The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Aching Over FOX's Graphical Gremlins In Atlanta by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday March 10, 2009

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Atlanta brought us two races with tight finishes. This type of action is definitely pleasing for race fans to watch on television — but were the race telecasts up to par?

Let’s find out.

Often times, the first thing I do on Friday afternoons is click on SPEED to check out either Cup Pole Qualifying or practice — whatever is actually on. This past Friday was like the start of any other NASCAR weekend; but the minute I turned on the television, I immediately saw a graphical error scrolling across the screen. What happened was that Todd Bodine had entered this past weekend’s Kobalt Tools 500 with the No. 35, a R&D team for Germain Racing. Well, the on-screen scroll at the top of the screen showed Bodine’s name up there — but with the wrong number attached (Scott Speed’s No. 82). I’ve mentioned this type of an issue before occuring during Truck Series races, but I’ve never seen it transfer over to Cup. Of course, this mistake was confusing for fans, with the more casual ones having no clue what was right or wrong on TV. Turns out that since the No. 35 was a new team that had just announced their intentions to attempt Atlanta this week, SPEED didn’t have enough time to create a number graphic for the team (mainly because no one outside of Germain Racing had seen the car yet).

Todd Bodine attempted to qualify for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 in a No. 35 Germain Racing entry. SPEED, however, showed Bodine as the driver of the Scott Speed’s No. 82 entry for much of a Friday practice broadcast.

During qualifying coverage later Friday evening, SPEED must have realized their mistake, for they used a generic number graphic for the No. 35 (white numbers on a blue background, consistent with what the network generally uses for its Nationwide Series broadcasts). It is currently unclear when or if the No. 35 team will attempt another event; but if they do, I’d expect the network to have an updated number graphic for the car.

Saturday brought on the American Commercial Lines 200, the Truck Series race at Atlanta. Generally, the on-air crew of Phil Parsons, Rick Allen, and Michael Waltrip do very well in the booth. However, in the one previous race that SPEED covered this season (Fontana was aired on FOX), the technical aspect of the broadcast was lacking.

Unfortunately, that part of the broadcast was not much better this go around. Here are a couple of issues that I feel need to be mentioned…

The first problem was with the “Triple Pits” under caution on Lap 68. When SPEED attempted to go to them, the entire screen faded to black, then simply returned — but with no graphics attached. A couple of seconds later, the triple pits display essentially popped up out of nowhere. This was likely just a slight production issue that was immediately rectified.

But the second and more annoying concern occurred after the race was over. Typically, once the coverage finishes up and the interviews end, the unofficial point standings are displayed. Well, I don’t know if the production crew was rushed or what, but the standings that they put on air were outright wrong.

How wrong?

Here’s the order, as shown at the end of the race on SPEED’s graphic. Kyle Busch led by 25 over Todd Bodine, Mike Skinner was 119 back in third, and Hornaday was five points behind in fourth. J.R. Fitzpatrick was fifth, 134 out of the lead, followed by Matt Crafton, three points back in sixth. Seventh was Skinner again, followed by Chad McCumbee. David Starr was ninth, 154 back, and Fitzpatrick popped up once more to round out the top 10 in points.

That mistake brings up an obvious question: Is Fitzpatrick fifth in points? No. So he’s gotta be tenth, right? Well … not exactly.

This is the kind of effort that would get me accused of making careless mistakes by my seventh grade Math teacher.

Just for the sake of this column, I quickly checked up on the actual points after Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. The current standings are led by Kyle Busch. Todd Bodine is second, followed by Mike Skinner, Ron Hornaday, and Chad McCumbee. Six through ten are Matt Crafton, Terry Cook, T.J. Bell, Timothy Peters, and David Starr. Fitzpatrick is 11th, 25 points out of tenth. Granted, the point differentials mentioned in the graphic were accurate — but the drivers were not. As a result of the screw-up, five of the top 10 drivers were in the incorrect positions for the viewer. It was so bad, Michael Waltrip actually picked up on this live during the show and had a quick laugh. He said, “Wow, look at J.R. Fitzpatrick. He’s in fifth, and tenth.” Waltrip then chuckled a little. Of course, he also failed to notice the two Mike Skinners in there… admittedly, I didn’t notice the two Skinners either until I saw the rundown again on a video posted on YouTube on Monday.

