The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Did ESPN Recover At Kansas? And VERSUS' On-Air Implosion by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 5, 2010

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Hello, race fans. It’s that time of the week once again. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, the piece where I take a look into race telecasts and critique their value to you, the people who watch. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were at Kansas Speedway. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series held their season finale Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Before I start, South Park Studios announced on Sunday that the second-half season premiere of South Park will cover NASCAR for the very first time. The episode, entitled “Poor and Stupid,” will cover Cartman wanting to race in NASCAR and fearing that he cannot reach the level of other drivers. The episode premieres Wednesday night at 10 PM ET on Comedy Central. I would be watching this show regardless of whether it was covering NASCAR or not, but since they are, I plan on critiquing this episode in the future. All I know so far is that some of the paint schemes on cars are based off the real thing – including the one Cartman will be driving.

Cafes do Brasil Indy 300

As always, the telecast on Versus started with IndyCar Central. Lindy Thackston was situated in the infield this week instead of out in the concourse behind the grandstands. The main reasoning for this change appeared to be a very small crowd, although that was never mentioned specifically on air.

The coverage started with a recap of the Kentucky Indy 300, then followed into interviews with Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Later interviews included Simona de Silvestro, Alex Lloyd, Dario Franchitti, and Power. A “Professor B” segment with Jon Beekhuis talked about shock absorbers, also known as dampers.

Executive Director of Marketing for Phillips-Van Heusen (parent company of Izod) Mike Kelly joined Thackston on the set for an interview. I do not understand why they did not use wireless mikes for the interview subjects. Instead, Lindy pointed her mike. That works for pit road interviews, but here it looks low-rent on a set.

Mike Conway also joined Thackston for his on-camera interview with Versus since his massive crash at the end of the Indianapolis 500. This interview served as more or less a “catching up” task. OK, but very bland.

Versus dispatched Danica Patrick (under the title Danica Talks…) to interview IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard about the major issues surrounding the series. This segment included info on the new car for 2012, as well as the aero kits designed for it. On paper, it sounds interesting because Danica can be quite fiery at times. In practice, this probably would have looked similar if any of the Versus pit reporters asked the questions, or even if posters on the IndyCar Series section of the MySpeed Forums asked them. We also didn’t learn much.

Versus kept the camera zoomed in on this handsome mug for much of the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300… congratulations, Dario!

The race coverage was most definitely centered on the championship battle between Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Versus had a drop-down box from the scroll that showed the margin between the two drivers and made prodigious use of it throughout the race. Coverage of the event was also centered upon the two contenders. Simply put, unless you were one of those drivers, or you found yourself up front at some point, you weren’t getting on TV.

I can understand a certain amount of focus on championship contenders in a race, but what we got Saturday night was absolutely loony. Versus missed incidents on pit road because of their tunnel vision. During a green flag pit stop sequence, Ernesto (E.J.) Viso left the pits with his fuel filler still connected. Half a lap later, the broken filler part fell off the car and came to rest in the backstretch grass. Versus caught the bouncing filler part on camera live and noted that since it came to rest in the grass on the backstretch, there would be no caution. No replay was ever shown of the incident.

Milka Duno also managed to hit a tire at one point on pit road. Of course, Milka has been enough of an embarrassment this season that Versus takes great pains to not show her during races. That doesn’t excuse Versus from their job of covering the whole event, though. At least a replay should have been shown, because there was never a mention of this incident on-air.

Finally, during a round of pit stops under caution, Tony Kanaan nearly repeated what Viso did earlier in the race. As this incident happened during the caution for Will Power’s wall contact, however, his gaffe was only touched upon by one of the booth commentators until after they finished covering Power’s issues. After what seemed like ten minutes, Versus showed a replay of what happened.

The broadcast seemed to take its toll on the on-air personalities. On Lap 147 (still under caution from the Power incident), an argument broke out on-air between Jon Beekhuis in the booth and Jack Arute about Helio Castroneves’ pit strategy. Arute accused Beekhuis and Robbie Buhl of being “tardy” in the booth. The arguing continued until Versus abruptly cut both Beekhuis and Arute’s mikes, leading to a very awkward silence. This can be seen at the 3:40 mark of this clip. This verbal sparring is the type of stuff that (if it ever occurs) happens during commercial breaks. Their fight was crazy to watch live; in fact, I’ve never seen anything like it during a race before. I guess the crew’s worn out from a long year and all, but the resulting confrontation was basically unprofessional, bush league and a whole bunch of other things, with blame more or less lying with Arute here.

