The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Impartiality Needs To Be Worked On Across All Fronts by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday May 26, 2009

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Talking NASCAR TV: Impartiality Needs To Be Worked On Across All Fronts

TV Critique · Phil Allaway · Tuesday May 26, 2009

 

Hello, race fans. The Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the busiest racing weekend of the year. In addition to the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600, the IndyCar Series has their revered Indianapolis 500 on the same day… or at least they normally do. But because of rain in Charlotte, the Sprint Cup event was pushed to Monday at noon, separating the two for the first time in several years.

There is also the Grand Prix of Monaco, Formula One’s most prestigious and glamorous event. Also, it’s quite possibly the toughest track to pass on in the series, in addition to the narrowest and the slowest. There’s a reason why the Grand Prix of Monaco is only 260km instead of 305km (standard length for a Formula One race). It’s the perfect showcase of racing excitement among three of the top series in the world; but could the TV broadcasts keep that enthusiasm going?

That’s the big question we’ll be answering in a minute. But before I get into Saturday night’s Nationwide Series event, you might remember the foot cam back at Darlington that I mentioned. It was the one where Michael Waltrip had scrawled a Mother’s Day message on his racing shoes. I couldn’t remember seeing that angle used for a foot cam before. Well, I found a prior usage. In 1993, ESPN put a similarly mounted foot cam in Jimmy Hensley’s No. 7 Ford (this was right after Alan Kulwicki died, and Hensley was driving the No. 7 in his place). However, it was mounted in a fashion so that you could still see the clutch pedal.

With that cleared up, let’s move on to the Nationwide Series CARQUEST Auto Parts 300.

One of my beefs about the last Nationwide race from ESPN2 actually got worse on Saturday night. This was the general failure of the on-air crew to tell the viewing audience who got the Lucky Dog (Free Pass) during caution flags. Now, maybe I wasn’t listening carefully, but I don’t remember ESPN2 mentioning this for almost all of the cautions Saturday night. The exception was the last one, where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got the Lucky Dog (not that it even mattered, since the race never restarted after that). People want to be informed about things like this one that have the potential to change a race’s outcome. I’ve used the road sign example in the past to describe that… but I feel that it applies. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, you would like to see signs that tell you where a road goes and how far it is to get to that place. ESPN2 is giving us what amounts to a scenario where you have to guess … and that’s not cool.

Something that was pretty cool, however, was ESPN2’s pre-race coverage. As a result of rain showers delaying the start of the race by a little over an hour, the network stuffed in a bunch of interviews to cover the airtime. Naturally, I kept tabs of how many drivers they got to … and it was a lot. The total came out to be 23, with Brad Keselowski getting interviewed twice. The subjects were wide-ranging, too, going from your typical Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch all the way down to Nationwide-only drivers like Kenny Wallace and Stanton Barrett. I think this is nothing but a good thing, allowing viewers to make connections with drivers they might not normally see.

During a rain-delayed Nationwide pre-race show, ESPN2 interviewed an impressive 23 different drivers, including underdogs like Kenny Wallace and Stanton Barrett.

When the race coverage finally did begin, it appeared once again that Dr. Jerry Punch just was not into it, like he was thinking about something else. There was just no emotion at all out of him. During our Live Blog on Sunday before NASCAR pushed the race to Monday, this issue came up, as more than a few people are noticing how the play-by-play man struggles to keep up his energy. It’s a real shame, since Punch has acquitted himself well in the booth in the past and is a connection to the network’s “old school” coverage. Unfortunately, I don’t know what can be done in order to get his head in the game. NASCAR is having a meeting today where they are going to discuss a whole bunch of things that can be done to improve the sport. Better television coverage is one of those things that may be discussed — and if they are, getting more enthusiasm out of certain announcers should be at or near the top of that list.

The “taking equipment out of the box” rule change wasn’t accurately explained by the networks. Apparently, now if it happens during yellow flag pit stops, the team has to do a stop-and-go penalty and go to the tail end of the longest line. This was described as a “Double Whammy” penalty that holds crews accountable for those mistakes. My thoughts on this are as follows. Under caution, it should just be a tail end violation. They didn’t even need to make a new rule. Maybe make a corollary to the existing rule saying that teams busted cannot do their stop-and-go until everyone (including cars off of the lead lap) have made their pit stops. Otherwise, just make it a tail end ruling because the car will not even have the equipment that it took out of the box by the time a stop-and-go can be done.

