The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: IndyCar Blues & Fast Track To Nowhere... Er, Fame by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday March 16, 2010

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Hello, race fans and welcome to the weekly critique, my 55th. Since NASCAR’s three major series were off last weekend, it makes picking out something to look at just that much harder.

However, the Izod IndyCar Series had their season opener on Sunday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Since I like all kinds of motorsports and not just NASCAR, I naturally gave it a watch. I had heard great things about their broadcasts last season and wanted to see whether that success would carry over to 2010.

Unfortunately, it did not. I should have known going in there could be some issues, since the series was starting the season outside North America. With international races, the Izod IndyCar Series does not typically shoot their own events like the V8 Supercars or Formula One does. As a result, race telecasts outside of North America are at the mercy of the host broadcasters.

That’s something we don’t often see these days, especially since Formula One moved their race broadcast production in-house. Today, all Formula One races with the exception of the Japanese Grand Prix are shot by FOM (Formula One Management) and licensed out to individual networks. (There is one exception: the Japanese Grand Prix broadcasts, which are still produced by Fuji TV.) Those local affiliates then take the video feed and either add their own announcers, or make an agreement with another country to “share” resources. For example, Australia often uses the British commentary feed for its broadcasts.

But things weren’t always so smooth in F-1. Prior to series head Bernie Ecclestone taking the TV production in-house, race broadcasts tended to be a mixed bag. Quality was literally dependent on the country, with no consistency amongst the staff each week. That led to a total crapshoot, although the Western European race broadcasts were generally considered to be the best produced while the newest entrants to the schedule (Malaysia, for example) were considered to be the weakest. These broadcasts also suffered from the “hometown factor,” with local drivers getting an inordinately high amount of coverage just because they grew up there.

With those pitfalls in mind, let’s delve into why the IndyCar broadcast showcased those same faults … and more.

VERSUS’ coverage started off tame, with a half-hour pre-race show setting the stage for IndyCar’s 2010 season debut. They began with a recap of Sunday morning’s qualifying, scrapped from live television the day before due to a very slippery surface in the Sambadrome (the start-finish straight). To VERSUS’ credit, they did not bad mouth the organizers for the problems and lauded the series’ efforts to fix it. Other drivers were not so forgiving (Danica Patrick complained it was “sad” that she couldn’t run full throttle on the start-finish straight.) But, that thankfully faded as an issue once the green flag dropped.

Yet the more I watched of this show, the more my opinion dropped of VERSUS’ coverage. As the pre-race show continued, it became painfully obvious it had been taped about an hour before air, with a sizable technical issue blowing their cover. When Jack Arute’s pre-race interview with Will Power was supposed to air, the broadcast jumped around, moving to an earlier interview with pole sitter Dario Franchitti and an interview that aired later on with Danica Patrick.

Danica Patrick wasn’t as forgiving as the TV broadcasters about Brazil’s slick track surface. But in the end, it was the track who wound up least forgiving of all, with Danica spinning en route to an ugly 15th place finish.

Speaking of Arute, last week I mentioned that VERSUS has a crew of three pit reporters at the races under normal circumstances. In Sao Paulo, it appears that Arute was the only one of the three pit reporters (and one of maybe two or three VERSUS crew members) that made the trip to Brazil. Even commentators Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl, and Jon Beekhuis didn’t make the trip, instead broadcasting from a studio back in the United States. As a result, the network was forced to make constant use of Arute, to the point that people actually found him annoying. I’m fine with his coverage, but I will say this much: the amount of work thrown onto his shoulders made this broadcast awkward and abnormal. Thankfully, the next VERSUS broadcast (April 11 from Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama) will be back to normal, so Arute won’t have as big of a role as he did in Sao Paulo.

As for the race coverage itself, this production was plagued by bad camera angles and quick cuts away from the proper action. Those moves cannot be blamed on VERSUS, but on the home broadcaster who clearly struggled throughout. What a shame, because the action itself was actually pretty good by street course standards, and the booth was up to the task for broadcasting this action. However, the substandard pictures left us viewers (and the VERSUS commentators) guessing on certain issues, like when Simona de Silvestro pitted her No. 78 and lost three laps in the process. All I know was that she was slow on the track before pulling into the pits – no clue what happened there, and the TV announcers were scratching their heads right along with me. That’s not good.

Also, VERSUS debuted a new, slimmer looking scroll on Sunday. I find that this scroll is easier to read and doesn’t have the issue of a font that constantly “switches back” on itself, like the previous one did. The previous number font is still in use on VERSUS’ IndyCar Non-Stop graphics; but since these numbers are bigger, and thus easier to read than the ones in the scroll, I don’t really think that font will be altered. All of these were positive changes, but I’ll stop short of giving them an “A” here. The network struggled graphically in some other areas, including failing to have a Non-Stop number font for de Silvestro’s No. 78 – despite the fact they went to a break with her running in third place. I know it’s their season debut, but that is kind of sad. Hopefully by the next time out, that gets fixed.

For those of you watching the race on IndyCar.com’s website, there were some serious issues caused by a brief power outage right before a red flag for rain, ultimately forcing the event to adhere to its two-hour time limit. Not only did this knock out timing and scoring (just like it did on TV), it basically made the service inoperable. However, unlike the TV telecast, the problems persisted well after the restart. This was just plain unfortunate. Power outages/interruptions happen sometimes, as those of you reading this in the Mid-Atlantic and Eastern Massachusetts can relate to… but still …

Post-race coverage was relatively brief. There were interviews with winner Will Power, Raphael Matos, a look at the unofficial results, and some analysis.

