The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Knights of Standards and Practices, Please Report to the SPEED Stage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 20, 2009

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Hello, race fans. Last weekend’s races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (soon to become Charlotte Motor Speedway once again) were marked by cold weather and somewhat dodgy conditions (both races were somewhat hampered by rain, in addition to the cold weather). This can affect race coverage positively or negatively.

Which way did the networks go? Well, before I start with the race coverage critiques, there are a couple of other things to cover. The first of these was the Hall of Fame announcement ceremony, which both ESPN and SPEED covered in varying degrees. ESPN did it with a short cut-in for live coverage of the announcement on ESPNEWS with analysis from Dr. Jerry Punch in Charlotte, who just so happens to be a voter. Punch is informative enough… but the coverage was simply too little. ESPN only showed the announcement, some analysis… and that was it. They were gone in 20 minutes or so.

On SPEED, however, the Hall of Fame announcement was the centerpiece of a two hour live show. Mike Joy and Ken Squier (both of whom had votes in the process), along with Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty anchored the telecast. Randy Pemberton and Wendy Venturini were also reporting from the floor after the announcement of the five inductees, which none of whom really surprised me all that much. (For the record, I considered both Frances, Earnhardt, and Petty to be locks, leaving one wild card spot open. I’m fine with Junior Johnson taking it, but I would have been fine with Pearson too).

The floor interviews were OK, although Pemberton’s with Ned Jarrett was a little rough (I think the camera cut to them about five seconds before they anticipated it, to be honest). The real fun came with the four anchors having guests up at their portable set. Brian France shows up these days at NASCAR functions about as often as the Mr. Invincibility item appears in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game on the NES (for reference purposes, it shows up three times in the whole game), so it was nice to see him talk about his father. Same for Lesa, who I can’t remember having appeared on television before Wednesday.

But it was the time that Richard and Lynda Petty spent on the set which was classic stuff. It was definitely a good way to spend your time right after work. Kyle was legitimately happy for his father, despite the acrimony that has played out between them over the years. Meanwhile, that story about Michael Waltrip living with the Pettys is crazy. I don’t really care that it had nothing to do with anything from last Wednesday… it was interesting.

Overall, SPEED’s coverage was a great show to watch, and I hope that with the building opening next year, that there will be more chances to do something like this type of coverage of the sport.

ESPN and SPEED took drastically different approaches to their Hall of Fame induction coverage. SPEED’s extensive coverage included a compelling sitdown with Richard and Lynda Petty.

It is true that after NASCAR bound itself to traditions for so long, there is now a dearth of general knowledge about the history of the sport today. There probably always has been amongst casual fans, but even some of the die-hards don’t have the best knowledge of the sport’s history. Well, the Hall of Fame in Charlotte will go a ways towards alleviating that, but it can only do so much. Some have argued that NASCAR needs its own cable network like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and the NHL already do. I think that would be nice, but I question a lot of things if that were to happen.

At this point, I simply do not know whether a NASCAR Network and SPEED can co-exist. There’s only so much NASCAR content out there. Apparently, the original plan was for SPEED to be that NASCAR Network starting in 2002, but those plans fell through. Based on SPEED’s dropping of many properties in recent years, including most of their offseason programming (some of which, including the WRC and the Isle of Man TT, has been picked up by Discovery’s HD Theater), it could still be argued that they may be going in that direction eventually. Also, there’s that issue of carriage for the channel from national cable providers (if it ends up being separate from SPEED). Sports fans are sick of the stupid battles between companies and programming providers (Versus, anyone?) that do nothing but deny people the chance to watch what they want, and those exclusivity deals that tick me off so much (NASCAR needs to open up HotPass to everyone, now).

Also of note, Kenny Wallace announced on his Twitter feed on Monday that he has re-signed with SPEED for another two years through the end of 2011. Great news for fans of the Herminator, who will continue in his current capacity on SPEED.

One final thing of note on SPEED this weekend was a blatant violation of S&P on NASCAR Smarts. In this case, we’re not talking about Start and Parks, but the infamous “Standards and Practices.” Traditionally with game shows (which NASCAR Smarts would kind of qualify as), people who work for the channel broadcasting the show, are related to someone working for the channel, or people who work for sponsors of the show are prohibited from being contestants. SPEED broke this rule at Charlotte by having a relative of John Roberts as a contestant on the show. That is Bush League and should never be repeated.

