The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Digger Returns... But That's Not The Only Problem With Texas Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 7, 2009

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Hello, race fans. Texas provided us with long green flag runs on both Saturday and Sunday’s races. Usually, this means that the field gets extensively stretched out, and Texas was no exception to the norm. So, how did this weekend’s television coverage add up? Let’s take a look.

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series, back from a week off, raced in the O’Reilly [Auto Parts] 300. ESPN2, with their commentary crew of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree was on hand for the call. Kevin Harvick, winner of the most recent Nationwide Series race (the Scotts Turf Builder 300 at Bristol), did not race on Saturday and sat in with Allen Bestwick and Brad Daugherty in the mobile studio.

Having Harvick sit in resulted in some interesting conversation during and after the race. I think this was handled a little better than when Ned Jarrett sat in on one of the Nationwide Series races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last year, when Ned was the “4th wheel” and could barely get in anything edgewise.

The race coverage was OK, but I wasn’t really a fan of how it really centered upon the cars up front. To their credit, ESPN2 did go back through the field at one point during the race, but otherwise, coverage of teams further back was far and few between. For example, during the last green flag run, the commentators (I believe it was Petree) said, “There’s close racing all the way back through the pack.” However, at that point, none of the cameras were showing that action. Instead, they were all showing Kyle Busch in his NOS-sponsored No. 18 running away from the field.

With the slightly controversial coming together of Carl Edwards and Joey Logano with a few laps to go, I feel that ESPN could have covered that better. The cameras missed the incident when it happened live, but the commentary crew noticed what happened. As it stands, there were no replays of the incident until after the race ended. In addition, there was no shot of Edwards coming into the pits for some brief repairs (he came out just as Kyle Busch took the white flag). As for Joey Logano (the other car involved), there was nothing on that car. By that, I mean that ESPN never so much as showed a shot of the GameStop Toyota after the contact with Edwards and the wall. The viewers didn’t even know Logano was involved in the incident until replays were finally shown after the race.

Due to the relative high average speed (there were four yellows during the event, only one of which was for a crash), ESPN had a significant amount of time to fill (roughly 25 minutes) after the race’s conclusion. This was filled with the usual interviews with the race winner (Kyle Busch), Carl Edwards, Logano, Busch’s crew chief (Jason Radcliffe), etc. Tony Stewart was interviewed for the broadcast by team owner (for the race) Kevin Harvick. Since Harvick was inside of the portable studio at the time, Stewart donned a headset for the interview. This was rather interesting to watch. At the end of the interview, the camera panned out to show that Stewart was actually using Shannon Spake’s headset (she had been standing just outside of the frame during the interview).

Cost-cutting, perhaps?

Sunday brought the Sprint Cup Series to the forefront on FOX.

Unfortunately, my words about the Digger cartoon disappearing for good from the pre-race show in last week’s critique were incorrect. Sunday saw the return of the Digger cartoon to the pre-race show after not being seen since Atlanta. For those of you wondering what happened in this clip, Lumpy Wheels, the badger whose job it is to catch Digger, was threatened with unemployment if he didn’t catch the creature. What ensued was three minutes of essentially CGI whack-a-mole (or in this case, whack-a-gopher).

This weekend’s Samsung 500 marked the return of FOX’s infamous Digger to the Cup broadcasts.

That cartoon kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it to show up, but all of a sudden, Chris Myers introduced the cartoon about halfway through the pre-race show. My best guess as to why they took the break is that they only had a few Digger cartoons in the can for this year (say seven or eight for the 13-race FOX block) and they didn’t want to get into showing re-runs. Then again, knowing the target audience for this creature, kids probably wouldn’t mind reruns. It makes me think back to when Nickelodeon still had rights to show Looney Tunes back in the pre-Cartoon Network days (for those of you who may not remember, Nick showed Looney Tunes every night at 7 p.m.). Nick didn’t have the rights to show everything from the Warner Brothers animation library, and a significant chunk of the cartoons from about 1938-1948 were off limits (those rights were held by Turner and shown on TNT and/or TBS). I looked forward to seeing Roadrunner and Speedy Gonzales cartoons and stuff from the infamous “Hunting Season” trilogy (Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning and Duck! Rabbit! Duck!). I, however, did not like black and white Bosko and Buddy cartoons, and was happy they were jettisoned off the network when Cartoon Network launched.

