Sunday, July 27, 2008

ESPN's Disaster Management Drill

Every TV crew brings a wide variety of skills to the track when they assemble to telecast a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Many times over the last two years we have heard that the amount of equipment and manpower used for a race like the Brickyard 400 is bigger than for the Super Bowl.

Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard, the NASCAR on ESPN crew was asked to look deep into their TV bag of tricks. They were searching for the network's Disaster Management Plan.

The Goodyear tires were only going to last about ten laps before failing and everyone on the TV crew knew this going into the race. Even with additional tires shipped into the track, the situation was simply not going to change. Tony George's track had a surface that was just not "taking rubber" no matter what was done.

Allen Bestwick led ESPN into the network's second season of Sprint Cup coverage and fans were very glad Bestwick was on-board. His years of experience were crucial in trying to navigate through the nightmare of only ten lap runs being the norm on one of the biggest stages in motorsports.

Bestwick led Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham through a one hour pre-race show that explained the problems. Evernham showed his value and his technical knowledge once again as he skillfully talked viewers through this problem situation. Wallace and Daugherty were not in Evernham's league and it showed.

The tire story wound its way through the entire pre-race, but ESPN carried-on valiantly by interviewing the big names and keeping up appearances. The pit reporters worked well, but Jamie Little and Shannon Spake were having a tough time understanding the seriousness of the tire situation. They eventually got on-board as the race progressed.

Dr. Jerry Punch was not seen during the lead-in hour and when he took over the live telecast of the race the only thing he had on his hands was a mess. The saving grace in all of this was Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree showing that they are going to be effective on this coverage for ESPN. These two are often carrying-on conversations that Punch seems to be interrupting when he gets back to trying to call the race.

As the first several cautions and the first blown tires began to paint a picture for viewers it was clear that both the teams and the TV network were going to be moving to survival mode. Instead of the grandeur and majesty of Indy, NASCAR was going to be lucky to survive without an open fan revolt. Many of these same folks were no doubt present for the Formula-1 debacle earlier at the same track.

In terms of the overall broadcast crew, it was Bestwick, Jarrett and Petree who kept their wits about them and spoke to TV viewers in realistic terms about the things NASCAR was doing as the race progressed. Multiple competition cautions, closing the pits early and getting a new set of Pocono tires ready if needed were easily understood by even the most casual fan.

Earlier on RaceDay over on SPEED, reporter Hermie Sadler showed the surface of the track and the way it had been ground into unique grooves. ESPN would have been smart to frequently show fans this surface to make the point about the tires.

The pictures and sound from ESPN were outstanding. The network dropped the music videos, the SportsCenter updates and the celebrity interviews. Green flag racing was not interrupted as if it was a sideshow and the network made a commitment to wider camera angles which showed a lot more cars than last season.

The "triple split" on the caution flag pit-stops came into play as never before. With the frequent NASCAR cautions, this patented ESPN coverage of the pit-stops and the race off pit road was outstanding. It was always instantly clear who had gained, who had lost and what the restart order would be.

This type of racing allowed ESPN to slip-in commercial breaks without any real problems. If there is one thing that caution flags every ten laps will help it is commercial integration. Thankfully, ESPN did not insert live X Games promos this year and limited the hype to the creepy Darkmane and his "really cool" costume.

As the race progressed, ESPN did not use the comparison of this tire problem to the issues experienced with the Formula-1 race a while back at Indy. It was strange that this situation was treated as unique when most of the Formula-1 cars actually pulled off the track and boycotted the race.

It was very clear as the telecast progressed that ESPN was managing the on-air disaster, but lacking the comments of two very important people. The first was NASCAR President Mike Helton, who did the right thing and subsequently walked right into the ESPN announce booth.

Helton was candid in his comments, told viewers exactly what the sanctioning body was going to do and the frustrations he felt in this situation. It was a reminder of the many positive things Helton has brought to the table over his years in this sport.

One voice, however, was missing. The high-profile Tony George from IMS was never heard from and that was a shame. Regardless of the problem, a track operator like Humpy Wheeler or Eddie Gossage would have been ready to go on-the-air and talk about the issues involved. George should have been front-and-center. Instead, he was invisible.

One big breath of fresh air from the NASCAR on ESPN gang was the final run to the checkered flag. The Director worked very hard to keep a perspective on a large number of cars even though it was a two-car race. As the winner crossed the finish line, ESPN swung wide so fans could watch the field race hard off Turn 4 and sprint to the finish. The big graphics were tough, but the information was accurate and worked well.

Fans of drivers like Marcos Ambrose and others who never ran in the top ten were frustrated that there were almost no full-field rundowns, but the tire situation and the frequent caution flags really had some production elements out-of-sort.