Now, the Standards and Practices are a part of contracts that everyone that goes on a game show has to agree to. This dates back to the infamous Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950’s, where people were “given the answers” on shows such as Twenty One. Obviously, SPEED doesn’t really take this show seriously if they’re willing to thumb their nose at S&P. Where are the Knights of Standards and Practices? Oh wait, they’re guarding against excessive use of profanities, and for some reason, the Thai dish Mee krob.

In an unrelated note, Jeopardy! had their own issues come to light this past week. It was discovered that the third place contestant last Monday was actually a contestant on the show back in 1999, a violation of Jeopardy’s own rules. Apparently, they didn’t realize that he previously appeared. A more detailed write-up of that incident can be found HERE.

Hopefully, you’re all still with me after all that.

Now, without further ado, to the races:

On Friday night, the Nationwide Series held the Dollar General 300 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. This was an interesting race to watch, with competitive racing for positions throughout the field, in addition to a few incidents on the track.

As has become the norm for NASCAR Countdown broadcasts preceding Nationwide races, the pre-race was a rather low-key affair, with only four interviews and analysis from the infield studio. I wish ESPN would do more to bring attention to Nationwide-only drivers and teams instead of giving all the focus to Cup drivers in the Nationwide races. ESPN, for all their faults this year, is generally fairly solid when it comes to features though.

However, I still believe that ESPN needs to bring in some kind of information box to properly show the teams that take the wave around during cautions. Voicing out the cars doing it helps, but when there are a bunch of them (like the nine that did Friday night during the second caution), it gets a little confusing because the trend is to bark out the names as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to think that Marty Reid gets a little exasperated with the pictures that are being provided to the viewers. He exuded a tone of frustration during the broadcast Friday night. He definitely does his best to point out the action on the track, but the cameras don’t always show what he’s talking about. For example, on one occasion, Reid pointed out the three-wide racing going on back in the pack on a restart while the cameras were focused in on the leaders, who were single-file.

Unfortunately, cameramen are not exactly allowed to just shoot whatever they want to shoot, or whatever the play-by-play announcer references. If that were the case, you would definitely have a toss-up for broadcasts. They could be really good, or covered with random shots of attractive women that has nothing to do with the race (like the so-called “Boob Cam” that often appears at NBA games). As a result, what the cameras shoot is more or less the decision of Director Rich Basile, and to a lesser extent, Producer Neil Goldberg. It seemed like what they wanted, though, wasn’t exactly matching up with what Marty was looking to see.

I also wondered out loud what was going on with the updating scrolls we’ve seen this season. They weren’t updating in real time Friday night, and I have no clue why, to be honest. It was fixed for Saturday night, but the absence Friday night was notable.

I didn’t really know what to make of post-race coverage. If you look at it on the surface, using TV listings, it would say that ESPN left the air a half hour early (the timeslot for Friday night’s race supposedly ended at 11:30 PM), for seemingly no reason at all. In their post-race time, ESPN interviewed the winning crew chief (Jason Ratcliff), and six drivers. In addition, there was the typical dose of post-race analysis. I have no clue why ESPN left at 11 PM, though. None, whatsoever. Maybe they ran out of stuff to say, because as I’ve already said, they definitely weren’t in a hurry to get to anything.

On Saturday night, the Cup Series raced in the NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America (yes, the name is unwieldy, probably because Bank of America probably thought it would make them look bad for advertising their bank so blatantly). This race was run in even colder conditions than Friday night (under 50 degrees at the start of the race), and was under the threat of rain early on.

Pre-race was short and low on content, to be honest. There were only two interviews (with Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and no features were shown. If ESPN was not in commercial, or showing those aforementioned interviews, they were doing pre-race analysis from the infield studio. I should stress here that NASCAR was not in speed up mode for pre-race, too. It was originally scheduled to be a 25-minute pre-race show, far shorter than the others this season.

I will admit that Dr. Punch seemed to show a little bit more emotion in the booth on Saturday night than we’ve been seeing this season. While I think this is a good thing in the long run, I’m still not happy with ESPN’s notion that it was a good idea to not let Dr. Punch express himself fully in the booth. I can understand trying to play up Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree’s presence, but I do not believe that it should have been done at Dr. Punch’s expense.

