The Race for Ratings Points: Critquing NASCAR TV · Doug Turnbull · Tuesday May 13, 2008
There must be something in the air at race tracks on a Saturday night.
After a less-than-stellar outing at Talladega, the FOX Sports broadcasting team again turned in a performance deserving of the Emmy Award they received just a few short weeks ago. In fact, the last two races at Richmond and Darlington — both on Saturday nights — have come off nice and smooth, with few mistakes and less of the fluff that turns off and jades so many avid fans.
But just like the right side of Kyle Busch’s race-winning car, the TV coverage wasn’t without its fair share of Darlington stripes. Here is a breakdown of how FOX fared during this Mother’s Day Weekend event:
- Since the Sprint Cup Series no longer races at Darlington twice a year, writers, producers, and reporters have a daunting task of cramming all of the elements of the egg-shaped oval into just one weekend. That’s never an easy task; the storied history of the track, its unique racing style, and the difficulties drivers face in overcoming certain obstacles deserves constant attention alongside any other headlines in the NASCAR garage. Since track officials repaved the track, the speeds are incredibly fast, with new track records causing additional hazards to enter the discussion. All that adds up to plenty of different stories to juggle; and frankly, it seemed that this weekend, there was less time to cover every facet of a Darlington race than ever before. However, I must say FOX came very close to accomplishing that feat; nice work, guys!
- Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip all played their parts in the booth to a T. Joy became a good moderator early between McReynolds and Waltrip, as Kyle Busch was overdriving his car early in the race. As a seasoned veteran, Waltrip kept “coaching” Busch again and again, telling him the advantages of saving his car; in the meantime, McReynolds played the role of crew chief, trying to slow Waltrip down. The former head wrench even chimed in with one of his great factoids later in the race, saying that cars were known to drive faster at Darlington when their motors lost a cylinder. These comments have really added color to a sometimes boring race, and showcased why the booth is comprised of a play-by-play guy, a championship driver, and a technical guru.
- Speaking of technical gurus, Jeff Hammond also starred in his role with the FOX bunch. He described the effects of overheating a stock car’s brakes, as Kyle Busch was doing. His work with the cut-away car deserves an award by itself.
- I now take this time to give my first thumbs up to the FOX blimp. The camera on the bottom of the blimp was positioned to the perfect place, at the perfect time, as Kyle Busch gave Greg Biffle a little love tap, causing him to fishtail through a turn. That was one of the greatest saves of the season. The pit road camera crew also got excellent footage of Joe Gibbs in the middle of a huddle with the No. 18 pit crew, encouraging them after getting dogged on the radio by Busch after botching a pit stop.
- The brain behind the “Darlington Stripe Count” deserves a crispy ten dollar bill for the invention, though I am sure that the final stripe number was a conservative count. Rookie Sam Hornish, Jr. had about 35 wall scrapes by himself; that number couldn’t have been right.
- Another big bonus during Saturday night’s coverage was the network’s focus on the unexpected teams that ran in the Top 10 throughout the race. David Ragan finished 5th and was talked about throughout the night, especially after he pushed up into the Top 12 in points by race’s end. Travis Kvapil and Dave Blaney also were given attention by the boys in the booth for their strong performances; that’s good to see.
- But as promised before, there were some dents revealed in FOX’s armor. Live pit sequences look tricky to cover, and are even more difficult to actually pull off. In the past few weeks, FOX and ESPN’s pit road reporters have shown exactly why; both have had trouble covering some of the green flag stops. Matt Yocum, in particular, got very tongue-tied during the first pit sequence on Saturday, calling the pit stops of drivers after their cars had left their stalls and the cameras had turned to someone else. Live TV is difficult, and Matt Yocum is a professional; but this mistake, however, was quite noticeable.
- The stationary FOX camera crew, along with the directing and producing team in their broadcasting truck are still having a difficult time capturing and broadcasting wrecks as they happen. There were a couple of examples of this at Darlington, including a complete miss on the contact that sent the No. 40 Marlin from a strong run to an extended stay on pit road. Someone should note that wrecks are one of the main reasons people watch — and when they don’t show them, no one knows why cars suddenly fall out of contention.
- Speaking of people watching races on TV, after experiencing declining ratings during the last two seasons, television ratings are up. The economy and fuel prices surely factor in — as columnist “Matt McLaughlin” noted on Thursday — but it does show that the sport is not falling off of the deep end, like many people were diagnosing last year.
FOX, TNT, and ESPN/ABC should not be complacent, though. With DirectTV NASCAR Hot Pass, TiVo, and other services that allow one to watch the race without watching the networks, the broadcasting juggernauts need to adapt to the fans’ tastes and to changing technologies. FOX is doing well right now, ESPN is still working out some kinks, and TNT has yet to air a race this season. Let us hope they keep up the good work.
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