ESPN is also continuing to have some issues with the scroll. It is almost like the network has regressed in this area, going back to 1995 with their standings. Before then, cars that were off of the track still had the number of laps behind displayed on screen during field summaries. By 1996 or 1997, ESPN had adopted the OFF designation for cars that were off of the track behind the wall, but not out of the race. This makes it a little easier (and more clear) for viewers. However, ESPN has gone back to the old setup, and I am not a fan of this. This problem has also migrated over to the IRL coverage, which debuted on Sunday. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Once the rains came once again, the ESPN crew stayed with the event and did not leave for alternate programming. After the race was called, they gave a quick interview with Mike Bliss before going off the air.

Overall, I liked the non-racing coverage on Saturday night, but I believe that the actual coverage of the on track action needs to improve. Luckily, ESPN has time before the Cup Series comes calling in two months.

Sunday brought the beginning of ABC’s short schedule of IRL races for this season. Like TNT has for the Sprint Cup Series, ABC will be televising a small snippet of five races (Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, and Edmonton). Their initial coverage consisted of a one hour pre-race show for open-wheel’s marquis event, which is typical prior to the Indianapolis 500. It’s been this way as long as I can remember.

ABC showed quite a bit of racing throughout the field on Sunday when they could. However, like many of the Sprint Cup races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was not a whole lot of side-by-side racing, which is a shame. That happens sometimes.

As for the scroll issues with cars that were off the track, this started real early with the first lap crash of Marco Andretti and Mario Moraes. I knew that he was out of the race after the first lap crash, but ABC didn’t mark him as out until at least lap 70. I hope they fix this before next Sunday.

Of course, with ABC telecasts of IRL races, there comes the Danica emphasis that has hurt their coverage over the past few years. There was quite was lot of emphasis on her, more so than other drivers around here. I’m not a fan of this dramatized attention, and Versus really hasn’t done it as much this year. Moving forward, the network would be prudent to make sure they balanced the coverage with more reports from the rest of the drivers in the field.

Overall, I think that the coverage was an OK start for ABC’s mini-season of IRL races; but I’m thinking that if this keeps up, fans might be clamoring for Versus coverage to come back by the time they finish.

With the Cup Series, Sunday’s coverage was mainly of rain falling — since the race never actually started. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a couple of things that I saw that should be noted here. For example, a couple of times during the broadcast, the production crew used some kind of effect to simulate water inside of the “Hollywood Hotel.” This came off as weird, and I’d prefer that they do not do that again.

FOX did some interviews, but nowhere near as many as ESPN2 did on Saturday. In fact, I counted 11 interviews to ESPN2’s 23. FOX stayed on air full-time until 7 p.m., when they broke away for alternate programming. The alternate programming consisted of the typical Sunday night schedule (King of the Hill, American Dad, The Simpsons, etc.). FOX ran an older style information bar on the screen during those shows informing viewers of the rain delay (it looked like something FOX would have used about 3 years ago). That’s nice and all… but it was kinda intrusive and actually blocked some stuff on the screen. A small scroll would have worked fine instead.

FOX did provide constant updates every 15-20 minutes, which was nice, I’ll admit. Eventually, the race was called around 8:30 p.m. and postponed to Monday at noon. This was also displayed on the intrusive information bars … and the same idea as above applies.

Monday brought a one hour NASCAR RaceDay on the SPEED Channel that acted as the pre-race show. In all honesty, that should be FOX’s pre-race show. It was essentially an hour of interviews, but there was some very good stuff. Once noon rolled around, it was time to give the command, and then the cars pulled onto pit road for the start.

Digger came back big time on this weekend’s broadcast on FOX after last weekend’s mini-vacation. Digger appeared on the broadcast (Sunday and Monday’s broadcast combined) 33 times. 17 of those appearances were of the animated variety, while only six were the still shots. There were also seven commercials for Digger merchandise. The rest were either voice mentions or on-air ads for Digger ringtones and wallpaper.

