The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Race Coverage at Fontana Improves ... But Digger Still Lurks In The Shadows by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday February 24, 2009

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After the pomp and circumstance that is typical of the Daytona 500, NASCAR teams moved on to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for a tripleheader weekend.

Before we begin, as you may remember I was quite critical of FOX’s broadcast of the Daytona 500 — most notably the lack of any mention of rain up until seemingly lap 85 or so. Well, I’ve had an email exchange with Mike Joy since then, and Joy’s take on the issue was that they didn’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly. In Joy’s own words, he said that the announcing booth “…weren’t trying to jinx ourselves with ‘what if’s.’ [as to what might happen if the rain would shorten the race].” While not all fans might agree with that take, it’s definitely a plausible explanation that makes sense. Also, Joy reassured me there was no gag order on the weather information imposed by anybody — a fact always notable for those NASCAR fans insistent on conspiracy theories to understand.

Now, on to this week’s programming…

On Saturday, FOX televised the Camping World Truck Series race from Auto Club Speedway: the San Bernardino County 200. Many Truck Series fans online had expressed concern in the week leading up to the race that a bunch of the issues from the Daytona 500 telecast would permeate into the Truck show, putting a damper on the sport’s one series which appears to be rapidly increasing in popularity.

For the most part, their fears were never recognized this weekend. The broadcast itself was highly professional in feel, just like FOX’s typical Cup broadcasts, and they did a solid job covering the race overall. The most notable change from a typical Truck Race broadcast was the fact that the SPEED broadcast crew was not used. Instead, the normal FOX broadcast crew of Joy, Waltrip and McReynolds commentated on the race for FOX. Phil Parsons, who is normally in the booth for Truck races on SPEED, shared the Hollywood Hotel with Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond. I’m not sure who decided to do that, to be honest. I’m guessing that it was a stipulation of the deal that allowed FOX to televise the Truck race… but Parsons in a hosting role didn’t seem to make much sense.

FOX’s biggest problem with coverage is simply that Digger came along for the ride on this one, even though he’s supposed to be simply a Cup Series gimmick. One of the most criticized parts of the broadcast this season, Digger no longer comes in only an animated form for television viewers. This weekend, FOX debuted a still graphic of Digger that they will likely use most of the time during green flag racing when they cut to the Digger Cam(s). A new, slightly less annoying animation of this thing debuted on Saturday. It was used just four times… but in my opinion, that was still four times too many.

At least the commentators didn’t seem to pay anywhere near as much attention to Digger this weekend as opposed to at Daytona — which is obviously a good thing. I’d argue that this is because we’re getting into the meat of the 2009 regular season, and the Daytona 500 attracts many viewers that wouldn’t ordinarily watch a Sprint Cup race on television — giving life to an extended push to put the gopher front and center throughout the broadcast. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this issue… but that’s my take.

Race fans, don’t despair. Like Digger’s Boss says, viewership amongst humans is down these days — but NASCAR ratings amongst gophers have gone way up!

A couple of other things from the Truck race that I noticed were that, despite Waltrip being in the booth, there was no “Boogity Boogity Boogity!” from Darrell. After hearing that quote hundreds of times since early 2001 (I forget how many, but it’s definitely around 200 and change), it’s a change not to hear it this time of year on FOX… but a welcomed one. Just don’t get used to it. The only way you’re not going to hear it during a Sprint Cup race on FOX is if Darrell misses a race for some reason, or if he comes down with a case of laryngitis.

I also noticed a lot more commercial breaks. The breaks didn’t seem any longer than normal for Cup races on FOX, but it just seemed like there were a lot more of them. It’s similar to watching “In Living Color,” a sketch comedy that aired on FOX starting in 1990. My dad has the first season on DVD; I tried watching it, and noticed that each episode seemed to be something like 17-18 minutes long for what was supposed to be a half-hour show. Now, some of the episodes were slightly edited on that DVD set, but the rest were full length… showing you how much of the telecast was eaten up by commercial breaks each week.

This was the feeling I got while watching the Saturday’s race on FOX — commercials were battling for as much airtime as the trucks themselves. I guess that’s the price fans have to pay to get the series on network television, though…

On the technical side of things, there was just one real quick glitch to report on lap 54. Mike Joy threw it over to Krista Voda for a pit report, and the screen went to the split screen as if they were going to show a replay. Of course, since there was no replay cued up, it went to black. Voda’s sound bite was heard over this awkward video exchange. However, this mistake was fixed in about a second, so in the overall swing of things, it was a “blink and you missed it” moment.

Saturday night brought on ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series’ Stater Brothers 300. ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series is generally OK this season… but I do have some issues that I’d like to point out.

