The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Commercials Seriously Affect the Flow at Talladega by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 27, 2010

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Hello, race fans, and welcome back to our weekly look into the stock car telecasts that we all watch. This past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Talladega Superspeedway was our focus, with the “Aaron’s Dream Weekend” playing host to three major races: The Talladega ARCA 250 for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/MAX and Menards, the Aaron’s 312 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and the Aaron’s 499 (or 532) for the Sprint Cup Series. Like most restrictor plate events, the general consensus was all three provided some of the best competition of the year within their respective divisions.

But with the drivers providing nail-biting finishes, was the quality of TV coverage good enough to match the excitement? Read on to find out in the latest look at how FOX and SPEED are covering the broadcasts.

Talladega ARCA 250

On Friday evening, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/MAX and Menards held the Talladega ARCA 250. SPEED televised the event, with Camping World Truck Series commentators Rick Allen and Phil Parsons in the broadcast booth. NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader, making a rare TV appearance, served as a third booth analyst, while Jim Tretow and Wendy Venturini were on pit road.

The telecast started similarly to SPEED’s ARCA broadcast from Texas, with a recap of recent action in the series. In this case, they only recapped the Rattlesnake 150 instead of a number of races, since the network covered ARCA just last week. There were also pre-race interviews with pole-sitter Dakoda Armstrong, Steve Arpin, and Brandon McReynolds (son of Larry) before the green flag flew.

As you might remember from last year, I have chastised SPEED for time-shifting these races in the past. This was an issue once again Friday evening. I don’t know what SPEED’s reasoning is for causing the slight tape delay, but it’s very noticeable and irritating to fans trying to follow the race live. You know, as recently as a couple of years ago, a TV network could get away with a small adjustment like this one and no one would even notice. However, the creation of sites like Twitter has been a game-changer; now, any lag, even a minute, means you risk having the race spoiled for your viewers. Friday’s event was televised on a five-minute delay; as a result, I already knew about the race’s big crash from Twitter posts before it showed up on my screen. Weak.

Now, if the networks still really feel the need to tape-delay stuff, they should come up with a setup similar to what ABC (and to a lesser extent, ESPN) used to do for CART races in the late 1990’s. Back then, they would tape-delay races in order to air them at a later time, but they chose to show the race in its entirety. When they would go to a commercial break, the race would effectively pause until the advertisements were over, keeping the viewers from missing a single lap. Having said all that, I would strongly prefer live, non-delayed coverage – but anything would be better than what SPEED gave us Friday night.

Ken Schrader’s a mighty fine Cup driver on the track. But off it, he’s a work-in-progress, struggling to get a word in over Phil Parsons in one of his rare appearances in the broadcast booth Friday night.

As for Schrader’s addition to the show, I was puzzled by his presence. He’s actually pretty good in the booth, but the former Cup driver was never able to contribute all that much to the telecast. Essentially, Parsons was usurping Schrader on a regular basis, keeping him from participating in the conversation on several occasions. Maybe next time, SPEED will make an effort not to underuse him so much.

During the third caution, the network showed a feature on new safety rules instituted recently by ARCA (with the help of Frank Kimmel). At Texas, ARCA mandated the shark fins that NASCAR is now using, hoping they’ll help keep cars planted firmly on the ground. Also of note, the series is actively testing drivers’ Carbon Monoxide levels. Apparently, five random drivers will have to have their levels tested via a finger prick each week. I know NASCAR tests drivers for the same thing (see: Brad Keselowski nearly not being allowed to drive in the Aaron’s 312 on Sunday), but it’s unclear about how they go about their testing. SPEED ran a little short of time and had to cut the feature off in order to show the restart; however, they re-ran the piece in full later in the race. They shouldn’t have needed to show it twice, but it was definitely one of the better stories they’ve done this year.

On the other hand, I’m not really sure why SPEED felt the need to cut into the telecast for an update from Virginia International Raceway (VIR) about Grand-Am qualifying. It seemed out of place, especially since the network didn’t go to VIR for coverage after finishing up at Talladega. In fact, they didn’t show anything from VIR until their live coverage of the Grand-Am race Saturday afternoon.