Speaking of the Power caution, it was 15 laps long for what could best be described as minor wall contact. It was well over ten laps before Jenkins explained to viewers that the caution was extended due to the fact that the light showing whether pit road was opened or closed was malfunctioning. If this reason’s the only one why this caution was longer than four or five laps, then it needed to be voiced out much earlier – simple as that.

The end of the race annoyed me as well. The last eight laps were run with a split-screen, one on the leader (Scott Dixon) and the battle for second between Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan. The other was on the in-car camera in Franchitti’s car. This method of covering the championship was annoying; Franchitti was running in eighth, all alone. There was nothing to see, and Versus’ redundant graphic notifying viewers that they were on board with Franchitti covered up the lap counter.

Post-race coverage was fairly substandard given the amount of time that Versus had. There were interviews with the top three finishers (Dixon, Patrick, and Kanaan), along with two interviews involving champion Dario Franchitti. A technical issue during the trophy ceremony saw Jack Arute’s microphone not working at the start of the presentation. He was visibly upset and stormed off the stage, but returned after a ten-minute delay and performed his duties immediately after the race podium ceremony (almost completely blocked for the few fans in attendance by the temporary stage set up for the championship trophy presentation).

This telecast was a very rough race for Versus, and I hope that this type of coverage does not continue in the future. I severely doubt that the network, and parent company Comcast, would be happy about two of their on-air personalities arguing like that. It would make them look bad. Changes could very well be in store for Versus’ on-air crew in 2011.

Kansas Lottery 300

Meanwhile, in Kansas, college football once again played a role in ESPN’s coverage of the Nationwide Series. The game between Clemson and Miami ran long by over 40 minutes on Saturday. This event pushed all of NASCAR Countdown and the start of the race to ESPN Classic. I understand the issue at hand here, but let’s face some facts: ESPN Classic’s audience has shrunken by a significant margin over the past two to three years.

Needless to say, that means a lot of people missed the beginning of Saturday’s action. When ESPN 2 joined the race at the end of Lap 12, Marty Reid recapped what had happened in the first segment before getting down to the current action. This method is a fine way to re-acclimate viewers, but I wish it didn’t have to happen in the first place.

After the race, I sent an e-mail to ESPN’s Andy Hall asking about Saturday’s schedule setup on ESPN2. The reply I received stated that the Clemson-Miami game started on time and somehow just lasted longer than normal. In addition, the fact that Saturday’s game was Clemson’s homecoming had no bearing on the actual length of the game. I don’t know about that. In closing, Hall iterated that “…it is ESPN’s policy to stay with an event to its conclusion.”

Race coverage was fairly decent. Unlike last week, there were no glaring issues with the telecast. No one running 35th got undue coverage just because of what they’re known for outside of racing. Nothing stood out at all. Perhaps that’s good in the long run that there isn’t anything for me to openly gripe about.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief. Before any post-race interviews were shown, there were replays of Logano’s pass for the win and Parker Kligerman’s crash in Turn 1. There were interviews with winner Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Carmichael, and Martin Truex Jr. The unofficial results stayed in the scroll and no point standings were shown before ESPN left the air.

This race was an average one to watch on TV. There was nothing really objectionable about the broadcast. However, there was also nothing that really stood out, save for the issues before the race even started with scheduling.

Price Chopper 400

Once again, technical problems hampered ESPN’s pre-race programming on Sunday. Five minutes before NASCAR Countdown was due to begin, an unfortunate audio problem popped up. Audio was…kaput. This issue was fixed, but half of NASCAR Countdown was unwatchable for viewers without HDTV’s. When the technical difficulties started happening, the aforementioned Andy Hall took to Twitter to explain the situation. He said “We had problem with entire standard def ESPN2 network out of our HQ in CT and apologize for the inconvenience.” Thank you for keeping us posted, Andy. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen again.

Luckily for us, I have other means to see coverage other than a Standard Definition feed on TV. NASCAR Countdown started off with a short recap of September 26th’s AAA 400. This flowed directly into an interview with Jimmie Johnson. Other interviews included Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon.

There was another rehashing of the whole Clint Bowyer penalty since the ruling came down on Wednesday that the appeal was denied. This discussion came right after the Bowyer interview.

Continuing with the offbeat pieces from last week, ESPN ran a word association segment where they asked random drivers the first thing that came to their mind when they heard one of nine terms. This questioning led to some interesting answers, like everyone claiming Kyle Busch is NASCAR’s villain except for Kyle himself, who gave it to Brad Keselowski. I like these types of segments. I like a good laugh.