While this broadcast was clearly not a good test of ESPN's new NASCAR commitment, it was a solid start under tough circumstances for a crew with several new additions. This may be the one time that the TV crew is actually looking forward to heading for the hills. Pocono is next on the Sprint Cup agenda.

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"Victory Lane" Spins A New NASCAR Reality

After the Sprint Cup Series races, Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace sit in Victory Lane waiting for the winner to get out of his car. While the confetti flies and the TV network does an interview, Wallace and Spencer talk about the race. The resulting one hour show is appropriately named Victory Lane.

Spencer is an unabashed cheerleader for NASCAR and Wallace is always one to put a happy face on any situation. Wallace really does see the brightside of things. This duo is managed quite well by veteran SPEED TV host John Roberts.

After the Brickyard 400, the TV team was once again on-hand as Jimmie Johnson did his final burnouts and prepared for his interviews. One thing, however, was different. Apparently, Spencer and Wallace had decided to "spin" the grim reality of this event into something completely different. That would be a great race.

At the top of the show, Roberts called the race "long, strange and at times unfortunate." Spencer rightly pointed-out that winner Jimmie Johnson had been the fastest car all weekend long. Wallace added that it was only the second time the polesitter had won at The Brickyard. As the panel waited for Johnson, Spencer and Wallace gave their impressions of the race.

It was Wallace who said that The Brickyard 400 was going to be a "watercooler race." With the camera in his face, Wallace offered to "straighten race fans out." He began to insist that this event was fundamentally "a show" and that it was actually a great race. Spencer offered that some of the fans are going to be upset, but that he had seen a lot of great racing.

Spencer continued with the quote that "a lot of variables went into this race" and the fact that the cream had risen to the top. Wallace added that the race had the feel of a Saturday shoot-out at a local track.

In terms of NASCAR, Spencer said they "went out of their way to put a show on for the fans." Roberts was the voice of reason as he so often is on this show and made sure to point out that NASCAR's big fear was bad crashes and driver injury.

There was no doubt that Spencer and Wallace were just trying to be supportive of a sport that means so much to them. Unfortunately, these two are perhaps not the best in terms of trying to balance the reality of this situation with the public relations damage to NASCAR. A balanced discussion was not on the menu.

"This is Indy Car land, they are not going to do nothing for stock car racing." said Wallace. He and Spencer were talking about adding a sealer to the track to help the tires in the future. The issue was apparently now the Indy cars and the grinding of the track to help their performance.

As Roberts gamely led the panel through the highlights, Spencer and Wallace tried very hard to sell the fact that this was a great race despite the limitations. "Left side tires were not an issue," said Spencer as he tried to suggest that pit strategy played a role in this event. Roberts pointed-out that the top cars all took two tires on the final stop, but that did not seem to matter to Spencer.

Bob Dillner handled the interviews with the top finishers and showed his new found maturity in difficult times. Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards offered conciliatory interviews hoping the fans would understand the tire problems and offered their own apologies. The drivers actually were the only ones who took the middle ground on the race issues and came-off as sophisticated and professional.

Winner Jimmie Johnson came along and answered a lot of questions about almost everything...except tires. Asked about his career expectations, testing schedules and the fact that everyone had the same circumstances, Johnson proved to be a true professional. He said the sport would "take its lumps" and move on.

Bob Dillner interviewed Jeff Gordon at the end of the show and Gordon's statements that the race was "strange and unfortunate" echoed Roberts. Gordon was clear in his view that there was no reason to blame anyone, but that the problems need to be addressed immediately by all of the parties concerned.

This is the kind of effective commentary that works to address multiple issues. None of the drivers offered the hype and rhetoric of Spencer and Wallace. While this duo is effective on RaceDay with their unique brand of humor and commentary, this situation was very different.

It is important for national TV commentators like Spencer and Wallace to realistically address issues that may not be favorable to NASCAR. The ability to discuss negative issues in an honest and open manner with the TV viewers is critical. On this Sunday, there was a very good reason why.

Directly following Victory Lane on SPEED was the new one hour Sunday version of ESPN2's NASCAR Now. Within two minutes of being on-the-air, Allen Bestwick was leading an intelligent discussion with Jimmie Johnson about exactly the same issues Spencer and Wallace had been unable to articulate. Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty added to the conversation with good questions and everyone on the panel was extremely professional.

No longer is Victory Lane the final NASCAR wrap-up show on Sunday nights. This new reality is going to be something that the folks at SPEED are going to need to remember. Even after such a great race.

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NASCAR's Monday TV Shows Should Be Interesting

Note: There are new posts up for both NASCAR Now and This Week In NASCAR.

Normally, we talk about the head-to-head match-up of the two big Monday NASCAR TV programs on this post. This week, we are just going to talk about the content issues.

Monday's NASCAR Now is on-the-air at 5PM Eastern Time. Host Allen Bestwick has Ray Evernham, Brad Daugherty and Mike Massaro as his panelists. This is an interesting mix because all four of the men in the studio were on-hand at Indy. ESPN2 will deliver the first Monday review with four veterans who participated in the telecast.