As for ARCA’s post-race coverage, it was normal enough. There were five post-race interviews (winner Dakoda Armstrong, Tim George, Jr., Patrick Sheltra, Craig Goess, and Grant Enfinger). There were also checks of the unofficial results, along with post-race analysis before SPEED left the air.

I suppose that I really shouldn’t be too critical of SPEED’s ARCA coverage, since the series only has ten races on television this year (as of right now). However, if you’re only going to have ten of your races televised, they should show off your series as much as possible. So far this season, I am not really sure that SPEED’s accomplished that for ARCA. Like I said earlier, these telecasts need to be live: not almost live, actually live. SPEED also needs to do a better job introducing these drivers to the TV audience. A fair amount of viewers of these races don’t know more than maybe a couple of these names when you really get down to it, leaving the network responsible for telling their stories and getting people hooked. It could be argued that Daytona would have been the perfect time to take this step, expecially with Danicamania in full swing. Yes, they could still promote Danica’s first stock car start (and they did), but a little extra time spent on everyone else would have gone a long way towards building momentum for the series beyond that race.

Aaron’s 499

Normally, I would cover the Nationwide telecast from Talladega here. However, due to the threat of severe weather in Alabama on Saturday, the race was moved to Sunday afternoon. This was one of the series’ races scheduled to air on ABC, a potential ratings coup for the second-tier division. But as a result of the race being postponed five hours before the coverage was scheduled to begin, ABC simply repeated Monday’s O’Reilly 300 from Texas Motor Speedway after advising viewers of the situation in Talladega.

Having said that, we trudge onwards to Sunday afternoon, where a doubleheader took place.

First up was the Sprint Cup Series with the Aaron’s 499, aired live on FOX. The theme of the broadcast didn’t take long to figure out, with video footage of ghastly wrecks popping up before Chris Myers even got a chance to speak. Let me tell you, if there is one thing that I actually got sick of coverage-wise during last weekend, it was the constant discussion of crashing. In all honesty, I should have kept a count on how many times I saw a replay of Carl Edwards’ flip into the catchfence last weekend. My estimate is 46, but I don’t really know. All I know is that it was too much.

Pre-race started with the wreck montage, followed by a feature on “The Big One.” Well, I don’t need to explain that one. We know what that is. But what I will say is done right, a feature on a crash can be interesting and not sensational in nature. For example, NASCAR RaceDay’s feature about Bobby Allison’s crash was exceptional, a visual version of what I wrote in my Turning Back the Clock entry last Friday in the Newsletter. However, FOX’s Big One was sensational to the n’th degree; and by Sunday afternoon, after a week of continuous, similar footage I was effectively crashed out. It didn’t help FOX’s case that they devoted an entire feature to the aforementioned Edwards crash from last year later in the show.

The Slice of Pizzi feature saw Chris Pizzi out in the infield at Talladega asking stupid questions to campers this week. I’d argue that the campers put up with Pizzi just like the drivers have so far. The idea is apparently to take drivers (and in this case, fans) out of their comfort zone, but I think it just annoys everyone. Pizzi won’t be on the pre-race show in Richmond on Saturday night, since it will be only a half-hour in length, and I’m hoping it’s not just a one-time thing. FOX needs to ditch this feature for next season, period. I’m fine with Pizzi doing his thing on Cubed (FoxSports.com’s online show that’s part of Lunch With Benefits), despite the constant criticism that the show gets (it’s inappropriate, it objectifies women, they curse, so on and so forth). However, Pizzi’s simply not meant for FOX’s NASCAR Coverage. He needs to go.

There was also a feature on last fall’s debacle, which started the movement that eventually led to the “Have at it, boys” mentality that NASCAR is following now. The feature was far more pertinent than all that talk about wrecking, because the new mentality is one of the main reasons why we saw 88 lead changes on Sunday. It was definitely the highlight of the pre-race show – so why was it buried so deep within it?

