The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Lack of On-Track Action Hurts All Broadcasts at Chicagoland by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday July 14, 2009

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Hello, race fans. Chicagoland Speedway brought us some more rain on Friday, but thankfully, it did not cancel any sessions. Instead, the racing Friday and Saturday night suffered from a different problem: it was rather spread out and kind of boring. In fact, there hadn’t been so much as a spinout all weekend until 55 laps remained in the Cup race.

How did the lack of racing on the track affect the TV coverage itself? Let’s see…

On Friday night, ESPN carried the Nationwide Series Dollar General 300. As I’ve watched the Nationwide coverage this season, the pre-race shows have really started to make me wonder. I’d like to see a bunch of interviews with various drivers in the pre-race show (NASCAR Countdown, in this case) to get me ready for the race ahead. But Friday night, I counted a total of two interviews total in the pre-race show. The rest of the time (not spent in commercial) was spent hyping the race, discussions with Bestwick and Daugherty, and some other random bits. Well, I think that ESPN needs to get some more interviews into their pre-race show, as fans like hearing from their favorite drivers as often as possible. Also, diversify your interviews as well. I feel like ESPN is talking to the same three or four people every week; why not give some more exposure to some lesser known drivers? Can’t hurt.

Once the race got started, the coverage was mainly centered upon the frontrunners once again regardless of the racing on the track. Unfortunately for us, there was not all that much racing for position for ESPN to show. Even some drivers who were in the top 10 all night (Ex: Jason Leffler) basically got no coverage. It’s a shame, really. ESPN was also really slow once again in acknowledging cars that had pulled off the track to S&P or for other ailments. Those cars included the No. 47 of Kelly Bires, whose team had not S&P’d the entire season up to that point and was in the 16th position in owner points entering the race.

There were a couple of technical things I want to address as well. During the first round of green flag pit stops around lap 56, the scroll literally froze and stayed at the same point for a minute or two. No clue why this happened (computer glitch, maybe). Also, there was not a whole lot of usage (at least in the first half of the race) of the interval function in the scroll. Perhaps the margins were too great for ESPN. It’s like when lap speeds are censored at Talladega… I know that it really doesn’t matter there, but it’s something I like to know.

The “mystery debris caution” issue continued this weekend, occurring on both Friday and Saturday nights. On Friday, both cautions that were thrown were for debris, although a couple of incidents where cars hit the wall did not cause yellows. Neither piece was ever shown on air… but does the production staff make a concerted effort to actually find the debris on the track, or do they just take NASCAR’s word for it? More on this a little later…

Also, I received an e-mail on Sunday that referenced a blimp view of Joey Logano. “DougS” described it as the best possible way to depict the infamous “rotation” of the car in the corner. He wasn’t sure whether ESPN missed an opportunity to describe this borderline mythical feeling, making good use of Tim Brewer in the process, or if they just got lucky. Likely, it was both. It’s pure guesswork at times what each shot is going to give the viewer. However, ESPN has Andy Petree up in the booth to help out with mechanical issues, in addition to Brewer in the portable cutaway car studio. One of those two could have added in something.

As for good things to make note of, ESPN briefly postponed going to their first commercial break of the race on lap 9 in order to show the No. 6 of David Ragan, who had hit the wall in turn 2. This was complete with radio communication between Ragan and his crew chief — a nice move there before actually choosing to cut to their commercial break.

Another thing that I noticed, which rolls right into the previous thought, is that ESPN seemed to use more radio samples on air Friday night than normal. It was almost like sampled radio chatter was aired on the broadcast every 20 laps. I’m all for that, but ESPN needs to be careful. If you’re going to air radio chatter like that, make sure that it wasn’t already played on the broadcast live. This has been an issue before this season on ESPN (Phoenix), and could continue to be with all the elements they appear to throw in the show. Eventually, I think that these sampled sound bites will eventually become the only way that radio chatter will make a broadcast, regardless of what channel the race is on. The reason for that? Simple. The FCC. If you remember, the FCC fined NBC $27,000 (which was passed on to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) for airing an audible S-bomb during Earnhardt Jr.’s victory interview after the 2004 EA Sports 500. In addition, NASCAR took away 25 driver and owner points for the S-Bomb, thus making it the “S-Bomb heard ‘round the world.” Granted, the FCC cannot go after TNT or ESPN (when races are aired on ESPN or ESPN2) for “fleeting profanity” getting on air, but NASCAR will probably introduce a blanket policy regarding this within the next couple of years covering races on both network and cable television.

