The Frontstretch: NASCAR on TNT A Breath of Fresh Air After FOX Hype by Danny Peters -- Tuesday July 14, 2009

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NASCAR on TNT A Breath of Fresh Air After FOX Hype

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday July 14, 2009

 

The Sprint Cup season is now over halfway home. Can you believe it? I know I can’t.

In fact, it only seems like yesterday Elliott Sadler was leading a rain-threatened Daytona 500 bemoaning his lack of luck… and heck, we all know how that turned out. So, with 19 races in the books, seven races to go until the Chase, and a rare off weekend ahead, we reach the final broadcasting transition of the season as ESPN, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” takes over for the stretch run following a terrific six-race spell by TNT.

I know not everyone will agree, but I for one very much enjoyed the TNT coverage this year. Their six-race spell sits between the two broadcasting monoliths of FOX and ESPN, and given the hype that surrounds the start of each season and, of course, the all-hallowed Chase for the Sprint Cup, it would be easy for TNT to get lost in the shuffle. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, a fact that speaks volumes for the quality of their efforts and overall approach to the sport we all love (or, in some cases, love to hate.)

So, why has TNT been successful? Here’s a few reasons:

ABF: ANYONE BUT FOX

After the relentless hype and interminable promotion of the stupid rodent that is Digger (or “The bedraggled oversized rat that shall not be named,” if you’ll forgive the Harry Potter reference) whoever came next was always likely to have something of a halo effect surrounding their coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that FOX Sports (or is that “We are FOX Sports”) like to get the most of their broadcasts and do, it seems, care very genuinely about the sport — but there is something about the way they approach it that sticks in my craw. You can’t help but feel if FOX would let the racing tell its own story, rather than trying to force fit a “Junior did this, Kyle said that” approach to each race weekend their broadcasts would be incrementally better. And as for Digger, well, that furry cretin is one of the single most hated TV mascots I’ve ever seen. FOX touts the fact that they sell a ton of merchandise and that it’s a good way to get kids into the sport, but for me that begs two questions: One, who exactly is buying this Digger crap, and why is a cartoon better than actual, honest-to-goodness on-track action? I don’t know the answers to either question, so at this stage they’re somewhat rhetorical. The fact is, though, that after the white noise of FOX TNT came as a blessed relief.

Kyle Petty’s presence in the television booth has been a breath of fresh air for TNT’s share of the broadcasts.

THE KP FACTOR

Kyle Petty has been a phenomenal addition in the booth for a second straight year. His call-it-like-it-is approach is monumentally refreshing. That said, you do wonder how much of his honesty is a cause of his not having a ride this year; does Kyle have something of a chip (or potato field, to be more accurate) on his shoulder following his unceremonious excision from driving duties? I think that might actually be the case; but no matter, because for TV purposes it’s just what we need. And in a new twist for the announcing booth, Petty has been answering questions sent to him via Twitter on the live broadcasts. If that’s not cutting edge… I don’t know what is. More importantly, it creates a symbiotic link with the fans looking to connect with the sport. I mean, come on, can you imagine DW answering Twitter questions on air? Bless the 84-time Boogity-Boogitying race winner, but he probably thinks a “tweet” is a noise made by a bird.

RACE BUDDY

Dear David Hill and other FOX executives: See that Race Buddy character? Yeah, gents, that’s how you create an animated mascot… and unlike Digger, Race Buddy is actually useful, an online companion that doesn’t leave you completely at the mercy of the TV director. And having a dedicated online pit reporter as part of the Race Buddy package is such a simple idea, it’s genius. Now, I’m not one who likes all the accoutrements and bells and whistles surrounding sports broadcasts, but if I made an exception, Race Buddy would be it. The little animated cartoon buddy with the cool shades is OK by me.

DOUBLE-FILE RESTARTS

The NASCAR-run town hall meeting earlier this season had one huge consequence for TNT — the introduction of double-file restarts just in time for their 2009 broadcast debut at Pocono. I know not everyone likes these, (especially Jeff Burton, who said as much this past weekend after he was wrecked on a late restart) but for this observer, double-file restarts are exactly what this sport needs. I don’t have the empirical data to back up my assertion, but I would wager we’ve seen double the side-by-side racing at the tracks on the TNT schedule (not including Daytona, of course) than ever before; in some cases, by an absolute country mile. Even with all the complaints about Chicagoland being boring this weekend, those final few restarts saved it for me — and I’m sure for several others watching. Look, in the long races, drivers are going to “make laps” in the middle, setting themselves up for the race’s denouement. We all know this happens, so why complain when one driver races into the distance in the early stages? Now, with the double-file restarts, you know the field will come back together; and let’s be fair, Mark Martin, who was the class of the field, still won on Saturday night. It’s true that TNT was the beneficiary of good timing, but that’s life. It’s always about the timing…

WIDE OPEN COVERAGE

Arguably the biggest positive for TNT, in the opinion of this humble columnist, was the third year of Wide Open Coverage from Daytona. Do you realize, dear readers, that this was the first time in who knows how long every single green flag lap was broadcast live, which in itself is an incredible statistic. In the previous two years of “Wide Open” the mandated local network “full” breaks had meant we missed a handful of laps. This year, however, the action fell perfectly for the broadcast team, and as a result, we saw all 160 of the scheduled laps. What a concept that is – a live sport you don’t cut to commercial from. Wow, wonder if that will catch on? (cough…)