Monday also saw the debut of the Taco Bell Hot Shot. In practice, this is the same as the Verizon Wireless Speed Shot — which is, in a nutshell, FOX selling the sponsorship rights to the speed shot so that they can bank some bucks. Not really necessary, but we’ll see if this trend continues with TNT and ESPN later on in the season.

The caution for the moment of silence was a little weird, to be honest. It appears that this was pre-meditated by NASCAR, but the general public wasn’t aware of it until after they threw the caution. FOX could have done a much better job at notifying the viewing public of this. Also, this caution (the fifth one) was thrown during a commercial break, so people were just confused in general as to what was up.

During the rain delays, FOX never ceased live coverage from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Like ESPN2 did on Saturday night, they spent their downtime interviewing drivers and made the experience at least slightly enjoyable. However, it became explicitly clear after awhile that they wanted NASCAR to call the race so that they could leave. Darrell Waltrip was basically assuming that NASCAR was going to call the race for something like 30 minutes before they actually did, and I think that may have rubbed off a little on Mike Joy.

After the race was called, FOX only worked in a quick interview with Reutimann, showed the point standings, and then got the heck off the air real quick. The so-called “Post-Race Show,” which began literally as soon as Mike announced that the race had been called, lasted maybe a minute and a half. Now, it could be argued that most of the post-race interviews had already been knocked off during the third rain delay… but FOX could have done a little bit more.

Meanwhile, Darrell Waltrip appears to be working on keeping himself impartial, and did a good job of doing so during the little argument that David Reutimann and Tony Stewart had during the second red flag. In the past, he would have automatically taken David’s side because of his past professional relationship with Reutimann (Reutimann drove for Darrell Waltrip in the Craftsman Truck Series). Today, he seemed to take an impartial view on it — which is good. Our Live Blog viewers thought it was too little, too late for this season, though.

However, once the third red flag was out and Reutimann was in position to potentially get his first career Sprint Cup win, Waltrip’s favoritism came back out again for all to see. All commentators have to be careful about that, and it is probably one of the main reasons why most race fans cannot be commentators. The impartiality would just kill some people, especially those that are incredibly biased towards certain drivers and against others. It’s clear that while improvement is possible, DW needs to continue to work on impartiality for the future.

Overall, I think FOX’s effort was OK on Monday. They were definitely beginning to show fatigue after a few hours, though. Unfortunately, that happens at times. By the end of the marathon, six-plus hour telecast, the commentators were all but saying that they wanted to go home. That is not the type of vibe that viewers should be getting from the people who bring the race in to our homes. Next week is the last race of FOX’s season — so hopefully, this isn’t evident.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, all three of NASCAR’s top touring series are at Dover International Speedway. The Truck Series races in the AAA Insurance 200 on Friday. This race will air on a tape delay basis at 8 p.m. Friday on SPEED, which I’m already not a fan of. No clue why this is so. The Nationwide Series races Saturday in the Heluva Good! 200 on ABC, while the Cup Series have their last race of the FOX portion of the season — the Autism Speaks 400 at 2 p.m.

I will be critiquing the broadcasts of all three of these races for your weekly consumption. In addition, I will also pipe in on other random issues that peak my interest on television.

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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Bob
05/26/2009 01:37 AM
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You, Mr. Allaway are a pro. I really enjoy reading a critique that is an actual well “critique”.

Thank You

Michael
05/26/2009 09:42 AM
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There is a vast difference between the ESPN shows and the Fox shows . The ESPN shows are much more about racing , the Fox cup shows have become all about the announcers themselves . And favoritism seems to be the driving force for Fox . The entire Fox Cup broadcasts consist of the three talking heads trying to convince the world that Hendrick and his teams are almost the second coming . Oh , and Waltrip , Hammond and McReynolds constantly re-living ( and heavily embellishing ) their own racing careers .
I actually think the bias from all three of the Fox talking heads was much worse on Sunday and Monday than i can remember it being in the past . They don’t seem to realize ( or simply don’t care ) that announcers are expected to be unbiased . And as Chris Economaki has said several times , why is the network allowing it to continue , knowing how the ratings are slipping , knowing how fans simply aren’t tuning in anymore due to the favoritism and cheerleading for only a handfull of drivers .
I think the 600 could have been handled much better by Nascar . The start time on Monday could have been much earlier since they knew rain was coming . Also could have dispensed with every second of pre-race , put the drivers ion the cars , and raced .