Close competition was seen rarely on Sunday…if you blinked, well, you probably missed it.

On a more serious note, there was a feature centered around the Dream Racer, a car made from the same materials as regular race cars, but loaded with a Sony PlayStation 3 and NASCAR games. These setups, which include steering wheels and pedals, are custom made for purchase at a cost of $9500. Rick Hendrick donated several of these Dream Racers (painted up in Hendrick colors, of course) to the Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. It also includes the touching story of six-year-old Lauren Turner, who suffers from Leukemia.

Another feature was centered upon Denny Hamlin, an avid basketball player, visiting the College Basketball Experience in Kansas City with Brad Daugherty. While there, Denny talks about his season, specifically the knee surgery in April and the conflict with RCR at Dover. It could be argued that the only reason Daugherty was there is because he used to play basketball professionally. This piece could have been conducted by anyone with ESPN, not just Brad.

Tim Brewer made a brief appearance from the Craftsman Tech Garage to talk about overall balance and clean air. Little did we know how much of a role clean air was going to play in the race.

The race had plenty of long green flag runs, including a 100-lap run that lasted until just after the halfway point. When the field gets that spread out, races for position are rare. ESPN did do an Up to Speed during this segment of the race towards the end of it. However, the all-Chaser Up to Speed segments were back in play again. This annoys me. Other drivers essentially get no respect this time of year.

There was quite a bit of surprise for A.J. Allmendinger’s top-10 finish at the end of the race on Sunday, but that is only because he wasn’t shown very much on the broadcast. The only time he got a significant amount of coverage Sunday was when he sandwiched the No. 43 Dodge in a three-wide battle with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Johnson early on.

It appears that ESPN definitely got the message from viewers not to pull the commercial in the final eleven laps of the race move again after last weekend. Writers on Twitter noted that the final 23 minutes of the event were shown without commercial interruption. This move is very rare for any network, especially one that usually goes somewhere between three to six minutes between commercial breaks. It shows a renewed commitment to showing the action from ESPN after spending the last week or so being dragged across the coals by fellow writers and fans.

Post-race coverage was decent. There were interviews with winner Greg Biffle and his crew chief Greg Erwin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, and David Reutimann. Before ESPN interviewed Kyle, there was live footage shown of an argument between Busch and car owner Joe Gibbs. Kyle was still very angry over the incident with Reutimann earlier in the race. However, when he did the interview a couple of minutes later, he was actually quite chipper, leading people to say that “The New Kyle Busch showed up.” The point standings were also displayed on screen before ESPN left the air.

This broadcast was OK to watch, but once again, it was stuffed heavy with emphasis on the Chasers. ESPN is seemingly making an effort to improve their telecasts, though, which is definitely good to see in the face of ratings that are down 20 percent from last year. However, they do have a ways to go.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series return to Auto Club Speedway for a doubleheader weekend. Meanwhile, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/MAX and Menards will hold their season finale Saturday at the 1.017-mile Rockingham Speedway. Also this weekend is the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 for the V8 Supercars in Australia. This race will be shown in a two-hour slot on SPEED on October 17th. Here’s your listings for this week:

Friday, October 8
Time Telecast Network
1:00 AM – 2:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Japan Free Practice 2 SPEED
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
3:00 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
4:30 – 6:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED *6:30 – 8:30 PM * Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2

Saturday, October 9
Time Telecast Network
1:00 AM – 2:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Japan Qualifying SPEED
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
1:00 – 3:30 PM ARCA Racing Series American 200 SPEED
4:00 – 4:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
4:30 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Camping World 300 ESPN2

Sunday, October 10
Time Telecast Network
1:30 AM – 4:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Japan SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 ESPN
7:00 – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2

Note that there is no coverage of qualifying for the Nationwide Series, or the first practice session on Saturday for the Sprint Cup Series due to the Petit Le Mans coverage from Road Atlanta.

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 the ESPN or SPEED Channels personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following link:

SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the network 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

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
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5 Points to Ponder: The Franchise Gets Rowdy, The Rookie Kiss Of Death, and Start The Damned Race at Noon
Desperate Times Call ‘4’ Desperate Measures: The 4-Car Rule Needs To Go
No Bull: What Constitutes Bad NASCAR Attendance? How Capacity Changes Perception
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Kansas-Fontana Edition

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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Jacob
10/05/2010 09:05 AM
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Ok, so Milka Duno is a terrible race car driver. But at least she really is hot. Unlike Danica, whom is a terrible driver, and has the body of a 12 year old boy.