Dr. Punch has plenty of experience calling sporting events. He’s done play-by-play for Cup races as far back as 1988. He did multiple Busch Grand National events over the years (I cannot give a number at this point, but if I were to guess, I’d say a shade over 70 prior to 2007). He’s done college football and college basketball, both from the booth and the sidelines. He’s been a loyal employee of ESPN for 25 years. He’s someone who rejected a potential deal with FOX back in 2000 to stay at the Worldwide Leader of Sports, hoping that someday, ESPN would re-acquire the rights to the now-Sprint Cup Series and allow him to “live his dream.” Yet we’ve actually seen Dr. Punch at his best not during play-by-play but rain delay coverage, when on-air personalities have to work off the cuff. Some think that Punch is miscast and should be on pit road, or in the infield studio. Well, I believe that Dr. Punch is under-utilized in the broadcast booth and has been operating with a metaphorical foot to the crotch this season straight from Bristol. The sooner that foot is withdrawn, the better…

The telecast showed a lot of the same issues that I, along with quite a few other writers, have pounded into the ground for much of this season. Every now and then, I read about fans making the conscious decision to not watch the races on television, opting instead for MRN Radio (if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with an affiliate, or have TrackPass). Still, others outright give up on the series until February, just so that they can stay away from ESPN telecasts. I am not really sure how common this is, to be honest, but I’ve seen sentiments along these lines on message boards over the past couple of years. I think it started sometime when NBC was still televising races (2005 or so?).

I really do think that ESPN needs to at least consider making some changes to these broadcasts in order to address the issues that have been raised this season. At this point, it could be assumed that their telecasts are actually hurting the sport. I understand the amount of commercials during the races (Hey, someone’s gotta pay for the broadcasts, which are most definitely not cheap), but the neutering of on-air personalities and outright bad camera work at times is not helping NASCAR out at a time in which they could use all the help they can get.

I really think that their on-air group doesn’t need any permanent changes, regardless of what my readership might say. However, there needs to be an outright change in philosophy for the broadcasts. This should be a change to a more straightforward style. It doesn’t need to be overly flashy. Also, as shown in the Behind the Scenes piece posted on here about seven weeks ago, ESPN insists upon using the broadcasts to show off their fully HD capabilities. HD requirements for ESPN telecasts already nixed the in-track cameras at Iowa in August (not built for HD cameras, apparently). Personally, I could care less about their capabilities despite the fact that I do watch the races on an HDTV. Yes, it looks nice, but getting up in someone’s grill does not show the whole story, and that is what needs to be worked on.

Post-race coverage was quite slim on Saturday night because the race ran almost right up to the end of the timeslot. As a result, hurry-up mode was brought into play for post-race. That’s a term that I am now going to use to describe post-race coverage where the Special Thanks and Video Courtesy credits flash on screen before the winner’s interview is even aired. There were only five interviews on-air after the race, one with winning crew chief Chad Knaus, and interviews with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and Juan Pablo Montoya. The point check was tacked onto the scroll underneath the unofficial results.

That is all for this week. Next weekend is a split weekend, the last one of the season. The Nationwide Series has a standalone race, the Kroger on Track for the Cure 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park on Saturday afternoon. Coverage starts with NASCAR Countdown at 3 PM EDT on ESPN2, with race coverage starting at 3:30 PM.

Meanwhile, at Martinsville Speedway, on Saturday the Camping World Truck Series returns after taking the last three weeks off for the Kroger 200 (yes, the supermarket chain is sponsoring two NASCAR races in one day). Pre-race coverage (NCWTS Setup) is scheduled to start at 12:30 PM EDT on SPEED, with race coverage starting at 1 PM. Finally, on Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the paperclip for the TUMS Fast Relief 500. Coverage will begin with NASCAR Countdown at 1 PM EDT on ABC. Race coverage is scheduled to begin at 1:30 PM. I will provide critiques of all three of these telecasts. In addition, I will also provide some random thoughts and musings that I pick up from the broadcasts over the next week.

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:

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.

Contact Phil Allaway

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Don Mei
10/20/2009 08:41 AM
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I was one of the idiots who hounded my local cable company to carry Speed back in the early days. When the channel started it was all racing and aircraft; great stuff. They covered the European touring car events, Isle of Man TT, Formula 1, Motorcycle world events, and also regularly showed great historical motorsports stuff. Speed became in effect, my default channel. Then it all changed. It looked for a while as if it was going to become “all nascar, all the time”. Fortunately that seems to have gone by the wayside, but now most of what is on Speed is crap. I mean what serious racing enthusiast cares about customizing Hummers or Escalades for some overpaid stick and ball guy; or shows about towtrucks or some of the other garbage they have tried and dumped the past few years. If it were not for the Formula 1, Moto GP and World superbike, I would never watch. Some of the Nascar shows are amusing but they can also be very tedious in their relentless advocacy of everything the sainted ones in Daytona Beach do. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will start a motorsports channel that targets an audience of real enthusiasts. One can only dream , cant one?

