The Race for Ratings Points: Critiquing NASCAR Broadcasting · Doug Turnbull · Tuesday June 3, 2008
With the latest NASCAR TV contract in place now for just the second year, the end of FOX’s annual coverage approaches faster than ever. Under the first deal, FOX covered the first half of the season and NBC covered the second half — beginning at or around the Pepsi 400 — while TNT took a few races in the mix with the same broadcasting crew as NBC’s. FOX and NBC also alternated turns broadcasting the Daytona 500.
But the new deal, in place since 2007, gives TNT its own six race block after FOX’s set of races — before ESPN and ABC finish up the remaining portion of the season. This means, of course, that FOX only has the rights to 13 events, instead of the 18 or 19 per year that it had from 2001 to 2006. That makes FOX’s last race came almost as fast as the winter offseason fades into Speedweeks every year.
So, just like many students received their report cards after the completions of their terms recently — and just like FOX graded all of NASCAR’s big teams during Sunday’s race — the network needs a grade for their 2008 coverage. Since they were consistent in covering the broadcasts (which one would expect with their veteran team), and since the TV ratings have taken a turn for the better compared to the last couple of years, I give them a solid “B” grade.
But rising ratings should not cause everybody to get fat and happy; there is room for improvement with FOX, as much of it became monotonous very quickly. In fact, there’s quite a few features I’d love to see gone by 2009. An example is the short individual driver teases before the commercials that show a driver standing by himself, surrounded by loud graphics or in a movie theatre and saying how “driven” they are to win. They are corny and dreadful, and I bet money that the drivers do not like how they turned out, either. The commercialization of the Digger cam and of Darrell Waltrip’s “cute” clichés have left a sour taste in some of the fans’ mouths as well. In their place, there are plenty of additions that FOX could add to make their coverage more exciting to watch — enhancements that focus on racing, not razzle dazzle.
Soon, the executives and producers at FOX Sports need to put their creative minds together and begin dreaming of what they can heap onto the table for 2009. There’s plenty of ideas out there for its coverage; some of what its main rival, ESPN, lacks in substance, it makes up for in fancy, creative graphics and explanations, i.e. the Draft Track. One example of a new innovation on the FOX side could be having a graphic that lists who gets what kind of penalty after every pit road sequence, just like they list who is involved in wrecks. Another may be to add to the running order to the ticker the reason that someone is in 30th place, 6 laps down, if there is one — like a crash or penalty. People will quickly tire of races like Dover’s on Sunday, and FOX should begin thinking of ways that it can make its broadcasts more exciting, without distracting from covering the race.
Speaking of Sunday’s event, the network did a decent job in making lemonade out of the tasteless lemons that the Dover race gave toward the racing action. There were only a few mistakes in the coverage; here are some that I noticed:
- At the beginning of the race, the boys in the booth referred immediately to the wad of cars in the middle of the pack just after the start of the race — but only the single file row of leaders up front were shown instead. As I have said many times before, the stories and the racing in the middle of the pack are worth noting, especially when nearly every team is competitive. Each car’s story and plight matters in these events, and I bet the sponsors would not mind at all getting a little bit of face time on the tube.
- Two thumbs up to the camera crew for two great shots. One was of Carl Edwards shooting clean hand gestures at a lapped car that was fighting him hard for position. Someone must have eaten their carrots to notice such an innocuous thing. The other thumb goes to the crew that shot Richard Childress banging out the sheet metal of Kevin Harvick’s mangled car early in the race. As far as Childress has come in the racing world, he could have been sitting in his motor home, sipping some Childress Vineyard wine and watching the lemmings beat on the car; but instead, there he was getting dirty with the rest of the crew. I would pay big money to see that kind of action out of Teresa Earnhardt!
- Speaking of the camera crew, congratulations to Nelson Hastings, who filmed his one millionth lap on Sunday. Along with that comes a pat on the back to the boys in the booth, going out of their way to recognize all of the people that do all of the grunt work behind the scenes to make each broadcast happen.
- SPEED Channel, which is a FOX-owned entity, did a great job covering the Dover Truck race. Not only was all of the coverage consistent, but they actually did something that I have been begging the bigger networks to do. When J.C. Stout wrecked his truck — a truck and team that normally finish in the back — they actually interviewed him. That is the first time that I ever recall seeing Stout on TV, and I hope it is not the last. As my friend Rick Minter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says, “The best stories are on the other side of the garage.”
- SPEED does need to do a better job with its longer NASCAR programs: Trackside, This Week in NASCAR, and NASCAR RaceDay. My biggest beef with them this week was that there is too much laughing and goofing around on those shows. The humor and antics of the colorful characters are surely part of their allure, but it all gets old when the talk is small and there is little substance to the broadcasts.
- ESPN must have started reading this column. Since having been blasted for not having quality coverage of NASCAR on SportsCenter — despite the network’s vast racing resources — the SportsCenter coverage of the sport has gotten better. There is still room to grow there, but the tide is turning.
- One improvement ESPN needs to make is with the telemetry and graphics shown during its coverage of qualifying. The speed tracker on their qualifying broadcast is great to watch, but it is too small and too busy. The only people that can really read and understand it are the same carrot-eating folks that noticed Carl Edwards’ hand gestures. It is good to have all of the information on the screen, but the producers and graphic designers need to work harder on making it more legible.
- Finally, here is a NASCAR broadcasting reunion of sorts. Johnny Benson joined Allen Bestwick and the NASCAR Now crew for the show’s weekly roundtable racing discussion Monday. Benson and Bestwick used to appear weekly on SPEED’s Inside Winston Cup, which became This Week In NASCAR, for several years; it was nice to see them reunited in TV land once more.
Again, congratulations to FOX for completing another successful NASCAR season. TNT and Kyle Petty come our way at the end of this week; and if their coverage is anything like last year’s, there may not be a lot to complain about.
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