The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Jump the Shark by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 21, 2009

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Talking NASCAR TV: Jump the Shark

Phil Allaway · Tuesday April 21, 2009

 

Race fans, the title says it all for me. However, for those of you who may not be familiar with the term… let me explain. The term “Jump the Shark” was created by Jon Hein and a group of his buddies at the University of Michigan in 1987. Apparently, they spent a Saturday night watching Nick at Nite and thinking about television shows and when they peaked. One guy, named Sean Connolly, claimed that the TV show Happy Days essentially went in the toilet when they had Fonzie jump over a shark on water skis. The term stuck from there. In the late 1990’s, Hein started jumptheshark.com, a website devoted to, well, allowing fans to post their input on when their favorite shows peaked. It eventually became very popular on the internet, and its eventual sale to TV Guide netted Hein millions.

Jump the Shark doesn’t just apply to TV shows, though; it can apply to anything. Hein’s 2002 book Jump the Shark: When Good Things Go Bad, covered TV shows, politicians, bands, celebrities, athletes, and sports teams. It has become a term used to describe anything that has peaked and is on the downturn.

At the heart of this explanation is how NASCAR television may have hit a new low this weekend at Phoenix. It could be argued that the first TV deal that started in 2001 was the actual shark jump for the sport — but right now, this is the low of the low.

Friday night brought the Nationwide Series’ Bashas’ Supermarkets 200. I’ve basically already missed the party on bashing Friday’s coverage. Our own Bryan Davis Keith and Mike Lovecchio have already voiced their opinions on the subject. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

Like almost everyone else that watched Saturday night’s race, I felt that there was far too much emphasis on Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. It was insane — to the point it definitely didn’t feel like the seventh race out of 35 on the schedule, for sure. It’s almost like the production crew thought that the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 was the November daytime race at Phoenix instead of the April night race. Viewers were treated to constant reminders about the points, along with constant updates on where Edwards and Kyle Busch were running at the expense of covering the rest of the race. I know that the director and camera crews have to pick and choose what to cover on the track with 43 cars starting each event — but this was a travesty.

Kyle Busch’s tire woes were overcovered by the on-air crew, but blowing up the storyline was simply consistent with Friday’s overexposure of Busch and Edwards. They just went on and on about it. It made me wonder if there was anything else that they could have focused on — maybe some good old fashioned action on the track, perhaps?

Has ESPN’s Nationwide Series broadcasts focused too much on Carl Edwards and his championship rival Kyle Busch? The majority of NASCAR fans think so.

But, it gets worse. When Carl Edwards, who was leading at that point, started to have problems on his No. 60 Aflac Ford, ESPN played audio during the green flag (I guess it was live audio) of Edwards talking about his issues. This was ignored the first time. I was thinking at the time, “Wait a minute, was that Edwards talking there? And if it was, why isn’t the Punchmeister mentioning it?” What was the reasoning for ignoring this info? I have no clue. Maybe they thought they were simply hearing random things in their heads. Then, live radio chatter on the broadcast had Edwards reading off his gauges and commenting on the issue with his crew. What was ESPN doing at that point? Dr. Punch was essentially hyping Edwards and going on about how we could see another one of Edwards’ back flips if he wins — as if we didn’t already know that would happen if he won. Then, they went to commercial. Right after the commercial break, they come back, replay the same audio the viewing audience had just heard four minutes earlier, and start panicking like it came out of nowhere. Good cripes. Those guys in the booth have ears … use them.

Then, there was the rough interview of Edwards in the garage area by Mike Massaro while Edwards was still wearing his helmet. This might have worked in 1986 or so — but not today. I don’t know if that was Mike’s idea, or the director’s, or what, but don’t do that again. It was brutal. Viewers couldn’t understand what Carl was saying. In addition, the interview took up the full screen, prohibiting viewers from seeing on track action (this was under green, mind you).

With the focus so clearly being on Edwards and Busch, there was virtually no mention of the driver who ended up winning the race, Greg Biffle, until about 50 laps remained in the event. Yet even while they showed Biffle leading and battling with Kevin Harvick, the on-air crew was not really covering it. Kinda mentioning it because they have to — but their minds were elsewhere.