Gina
10/20/2009 09:54 AM
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I used to watch Speed all the time but that was because they actually showed racing. Nice to know that the WRC is still to be found — I will have to look for the Discovery HD channel on my lineup since I enjoyed that very much. The garbage that is shown on speed most of the time has made me a non-viewer. I agree with you that ESPN’s current broadcasting practices — Not showing the actual race and talking too much about nothing (maybe it’s a Seinfeld show and we didn’t know it) has made me avoid ESPN’s broadcasts. I use my computer, twitter, radio coverage and Trackpass to follow the race. The idea of having a race on TV is to show me the race, not whatever the current director has in mind. I just don’t get it. I have tapes of old races before ESPN got too “big” and they were great, not anything like this garbage.

Mark
10/20/2009 10:29 AM
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You only need to look at who owns SPEED now to see why their legitimate race coverage has dropped off .. and has been replaced by lowest common denominator progamming like Monster Jam and Wrecked .
ESPN lost their way for years , dropped racing in favor of other programming , now they’re back to the racing again . They don’t do a bad job , certainly not like FOX ( see above )with their clinic on cheesy race broadcasting .
The problem is , the critics and fans are comparing these broadcasts in the same way a doctor compares stool samples . The color , size , and content may be slightly different , but they are all stool samples . And the “ spec “ race broadcasts these networks do is the real reason the viewership is dropping fast . Simply put , no race broadcast needs more than 4 people on mics . If you haven’t seen the broadcasts of F1 races ( which appear on several different networks but are done by the same 4 analysts ) then you haven’t seen real race broadcasting . The way it was always done back when fans actually watched race broacasts . Remember Daytona 500 shows from the seventies ? How many people did they have in the booth ? How many pit reporters ? I certainly didn’t miss much of what went on during the race in those days . How is what we currently have considered an improvement ? Untold numbers of pit reporters , at least two complete sets of analysts … has this really improved the coverage ?
The solution ? Get rid of Goldberg , bring in new blood . You think it was coincidence that only Johnson and Gordon were interviewed in the pre-race ? Thank Goldberg for that . Same with most of the directors . Bring in directors who actually like racing . And reduce the on air group to three in the booth and one or two pit reporters . Again , watch an F1 race and you’ll see whats possible . Otherwise turn off the tv and listen to the races on MRN .

Phil Allaway
10/20/2009 11:41 AM
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Mark, in all honesty, especially since ESPN does both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series this time of year, it is simply no longer feasible to do a race with only one or two pit reporters. The workload is just too enormous. I’m fine with the 4 they have now. I’d argue that the infield studio is not really required, though. I think that 7 people with mikes is the maximum for a broadcast, no more than 3 in the booth because people end up stomping on each other so that they can get their two cents in.

Also, with F1, you have smaller grids, teams that are much less likely to give information to pit reporters, and our race commentators aren’t on site (and haven’t been since sometime in the early 1990’s, with the exception of the U.S. Grand Prix). Not really the best comparison, although I do admit to watching all the F1 races.

As for Daytona 500’s in the 1970’s, with the exception of 1979 on CBS, none of them were flag to flag. In 1979, I think CBS had two pit reporters (Brock Yates and Ned Jarrett), but I’m not sure. Haven’t watched the DVD in a long time.

Mark
10/20/2009 12:20 PM
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Is the problem of enourmous work loads for pit reporters a product of too many interesting stories . Or is it more likely a product of having far too many pit reporters who then have to justify their jobs by calling for every possible toss and then filling that toss with non-issues .
The fact that the F1 broadcast crew can give the fans hours of entertaining race coverage is due mostly to the lack of pit reporters and Hollywood Hotels . The three men in the booth and the lone pit reporter give the fans everything thats needed for enjoying a race . There are some things that go on during a race that aren’t explored further because there isn’t an army pf pit reporters . I for one think thats fine . If somthing important happens , its discussed during the broadcast . But there are no pit reporters shoving a mic into everyones face to fill time or try to create controversy . Again , the F1 fan really misses nothing in the race coverage . And thats done with only 4 people in a remote studio in Charlotte .
The early Daytona races were a great example of less is far more . Only a small handfull of analysts and pit reporters , yet i don’t remember feeling cheated because there wasn’t enough insider info . And you always had Economaki to stir up controversy if needed .
The current NASCAR broadcasts on all networks are really the answer tp a question no one asked . And now that type of broadcast has become the standard .
Bottom line , if a team of 3 booth and 1 pit reporter did NASCAR broadcasts , and used analysts who were as smart and as entertaining as the F1 crew , the NASCAR fan would never miss the current FOX/ESPN/NBC/ABC fiasco for a minute .

