The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN on ABC... Sort Of? Why The Plug Was Pulled On A Playoff Race by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday November 11, 2008

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For the third consecutive race, ESPN turned in a solid performance at Phoenix International Raceway. The broadcast team performed well in all areas, displaying only a few weaknesses throughout during what turned into a long, strenuous day. Unfortunately, an error far beyond the control of ESPN’s NASCAR broadcasting team overshadowed at least some of Sunday’s good effort.

The final eleven races of the NASCAR season are supposed to be broadcast by the ESPN team on ABC’s airwaves. This seems like a good pairing, considering the fact that ABC holds no Sunday NFL contracts. That means in theory, races should have no conflict in being broadcast. Sunday’s race at Phoenix, however, stretched longer than anticipated due to two red flags that lasted about 45 minutes. At about 7:15 EST, with only 30 to 40 laps remaining, Allen Bestwick informed viewers that the coverage was shifting to ESPN2 for the final laps on the East Coast, because ABC had other programming commitments it could not work around. As a result, executives were forced to cut into the World Series of Poker on ESPN2 to air the race, surely infuriating fans of that show.

A statement from one of ESPN’s Media Relations Managers, George McNeilly, corroborates the reason behind the move.

“After two red flags, rain in Phoenix and 4 1/2 hours on ABC, we were still 34 minutes from the end of the telecast as it turned out. We told fans in the East and Central from the second red flag on that the race was moving to ESPN2. ABC’s entertainment viewers and NASCAR fans were both well served in a tough spot, and we are fortunate to have ESPN2 among our networks to serve the fans.”

ABC and ESPN and should be applauded for its transparency and willingness to try and satisfy everybody involved; but in reality, NASCAR fans in the Eastern and Central time zones got stiffed. The bottom line is the NASCAR playoff race was preempted in the final laps on network television to air America’s Funniest Videos and Desperate Housewives.

It’s enough to make you ask, did that really happen? Yeah, it did; but it shouldn’t have.

The decision to move the race to another network is further evidence that auto racing will always play second fiddle to stick and ball sports with the entrenched broadcasting networks. You may wonder why other sports are being brought up. On CBS, 60 Minutes, the network’s longest-running show and one of its highest rated, is often pushed back in favor of regular season NFL games. MLB and NBA playoff games are also always scheduled at times where they cannot interfere with regular programming. So, why does NASCAR get stiff-armed by the very network that coughed up millions of dollars to show its races in favor of a show that could always be shown at another time instead?

The blame does not rest entirely on ABC for pulling the plug on the race, however. NASCAR should get a big boot in the bottom for its insistence on pushing the start times of races back as far as they have. If this race starts at two o’clock on the East Coast (so it does not start too early out West) then there is little chance that prime time programming gets obscured — even with these delays. It turns out Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was correct in his observation last weekend when he agreed with a large number of the NASCAR fan base in saying that races should start earlier. If they did, people would not be sitting around all afternoon waiting for start times and getting jaded to the coming event. Instead, as he said, they would all be rushing home from church, peeling off their Sunday best, feverishly pining for the fried chicken and cold drinks, and finding the fastest route to their couches for a bona fide celebration of the Sabbath.

So, shame on ABC for not recognizing the importance of the race it preempted. Do the network executives not listen to the words in the broadcasts? Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of history, yet he and the rest of the sport were yanked in favor of redundant clips of men getting kicked in the groin. But NASCAR also should wake up to the reality of the mess it has created by selling out to the suggestions of consultants and doing what seems best on paper. Fortunately, the offseason is rapidly approaching, giving both entities time to marinate over the consequences of their actions.

As far as the rest of the show, things went pretty well. The pit reporting team has really come into its own the past three weeks, following yet another strong performance. Dave Burns was obviously under the weather, but never let his hoarse voice derail him from giving good reports on pit road. And Shannon Spake, criticized here in the past, gets the gold star this week for reeling in the developing story about Jeff Gordon’s souring motor. Jamie Little and Mike Massaro each turned in solid performances as well.