As for the non-Sprint Cup drivers in the race, they got very little coverage. The only Nationwide-only drivers to seemingly get any reference at all were Justin Allgaier and Steven Wallace, who wrecked in qualifying and rushed up through the field in their backup cars. Which reminds me… it was mentioned during the broadcast that eight cars (including Allgaier and Steven Wallace) had to go to the back of the grid for the start of the race. But I had to look online after the race ended to figure out who the other six were. At least FOX puts a graphic up to show who had to go to the back and why. ESPN should follow FOX’s cue here for their Nationwide and Sprint Cup coverage in the future.

Anyways, drivers like Scott Lagasse, Jr. ran very well yet got almost no mention on air (of course, Lagasse finally got airtime when he crashed late in the going). Kenny Wallace, who was in the top 15 in points coming into the event, also was in the garage within ten laps of the start of the race for repairs — yet ESPN never so much as mentioned it on air.

There was also no mention of wrecked cars that re-entered the race, which often gets on my nerves. Friday’s example of this happening was the No. 09 of John Wes Townley. Townley had crashed on lap 155 after contact with the No. 15 of Michael Annett. The team had made repairs to the Zaxby’s Ford and put Townley back on the track, but he then wrecked again to cause the last caution of the race on lap 196. No one watching the race would have known that Townley was back on the track before his second crash.

As for post-race coverage, it was very brief. There were interviews with the top two finishers, Greg Biffle and Jason Leffler, along with an interview with Biffle’s car owner, Jack Roush. After that, there was a quick look at the point standings that ESPN2 had talked about the entire race — then they left the air. I know that the network was kind of tight on time, but that’s very frugal coverage.

Unfortunately, coverage of the Cup race on FOX wasn’t much better the following night — but for different reasons.

First off, there is the fact that the pertinent news and notes were once again tucked 22 minutes into the pre-race show. And since we’re on the subject, it was 26 minutes into the pre-race show on Friday night before they were mentioned in the Nationwide Series race. I’ve ranted about this before this season, and still don’t understand why it’s done this way. Maybe they put the news and notes there in order to get more people to sit through the rest of the pre-race show, which is more or less a take it or leave it-type affair. I don’t claim to know why this is so, but this is just a guess on my part.

As for Digger, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the idea of FOX showing reruns of previous Digger cartoons during the pre-race show awhile back. Because, yes, they showed a rerun Saturday night (it was the first one they showed back at Daytona). Crikey. It’s completely out of place and has no real place in the broadcast. The sooner Digger’s gone, the better we’ll all be. As for overall appearances of the gopher during the broadcast, I pegged it at 39 times. Most of the appearances are of the still variety — but 13 of them were animated.

Since the Subway Fresh Fit 500k is one of the shorter races on the Sprint Cup calendar (only the two road races and the six short track events are shorter), it could be assumed that FOX was going to have to cram more commercial breaks into the smaller time slot so that they could get the normal ad revenue. What we got Saturday night, though, was ridiculous. There were three commercial breaks taken in the first 41 laps on Saturday. All those laps were under green, mind you. Assuming a 30 second lap time, those laps were run in approximately 20 minutes and 30 seconds. This means that in that time, at least one third of it if not more was devoted to commercials. That’s insane. Unfortunately, as the TV critic I cannot do anything about it… just make you aware. Also, there were the same amount of branded on screen items during the race as in a regular race (Ex: Random questions that fans can pose to Ask.com). It got to the point where a basic flow could not be established for the broadcast. I don’t think this can be blamed on the FOX on-air broadcast team, but on FOX’s advertising department and NASCAR’s ever-present desire for more money.

In addition, there was a very heavy emphasis on the front-running cars on the track. In my opinion, it was especially too high an emphasis for a race in which the leader, regardless of who it was, would run away from the field. Many fans and writers have noted the fact that FOX does not do a field run-through, like TNT’s Through the Field or ESPN’s Up to Speed. This often seems to be the only way that teams that are outside of the top 10 get any airtime for their car and sponsors during an event. These features are nice for race fans to have during telecasts, but it often seems like a way for TNT and ESPN to not cover the racing, and thus, the teams further back in the field. On a subject like this one, I wouldn’t mind getting the input of someone who has been in the booth before — since I cannot directly relate.