TNT’s stretch of races, which included Wide Open coverage of Tony Stewart’s win at Daytona, concluded this weekend at Chicagoland.

Of course, this opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms about censorship. I am generally opposed to five second delays on live broadcasts. They claim it is to protect children… big deal! They hear worse stuff at school every day — even the little kids in elementary school. Also, if a fleeting profanity gets on the broadcast, the commentators shouldn’t have to apologize for it, as if they did it themselves. I will admit that the commentators chastising drivers for swearing over the radio, like Ned Jarrett did during the broadcast of the 1998 Bud at the Glen at Watkins Glen, is fairly interesting (He said something along the lines of “You boys better watch your language there” after ESPN cut off the audio). Of course, all of this is coming from someone who doesn’t swear — and takes a lot of heat from his friends for not swearing.

On Saturday night, TNT concluded their Summer Series with the running of the LifeLock.com 400. Unfortunately, the on-track action during the Cup race was very similar to what was seen on Friday night during the Nationwide race. Long green flag runs, a stretched out field, and a general lack of racing for position became the three main themes of the night. That stuff, as I’ve already said above, can and will hurt a race broadcast.

The pre-race show, though overly long (as I’ve mentioned multiple times this season), was done very well. I personally liked the Pride of NASCAR series this season. Of course, I’m a history buff, so I like learning about the history of the sport as much as I can. I’m sure that not everyone out there shares my opinion on the issue… but I think most can agree these features were nicely cut and done in good taste, letting viewers in on a little extra knowledge about both the sport and its legends they may not have initially been aware of.

From what I’ve seen over the past three weeks, it appears that Ralph Sheheen seems to put more emotion into his commentary than Bill Weber did. This is a good thing. For example, when Mark Martin was lapping Matt Kenseth, Kenseth got really loose coming out of Turn 4. I kind of missed the “moment” that Kenseth had since I was typing something for the Frontstretch Live Blog, but I heard Sheheen’s voice go up an octave while describing. As a rule of thumb, something hairy is happening when a commentator raises their voice like that during a Cup race. An older example of this is Bob Jenkins’ call of the incident on the last lap of the 1989 Tyson Holly Farms 400 involving Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd that our own Tom Bowles referenced just yesterday. Now, Weber was known for being cerebral, and there’s nothing wrong with being cerebral and brainy — I’m the same way. However, you have to convey your information without looking down upon your viewers, and do it in a fashion that’s not boring. That, I think, was Weber’s main issue in broadcasts. Going by my own experiences, he would have had similar problems if he had gone into teaching.

Once again, the mystery cautions were commonplace on Saturday night. The first three yellows were for debris, none of which were actually pictured on the broadcast. The first one was apparently for a spring rubber (as stated by the TNT commentary crew), while the second one is still unknown. But it is that third debris caution that piqued my interest. During our Live Blog on Saturday night, I was also checking Twitter pages, looking for something interesting to post. Kyle Petty’s page is always a good read, as it’s basically an extension of what you see from him on the broadcasts. This is what he posted about that third debris caution:

“Caution, someone threw a ice pack out on the track… No kidding…”

That’s right, a yellow for an ice pack. Now, I consider this to potentially be on the level of a caution for roll bar padding. I asked Kyle via Twitter if NASCAR would penalize a driver for doing that. The reply was essentially that they would, if they ever figured out who did it. It seems that they didn’t figure it out, though. I personally wonder why this wasn’t said on the broadcast. Too embarrassing, perhaps?