The boys in the booth, particularly Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett, told the on-track story in a compelling manner. Jarrett and Petree each lent their knowledge of situations at the appropriate times, and kept the excitement at an appropriate level. Unfortunately, Dr. Jerry Punch still struggles to call the play-by-play action. He ought to take lessons from the Punch of 18 years ago, when he had to fill-in for Bob Jenkins in the lead announcer role at Phoenix back in 1990. Punch’s job then was much better, as he constantly told viewers exactly what was happening on the track and had good details to share about different drivers. Punch’s faults now can likely be attributed to a lot of the extra promotional one-liners he has to spend his time keeping track of now — but he still needs to improve in this area.

Allen Bestwick and the boys in the ESPN Pit Studio also did a good job, as Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham each had considerable amounts of information to add to different situations. Evernham in particular is well-adjusted to television already, and fits in well at ESPN. However, Brad Daugherty seems like he is in the way. Yes, he is a team owner and has been before, but his true knowledge of racing does not compare, at least on-air, to his companions in the studio. Daugherty seems to simply cheerlead from his position and comes off more as a fan of the sport. Let’s put it this way: if ESPN had to cut one of the boys from the Pit Studio, he would be the weakest link to let fall out. Tim Brewer also needs more exposure in the Dish Tech Center and needs a bigger screen to show different graphics, because it is hard for viewers to see what he’s doing.

Up to Speed segments still need to happen more often. I only counted one on lap 137, and it only covered the Top 10. ESPN still needs to spend more time covering the drivers and the racing action in the middle of the pack. There are still many drivers that barely ever see the light of day, even though they’re racing hard for 25th spot or for a Top 35 place in owner points. Covering these drivers would familiarize broadcasters with details about some of them, expanding their horizons on what’s going on in the series today.

It’s not often Travis Kvapil gets covered on TV these days; but when it happens, the announcers need to know more about him than the casual fan in the stands.

And details are helpful for the boys in the booth when cameras show a pit stop of a driver not covered by the pit reporting team. For the third consecutive week, cameras cut to a pit stop of a non-frontrunning driver by choice; in this case, it was Travis Kvapil. But Punch, Jarrett, and Petree have very little to say when something like this happens. Telling the stories of other drivers in the field makes the race more interesting, and these guys need to have the facts on all 43 cars — especially because you never know when one might be a surprise contender. At least the pit reporting team did not disappoint in this area, especially when it was able to score interviews with several involved in the big David Gilliland / Scott Speed wreck that brought out the second red flag.

Overall, ESPN’s broadcast was solid, and the group seems to be gelling together much better than it did a few weeks ago. Hopefully, this late season surge can continue into 2009; and hopefully, ABC will recognize the significance of next week’s race at Homestead, keeping from skipping Jimmie Johnson’s third consecutive championship to show baby-barfing videos instead.

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV this week:

  • Maybe Bill Weber isn’t so bad. I have never been a huge fan of the longtime NASCAR broadcaster and current lead announcer for TNT, but he was a great guest on Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel Sunday night. Weber had lots to offer on different topics in NASCAR, and came off as much less of the talking head that he appears to be on TNT. His appearance on the show makes me look more forward to seeing him, Kyle Petty, and Wally Dallenbach on TNT next summer.
  • SPEED Channel continues to cash in big with its Truck Series broadcasts. Not only is the series in midst of one of the tightest NASCAR points battles ever, but ratings on the network are through the roof. The broadcasting team turns in consistent efforts week in and week out, from Krista Voda’s pre-race show to the consistent calls in the booth and on pit road by the various racing veterans involved. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is clearly producing the best stories in the sport both on and off the track this season.

Here are links to either emails or websites you can use to give the various networks your feedback. Please be respectful if you choose to use them, so yours and everyone’s comments are taken seriously.

Contact ESPN
Contact SPEED
Contact FOX
Contact TNT

Listen to Doug talk racing on the Bellamy Strickland 120 racing show this Saturday, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta, and online at wsbradio.com.