As for the Digger Count, I don’t have a full count on hand here, but what I do have shows, at the minimum, 30 Digger appearances — with 11 of those animated. Lumpy Wheels was also included in appearances when FOX was coming back from commercials as to what amounts to an extension of the earlier cartoon (in other words, more whack-a-gopher). Jayski’s count more or less backs up my statistics.

Furthermore, FOX Sports President David Hill was quoted in February as saying that he eventually wanted there to be a Digger Saturday morning cartoon, and maybe a full-length movie. If they seriously want this to come into fruition, then I suggest that they come up with something longer than a two minute and 42 second clip to show to viewers and find an outlet for it outside of the pre-race show for Cup races. Perhaps they could go the Nick route and create a half-hour pilot and stick it on their Saturday morning lineup to gauge interest. Nick did this with shows like All That and CatDog in the past.

Now, to the race broadcast. More technical changes have been noted for this week. FOX reverted the starting lineup graphic back to the one they’ve used for the first four races of the season (the one with the individual rows displayed, in reverse order from row 22 to the front row). I’m fine with that move. In fact, I requested that it come back a couple of weeks ago in a previous critique.

Another returnee last week was the top 10 graphic on the last lap. This feature had a new wrinkle on Sunday. When it first came up, it was the same graphic that debuted earlier this season. However, it then configured itself to show the gaps between the cars in the top 10. I find this interesting. It kind of reminds me of one of the graphics in B-Spec (Director Mode) in Gran Turismo 4 for the PlayStation 2. In GT4, that graphic showed the relative distance between the cars, and also measured said distance (in seconds). In addition, if one car was gaining on another, a reddish orange arrow pointing to the left would show this.

I think this graphic has its place in the broadcast, but just not on the last lap of the race. A better use for it may have been before the first caution of the race, when Kenseth and Reutimann were up front. If the arrow function mentioned above could be integrated into the graphic, cool — I’m fine with that.

The only technical issue that I noticed during the race was with the “quad pits” during the last round of pit stops. Of course, the quad pits being there in the first place is another story itself during the race coverage. They take up the whole screen, which means that viewers cannot see the other teams pitting their cars. Such a setup would only be useful if there were four cars on the lead lap that all decided to pit under caution. Oh, well; at least it’s not the “Quint Pits” that FOX experimented with in the past. That setup actually blocked part of four boxes to allow for the inclusion of the fifth one. Luckily, that was a one-time deal.

Back to Sunday’s technical issue. The clocks on the quad pits weren’t working properly. Yes, the second counter was fine, but the tenths counter was not working properly. This seems to be a recurring issue with not just computer-generated timers, but scoreboards (especially older ones) as well. It almost reminded me of the old issues that were created when the NBA went to having tenths of a second on the clock in the final minute of periods in 1990 — only in reverse. Those issues ultimately resulted in mass scoreboard replacement due to the clock sticking on the 00.1 before going to triple zero. This also resulted in the infamous “Trent Tucker Rule,” but that is another discussion for another time.

I also didn’t like how some of the graphics were being brought up in the middle of the screen. For example, during a roof cam shot on Denny Hamlin’s car, the graphic displaying his current position and starting position was shown in the middle of the screen, blocking part of the view. It was just weird. Can’t really explain it any better.

I also think that the Cheez-It Bite of the Race is pointless. Audio is interlaced throughout the race coverage, so I really don’t see the point. Plus, it only lasted about 25 seconds. It’s expendable.

For the race coverage itself, I have a lot of the same issues as last week. FOX spends too much focus on the top 10 and a few selected drivers (Ex: Kevin Harvick) that were not running well. Granted, since the race had such a “green flag feel” to it that the field was mostly spread out, I was OK with the amount of side-by-side racing during the broadcast. At one point, one of the commentators mentioned that there was not any real racing for position on the track at that point. Unfortunately, that happens sometimes. It’s the consequence of long green flag runs on a long track with plenty of room to operate on.

Many fans online have commented on FOX’s lack of a “Through the Field” feature like what TNT has. The truth is that FOX really hasn’t had one during the eight previous years that they have covered the now-Sprint Cup Series. They tend to prescribe to the “go to the pit reporters for information on an exceptional basis.” What this means is that they generally leave the crew chiefs alone so that they can do their jobs, unless the issue at hand is really pertinent. As a result of that, it really doesn’t surprise me that they don’t have one now. It would not be a bad idea to come up with something along those lines for the future, though.