Anyways, since FOX doesn’t have this feature (likely by choice), the teams that are lower down in the standings basically get ignored. The problem is when they do that, they are doing a disservice to their viewers. The network needs to remember that race fans are a hungry lot, and they like to have as much information about the teams out there on the track as possible. Also, not everyone has NASCAR’s TrackPass service, which allows access to the radio feeds for all the teams during the race for a hefty fee. As a result, they need to give proper attention to all 43 teams in the race … not just four.

Technically, the telecast wasn’t the greatest either. The FOX production crew is seemingly in love with the quad pits graphic package that seemingly everyone hates. I’ve mentioned the malfunctions that the setup has previously, but there are other issues that were caused by it. First of all, it basically allows for laziness on the part of the cameramen. On the last pit stop sequence, the quad pit graphic package was used, then FOX cut away from it and almost missed the race off pit road. It was disorienting for viewers.

Also, in regards to pit road, it was unclear (to me, at least) which line determined the order leaving the pits. Apparently, it was the line just after pole sitter Mark Martin’s pit stall. Mind you that that line does not officially end the pit road speed requirement — there is actually another line further up the road where the pit road limit ended. But this was never clarified during the race telecast, and left me a little confused as to exactly which line was the one to watch for pit out.

As for post-race coverage, there were interviews with Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, and Jimmie Johnson. There was a quick check of the points and some wrap-up commentary at the end before the signoff. OK… but not overly gracious.

In closing, I offer this to NASCAR’s broadcast partners. Like it or not, for the vast majority of fans the TV coverage is the main outlet that people have to see races. Not everyone can afford to go to the event, and many people live too far away from a track to go. FOX (and ESPN, for that matter) need to show a more comprehensive telecast of the race, rather than the overhyped, one-sided telecast that we got this weekend. Ratings for the Nationwide Series race, as of press time, are unavailable. However, the overnights for Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 500k are in, and they’re not pretty. The overnight rating is a 3.3/6, described by Jayski as a “record low.” What that means, I’m not sure, but it is definitely the lowest rating so far this season. The fans are definitely showing their disapproval of the coverage with their remote controls. Overall ratings are down for the Cup Series by 14 percent for the season, despite almost all other sports posting rating increases.

It’s almost sad that perhaps the best stock car telecast of the weekend was SPEED’s coverage of the ARCA Re/MAX Series Carolina 200 on Sunday afternoon from Rockingham Speedway. The race was done in a professional manner with much less in the way of interruptions and a bigger focus on the race itself. Yes, there was a lot of talk about the frontrunners, but it was not treated like they were the only cars on the track. Commentators Rick Allen and Phil Parsons talked about other drivers besides those that were in the top 5 (Ex: the No. 8 of Brian Ickler, who ran most of the race a couple of laps down before finishing 20th). SPEED also had a coup with the inclusion of Kevin Harvick in the booth for the race. Unlike Michael Waltrip during the truck race at Martinsville, he didn’t spend any time talking about the previous day’s Sprint Cup race (which, if you watched on Saturday, you would know that it was a struggle for him). Instead, he stayed on topic for the whole time and actually covered what he was watching. Also, Harvick had a vested interest in the race (Ricky Carmichael was driving a Charter-sponsored No. 33 for him), but he didn’t play favorites towards Carmichael (at least not on air).

The main thing that needed to be improved for SPEED was audio. During a yellow flag pit stop sequence, they showed replays of a stop where Patrick Sheltra got a five second penalty for his crew being over the wall too early. During the replay, you could hear Ray Dunlap’s commentary from the original stop over the audio being added in from Rick Allen. It produced a jumbled mess. Also, when Harvick attempted to talk to Ricky Carmichael on the radio under the yellow, Carmichael’s radio was too quiet, so the audience could barely hear him.

But despite the technical gaffes, SPEED also managed to fit in more interviews in post-race coverage than either FOX or ESPN2 did in Phoenix. SPEED was even able to get some comments from Ken Schrader (from what appeared to be just outside of his motorcoach) after he ran out of gas with just a little more than two laps to go.