As for the race commentary, it was typical Allen, Parsons, and Waltrip. I’m not going to complain about that. In some of his better analysis, Waltrip made significant reference to the benefits of the SAFER Barrier after Colin Braun’s crash on Lap 119. For those of you who didn’t see it, what happened was that Terry Cook’s No. 25 bogged down in Turn 2, forcing Braun to let up. Brian Scott then tapped the No. 6 truck from behind (there was also the potential of Skinner slightly nudging Scott into Braun, too). Whatever the case, the end result was that Braun spun head on into the inside wall. Waltrip referenced how the inside SAFER Barrier gave roughly a foot when Braun hit it, lessening the impact for the driver inside the cockpit. The one thing I noticed about that crash (which was more or less glossed over) is the fact that Braun’s No. 6 got some significant air time after hitting the wall… something that has to make Con-Way Freight pretty happy about the coverage this week.

One thing that I actually did like in the broadcast was the use of a split screen to look at Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick’s driving motions on the left, while the regular footage aired on the right side of the screen. I definitely found this interesting, and believe that such a setup should be used for replays in Truck Series and Cup Series telecasts moving forward.

And now, onto Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.

I’ll admit, even though I’m not really a fan of late afternoon start times, I had begun to get used to them before this past weekend. It was a bit of a change, with the pre-race starting at 1:30 PM instead of 3:30 PM or later… but it was a welcomed one. For those of you wondering, the next three races (Bristol, Martinsville, and Texas) will all have their pre-race shows starting at 1:30 PM eastern, with the race itself starting shortly after 2:00 PM — just like this one.

The first thing I noticed about the pre-race this week is how it seemed to be done at a much quicker pace than during the past few Sundays. It seemed like FOX was moving from feature to feature at a brisk pace, almost like the race was under threat of inclement weather — even though it was a perfectly sunny day. Also, the news and notes were at the beginning of the pre-race show instead of towards the end. This was something that I have griped about this season, and was definitely a welcomed change from when they got buried too deep earlier in the year.

One technical issue that I noticed during the pre-race show was that this week’s Digger cartoon seemed to be louder than the rest of the broadcast. I have no clue why this was the case, but the volume difference was clearly noticeable and made the sequence just even that much more annoying.

On a positive note, this week’s Digger count included a marked decrease in appearances of the infamous gopher during the race. During the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas, I counted a total of 50 Digger appearances. This weekend, the gopher was still quite noticeable, but his on-air time came in at a much less obvious 31. Of those on-screen appearances, at least 19 of them were of the animated type…

There were two Digger appearances that I really did not like in the broadcast. One was where FOX inserted Digger driving his car into the FOX 3D feature during a caution. This was really stupid, in my opinion. Unfortunately, with higher-ups like FOX Sports head David Hill and Director Artie Kempner in love with Digger, don’t expect these appearances to stop anytime soon.

The FOX 3D feature, as you may remember, was created by FOX back in 2007 to help show what happened to cause incidents that may not be caught by actual cameras. This feature would have been far more useful back in the 1980s and 1990s than it is now, since in the past, there were not as many cameras at the track. It was legitimately possible to miss a spin back then; today, this is incredibly rare. Admittedly, this 3D feature would have been useful to ESPN last year at Montreal, when several cameramen were pulled off their platforms due to lightning strikes. As a result of this problem, several spins, wrecks, and passes were completely missed by the cameras. As I mentioned last year, it was kind of like watching a Formula One race from 1993.

But the Montreal circumstances come few and far between in NASCAR Cup broadcasts, and as a result, I think I’ve seen FOX use this feature for its intended purpose only a couple of times. Instead, FOX chooses to use this add-on under caution, giving a virtual through the field rundown of lead lap cars. I don’t know if that’s really necessary or as useful as showing a spin, however.

The other appearance that I really didn’t like was one of those split second “blink and you miss it” type things. Coming back from commercial break, the FOX production crew decided to have Digger pop up against a black screen with a matching sound effect in the background. I found the whole sequence really dumb; it was almost like they were trying to convince people that Digger was the star of the race and not the actual racing itself.

The post-race coverage was also relatively short this week. This was mainly because of the fact the race took just under four hours to complete, and that FOX was likely over their allotted time with the network. As a result, the TV audience was treated to a post-race which mixed interviews with Kurt Busch in Victory Lane, Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards, to go along a final rundown of the finishing order, the top 12 in points, and then a rollout. The whole thing was done in roughly nine minutes; not nearly enough time, in my opinion, although given the circumstances it was probably related to a legitimate excuse.

Tying up some other odds ‘n’ ends, I’m still not a fan of FOX displaying the number of lap down teams who actually failed to finish the race instead of just saying that they were out. That would make it easier for people who may not have been watching the whole race to fully understand what happened. For example, Mike Bliss finished 43rd and completed only 21 laps on Sunday before dropping out with “overheating” (although based on what was disclosed in our live blog on Sunday, it was really a S&P — see Wednesday’s big article on start and parks for more on this issue). Yet during the final race rundown, Bliss was shown as 309 laps behind. This could confuse some viewers; I know that in my case, If someone is listed as laps down in the final rundown, then I tend to think that they actually finished the race.

