Jay Pennell · Thursday October 7, 2010
Three races into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and this year’s battle for the top spot is closer than it’s ever been – yet that does not seem to be the focus by neither the media nor the fans. Instead, one of the most dominant and constant issues being raised revolves around the television coverage NASCAR has been receiving throughout the season, especially by ESPN.
At the moment, it’s for good reason. To say this week has not been a good one for the folks at the Worldwide Leader, as well as the fans reliant on their coverage, would be an understatement.
Last Saturday, the Clemson-Miami college football game caused the pre-race show and beginning of the Nationwide Series race to be pushed to ESPN Classic. Sunday was not much better. The pre-race show had major audio issues on ESPN2, giving fans of SD TV nothing but static for the majority of the program. Once the race got underway, the fans went to town on how poor the coverage was. Then, on Tuesday, news broke that senior ESPN motorsports producer Neil Goldberg was arrested for being a peeping tom, among other things we will leave unmentioned.
Among the string of complaints, the majority seem to stem from the number of commercials during the race broadcast, especially in the opening laps of each event. Like many fans out there, I too have offered my share of criticism as of late when the opening laps are interrupted abruptly by what seems like endless commercials. Nearly every week, social media web sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with blogs – including our own website – explode with comments about how awful the coverage is and how commercials are seemingly ruining the sport.
The complaining seems to lead many fans to turn the channel to another program, and the ratings are starting to reflect that. According to the Nielsen reports, Sunday’s 400-mile race from Kansas Speedway – the third race of NASCAR’s “playoff” – recorded a 2.3 rating, equating to 3.7 million viewers. That number is down drastically when compared to last year’s 3.2 rating when shown on ABC.
To put those numbers in perspective, the television blog The Daly Planet reports Sunday Night Football drew 15.9 million viewers, and that despicable Jersey Shore had 6.7 million just last week.
This shocking downturn led me to wonder what has changed over the years to draw fans away from their television sets on Sunday afternoons.
For years, before I covered this sport in the press I was glued to the television set as a fan, eagerly anticipating each weekend’s race. Yet, on Sunday I could barely watch – and I have to write about the race and therefore must watch. I’m just as guilty as anyone to flip back and forth from the race to the football game, and would do so more often if the Philadelphia Eagles were shown more often in Charlotte. There had to be less commercials back in the day, more racing action, wider camera shots, something had to be different.
So, I dusted off my crates of old VHS tapes and decided to find out how much different today’s broadcasts are to some back in the day. Going through my collection, I opted for the season finale of the 2000 season at Atlanta and the 1998 race at California Speedway. I chose these two events because the 2000 Atlanta race was the final for ESPN before renewing their contract a few years back, and the 1998 race in California because this weekend’s race is at the same track. Both were covered by ESPN, and I was surprised by what I saw.
Watching these older broadcasts, I found the commercial breaks came just as early as they do today. On Sunday, ESPN went to break just nine laps into the race, much to the dismay of those watching at home. Yet, when I popped in the 1998 race at California, the first commercial came on Lap 6. During the Atlanta broadcast from 2000, it was Lap 10. So much for this problem being a recent trend.
Another one of the biggest complaints today is there is too much action missed during commercial breaks. This weekend, the first pass for the lead occurred during commercial. So did the first caution. It’s something else I have been an outspoken critic about (see comments in this week’s edition of Tweet ‘N’ Greet in the Newsletter). However, as I was again shown by my own VHS tapes, this issue is nothing new.
During the 2000 Atlanta race, the first caution of the day came when the coverage was away at break. In the 1998 California broadcast, a debris caution (the debris was never shown) brought together a field that had become stretched out. The booth showcased the top 5 and then went to commercial, missing all 28 lead lap cars hitting pit road.
Somehow, in both instances – just as with the early commercials – I was less annoyed with old coverage than I was on Sunday. Perhaps it was the fact I was watching an old race or that I had the confidence in Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett to catch me up with all the action I missed with poise and incredible knowledge. Perhaps it was the fact going to commercial, there was racing shown all the way to the break with no song and dance pieces or flashy video montages. Maybe it was because the commercials were about NASCAR and about the fans.
That brings me to an interesting point I found while watching these two races — there seemed to be more commercials geared towards the fans and their importance to the sport. The most striking was during the 1998 broadcast that showed NASCAR and fans through the years, ending with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. signing an autograph for a young kid while a voiceover said, “This is NASCAR, and this is the way we’ve done things for 50 years.”
It caught me a bit off guard and I’m not sure why. I am sure I had seen this same commercial throughout the entire 1998 season – NASCAR’s 50th – and it was similar to some that are still shown today, but there was something different being relayed in the message. It was not, “You and me both, Junior.” It was much more than that.
There are a lot of issues facing the sport of NASCAR right now, and television coverage is certainly one of those that needs to be atop the list of priorities. Ratings continue to slide each week, and overall they’re down 12 percent for the entire year. Some blame the start times coinciding with the early NFL games, some blame the Chase, others blame commercials, while others simply pass the blame off on ESPN. There are a lot of complaints given, yet few solutions offered.
Comparing the broadcasts 10 and 12 years ago to those of today, technology has allowed for more information during the race, but perhaps it is too much information. We live in a world full of instant gratification, Twitter, live blogs and non-stop data being fed to us on the television, our phones and our computers. Our culture is one that struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder, and it seems NASCAR is not immune from this growing trend, either.
As I watched those old broadcasts, I could not help but notice the screen was nearly empty, showing nothing but the action on the track. The lap counter was a small box in the top left corner of the screen, but apart from that there were very few distractions.
The commentators – Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett – were not following storylines or reading what seemed to be scripted conversations. Instead, they were doing what they had done for years, calling the action as they saw it on the track. The racing spoke for itself and the viewer – at least in my case – had a better sense of how the event was actually unfolding. There was no reason for the guys in the booth to sell the race to keep my interest; they simply let it sell itself.
Despite the criticism as of late, ESPN had a great rebound at the end of Sunday’s race. The final 23 minutes of the event were shown commercial free and fans seemed to notice. This last ditch effort by the network, that has been dubbed “Every Sport Preempts NASCAR” by the fans, was enough to subdue the criticism for a moment, but unless changes are made and issues are addressed, fans will continue to turn the channel.
While it was nice to go back and look through the old VHS tapes, it might be something ESPN and NASCAR should be thinking about in addressing the issues facing the sport right now. Fans were drawn in by the racing on the track and not necessarily what the personalities in the booth were discussing. The action spoke for itself and by showing what was happening at the track, they drew fans into the stands.
Right now, it seems that is exactly what NASCAR needs. The action on the track is much more competitive than it was in either of the races I watched – Bobby Labonte had the series title wrapped up the week before the season finale in 2000 – yet fewer people are showing up and tuning in. If ESPN were to show more racing, be more off the cuff in terms of their commentating, utilize the entire screen and let the competition speak for itself, fans may return.
NASCAR was popular because “this is the way we’ve done it for 50 years,” yet somehow over the last 12 years something has changed. It is up to the sport and its broadcast partners to find what that something is and fix it – not the fans.
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