Blu
05/26/2009 01:55 PM
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ABSOLUTELY agree on ALL points Michael!!

DW is by far the WORST offender with his constant HMS pandering and I almost suspect there is some sort of err..well feelings for “Mr Hendrick” that a man just shouldnt have there.
It is REALLY bad and truly ruins the race for me to hear all this constant HMS pandering.
FOX are you listening? Do you even CARE??

Blu

Regarding the start time..WHY OH WHY wasnt the race stared at 10 or even a.m.??? They knew rain was coming and about what time on SUNDAY when the race was rescheduled for Monday.

I seem to recall rescheduled races starting before at 10 or 11 a.m. quite frequently in the past.
Guess its All about the West coast though HUH? We cant make them get up to early now could we?? Although THEY surely dont mind making US east coasters stay up till 1 a.m. to see a west coast race finsh because it starts so dang late Eastern time.

IMHO this is truly something that needs work to be fair to all.
If we east coasters can stay up..the west coast can GET up to see a race.

The best news of the week? Dover is DW and the Fox crews last week for NASCAR!!

alan4s
05/26/2009 03:04 PM
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During the Cup race Monday, there was an hour-long red flag period for rain. FOX did probably a dozen or more driver interviews in that time. But it was glaringly obvious to some of us that favoritism was in full effect – they never interviewed the race leader during that hour. In fact, they never once mentioned the name of the driver in first place.

Completely ridiculous, and it’s no wonder that the smaller teams have a hard time getting sponsors. Even when they are in the lead of the race they get no attention at all.

djones
05/26/2009 07:18 PM
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To Blu,
As a west coaster trust me, I would have no problem getting up at 7 or 8 am to watch a race. My big wish is for NASCAR/TV to start all races earlier.

Doug Scholl
05/26/2009 07:21 PM
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I don’t know if this is pertinant or not. But becasue of the rain delays and previouly scheduled events i had to listen to the race on PRN on my sirius. PRN was fully in the loop on what was to take place at 3:00 and informed all the listeners that a caution would come out and then red flag for the moment of silence. Not sure why anyone else didn’t get the info….

Chris2
05/26/2009 08:47 PM
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For what is is worth ESPN Classic had the 1989 race from Dover on Monday. It was quite interesting to flip between the race/broadcasting of today verses what was aired in 1989. This is the second time in the last few weeks that I did this, (the other race was the 1989 Holly’s Farm 400 from North Wilksboro). My own opinion is that the coverage was actually better then than it is now. The crew of Benny, Jerry, Ned, Dick, and Bob did a much better job of not only going through the field, (remember this was_before the scrolling running order at the top of the screen), but they also showed cars passing each other_regardless of position..they showed guys that were back in the field that were passing each other and they weren’t big names for the times either. One opposing position I read from time to time of races 20 years ago is that there were only a few cars left on the lead lap..while this is true of the Holly Farms 400 you wouldn’t have know it by the coverage as they showed the whole field. Also, seeing North Wilksboro is a short track I’ve read quite a few postings regarding that a driver sticking his car into the rear quarter to get around him isn’t real racing. Please, if this is your thought, go back and watch that race..guys were passing and there was many cars that had a bit of body damage but it wasn’t from just spinning guys out. Even the last lap where Dale and Ricky get into it,(pretty sure it was Rudd), it was a clean attepmt at a pass that just didn’t work out. It was interesting to watch these races again as its been some years since seeing them but with all the discussion of coverage it may be a thought of going back to what worked for good color commentary from the booth compared to what is on TV now. Sure, add in a few features but please you could get rid of half the stuff that they do in the name of “coverage” and no one would miss it.

Kevin in SoCal
05/27/2009 04:17 PM
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The Dover truck race has been tape-delayed for as long as I have been watching. Speed explained they do that because Dover does not have lights, and they want as many people as possible to be home and able to watch the race. If they showed the race live, most people would either be at work, or be on their way home from work, and not able to watch.