Thursday, December 6, 2007

NASCAR Fans: ESPN Wants Your Feedback!

Those were the exact words that appeared on the "subject" line of an email to NASCAR fans who signed-up for the ESPN Fan Zone this season.

The Wednesday, December 5th message from ESPN linked fans to a survey that promised some NASCAR content. What it wound-up giving many people was a glimpse of just how out-of-touch ESPN is with the sport.

Earlier this season, when ESPN's problems began, The Daly Planet urged readers to join the Fan Zone and provide feedback to ESPN about NASCAR issues. Fans added comments to blogs, sent email to NASCAR Now, and also forwarded email to ESPN about their coverage directly. The results were immediate.

Any blog entry with an unfavorable review of ESPN's NASCAR coverage was promptly deleted by the employees at the website. Email to NASCAR Now was met with polite responses, but no follow-up. Email sent to the other ESPN NASCAR contacts was sometimes acknowledged, but never answered.

ESPN was in lock-down and had all their wagons circled. They never expected this kind of attack from the NASCAR "Indians" about their sports TV coverage. After all, it's what the network has done for over twenty-five years. Suddenly, out of the blue, a focused and very dedicated group of informed fans was not happy with The Worldwide Leader in Sports Television.

Wednesday, fans finally got their response. A marketing survey on the Internet that allowed fans to win prizes if they took the time to fill it out. ESPN indicated that once the survey was completed, fans "will be automatically entered into an ESPN Fan Zone prize drawing to win 1 of 20 exclusive ESPN prizes." Basically, rate their NASCAR a hat.

We have all had surveys sent to us by various companies, but this one really packed a wallop. It began with the normal NASCAR questions like do you watch the coverage, how many races did you watch, and are you familiar with the ESPN personalities that cover NASCAR? That certainly seems harmless, but then it got very interesting.

The survey actually had pictures of the following ESPN announcers. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree, Dale Jarrett, Tim Brewer, Brad Daugherty, Marty Reid and Allen Bestwick. Fans were asked if they recognized them, and then prompted to rate them on a one-to-five scale about their work on ESPN and ABC's NASCAR coverage this past season.

Other than Dale Jarrett and Marty Reid, all of the other names listed above had just finished working a grueling ten months on the road for ESPN. Each of them had made a commitment to ESPN for the season, and honored it. There is no doubt in any one's mind that this group put a year of their lives in the hands of the ESPN NASCAR production team.

Throughout the season, well-meaning fans sent suggestions to ESPN about everything from the action on the track to using the Infield Studio for qualifying. They addressed the NASCAR Now show, lack of coverage on ESPN News, and the poor treatment of the Busch Series down the stretch. One thing almost everyone focused on at one time or another was the announcers.

TV is not rocket science. If it was, I certainly would not be involved in it. What person who is a NASCAR fan did not know or discuss the ESPN problems this season? One quick surf around the Internet would turn-up thousands of posts about the incredible problems with the very TV fundamentals of racing that many believed ESPN created back in the 1980's.

To pretend that NASCAR fans can simply "judge" these men in the same way they would rate a song or a sitcom is ridiculous. It belittles the effort of those announcers listed above and seemingly portrays ESPN as a group so out-of-touch with the fans they have no idea that their problems are internal.

Regardless of the on-air issues this season, imagine being Jerry Punch. After becoming a household name with ESPN on the network's original NASCAR coverage, you chose to stay with ESPN when the NASCAR contract moved-on. You stepped into a world of college football and other athletics with dignity, and did whatever the company asked you to do from Lumberjack competitions to the Winter X Games.

Now, your picture is posted on a marketing survey so fans can tell some big computer in the sky that you stink with the click of a mouse. It certainly brings-up the issue of how something like is going to make Punch feel about his long-term employers. It certainly will not go over well with his agent.

Sometimes, you can just tell where a survey is going by the questions it asks as it proceeds. This time, it was not very hard to do. Squarely in the aim of the ESPN survey gun sights were Andy Petree, Rusty Wallace, Tim Brewer and Brad Daugherty.

Petree and Daugherty were singled-out for the royal treatment. Fan Zone users were given the opportunity to type what they liked best and liked least about the NASCAR coverage efforts of both of these men. Then, the fun part came.

On a scale from one to five, how well does each of the following words or phrases describe each man? Here were the actual choices. Cool, annoying, credible, offensive, likable, funny, avid NASCAR fan, knowledgeable and entertaining.

Brewer and Wallace escaped the word association, but fans still got to rate them and then type-in what was best and worst about their efforts. Imagine...actually writing in to ESPN about some TV issue that a fan might have with Mr. Wallace this season. What a novel idea.

The survey ended with some standard demographic information, but the damage was already done. The fact that the network "group emailed" this across the nation to fans is beyond ridiculous. Once again, ESPN had treated NASCAR with such an incredibly low level of respect it boggles the mind.

Announcers may be the face of a sport, but at a national level problems with a telecast lay squarely at the feet of the Producer and his boss, the Coordinating Producer. There is no one else to blame. They call the shots, they create the telecast, and they "tell" the announcers what to do constantly. The "content" of a sports telecast that viewers see as the final finished product is the responsibility of the Producer.

Time-after-time, TV viewers watched Jerry Punch stutter and stammer because he was being told what to do by the Producer and he knew it was wrong. He knew something else should be going-on and he did not have the power to correct it.

Remember when DJ, an ESPN part-time announcer, crashed on the track and was never heard from again? Jamie McMurray and others also had hard crashes but the network wanted to go "somewhere else" with the broadcast. This happened because the Producer was sticking with his ESPN "story-telling" agenda. NASCAR fans do not need a survey for that. We all saw it.

Did Jerry Punch pick Aerosmith? Did he dig into his CD collection for Rihanna and create the three hours of racing from Long "Shut-Up And Drive" Pond, PA? Did Rusty Wallace create the Draft Track? Do you think he called down and said "let's use the Draft Track again instead of resetting the field out of this commercial?"

Does anyone believe that Tim Brewer said "let me explain just one more time about the COT splitter, I don't quite think they got it the last fifty times?" Are there viewers who believe Andy Petree saw a driver walk out of the Infield Care Center and said, "he looks fine...we don't need to talk to him. He does not have a lot of fans anyway."

Nothing on this survey asked about the ESPN Producer or his performance. It did not ask about ESPN's production elements like the Infield Studio, Draft Tracker, lower third sports ticker, SportsCenter Updates, the Tech Center, in-race reporter or the dreaded Full Throttle.

It never said on a scale of one to five, how does it make you feel as a fan when we leave the race without talking to anyone other than the winner? Did you get angry that college football devastated the Busch Series races and the Happy Hour telecasts? Were you upset that ESPN dropped coverage of NEXTEL Cup early practices...even for "The Chase" races?

Instead, it came down to rating the faces and the voices without having any idea of what they were being told to do, and what they were doing naturally. Instead of putting the on-air talent on the hotseat alone, ESPN should aim squarely at the veteran NASCAR team inside the TV production truck, and their senior managers at the network.

In cleaning up this mess, there is plenty of work to do in all areas of the network staff. That includes those who do not show their faces and whose names are not household words. Maybe another survey will be out soon.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.