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Jay Grey
11/11/2008 07:53 AM
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I sent ABC an eMail yesterday; since I don’t have cable I was denied the end of the race.

I’ve now given up watching the races on tv, because they do not start on time, ever. If the declared time on the tv says race at 2:00, I expect that by 2:15 the drivers are zipping around at speed. Reality is the race starts anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes later and the pre-race comments are the same every week. Boring, boring, snore.

I’m going to partition my Mac’s hard drive and run race view from now on. No commericials, and I can follow my driver, Scott Riggs 100% of the race.

M.B. Voelker
11/11/2008 08:28 AM
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Call it truth in advertising — if ABC advertises that they are broadcasting the race that should be considered a commitment to broadcast the race. In its entirety. Regardless of what programs it might delay.

If they don’t want to actually broadcast the race they shouldn’t have bid on the contract.

If its truly that critically important that people be able to see bad video of people making weird screeching noises then it should be advertised days in advance — right up front with all the other racing information — that if the race goes past (insert time here), it will be switched to (insert channel here).

That would enable fans to make contingency plans.

ABC must either honor their commitment to broadcast the race or make it entirely clear well in advance what circumstances will override that commitment.

And the urgent need to see men take hits to the groin should NEVER be something that can usurp a live, major sports event.

midasmicah
11/11/2008 08:54 AM
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This fiasco occured in Sacramento, CA. I came back from the rest room and guess what? No race. I finally found it on ESPU2. What a joke. The tv crew did a fine job, but with the chase pretty much over, I found myself watching as much football as racing. The chase format makes for a boring season.

dawg
11/11/2008 09:05 AM
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This decision speaks volumes about the viewership for NA$CAR. That they would do this partially because it was sweeps week, & they thought the numbers would be better for the videos. Is a sad reflection on the state of NA$CAR. If Brian has finally realized, he better start worrying about where the next family Billion, is coming from. Just wait until it’s time to renew the TV contract.

bobby dee
11/11/2008 10:40 AM
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How about the DVR guys? And the people that do not have cable. ABC just kicked them in the groin. Maybe they will start watching football on Sundays.

Gerry Blachley
11/11/2008 12:29 PM
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Were you watching the same Gocci Gulch Race “The broadcast team performed well in all areas, displaying only a few weaknesses throughout during what turned into a long, strenuous day” Please tell me you are kidding the Jimmy and Carl Show ok they did show some other cars I think

Kevin in SoCal
11/11/2008 12:35 PM
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Speaking of Bill Weber, WOW did he look A LOT different in that candid interview than he does when he’s announcing the race on TNT. Can you say makeup?

MiK
11/11/2008 02:25 PM
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ya could of seen this coming when NASCAR licensed EA to make a Racing sim. EA, then totally ignored the PC when they put out the NASCAR series of games.

It’s exactly what happened here. NASCAR sells the contract, then allows the contractee to run over the fans without a peep.

Until we get a race league that focuses on RACING, we fans are nothing more than a source of income. Let’s get back to racing cars, not shells; cars, not billboards; CARS, not product.

We’ve been shilled. It’s time to admit the game is rigged and we need to cash out.

Douglas
11/11/2008 05:41 PM
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Hey MiK! Your “Until we get a race league that focuses on RACING, we fans are nothing more than a source of income. Let’s get back to racing cars, not shells; cars, not billboards; CARS, not product.”

Is PERFECT!

KUDOS!

Joe
11/11/2008 08:57 PM
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NASCAR needs 85% black drivers with 10% of them in trouble with the law weekly, then NASCAR could get some RESPECT!!!

Joe
11/11/2008 08:59 PM
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ABC/ESPN SUCKS!!!

NASCAR is still thought of as a SOUTHern sport and will NEVER get ANY respect from the Yankee Networks!

Ed
11/12/2008 05:11 PM
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It is a no-brainer. This isn’t really a “playoff race.” The so called chase means nothing to most fans and ABC knows it. To many NASCAR views these days America’s funniest Home Videos is probably better entertainment. ABC knows that also.