No one seemed to notice just how close Tony Stewart was to being involved in the crash with Paul Menard, Scott Speed, Jeff Burton, and Jamie McMurray on lap 227. No one on the broadcast, our Live Blog, or anyone. I don’t remember the shot from his roof cam being replayed on TNT, but it was quickly shown on NASCAR Now’s Roundtable Monday night. The close shave actually surprised host Allen Bestwick, who didn’t realize how close Stewart was to the crash.

As for the “Shootout-Style Count,” I definitely think that I was late to the party on that, unlike with the Digger count. This week, I only recorded seven usages on the phrase, and I really have to stretch things in order to get that number, including counting sightings on official Twitter pages of NASCAR PR representatives. That just isn’t going to work in the long term. I’ll give it one more week. If this continues, I’m dropping the shootout-style count after the Kentucky/Gateway weekend.

It definitely seems that the entire crew seems to be very happy to have worked together this season. Most of the on-air personalities took time to thank the behind the scenes people for their contributions to the broadcast, in addition to thanking their on-air compatriots. Marc Fein and Larry McReynolds each took time to do this, and Ralph Sheheen did it as well at the end of the race.

There was still no reference to the suspended Bill Weber on the broadcast. Kyle Petty did take the time to thank all the on-air personalities, including Weber, for their contributions on his Twitter feed. I know that we still want to have some kind of closure for the whole Loudon mess, but TNT’s not likely to give race fans what they want. Odds are, we will find out whether Weber has a future at TNT by February 2010 at the absolute latest, just in time for Turner to put out their press kits for the season. More likely, they’ll put out a press release in a couple of months stating what their plans are for next year, probably during the Chase so it gets buried in all the hype.

In the end, the TNT Summer Series (outside of Weber’s issues) was a big success. The other networks would do well to adopt some of TNT’s features. RaceBuddy is first and foremost. Since Turner owns nascar.com, it was a natural place to provide links to the service (which was actually hosted on TNT’s website). In the case of ESPN, they already have ESPN360.com, which allows viewers to watch games on their computers. However, it’s not available in all cable systems (I cannot use it because Time Warner hasn’t signed them on yet). FOX has no such system as of yet, which I find surprising since FOX has always considered themselves to be on the cutting edge of technology in sports broadcasts. Remember that they were the first network to have a permanent on-screen score display when they premiered their NFL coverage in 1994.

I would also suggest that the commentators be more willing to question moves made by drivers, teams, and NASCAR. Now, this obviously isn’t a problem with Kyle Petty, but often times, the commentators sit back and just watch things happen and never seem to have an opinion of it. Are they told to keep their personal opinions to themselves on-air, or do they choose not to give their opinions?

That is all for this week. Next weekend, the Cup Series is off, and drivers are taking vacations with their families. However, both the Nationwide and Truck Series are racing this Saturday. The Truck Series competes at Kentucky Speedway in the Built Ford Tough 225 at 6:30 p.m. on SPEED, while the Nationwide Series races at 9 p.m. (all times Eastern Daylight Time) at Gateway International Speedway in Madison, Ill. in the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 on ESPN2. I will provide critiques of both of those races. In addition, I will give some thoughts of ESPN2’s NASCAR Now, something that I promised back in the Spring before I was overwhelmed with additional races to critique and absolute chaos in those 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. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page HERE. And if you would like to contact TNT, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

Contact TNT
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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RamblinWreck
07/14/2009 01:01 AM
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In ESPN’s defense, Brad mentioned in the pre-race show that his #47 car would be doing the start-and-park routine.