One issue I had was that they never gave the audience much of a clue as to how many cars were on the lead lap. This is something fans could always rely on ESPN to do back in the Jenkins-Parsons-Jarrett era. Typically, Ned would inform the viewers that “__________ just put _________ a lap down. _________ is running in the x position, so there’s (x-1) cars on the lead lap.” I liked that. Coming from a former education student, I implore ESPN2 to remember this attention to detail. Remember, not everyone is a visual learner — people like to hear someone say something as well as notice it on the ticker on top of the screen.

On Saturday night, this issue was particularly noticeable, as the number of cars left on the lead lap were not mentioned until the first caution came out on Lap 51 for Michael McDowell’s fiery crash. By this point, there were only 14 cars left on the lead lap because Kyle Busch just ran away from the field — but I would have liked to have known this information a little bit earlier in the race.

Another thing I really don’t like is “Going Full Throttle” on restarts. This appears to be ESPN’s equivalent of FOX’s “Crank It Up.” However, unlike Crank it Up, Full Throttle is a mess of sound. Viewers are treated to what seems like ten different people talking over each other during restarts on the radio — with no indication of who they are — for over a full two laps. Compared to FOX’s straight up sound of the engines around the race track, I just don’t like ESPN’s segment that much. Since everyone’s talking over each other, I can barely make out what anybody’s saying, giving the segment no rhythm, flow, or direction.

A third thing that I took issue with was the length of the pre-race show. The coverage started at 7:00 PM on ESPN Classic, due to the Utah State-St. Mary’s Men’s College Basketball game going a little long. But considering what followed was about 75 minutes of pre-race coverage, they could have waited until the game was over on ESPN2. The green flag didn’t fall for this race until around 8:30 EST. 8:30! That amount of time for a pre-race show is just too long — especially for a Nationwide Series race.

And once again, in a consistent theme for the networks a 75-minute pre-race show was followed by a post-race segment that wound up getting cut short. It could be argued that if the race started earlier, then there could have been more post-race coverage before going off to the Bassmasters. However, there is a scale of importance in ESPN’s properties, and I would have imagined that the Nationwide Series would be ahead of tape-delayed coverage of the Bassmasters in the pecking order. Perhaps not; but whatever the case, the interviews with Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, then a peek at the schedule before switching to fishing is substandard at best — unacceptable at worst. I think the Nationwide Series deserves better than that.

And now, on to the Sprint Cup Telecast.

Sunday brought the discovery that Digger now has a voice. Well, there goes the comparison to Jerry… this thing is definitely more like Screwy Screwball. But, voice or no, it doesn’t take away the fact this gopher is still kinda annoying. I don’t know what they’re spending developing this Digger character — but the money could probably be used somewhere else.

FOX went the extra mile with the Digger on screen graphics during this race, introducing another new animated graphic with Digger and his buddies that was put on the screen a couple of times during the 500-miler. Whenever FOX cut to the Digger Cam, there’s now a slew of different animations and still shots with the gopher for the network to choose from, It’s giving a whole new meaning to what was once only a still camera shot underneath the track.

This whole thing is getting to be a bit much. Last week, Digger had approximately 19 appearances on the telecast. On Sunday, it was 44. 29 of these appearances were in the aforementioned still shots, 13 of them were animated ones (only a couple included his buddies), the pre-race cartoon, and a shot of a guy in a Digger costume in Souvenir Alley. This is insane… and has to stop. Where’s the network’s integrity? FOX Sports Chairman David Hill even admits that Digger is “…a tawdry attempt to develop another revenue stream [for us].” Apparently, this is seen as a positive — despite the tawdriness. At least the commentators weren’t constantly referencing Digger this week, as I mentioned in the Truck Series review above — although they had their chance early on when the cameras caught a small mound of dirt in the infield while going to a commercial.

Another thing I didn’t really understand was why FOX felt the need to show Angie Harmon raising her arms up in the air in the flagstand like a complete moron when the field came by for the first four laps of the race. I thought it was kinda stupid. Makes me wonder if Angie saw this on TV when she got home and what she thought of herself up there in the flagstand… as for explaining the rush Angie was feeling, let’s just say Darrell covered that base very well the first time by. Well enough that they didn’t need to show it three more times…

On the flip side of things, a new FOX idea that I actually really like is the Fed Ex trends feature that Larry McReynolds does during the pace laps. Being a historical nut, precedence is important to me, to a point. Larry presents this race information — like the average number of cautions, longest green flag run, etc. — in a concise fashion that’s easy for the viewer to stomach. This will definitely be something to look forward to in future races.