Moving on, anyone watching Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 definitely noticed the rather large number of commercials. These breaks didn’t seem shorter than normal, but there were certainly a lot more of them, enough to seriously break up the action on the track for the viewer. Now, I generally don’t comment in these critiques about commercials because that is something that is outside of our control. The TV partners pay what I consider extortion for the rights to televise the races, and they need to make revenue in order to profit. However, in this case I feel that the amount of breaks made it hard at times to follow the race.

Also, I need to clarify something. With 18 laps to go, FOX went to commercial. But leading to that break, Mike Joy said that this would be their final set of commercials for the race. Right then, he should have added the words, “If the race goes green all the way to the end from there.” TV veterans understand that when circumstances changed, the network used “floater” breaks since the race ended up under several extended yellow flags. But as it stands, there were three or four commercial breaks before the race ended, throwing some fans up in arms based on Joy’s comments just prior to the slew of late-race cautions. I’m not personally upset or anything like that, but I understand why it may have thrown some viewers for a loop.

Could FOX have done better in managing their commercial load? I think so. Let’s put it this way: TNT purposefully makes Daytona the only race that they do their “Wide Open Coverage” for a reason. More things happen during commercials at a restrictor plate race than at any other sporting event. That’s where I really wish that advertisers were open to a Side-by-Side setup, so we don’t miss things. Remember, what we now know as Side-by-Side was originally created by Turner Sports for NASCAR telecasts in 2000, under the name “No Brakes Coverage.”

The No. 55 of Michael Waltrip took the lead at one point Sunday, much to the delight of the crowd inside the FOX booth. But Waltrip’s older brother Darrell got a little carried away in the process of giving his semi-retired brother his due.

Also, in the critique of this weekend last year, I criticized Darrell Waltrip for displaying favoritism towards his brother Michael. At the time, I said, “[Darrell] Waltrip has to be careful not to cross the line. As an analyst, Darrell must be objective, and simply cannot show favoritism towards his brother. Sure, it’s fine to want him to do well, but he has to watch himself.” My statement remains the same, although the circumstances this year are slightly different. This year, Darrell gushed over Michael simply getting his No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota to lead a lap, shouting “YES!” on-air in a move that interrupted a conversation inside the booth. Considering Sunday’s race, in which 29 drivers led a lap and the lead changed 88 times (officially), it could be argued that being out front for a lap didn’t even matter. I still think Darrell’s conduct in this case was simply inappropriate, though.

The updates regarding the DirecTV Head2Head Knockout also continued on Sunday. I have no clue why they waited so darn long to start that competition; it should have coincided with the actual NCAA Tournament. Instead, it started two weeks after the tournament ended, when people are tired of brackets instead of thrilled by them. I just don’t get it. However, I’m fine with FOX making a $250,000 charitable donation in the name of the winning driver.

Another gripe that I had on Sunday (and this is really with coverage at Talladega in general and not just with FOX) was with the overuse of the rear bumper cams. Viewers cannot really see all that much now, especially with the substantial increase in bumpdrafting in recent years. Also, with the small little cardboard pieces underneath the cameras where sponsor logos were placed no longer in use, it’s very difficult to tell which car the shot is coming from. TV partners should cut down on rear bumper cam usage during plate races in the future.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day from FOX’s broadcast came after the checkered flag. The network gave us the typical five post-race interviews, a check of the point standings, and unofficial results before leaving the air. However, at the end of it all a new wrinkle appeared: FOX effectively sprung additional post-race coverage on SPEED for the viewing public out of the blue.

The extra segment, lasting about 15 minutes, consisted of additional interviews and post-race analysis hosted by Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond in the “Hollywood Hotel.” Of note, the show did not carry the Overdrive name that Fox Sports was throwing around for their online post-race show that was nixed. But the unannounced move clearly appears to be here to stay; FOX owns the SPEED network, and can easily move programming within it around at will. Could this be David Hill’s revenge against Turner Sports? Perhaps; but whatever the reason, NASCAR fans across the board were happy to see the switch.