Finally, the first caution was thrown on lap 98 for debris on the backstretch. Radio transmissions that were put on the broadcast at the time (for a completely separate reason) claimed that there was a can on the backstretch. But no can was ever shown on the track. Last week, the cameras did, in fact, find a beer can (I believe it was a Budweiser) on the track when a caution was thrown for it. A couple of years ago, there was a big uproar about mystery debris cautions. The result was an increased effort by FOX to make sure that there were actual pieces of debris on the track. I think that FOX (and TNT and ESPN, for that matter) needs to make sure that all these pieces of debris that cause yellows are shown on screen just as a service to the general public that watches the races on television.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is Easter Weekend, a traditional week off for the Cup Series dating back as long as I can remember (and before that, as well). However, the Nationwide Series does not traditionally take this weekend off. In the past, the series raced on Easter Sunday itself. Today, the series holds the Pepsi 300 on Holy Saturday, and I will critique that race. I will also cover the Camping World Truck Series race from Martinsville on March 30 and give my thoughts about ESPN2’s NASCAR Now. I originally wanted to critique the show back during the last off-week, but college basketball intervened. At least this week, the show will actually air!

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 e-mail address provided on the website in my bio.

If you would like to contact FOX, ESPN, or the Speed Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please use the following e-mail addresses below.

FOX
SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by e-mail, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to e-mails that ask questions in a courteous manner than e-mails full of rants and vitriol. Thank you, and have a great week.

Contact Phil Allaway

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SouthJerseyGirl
04/07/2009 10:22 AM
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I don’t even bother to watch the pre-race anymore, especially on Fox. I might catch a few minutes of Nascar Today on ESPN2, or a few minutes of RaceDay on Speed…but I usually tune in just in time for the green flag.

Barbara Simmons
04/07/2009 11:02 AM
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I completely agree with you that there is not enough coverage of the entire field. No wonder these teams have trouble getting sponsors, Nascar uses up all the advertising time with their own commercials. Then to not show the entire field – why would you want to sponsor a car that is denied TV coverage during the race?
They want a full field of cars. In my opinion, focusing on the top teams is the reason these people can’t be competitive & get sponsors. I am one of those fans who has lost interest in Nascar because of their coverage.

Michael
04/07/2009 12:13 PM
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The Cheez – It Bite of the Race is just as pointless as all of the naming rights . But no matter how silly they make the sponsoring company look ( don’t worry about how silly it makes FOX and NASCAR look , they’ve shown how crass they are for years ) these little exercises in marketing 101 will continue . Why you ask ? Because the networks and NASCAR can charge money for them . If enough sponsors show an interest in having their name attached to a race broadcast , every minute of every race will be Presented by ….. or Brought to you by …..
Believe me , integrity or good taste will never enter in to it . Notice how the camera pans to a sign that is not part of the show , or a shot opens with the camera on a logo or sign , or how someone is interviewed by a pit reporter with a sign in the background that they have to walk across the pit area to get to , or how the shameless hack announcers mention certain companies by name constantly , while ignoring others . Thats the difference between companies that pay to get mentioned and companies that refuse to be robbed .

Larry
04/07/2009 02:13 PM
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I hope I never see another “Digger” so stupid and worst camera angle ever

midasmicah
04/07/2009 03:11 PM
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I’m finally at the point where if I miss a race, I really don’t care. If there had been a race and a baseball game on yesterday, I would have watched the base game. If nas$car is looking to chase away what fan base they have left, they’re suceeding beyond their wildest dreams. You combine domination by one time, exceedingly boring races, a frigging rodent that I’d gladly put out of it’s misery with a shotgun, a car that encourages boring racing, vanilla drivers (except for a few), commentators trying to make a lousy product , amd a conglomerate (nas$car) that could care less what the fans think about the toxic mix. Me and a friend used to never miss a race. Now we’ve both moved on in frustration. Since Dale Sr. died, nas$car has went to hell in a big hurry. Go SF Giants.

Mandy
04/07/2009 10:41 PM
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The racing has been so boring lately, I’ve actually found it more exciting to watch the “classic” races they show Thursdays on Speed (and the older races they occasionally show on ESPN Classic), even though I’ve seen them before and already know the results. And the only funny thing about that damned rodent cartoon is my brother’s observation that the grandpa gopher looks a lot like our dad.