Another new feature was the top 10 being displayed on the top of the screen on the final lap. Last year, FOX either ran the scroll featuring the top 10 only at certain points of the race, or displayed the top 10 in the area above the scroll where the lap counter usually is. At first glance, this new “ticker” looked a little similar to graphics from NBC/TNT prior to 2004, to be honest. It’s probably designed to be a modern version of ESPN/ABC’s top 10 pylon, used from late 1995 to the inaugural Las Vegas 400 in 1998. Definitely a nice graphic — but I don’t think it’ll catch on with the general public.

Lastly, there was an audio issue right before the Victory Lane interview aired on FOX. This made it very clear to viewers that the interview was not live; in fact, it appeared to be delayed by about 15 seconds. This means that viewers (at least on the HD feed, I’m not sure about the standard definition feed) could hear the end of Kenseth’s interview with Dick Berggren before they could see the beginning of it on the screen. Yet after that technical issue, the interview was still aired as it was supposed to… very weird. No explanation was given for this by the commentary crew, but I’m sure the production staff will make sure that this won’t happen again at Las Vegas.

Next week is the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. FOX, ESPN2, and SPEED will be out there taping shows and doing races, and I will be here in North Greenbush, NY, taking notes on their programming. I plan on covering the Shelby 427 and Sam’s Town 300 races, and also will give my opinions of News Corporation’s NASCAR pre-race shows (the pre-race show on FOX and NASCAR RaceDay on the SPEED Channel).

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. And if you would like to contact FOX, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

FOX:
SPEED:
ESPN:

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Contact Phil Allaway

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Kevin in SoCal
02/24/2009 02:34 AM
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Someone on The Daly Planet website said the reason for FOX doing the Truck broadcast and not SPEED was to save money, since FOX was already there for the Cup broadcast. Phil Parsons was at the track anyway as an owner, so they invited him into the Hollywood Hotel. And then promptly forgot he was there and under-used him.

Phil Allaway
02/24/2009 03:01 AM
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My thoughts on using the FOX crew is this. Basically everyone on the Speed on-air crew was already at the track. Voda’s part of the pit reporting corps, Michael Waltrip’s obviously racing and Rick Allen’s typically around. Adam Alexander hosts NASCAR in a Hurry and does other work in the garage. You already mentioned Parsons’ role with both Prism Motorsports and MSRP. They might as well have used the normal guys.

Michael
02/24/2009 07:05 AM
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First , i wouldn’t put much confidence in anything Mike Joy tells you . There is no one on Earth that is any more in the tank for NASCAR ( except maybe Michael Waltrip ) and FOX than Mike Joy is . He is more than willing to put aside integrity for some good old fashioned butt kissing anytime .
The FOX broadcasts have many problems , not the least of which is the constant pandering to new or casual fans . Newsflash boys , there aren’t any! By dumbing down the broadcasts for the phantom new fans , they drive away the true fans . The talking heads in the booth have a legitimate 20 minutes worth of new or important info each week . They then have to stretch things to 3 or 4 hours by repeating everything ad nauseum , and giving us technical insights that aren’t news to anyone . When was the last time that Larry , Darrel , and Darrel gave any info that we didn’t already know , that we didn’t read on the same internet site they did days earlier . And what a great job the pit interviewers do . Sticking a mic in someones face , making a short speech that only sounds like a question , and then asking the usual “ give us your impression of ….. “ instead of actually thinking of and then asking a question that really means something .
I used to think that the answer was to stop watching these terrible broadcasts . Then the execs would get the hint , fire the on air “ talent “ and the director
and bring on new and watchable race broadcasts . But as the ratings suggest , no one is watching anyway , and the execs still think the boys in the booth and the insipid Digger idea is working out . So i wouldn’t look for any improvements in the FOX telecasts any time soon .

Mike In NH
02/24/2009 08:46 AM
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Even my 13-year-old kid was saying “shoot the rodent” by late in the telecast on Sunday, so they’re even overreaching the kids at this point. Where do I sign up for a “Shoot Digger” T-shirt? We need an exterminator.

Oldsmo-Bill
02/24/2009 08:53 AM
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One thing I noticed during the cup broadcast that really got on my nerves by the end of the race: The tickertape at the top of the screen hardly ever showed the time (or laps) behind the leader. I got to be very frustrated trying to see where my favorite drivers were in relation to the leader. Were they on the lead lap? How far back? One lap down? Two? Then, a couple times, they JUST started displaying it right before a commercial, and it only got through the first eight or so before the commercial came on. Sure enough, after the commercial, it was back to the old way, with no times/laps. I realize this is minor, but it really began to bug me by the end of the race. At California, there’s never much to watch, so little things like this should at least be available to keep us from falling asleep!
PS: Sign me up for one of those “SHOOT DIGGER” shirts!

john
02/24/2009 08:57 AM
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As a devout Truck Series fan, I was reasonably satisfied with FOX’s job, though I definitely would’ve preferred the SPEED crew covering it—just feels more “at home”, y’know? Digger was really starting to piss me off too, it’s the number one reason I can’t wait for the Trucks to be back on SPEED.