In all honesty, this move was probably the way to go from the start. It’s good to have the additional coverage, and I’m grateful. My one gripe is simply why FOX couldn’t interview Juan Pablo Montoya on the regular broadcast before the extension on SPEED (he finished third). Someone who finished that high should always be interviewed on the main network before they sign off.

Aaron’s 312

Just 20 minutes after the Sprint Cup Series broadcast ended, ESPN2 came on the air from Talladega to air their broadcast of the Aaron’s 312. There was no NASCAR Countdown coverage due to the late start. Instead, there was simply a recap of the Aaron’s 499 that just finished, then the command to start engines.

Marty Reid, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett (back from vacation) were in the booth for ESPN. Dr. Jerry Punch, Dave Burns, Mike Massaro, and Shannon Spake were on pit road. Jamie Little and Vince Welch had the week off.

My thoughts about having Side-by-Side for restrictor plate races are the same with ESPN’s coverage as with FOX’s. We viewers miss a lot of action during these breaks.

Something that I noticed during the telecast was that ESPN spent some time showing us some of the smaller efforts out there, like Chrissy Wallace in the No. 0 for JD Motorsports and Parker Kligerman in the No. 42 for Team 42 Racing. We need to see more of that.

With the wreck on the last lap, I’m not sure that ESPN gave it the type of coverage that it really deserved, knowing just how big it was in scope. You had Dennis Setzer going into the catchfence in Turn 4, and a whole bunch of cars simply torn to pieces. I’m surprised that it got as little coverage as it did. Maybe it was just the fact that Talladega was a rescheduled race, and because of that, everyone wants to get out of there as fast as possible (but do their best while still on air). Also, it should be noted that Marty Reid made a mistake, as the fencing that Setzer’s No. 92 hit wasn’t actually brand new. It looked very similar in design to the old fencing, a system that’s been up in the turns since 1994 (although I seriously doubt that exact fencing has been up that long, since they rust over time).

Jason Keller has been MIA since his team has struggled out of the box in the Nationwide Series this season. But after a solid top-5 performance at one of the series’ toughest tracks, it looks like his No. 35 team is heading back on the fast track towards success.

Considering the rescheduled time slot, post-race coverage was relatively brief. There were six post-race interviews (winner Brad Keselowski, Jason Keller (fourth), Johnny Borneman III (fifth), then three guys involved in wrecks (Stenhouse, Edwards, and McMurray). There was also a check of the point standings, while the unofficial results remained in the scroll during the post-race interviews. In all honesty, I wish ESPN could have caught up with some of the other drivers involved in the big crash, like Dennis Setzer, Kenny Wallace, Scott Wimmer, or Justin Allgaier before leaving the air.

Other than the issue I noted above, though, ‘Dega was a very nice race to watch on TV. There was a lot more usage of radio transmissions on air than normal, both live and taped. The coverage was extensive, and it sort of reminded me of what we saw from ESPN at Talladega in the late 1990’s in that regard. I hope we get more telecasts like this one from them later this season.

That’s all for this week. This weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series move on to Richmond International Raceway. The Nationwide Series races on Friday night in the Bubba Burger 250, while the Sprint Cup Series races in the Crown Royal presents the Heath Calhoun 400.

Meanwhile, over in Kansas, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the Izod IndyCar Series will be in action. However, there has been a switcheroo for this year. The Izod IndyCar Series will hold the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 on Saturday afternoon, while the Camping World Truck Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 will go off on Sunday. Last year, it was scheduled to be the reverse (before rains delayed the race to Monday).

Friday, April 30

Time Telecast Network
12:00pm Sprint Cup Practice SPEED
2:00pm Cup Happy Hour SPEED
4:00pm Nationwide Qualifying SPEED
5:30pm Cup Qualifying SPEED
7:00pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30pm Nationwide Series Bubba Burger 250 ESPN2

Saturday, May 1

Time Telecast Network
1:30pm Izod IndyCar Series Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 SPEED
5:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
7:00pm Fox Pre-Race FOX
7:30pm Sprint Cup Crown Royal presents the Heath Calhoun 400 FOX

Sunday, May 2

Time Telecast Network
12:30pm NCWTS Setup SPEED
1:00pm Camping World Trucks O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 SPEED

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck Series in next week’s column. I will also cover the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 in next week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex.

