The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED Takes A Step Back While ESPN Shines At Nashville by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 6, 2010

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Hello, race fans, and welcome to another edition of the weekly TV Critique. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series took their traditional Easter break, putting the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series in the Music City spotlight instead.

However, before I start talking about the individual races, I want to address both series’ TV coverage at Nashville in an overview fashion. As I noted at the end of last week’s critique, the races themselves, and a half-hour pre-race show for each event, constituted the only time provided by SPEED and ESPN. You could claim that this was a throwback weekend, a relic back to…2000, when only the Cup Series got expanded coverage outside of the races themselves. I doubt this setup was intentional. SPEED was busy televising the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Palm Beach, Florida, tapping some of their high profile personalities to be at the auction, including Mike Joy and Bob Varsha. The latter move actually required Leigh Diffey to sub for Varsha during SPEED’s coverage of the Formula One Grand Prix of Malaysia.

As for ESPN, their usual practice from Nashville was pre-empted in favor of live coverage of the second round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship for the LPGA Tour. Last year, this saw the premiere of a different type of practice coverage where ESPN would cover, in detail, the preparations of one specific team in the session, for better or worse. The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament then pre-empted qualifying on Saturday, which was delayed slightly due to rain.

So looking at the overall dearth of racing this past weekend makes me (and probably a lot of readers of this critique as well) thankful for the typical level of coverage that we get these days. The only time that a Sprint Cup Series CoT touches the track without it being televised is when private tests are being held. Most Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series practice and qualifying sessions are aired as well. Of course, having said all that, going without for a weekend kinda bites. Yes, we have innovations like Twitter, that can help keep us informed of the goings-on at the track much better than we could just a couple of years ago, but it’s just not the same as being able to turn on the television and see something. I like to know the starting grid for Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events in advance of the telecast starting, and that was almost impossible to accomplish.

Nashville 200

First up is the Camping World Truck Series with their race from Friday night, the Nashville 200. Pre-race started with the typical montage designed to look back on the Kroger 250 from Martinsville. There was a focus on the bad blood between Ron Hornaday and Johnny Sauter after Hornaday took out the ThorSport driver late in the going. Interviews followed with both drivers, but it could be seen that they probably wouldn’t have any issues on Friday night with each other. In fact, due to Sauter making unapproved changes after qualifying (which Sauter mentioned during his interview), he had to start in the back of the field. As a result, the two drivers never really ran together.

NCWTS Setup also included a nice sitdown with Tayler Malsam (who we really don’t hear from all that much) and Kyle Busch Motorsports General Manager Rick Ren. I’m always in favor of learning more about the Truck-only drivers in the Camping World Truck Series, so I thought that the choice of interview was pretty good.

The race telecast was a bit of a letdown, to be honest. Now, SPEED cannot do anything about a race that could easily be considered “boring.” However, they can do something about the way that the so-called boring race is shown. There were some good battles out there Friday night, and if they were shown properly, this would have made the race telecast better.

Case in point, the battle for the lead between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. SPEED had an issue on Friday with keeping the cameras zoomed in too much. As a result, it was difficult for viewers to get a frame of reference of where the two leaders were as compared to lapped cars. This was best illustrated by the duo blasting past the No. 47 of Brett Butler entering Turn 3 on Lap 120 at what appeared to be approximately 20 mph quicker than Butler. As a result, the No. 47 almost looked a blur. I know that it sounds like an exaggeration, but I do have a link: “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4piFZbMYGA” that shows this pretty well. Skip ahead to the 7:20 mark to see the noted instance. Most of the coverage of on-track battles was like this. Not a good move.

Another factor that I didn’t like occurred a little more than a minute after that incident. The dreaded “double” commercial came back into play. Readers from last year might remember me railing against this offense, even more egregious due to the ongoing battle at the time. By the time the double commercial break was over, we had missed 11 laps and Kyle Busch had reasserted control over the race. Rick Allen mentioned that the leaders had negotiated their way through a bunch of lapped traffic and had some issues in doing so. However, no replays of these issues were shown. We missed good stuff. Not cool. I’d strongly prefer that if SPEED absolutely has to do this in the future, make sure that there is absolutely no chance that you’re going to miss a battle for the lead because of it.

Also of note, both of the cautions during Friday night’s race occurred during commercials. This brings me to an interesting question. As all of you TV watchers probably know, it is possible for information scrolls to run over the screen during commercial breaks. For example, cable companies can do that during their required tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. The question that comes to mind is this: Would it be possible to run some type of information bar during commercial breaks notifying fans that the yellow is out, and why? Of course, if there was no yellow, there would be no information bar, just the ads. Also, this would be for all media partners, not just SPEED.

Much of the telecast was focused on Harvick and Kyle Busch, as if they were the only two real stories out there. Not true. Telecasts are essentially promotion pieces when you really sit down and think about it, so it wouldn’t hurt SPEED to show some additional action further down the order. However, knowing what this race was like, it might have been a little hard to do that.

Since the race was over so quick, SPEED had plenty of time for post-race coverage. They used this time to stuff in six interviews, checks of the unofficial results and point standings, and some post-race analysis. However, I guess the race ended way too early for SPEED, because they left the air with approximately 20 minutes to go and cut to alternate programming. I’ve railed on in the past about how I don’t like it when media partners don’t fill their slots. I just don’t understand it, knowing that SPEED’s paying a hefty amount of money to televise the series. You’re not getting your money’s worth if you’re going to leave the air early.

Nashville 300


The ESPN broadcast for the Nationwide race provided everything a race fan looks for!

