-frame that liveshot?" In other words, unless it is "our studio" at "our headquarters," we really don't care. My congratulations to all in Bristol, you certainly convinced us you don't.

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