I guess that FOX wants fans to assume that if a driver is a substantial number of laps down that they’re automatically out of the race. Not true. This isn’t Formula One, where in order to be classified at the end, a driver must complete at least 90 percent of the race distance. In NASCAR, if you finish the race on the track, you finished the race.

Unfortunately, SPEED has started doing the same thing, using the aforementioned system that I don’t like in post-race rundowns. I believe this practice needs to stop sooner rather than later for the sake of clarity.

That is it for this week. Next week is an off week for all three of NASCAR’s three National touring series, which is extremely rare during the season (in fact, I honestly cannot remember this happening within the past eight years). As a result, there will be no critiques of new race broadcasts. Instead, I will critique the NASCAR TV shows, like This Week in NASCAR, ESPN2’s NASCAR Now, and give my review of the new SPEED game show NASCAR Smarts … as well as a possible special surprise surrounding one of the sport’s classic race telecasts.

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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MJR in VA
03/10/2009 07:44 AM
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I too am getting rather annoyed with the Digger character. And, like you, what are we tuning in for; a cartoon or racing. Thankfully, we will be done with him after the Dover race in May.

SirBraindead
03/10/2009 10:18 AM
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I think they should fill Diggers hole with concrete, maybe that would stop him. When they start that stupid cartoon I just change channels and leave the room for 5 minutes, if I wanted a cartoon there are several networks devoted to them.

Carl D.
03/10/2009 11:10 AM
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I absolutely and unquestionably HATE Digger and I don’t know anyone who actually likes him. I wonder if the honchos at FOX actually read viewers’ comments on the internet. If they knew how many people felt like I do… that Digger should die a horrible, animated death… I think Digger would be a thing of the past. Then again, they haven’t gotten rid of Chris Meyers…

marshall
03/10/2009 03:11 PM
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The FOX boys sure do have problems with the crawl on the top of the screen . Driver positions , laps completed , finishing positions , etc . They’ve never been very good at it , but it continues to get worse .
I for one like the lap count on cars that have dropped out . Knowing that , its easy to calculate whether a wrecked car should be repaired and re-enter the race , or whether the next car in front in the standings has completed enough laps that re-entering and finishing would be no help in gaining a higher finishing position .
Its easy to see that Kempner has a crush on two people , Jeff Gordon and Digger , because he fills the screen at all times with one or the other . Speaking of Digger , don’t you just love how Larry Mac and Mike Joy giggle like little girls over the antics of our rodent friend . Not a race week goes by that i don’t miss the real announcers , Neil , Benny , and Ned . Though Neds’ son is doing a great job in his own right .

Marc
03/10/2009 11:39 PM
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I have an idea. Replace Digger with Darrell Waltrip, and lets see how fast Ol’ Jaws can jump in that little hole.
And I think Digger would probably be better than old Ratchet Mouth in the broadcast booth.
Anyway, it might boost ratings.

dawg
03/11/2009 07:58 AM
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The reason that the sound was louder during the digger deal was because it was a commercial. The sound is always annoyingly loud during commercials. That’s why I keep the remote, with it’s mute button handy. However for the pre-race show I don’t use it. I simply don’t watch it! I have to watch the race on Faux. I don’t have to watch the pre-race. For those of us who follow drivers not in the favored few. The crawl is about our only way. Faux seems unable to do this consistently correct.

MI. Mike
03/11/2009 10:41 AM
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Good article, your on point.
Regarding this moronic digger nonsense as I was watching the prerace and the rodent cartoon came on I turned it off. The radio is better anyway. If the powers to be want to have it there way in regards to digger and no end in sight with its star power I’ll also have it my way and turn it off!!! Take that sponsors dont you love it when spectators also have it their way.

Phil Allaway
03/13/2009 12:12 AM
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The volume issue I brought up was actually during the pre-race show. I was comparing the Digger cartoon volume to the volume of the rest of the pre-race show.

As for the commercial thing, yeah, that’s typical. The sound difference has probably only gotten more substantial since the creation of HDTV and home surround sound systems.

Rusty Decker
03/16/2009 06:14 PM
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Hey Phil… I want to know how you feel about Darrell Waltrip. I think he talks about Kyle Busch way too much and praises him for stupid reasons. I agree he’s a talented driver but so are 42 other drivers who don’t have a punk attitude like the 18 driver does.