That’s all the ranting I have for this week. The shark has officially been jumped. However, shark jumps are not permanent by any means. Just like a sitcom can “Reverse Jump the Shark” by making a good change, a NASCAR broadcast can do the same. And, this weekend is a great time for the network partners to redeem themselves. This weekend is the infamous “White Knuckle Weekend” (Now known as Aaron’s Dream Weekend) at Talladega Superspeedway. This includes live coverage of the Sprint Cup Series Aaron’s 499 and the Nationwide Series Aaron’s 312. Also, a new wrinkle has the ARCA Re/MAX Series racing in the Spring at Talladega for the first time since 1996. They’ll be running the ARCA Re/MAX 250 on Friday afternoon at 5:00 PM. Live coverage will be provided by the SPEED Channel. Previously, the ARCA event was held the Friday before the Fall race. I’ll be watching and critiquing all three events for next week. In addition, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series comes off their long break with the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 at Kansas Speedway. This is a support race for the IndyCar Series event that will be held on Sunday, and I will critique it as well.

As for the critique of NASCAR Now that I promised for this week, well, sometimes, space becomes an issue. This column is just at 3,000 words, so I’ll have to hold off on it until at least the Richmond weekend in two weeks.

As for the future, I’ll say this right now: FOX and ABC had better buck up for this week, or else the vitriol that has been vented this week about the coverage at Phoenix (not just by me, but by many other fans and online commenters) will be much worse next week. Talladega, since it is a restrictor plate race, often attracts many more casual fans than the typical Sprint Cup race. As a result, FOX especially — but ESPN and SPEED as well — need to deliver a great broadcast, if not to appease the longtime fans but to help bring new ones into the sport.

FOX has already announced that they will have a one-hour pre-race show starting at 1 p.m. ET for the Cup race. Of course, I’m not a fan of this, but they want to hype the action that much more. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series’ Aaron’s 312 will be on ABC instead of ESPN2, also a sign of its importance to the network.

OK, that’s it for now. 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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Ryan
04/21/2009 09:03 AM
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The phrase “ what can you expect , its FOX “ certainly comes to mind .
I really belive that the problems with FOX , just like most newspaper sports writers , stems from the fact that they have never taken racing seriously . So they refuse to devote any important resources to covering the sport . They use second and third string directors , producers , and production crews . Their on-air group would not be hired by any other organization to do sports , with the exception of Punch for football broadcasts , which puzzles me .
Until FOX realises that Nascar coverage matters , we will continue to get coverage thats just almost adequate .

HankZ
04/21/2009 12:42 PM
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I read articles like this and thank God every Sunday that the shark bit, swallowed and excreted NBC.

Kevin in SoCal
04/21/2009 01:14 PM
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Phil said: “only the two road races and the six short track events are shorter”

And the two 300 mile events at New Hampshire.

Gordon82Wins
04/21/2009 04:33 PM
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When television history looks back at what happened to NASCAR, they’ll point to Digger and say that was the “jump the shark” moment.

Master Braytak
04/21/2009 07:42 PM
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Memo to all; “Jump The Shark” has been replaced by “Fallen Down The Gopher Hole”, as in “Fox’s coverage of Nascar has officially fallen down the gopher hole”.

Thank you and remember this when writing about future events that have peaked and are now out of vouge.

Newracefan
04/21/2009 08:51 PM
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I was distressed after the NW race but absolutely livid after the Cup fiasco. I utilized John Daly’s Blog to post over the weekend so I can keep my tirad brief here, since my anger has cooled somewhat. ESPN needs to stop determining the story line before the green flag flies and follow the racing where ever and with who ever. Fox needs to go back to how they use to call races, give us through the fields so we know what happens to everyone, show the racing where ever it happens and stop trying to put 10lbs of commercials in a 5lb race. Most importantly cut back on the sponsor bites, video clips and all over baggage and show the darn race.

Dave
04/22/2009 08:19 PM
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To Kevin in Socal

“And the two 300 mile events at New Hampshire.”

One of them is now 301 miles.. for the added drama of one extra lap! Plus that track doesn’t count anyways. Those aren’t really races.