So for me, Wide Open is the template for how NASCAR should be broadcast… but it doesn’t seem likely to happen. The trouble, as I understand it, is unwillingness on the part of the sponsors to accede to the change. This smacks of stupidity to me. The thirty second ad, front and center, is no longer the best way to promote your brand. A TV spot is more of an adjunct now, with other media channels doing the heavy lifting and sales conversions. What is also missed by those folks that spend hundreds of thousands buying ads every race weekend is that split screen coverage would promote viewership. You are much less likely to get up and go do something else instead if the commercial is shown in the corner of the screen while the racing action is still clearly visible beside it.

So despite the resistance, I will continue to bang the drum and argue until I’m as blue in the face as the Miller Lite Dodge that Wide Open is the way forward. If I was in charge of NASCAR, and that’s a lovely thought worth an article all of its own, then mandating this form of coverage would be one of my first orders of business.

GOOD WINNERS

Another factor that has helped TNT is the list of race winners from their six-race stint. Tony Stewart won twice, including his first points paying victory at Pocono; Mark Martin bagged a pair, including wheeling his Chevy to Victory Lane at Michigan; and Joey Logano won his maiden Cup race, albeit with help from the weather. But perhaps best of all was seeing the King himself, Richard Petty, back in Victory Lane at Sonoma. The fact that he was sipping expensive red wine just added to the occasion. Now, I know that this is in many ways has nothing to do with TNT, but everyone loves a popular winner; and a list that includes Stewart, Martin, Logano, and Kasey Kahne is right up there.

Of course, it’s not all been all sunshine and flowers at TNT this summer. The replacement of Bill Weber with Ralph Sheheen after an altercation pre-Loudon was as seamless as could be expected, but it was definitely something of a black eye. TNT could have done without the unnecessary scandal. In addition, there have been a number of what you could term “continuity errors” in the broadcasting this year. Read the extremely detailed and excellent broadcast recaps of my fellow FS Tuesday columnist, Phil Allaway, and he’ll mention the other errors and faux pas made by the TNT folks these past half dozen races. But with that said, overall, I’d argue TNT has done an excellent job with their six events.

Now, with 17 to run, it’s time for the boys from Bristol to step up. Over to you, ESPN…

Contact Danny Peters

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mkrcr
07/14/2009 12:56 AM
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I don’t see Weber’s “firing” as an unnecessary scandal. TNT’s ratings and positive comments from fans both increased after replacing that prima dona. Now if only Jerry Punch would have a breakdown, and ESPN would put Alan Bestwick in the booth, future broadcasts might enjoy similar success.

Phyllis
07/14/2009 04:07 AM
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I watch TNT now BECAUSE Weber is gone and agree with mkrcr’s comments.

Mark
07/14/2009 07:13 AM
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Kyle and Wally are an almost perfect pair in the booth , similar to the way Benny and Ned worked so well together . They are all about the racing , not about promoting themselves or re-living the past , or making sure that they get the most words in per broadcast .
I’m certain that if FOX dropped out of Nascar coverage , or was forced to drop out of Nascar coverage , they would not be missed at all . That says a lot about how bad their coverage is .

Bill B
07/14/2009 08:17 AM
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It was nice to watch the broadcast team cover the race as it happened instead of trying to make the race fit into the script the producer mapped out before the race (like Fox and ESPN seem to).

Gina
07/14/2009 08:45 AM
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I enjoyed TNT’s coverage very much, especially AFTER Weber was gone from the booth. He adds nothing to the broadcast with his pompous attitude. The RaceBuddy feature that TNT added was easy to use and worked. TNT will be missed. Fox’s cheerleading for particular drivers AND the “rodent who shall not be named” made me mute the TV and resort to radio and the computer for NASCAR coverage. David Hill’s “tough” response to the fans complaints — was completely inappropriate considering the downward drop of the ratings. ESPN — sigh — so sorry that they are taking over. The chase for the chumps isn’t particularly exciting and ESPN’s coverage makes it even less so.

RLynn
07/14/2009 09:48 AM
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A+ for TNT! I loved the Daytona coverage! I love the honesty in the booth and when they get quiet, like they’ve gotten so caught up in the race that they forget they’re supposed to be “commentating”! Kudos to you, TNT!

HankZ
07/14/2009 12:51 PM
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While I no longer wear t-shirts with logos, prints or stupid sayings, I will take a FS sponsored ABF XXL shirt in white please. The graphic could be a simple FOX logo with a red circle/line thru it, or Digger swinging from a noose. Get on it!

Ken
07/14/2009 01:39 PM
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I thought the coverage by TNT was excellent and I agree with most of what you said. However, I think the double file restarts are going to be a nightmare on short tracks. They intoduced them when they did for a reason. Any miscue or significant miscalculation by a driver or his team at Bristol, Martinsville or Richmond will leave the driver with no chance to win regardless of how good he is.

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