It was Brad Daugherty who was outspoken live on ESPN and saying that this race was a poor effort and embarrassing to NASCAR. He was clearly not pleased and did not toe the NASCAR line as did several other announcers like Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace on Victory Lane.

Massaro was in the pits and reporting on the situation as it progressed. He was also the reporter who spoke with the key Goodyear spokesman on Saturday to update the potential problems on Sunday afternoon. His views and opinions should be outstanding.

Perhaps, the best person to address this situation is Evernham. His comments during the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show were the best explanation of how the tire situation happened and what it meant. His technical knowledge is going to be a good addition to this program.

Bestwick had a birds-eye view of everything from the Infield Pit Center all day long on Sunday. He led the network through NASCAR Now, SportsCenter, NASCAR Countdown, the live telecast and the post-race interviews. What more could he do? Fly to Connecticut and lead another hour-long show on Monday is the answer.

NASCAR Now's "roundtable" version is the best story of the season where racing TV is concerned. This Monday program should be one to watch, as it will be interesting to see who the program hosts as guests. Robin Pemberton from NASCAR perhaps?

Over on SPEED, Steve Byrnes will have his hands full for two reasons. First, Michael Waltrip will be on-set and he had a big crash at Indy. Byrnes is going to have to tackle Waltrip and get his head back in the game or this show could be a mess.

Joining Waltrip and Byrnes will be Greg Biffle who got a lot of time on-camera during the ESPN race telecast. The perspective of a driver who ran the entire race and was in contention should be a great asset to the show. Biffle has come a long way on TV and his opinions and commentary have been welcomed by the fans.

This Week in NASCAR will be on SPEED at 8PM. Both of these TV shows will re-air at Midnight Eastern Time as usual. It should be fascinating to see how ESPN2 and SPEED handle this very strange race on these review shows.

Note: If there was ever a week where SPEED should put the review before the preview, this is it. Skipping to Pocono without finishing the Indy discussion is going to put a serious dent in the credibility of TWIN.

There will be columns up for your comments shortly after both programs.

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In-Progress At Indy: Sprint Cup Race On ESPN

After six months of rehearsing with the Nationwide Series, Sunday at 1PM brings the debut of ESPN's transition to the Sprint Cup.

Allen Bestwick will lead the panel of Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham from the Infield Pit Center through a one-hour version of NASCAR Countdown. This pre-race show is going to be talking about the critical Goodyear tire issue which will dominate this telecast.

This pressing issue is sure to change the scripted nature of what ESPN had planned for this hour and continues to change as showtime approaches. The pit reporters are going to be put to the test in this show.

It will be Dave Burns, Jamie Little, Shannon Spake and Mike Massaro who will be charged with keeping the viewers up to date from pit road, the garage area and the Infield Medical Center. Spake was a fill-in last season and is still coming up to speed with live TV, the other three are veterans from last season's coverage.

Upstairs will be Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Punch will be handling the play-by-play duties for this second season with the very bright spotlight shining on this high-profile position. He struggled last year on these longer races and often appeared to be very tired only halfway through the event.

The big new fish in the ESPN pond is Dale Jarrett. He has been the savior of ESPN this season with his calm demeanor and his strong knowledge of the sport. Coupled with Andy Petree, this duo has all the bases covered for ESPN and should be the strongest part of the Indy coverage.

ESPN has been challenged to abandon the "scripted" approach to these races that drove fans crazy last year, and the Indy tire problems may be just what the doctor ordered. The network is going to be forced to deal with the reality of this problem rather than stick with the stories it chose to highlight in the pre-race show.

Look for solid triple splits on the caution flag pit stops with ESPN trying to do everything possible to cover the most important part of this event, the race off pit road. It is entirely possible that the order leaving the pits will be the order finishing the race with all the COT issues.

Bestwick is very different from former infield host Suzy Kolber, so TV viewers should not be subjected to celebrity interviews and ESPN promos during green flag racing. The network also has to choose when to insert SportsCenter updates and other non-racing content.

The HD cameras at Indy are always outstanding, and this season the ESPN crew produced a memorable Indy 500 IRL telecast. Hopefully, the outstanding pictures and sound will continue with the ESPN TV crew on this broadcast. Look for moving boom and jig cameras in the telecast, especially on pit road.

The final laps of this race call for the big decision on the part of the Producer. Show the drama of the winner alone crossing the finish-line or keep the bigger perspective and show the lead-lap cars all racing to the stripe. It should be interesting to see what ESPN decides this season. In 2007, they chose to show only the winning car and no others cross the line.

This post will serve to host your TV-related comments about the Brickyard 400 telecast on ESPN. To add your comments, simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for joining us for our second Brickyard race.