To sum up the telecast, what we were treated to on Sunday is definitely not typical of what to expect from VERSUS, a victim of budget cuts and host broadcasters that weren’t up to task. However, the Izod IndyCar Series has suffered from low television ratings for basically as long as I can remember, despite fairly good racing, and what we saw on Versus probably won’t help things much.

Last year, the series was stuck in the middle of a protracted duel between Comcast (owner of VERSUS) and DirecTV. This resulted in VERSUS being pulled off DirecTV on September 1st while the two companies were at an impasse in discussions for the new TV deal. As of Sunday, an agreement hadn’t been reached, so Sunday’s race was available for DirecTV customers only through IndyCar.com. However, on Monday (just before press time), a deal was finally reached between Comcast and DirecTV. This will allow Versus to return to Channel 603 on DirecTV at the same service level as before, ending a 6 1/2 month stalemate. Terms were not released, but IndyCar fans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they’ll be able to see their favorites live on TV once more.

Fast Track to Fame

Back on March 1st, SPEED premiered their new talent competition, Fast Track to Fame. The show, hosted by Michael Waltrip and Charissa Thompson, is designed to showcase various talents, from singers, musicians, and everything in between. Admittedly, I thought that Thompson was going to be the main host for this show, with Waltrip backing her up, but that was not the case. Waltrip is the main host for this show, with Thompson joining him on stage at the beginning and the end of each broadcast. In addition, Thompson interviews the contestants briefly before they go onstage. This is her bread and butter, since she comes from a sideline reporting background.

The format for the show is as follows. There will be six acts that will perform in front of a live audience at the SPEED stage at whatever track the Sprint Cup Series is at that weekend. Those acts are all judged by a panel of three judges: Riki Rachtman, radio host and SPEED contributor, talent recruiter Kathy Leigh Carter, and a guest judge. In Las Vegas, Hermie Sadler served as the guest judge, while Kyle Petty was the guest judge in Atlanta.

The contestants perform their bit for the crowd and the judges, and after they finish, the judges give their thoughts on the performance and grade it from 0-100 (in five point intervals). The group score is the combination of the three judges’ scores. The highest two scoring contestants then face off against each other in the finals. Same rules apply here. Whoever gets more points wins the competition, and a potential talent contract.

Looking at this show, it is effectively a cable version of a competition that a track might put on for campers, with the money behind it to match. I don’t really know why this needs to be on television, but it seems that everyone is enjoying themselves, which is important. The sheer presence of this show angers quite a few SPEED viewers, who believe that stuff like this takes away from the mission of the channel, which is to showcase motorsports and automotive programming…and this show satisfies neither of those facets.

I personally don’t really care for the show. There are already a bunch of talent-type shows these days. This comes off like a cheaper version of America’s Got Talent, where people can’t get voted off the stage before they finish their acts. Some members of the MySPEED Forums claim that it is the cheesiest show on television, while others claim that it is worse than the Gong Show. Of course, unlike the Gong Show, they take this show seriously. However, I’m sure that the show has its fans. SPEED considers NASCAR programming to be its cash cow and thinks that this show could work linked up to the NASCAR train. I doubt this show will last beyond this year, though.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, NASCAR is back in action at Bristol Motor Speedway. Coverage starts Friday with the first Sprint Cup Practice session at Noon EDT. This is followed by the first Nationwide Series Practice session at 1:30pm EDT. Sprint Cup Qualifying coverage begins at 3:30pm EDT. Nationwide Series Happy Hour follows at 5pm EDT. All this coverage can be found on SPEED.

On Saturday, coverage starts with qualifying for the Nationwide Series at Noon EDT on SPEED. That is followed up by Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour at 1 PM. Coverage of the Nationwide Series Scotts Turf Builder 300 starts with NASCAR Countdown at 2 PM. Unlike the previous two races, this race (and NASCAR Countdown) will be aired on ABC. Race coverage starts at 2:30, with the green flag expected around 2:46 PM EDT. Also on Saturday, ESPN will once again bring us coverage of the Legends race, this year known as the Scotts EZ Seed Showdown. Live coverage will air on ESPN2 starting at 5:30 PM EDT.

On Sunday, coverage of the Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 starts with the FOX pre-race show at Noon EDT. Race coverage begins at 1:00 PM EDT, with the green flag expected at approximately 1:17 PM.

Also next weekend, the American LeMans Series has their season opener, the 12 Hours of Sebring. Coverage on SPEED starts Saturday morning at 10 AM, with pre-race coverage and the start of the race before breaking for two hours of aforementioned coverage from Bristol. At 2 PM, SPEED returns to Sebring to televise the remaining eight and a half hours of the race and some post-race coverage. SPEED will bring us 11 hours of coverage from Sebring. I will bring you critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races, along with the Scotts EZ Seed Showdown here next Tuesday. The 12 Hours of Sebring will be covered in the Critic’s Annex next Thursday. My thoughts on What’s The Deal?, Jimmy Spencer’s new show, will be featured in an upcoming edition of The Critic’s Annex.

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 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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

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mkrcr
03/16/2010 10:23 PM
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Regardless of the coverage quality, at least Comcast and DirecTV have ended their pi**ing contest. Now I can see the race if I choose to.

slander libel
03/16/2010 11:50 PM
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In other words, FOX provided the camera work for the IndyCar race…