I unfortunately can’t remember the context, but twice in the broadcast, the commentators screwed up who was in what truck. That wouldn’t have happened with the regular crew—and a few times, they took it “down to Krista on pit road” to ask the most basic of questions about a team or driver, because they didn’t know. Bush league stuff.

elena
02/24/2009 01:10 PM
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I guess Digger haters have found a home. It’s like folk who think country music is more popular than rap!

You haters need to come out in the world and see how many LOVE Digger. If you go to NASCAR.com superstore, you’ll see how many Digger items they sell.

Mark Dyer, President of Motorsports Authentics (not related to anything Fox), stated Digger to be one of the big sellers. He said they would reduce some of the merchandize of drivers whose stuff does not sell well and would be increasing the Digger merchandize for 2009. It’s proably a surprise to some, but Digger sells beter than some driver!! MA only exists to make money.

elena
02/24/2009 01:19 PM
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My grand kids love Digger. They already have the Ts. Now that Keith Urban has written and recorded a Digger song, they can hardly wait to get the CD/DVD.

Connie
02/24/2009 01:32 PM
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Digger’s gotta to die song to the music of Earl’s gotta die would be better than that Keith Urban song.

Keith why would you sing such crap? You are so much better than that.

Even Better yet – A movie of some comedian blowing up the Fontana track trying to kill the rodent. 2 birds with one stone. Wish dreams do come true.

Joe W.
02/24/2009 03:01 PM
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The biggest problem with the Fox broadcast team is they all have a conflict of interest. I am sick of all the Toyota lovers covering the races!! We know DW and Hammonds are both Toyota “employees”. Now to Elena I will say this with “all due respect” just because rap music is more popular than country music does not mean rap is good. It stinks!!!! A lot of people just have no taste. I personally prefer rock music. (All rock, from the Beatles to Motley Crue to my personal favoraite “new rock” band Seether.) But the point is still valid, Digger has GOT TO GO! When I turn on the race that is what I want to see and I really don’t care who sings the National anthem or gives the command to start the engines. As long as they do there best then more power to them. Well there is my two cents worth.

Phil Allaway
02/24/2009 04:47 PM
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Mike in NH, knowing the dudes at websites like CafePress.com, they’ll have something along the lines of an Anti-Digger shirt in a matter of weeks.

Nelda
02/24/2009 06:30 PM
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I basically like the “talking heads” in the booth during the races, but they do talk way too much. The “mute” button, on the remote, is a wonderful thing. I use it alot.

Leo
02/24/2009 08:12 PM
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I think we should cut Angie Harmon some slack. If she enjoyed herself that much, good for her! I’d much rather see someone who really liked being the flagger than someone who just did it for publicity’s sake.

In fact, anyone who finds something wrong with her harmless exuberance during a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity aught to examine why they find someone else’s fun such a downer.

And as far as Fox airing it too many times, how many times has a Frontstretch writer complained that there isn’t enough excitement at these races? 1000? 10000? More? And here is someone who found excitement, Fox wanted to show everyone how much fun she was having, and she and Fox still get ripped for it. The lesson I’ve learned is that a serial complainer will find something wrong even where it isn’t to be found.

Leo
02/24/2009 08:19 PM
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I forgot about Digger…. I personally dislike Digger a lot. And my six year old son couldn’t care less about NASCAR.

BUT, when he walked by and saw a Digger animation, he giggled and sat down. In fact he sat there for the next twenty minutes which is as long as he has ever spent watching a race.

We adults like our drivers because of their perceived personalities. Kids don’t understand any of that. But kids do get cartoon characters. So if NASCAR is trying to capture a younger audience early on, it seems to be working in my household.

John Wyckoff
02/25/2009 02:08 PM
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My take on coverage is that no matter who is going to broadcast any NASCAR racing there will always be critics on the actual coverage. I have been watching NASCAR since the early days of ESPN and even back then there was criticism on how well the coverage was. Too many commercials cutting away to other programming before all the post race interviews were done and other little things. No one fan out there is ever going to be totally satisfied with any one networks coverage. As for me Boogity,Boogity,Boogity was cute for about let’s say five minutes. After all that’s what the mute button is for. As far as Digger is concerned it does get a little annoying at times but if gets the kids interested in NASCAR then so be it. After all I have been putting up with that idiot like robot Fox uses during it’s NFL football broadcasts.