Saturday brought the Nationwide Series out to play at the Nashville Superspeedway for their fifth race of the season, the Nashville 300. This event was televised on regular ESPN, as opposed to ESPN 2. NASCAR Countdown contained the usual pre-race discussion with Allen Bestwick in the Infield Studio. However, Rusty Wallace was absent, given the week off as part of ESPN’s vacation policy for NASCAR on-air talent. In his absence, the best part of pre-race was a feature in which ESPN got Brad Keselowski to describe himself.

The big news with ESPN’s broadcasts for this weekend was the debut in the booth of Ricky Craven, replacing the vacationing Andy Petree. Previously, Craven has served as an analyst on NASCAR Now and has generally been well received there. How did he do on debut in Nashville? Pretty good. Craven was informative in the booth, didn’t step on his colleagues and definitely added to the telecast. As time goes on, he’ll grow even more into his new, part-time role. As to when he’ll be in the booth again, I’m not totally sure at the moment since it has not been announced, but all signs point to additional races in the booth for Craven.

In addition to Craven’s inclusion in the broadcast, the overall feel was just plain…different. Compared to Friday night’s Nashville 200, the coverage definitely had more of a frame of reference. We could actually see stuff for a change. Where this best came into use was with the development of the big wreck on Lap 115. Watching the restart, you could just see the crash developing around five seconds before it actually happened. When it finally did, no one was surprised. Not me here at my house, not the drivers on track, or the commentators in the booth.

Having said that, there were still some issues with the broadcast. For example, there was a technical issue during the red flag for the cleanup from the aforementioned big wreck. ESPN threw it to Tim Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage for a short feature. However, the audio didn’t feel like cooperating. That’s a shame. After a few seconds, ESPN cut away from the Tech Garage and recognized their technical issues. However, they never returned to Brewer’s segment.

Another issue was early on in the race. On Lap 93, Dave Burns made a comment about something and asked for Dale Jarrett’s input on the issue. This is more or less standard operating procedure. However, at the time Burns made the input request, Jarrett was talking to Marty Reid on a private channel and thus, did not hear the request. Reid immediately apologized for this error. I cannot recall seeing something like this before in the past. Of course, we might never have known about it had Reid not copped to it immediately, unless Jarrett then proceeded to make a fool of himself on air, which did not happen.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief because the red flag to clean up the big wreck took up quite a bit of time. As a result, the race ended after the official end of the race’s timeslot. ESPN did provide viewers with a miniscule three interviews with the unofficial results running in the scroll, and a check of the Top 10 in points before leaving the air.

I generally enjoyed this broadcast. Other outlets and fans online have described this telecast as a throwback to the past of telecasts. If by that, you mean actual usage of wide shots, then yes. However, I don’t really see it that way. I think it’s very hard to see a ESPN broadcast from 2010 as being a throwback without actual throwback elements in place. If this type of telecast becomes more the norm this season from ESPN, then more power to them.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series is back from their Easter hiatus with the Subway Fresh Fit 600k at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. This is the first night race of the season, and also the very first 600 kilometer (actually 603k) race at PIR. The race was extended by 100 kilometers mainly due to the new standardized start times, which moved the start of the race up an hour for this year. The additional length will allow the race to end at about the same time as it did last year. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will join the Cup Series at PIR for the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 on Friday night on ESPN. This race is notable for ESPN because, according to a ESPN release, it will see the return of Shannon Spake to pit reporting for the first time since giving birth to twins on New Years’ Day.

Also, the Izod IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend in the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Legacy Credit Union at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. This race will be televised on Versus Sunday afternoon at 3:00pm EDT. The Rolex Sports Car Series will serve as the primary support series with the Porsche 250 on Saturday afternoon. Coverage will be provided live on SPEED.

Friday:

Time Telecast Network
11:00am Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
1:00pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:30pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
5:00pm Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN 2
7:00pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED*
9:00pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN 2
9:30pm Nationwide Series Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 ESPN 2

Saturday:

Time Telecast Network_
1:30pm Grand-Am Porsche 250 SPEED
5:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
6:00pm Izod IndyCar Series Qualifying Versus*
7:00pm FOX Pre-Race FOX
7:30pm Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 600k FOX

Sunday:

Time Telecast Network
3:00pm Izod IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Versus

Tape-Delayed
I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races in next Tuesday’s critique. In addition, next week’s critique will also cover the IndyCar Series race from Barber Motorsports Park. The Grand-Am Porsche 250 will be covered in next Thursday’s edition of The Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter.

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:

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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midasmicah
04/06/2010 04:49 PM
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I used to love the speed channel. What happened? I’ll give you one clue. A big FOX got into the henhouse. Speed channel’s nas$car coverage is typical over the top fox style broadcasting. With all the (un)reality shows on the speed cha nnel, it’s should be called FOX LIGHT. ESPN however, seems to be listening to their critics. They’ve actually taken a step back and figured out that the past makes for a better future. Tha nk God they took Jerry Punch out of the booth and back where he belongs. On pit row where his over the top style fits better. Tp put it bluntly, ESPN seems to be listening while Fox (and the speed channel) are turning their coverage into a parody of itself. The bozo’s in the booth have worn thin. They’ve turned into nothing but shrill shills for nas$car. Hammond and his “kiss my a$$) segment spoke for itself. I thought I’d never say this, but I’m looking forward to TNT and ESPN. Fox is a turn-off now.

djones
04/06/2010 07:52 PM
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Phil,

I like your caution ticker idea.

I’ve noticed that ESPN shows their Bottom Line during commls, so why can’t this be done? The one thing I can’t figure out is, during the race, practice or qualifying, the ticker is running at the top. Then they switch cameras to garage, and the ticker disappears. Why can’t the top ticker keep running?