Other than that nitpick, I tend to agree with you, especially on liking TNT’s Pride of NASCAR segment. They do a nice job with this, and I enjoy seeing it.

mkrcr
07/14/2009 01:26 AM
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Getting rid of Weber was TNT’s high point of the season. I’d like to think they were looking for a way to do it and he handed it to them. But that might imply that a network actually listens to it’s viewers.
That’s more akin to NA$CAR caring about it’s fans.

marshall
07/14/2009 07:32 AM
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TNT has done a fine job , and believe me , no one has missed Weber .
With one glaring exception the TNT broadcasts have been very good . The announcing team has been a breath of fresh air over the booth full of morons at FOX . I think Larry McReynolds is used too much , though thankfully not as much as the FOX shows did . He really adds almost nothing in the way of information , at least information that we didn’t already know . Shaheen wouldn’t be my first pick to host the shows , but hes done a good job and stayed out of the way so the others could do their job .
The glaring fault i’ve noticed is the inattention of the director when it comes to on track incidents . We see these things on screen as they happen , yet no comment is made from the booth , nor is the incident followed up on or replayed . Its almost as if it wasn’t even noticed by the TNT production crew . The close call for Tony Stewart was a good example . They need to concentrate much more on the small details of a race , those details are what shape a race .
I’ve also noticed a FOX like trend in the driver interviews to stir up controversy rather than conduct an interview . I recall on more than one occaision the interviewer skipping right over asking the driver if he was alright after a hard crash , and going right to the old “ give us your version of what happened “ .

Michael
07/14/2009 07:47 AM
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Well written column as usual . I very much like the analysts in the booth for ESPN . They play off of each other very well , not always fighting to talk over each other .
Its been said many times before , and here it goes again . The airways are wildly oversaturated with all things Nascar , and its hurting the sport from a standpoint of fan interest . You can only watch those horrible Viagra or Shell commercials just so many times before you want to throw something at the tv . The same thing applies to the barrage of Nascar pre-race and post -race shows . Way , way too much . And the result is that the casual fans are turning away . They’re tired of hearing about Nascar non-stop .
Nascar has always made life very uncomfortable for directors who try to show debris on camera . It is highly discouraged to say the least . So the most obvious debris gets air time , the not so obvious and the phoney debris gets no air time . And yes , a driver who intentionally causes a yellow flag is subject to discipline by Nascar .

Douglas
07/14/2009 07:58 AM
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These days, ALL NA$CRAP TV race coverage is disconnected to anything happening on the track.

It seems like what is happening on the track merely supplies a backdrop to whatever messages the TV people, (and of course the sponsors) want to convey to the viewers.

Somehow, someday, the netwits, err, sorry, NETWORKS really need to actually cover the race & EVERYONE involved in the race!

Such as all 43 cars!

And really now! Yellow flags for phantom debris? No way! I don’t believe it!

NA$CRAP would never ever pull such a trick!

How phony, err, I mean FUNNY!

And just how sick!

But we all know how NA$CRAP is run these days!

Thank you Brian Farce!

bobby dee
07/14/2009 08:41 AM
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I understand that NASCAR prefer cautions to keeep the field bunched up. They always have. But I love the green flag pits stops. When a caution flew during pit stops, the restart would have the leader 6 or 8 rows back. Now those cars get the wave around.

mick
07/14/2009 01:21 PM
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Racebuddy is awesome and it should be the standard.

I just wish TNT had the first half of the season.

midasmicah
07/14/2009 03:43 PM
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The mystery debris cautions that are thrown when the races has become so boring that they have to create some excitement. Then they trot out these stupid double file restarts so they can have some wrecks that will create more double file…….well, you get the picture. nas$car has become a parody of itself. And don’t think the quickly exiting fans don’t know that. The chase, the lucky dog, the boring tracks, the vanila drivers. If I hear “double style restart, shootout style” I’m going to throw up.

Phil Allaway
07/14/2009 08:57 PM
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Apparently, NASCAR sent out a memo this week stating that TV personalities MUST refer to the double-file restarts as “Shootout Style.” Insane. Well, all that means is that the count will remain until the end of the season. Brian, what the deuce? This is ridiculous. Do you want NASCAR to not be taken seriously? C’mon now!