DougS
10/20/2009 12:50 PM
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You know it’s funny. Yesterday I had the oppertunity to watch the 1990 Rockinham 500 on ESPN Classic. I’m not to sure if the 1990’s are considered the good ol days or not.

There was blocky cars with huge front valences that barely resembled an actual stock car.

A “race” occured on pit road and not to some line that someone painted. There was no #of crew member over the wall. I counted 10 guys over the wall on Kulwiki and Earnhardts car. There was no bobbing sign on a fiberglass pole. Some brave guy with a piece of plywood stood at the end of the pitbox praying he wouldn’t get runover or clipped. The gas can used to fill the car had the same sponsor on the gas can that was on the hood of the car. What a concept allow the team to showcase thier sponsors as they see fit. Speaking of a race on pit road Dale Earnhardt actually passed Bill Elliot on pit road and the apron before blending back in hoping to be able to catch Kulwiki and get a lap back.

Passing was hard to do unless a driver made a mistake. A car running on seven cylinders could get into and through the turn faster but not up off the corner. Which was nicely demonstrated by Kyle Petty chasing Earnhardt. The in car camera was clamped to a roll bar and shot out the winshield and couldn’t pan. Giving the viewer the driver’s point of view.

There wasn’t 30 different TV angles and special microphones planted around the tracks. The announcers had to actually talk over the race cars so you knew there were at a race. The announcers Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parson actually sounded like they enjoyed the race and allowed their emotions to flow with the race. BP got pretty excited during Green Flag stops.

The TV camera foucused on the lead cars most of the time. The camera wouldn’t always zoom in on the lead cars in the corners so you could see more cars entering and running the corners.

Note: Rockingham was the thrid to last date in the 1990 season. Phoenix and Atlanta would finish the season. Mark Martin had a 40 point lead in the Championship before Rockingham.

With 20 laps to go Alan Kulwiki had a 1 sec lead on Bill Elliot and they were in traffic. So that lead would shrink and expand. After a round of green flag stops, the ESPN director decided for 10 laps to cover the Mark Martin / Dale Earnhart battle for 11th and 12th place. 11th and 12th place was TWO LAPS DOWN. And they followed that instead of wacthing the leaders. Because they were the two that were running for the championship.

Darell Waltrip spun with two laps to go and the race finished under caution with no green white checker and no demolition derby. It just ended. And I didn’t feel robbed at all.

So let’s see.

Blocky cars, lead lap focus and championship focus. Overly excited announcers at times. 19 year difference in time. And I still love this sport.

I guess it’s just not about TV.

Althought it does get under my skin sometimes.

don mei
10/20/2009 03:14 PM
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Just to follow up on a few of the things Mark said. Probably the most important difference between the F1 guys and Nascar is that the commentators are not shills for the FIA or Bernie Ecclestone. They discuss current controversies in Formula 1 during the broadcast and are openly critical when they think the officials screwed up or something stupid is going on. Contrast that with the lapdog attitude of most of the Nascar announcers. I swear every time i hear “and Jimmy or Tony or Dale is out of the pits with a full load of SUNOCO fuel” it sets my teeth on edge.

The Turnip!
10/20/2009 04:25 PM
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Yep, back in the early days of SPEED TV, it was an excellent show to watch.

And as many said above, it is but a shell of what it once was!

Now it’s programming, all of it, is “POLITICALLY CORRECT”,
NA$CRAP STYLE!

I even remember the days Dave Despain was candid in his broadcasting, and then had to come out and state he can no longer say it the way it is! To much pressure from NA$CRAP!

So there went that credibility, I used to faithfully watch good ole’ Dave, but I’m telling you, I haven’t watched him in two years!

A sicko! What a waste of talent!

All because NA$CRAP treats us all like????

STUPID TURNIPS!

Bad Wolf
10/20/2009 09:42 PM
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My guilty pleasure back in the good old days of Speed was watching the old Biker and Hot Rod movies on Friday nights. That and the cool commercials like the one where the guy in an old Vette gets pulled over and the cop asks him what was under the towel on his seat. Driver removes the towel and the cop goes off on him for having DUCT TAPE!!!! on the ripped seat.