DoninAjax
10/05/2010 10:34 AM
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The Cup race was scheduled for three hours and was 2:54. Pretty close so their schedule for commercials could work.
Last week the race was scheduled for three and a half hours and was over in 3:02. They couldn’t get all their commercials timed properly and the audience was overdosed.
Emperor Brian should have done something about it with Pierre Debris cautions and raised a whole different stink.

Don Mei
10/05/2010 11:55 AM
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Grow up Jacob, for god’s sakes! You sound like a pre-pubescent twelve year old. An envious one at that.

RamblinWreck
10/05/2010 12:00 PM
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Can someone tell Jamie Little that she’s a pit reporter and not supposed to do play-by-play? It seems like every week she reports on a driver or team, she cuts herself off to say “and he’s getting passed” or “and there’s a caution” or something. Small distraction, but it’s an easy fix.

Phil Allaway
10/05/2010 01:29 PM
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RamblinWreck, are you just singling Jamie out for doing that? I’m pretty sure all the pit reporters do that from time to time, particularly Dave Burns. It doesn’t really bother me much. It’s not like they’re talking just to hear themselves talk.

DoninAjax
10/05/2010 02:53 PM
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The “race” started at 1:19.
The first commercial was at 1:23.
I said the hell with this and PVRed it and watched the NFL.
It took just under two hours from green til the checkered flag and then the usual Hendrick interviews started.

And I’m getting tired of “and fill it up with Sunoco fuel.” They mention Sunoco more in one race than Union 76 got during the whole time they supplied the fuel.

AL
10/05/2010 02:56 PM
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I agree with RamblinWreck,I have seen and heard far too much from Jamie Little, but as you say it is an easy fix, either fast forward the tape or hit the mute button.NASCAR races are looking more like Entertainment Tonight lately.Maybe some people are getting tired of the pretty faces and just want some more racing coverage.

Jacob
10/05/2010 05:35 PM
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Don Mei: Why are you saying that? As we can see from the Sarah Fisher’s of the world, a woman in racing isn’t about talent, it is about their sex appeal. So if I can only watch hot women that can’t drive, then what is the problem with pointing it out?

You sound like a typical “head-in-the-sand” person, that likes to pretend that life’s reality doesn’t exist, simply because it makes you uncomfortable.

Marybeth
10/05/2010 06:52 PM
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I turned to Race Hub last night and Larry Mc was crying for poor little Kyle, I turned to the Fox News Ch. I tried again a little later & Larry was still crying for poor little Kyle. I turned the channel and did not try to go back.
Bravo to Jamie Little. In her post-race interview with JJ, she added that JJ took JG’s set-up.

29racefan
10/06/2010 12:21 AM
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Yes Jacob………. You do need to grow up.

IndyFan
10/06/2010 08:51 AM
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VERSUS really sucks covering the irl racing.

They are doing exactly what the networks have done to nascar, cover the top two or three drivers and forget the rest.

it was totally a frustrating evening trying to watch the entire “race”!

Steve
10/06/2010 12:15 PM
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You totally throw Versus under the bus for their coverage, saying that the entire focus was on the championship drivers, but with ESPN, its all you get, and you give one litte reference to them?

Menard was leading for a while and got totally ignored by ESPN the entire time he was leading. Why? Because he’s not a Chaser. This tells me that even if you lead, you will not get coverage unless you are a chaser. But of course, you give them a pass on it. Menard finished in the top 5 and still got nothing.

Keep showing your hate towards the IRL. Its pretty obvious with this critique. The IRL will be giving Nascar a real run for their money in the next few years if they play their cards right and Nascar is just garbage to watch right now.

I usually like this column, but this one wasn’t one of your best, Phil.

RamblinWreck
10/06/2010 10:22 PM
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Phil,
Jamie isn’t the only one to do it… but I tend to notice it more with her. Like I said, it’s a relatively minor pet peeve of mine, but it breaks up the rhythm of the report. Dave at least (when I notice it) usually finishes his pit report and then says something like, “guys, caution on the track,” and it goes back to the booth.

I do realize it’s a little tough… in another sport you wouldn’t hear a sideline reporter commenting on the action on the field, but they would usually report when there’s a break in play—something our sport doesn’t have much of at all.