Also, stay tuned for this week’s Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter, where I will cover Saturday’s Bosch Engineering 250 and the ITM 400 Hamilton.

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 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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

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Gordon82Wins
04/27/2010 06:40 AM
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Your comments about DW rooting for his brother reminded me of something. When Waltrip was up front DW couldn’t say enough how well “Michael Waltrip” was doing, but when he started a wreck he became just “the 55 car”.

Michael
04/27/2010 07:26 AM
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Mike “ Windbag “ Joy can announce any plan he likes for upcoming commercial breaks , but it isn’t his decision to make .

SPEED doesn’t promote ARCA because SPEED is pretty much owned by NASCAR . The hours and hours of useless NASCAR reality shows are paid for by NASCAR . Infomercials really .

Once again , a perfectly good race ruined by the Three Stooges in the booth . Not to mention the director . They finally start to use wider shots of the cars , but flip from shot to shot like an MTV video . All you have to do is widen out the shots and let us watch the racing . How hard is that to understand ?

Yeah , we were all holding our breath for Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond to give us their brilliant insights at the end . Sure wouldn’t want to miss that .

I can’t exactly put my finger on why , but i really enjoy the combination of Reid , Petree , and Jarrett . Probably because they seem interested in telling us about the race , not about how smart they are , or who they know , or who they used to work for .

Jeff's Fan
04/27/2010 02:02 PM
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Bad commercial placement ruined the flow of the race on Fox. DW has been unprofessional for so long that I can’t even listen to him speak. He is wrong so often in his commentary that it makes no sense at all. I don’t understand why Mike Joy has stopped doing any PXP for the races. The booth just seems to be doing random stream of conciousness stuff, not actually calling the action on the track. Plus the usual terrible camera work by Fox — wide shots, guys, wide shots – let the fans SEE the race, not the bumpers.

ESPN has done a better job of covering the Nationwide races. Marty Reid does a great job and I enjoy it.

RamblinWreck
04/27/2010 03:04 PM
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I love the bumper cam from time to time, and this is one of the only tracks it really gets much airtime… I never stop being amazed at how these cars run touching each other, so I have no problem with excessive bumper cam use for the plate races.

They should give DW a weekend off, though; he’s clearly uncomfortable at the plate races, hates bump-drafting, and therefore is not what we want in the booth. Can we get Kyle Petty up there, please?

Steve
04/27/2010 03:57 PM
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It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they got rid of the bumper cams completely. They don’t really add much. People have seen it tons of times before and it just confuses everyone, especially when you can’t identify the car that the camera is showing.

I honestly beleive that Mike Joy has given up. DW talks so much that he seems to think he can do PXP now. I still beleive Joy is the best in the business at pxp but he has given up on trying to do his job since the other 2 in the booth won’t let him do his job.

Kevin in SoCal
04/27/2010 04:28 PM
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Phil said: “as a result, I already knew about the race’s big crash from Twitter posts before it showed up on my screen.”

Dont blame Speed, blame yourself. I DVR the races and I stay off all NASCAR websites while I’m watching the race so I dont get any spoilers.

Also, speaking of Carl’s crash from last year, they’re still using Waltrip’s commentary about Kyle Busch spinning Dale Jr at Richmond (“Oh no, he turned him, no, no no!”) as the audio to describe the accident between Keselowski and Edwards. How odd.

Wayne
04/28/2010 10:08 AM
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DW, objective? You have to be kidding.I’m totally shocked FOX can’t see just how bad this guy is. I read these different columns on TV coverage and there are so many legitimate and accurate criticisms of DW’s on air skills, which are very poor.Please FOX get DW out of the booth before you drive fans away.