The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Audio, Post-Race Issues Plague ESPN And FOX by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday February 22, 2011

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Talking NASCAR TV: Audio, Post-Race Issues Plague ESPN And FOX

Phil Allaway · Tuesday February 22, 2011

 

Hello, race fans. With NASCAR’s three national series back underway for the year, starting with the biggest race for each there was plenty to cover as Daytona Speedweeks reached a thrilling conclusion. It was a challenging time for the broadcast networks, all of whom had to come out swinging with their “A” game as, unlike other sports they’re forced to emerge from three months of hibernation and cover the “Super Bowl” right off the bat to start their season.

So were the broadcasters on top of the rule changes, new faces in new places, and fantastic finishes in each of the Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series this weekend? And did their pre- and post-race shows give us the adequate information we need to leave the race satisfied, not searching for more?

Turns out the second question became the biggest concern, part of a troubling pattern of the same old problems in the same old places during telecasts for SPEED, ESPN, and FOX to begin the first full weekend of 2011…

NextEra Energy Resources 250

Keeping in chronological order, we’ll start with the Camping World Truck Series, returning for their tenth season on SPEED. Let’s start with a couple of changes to the coverage, revealed throughout the beginning of the pre-show on Friday night.

A piece on Matt Crafton and Thorsport Racing was the highlight of a well-produced SPEED pre-race show for the Truck Series.

That broadcast, “The Setup” started out with a new segment called “The Corral,” named after the area where drivers stage themselves before being introduced to the crowd. It is effectively a series of rapid-fire, pre-race interviews conducted by both veteran pit reporter Ray Dunlap and newcomer Hermie Sadler. I liked this segment, especially since as a basic rule it’s always good to have driver interviews in pre-race shows. There is actual substance in this feature, too as opposed to, say a human-interest piece. However, if any of NASCAR’s media partners did not really need to attempt a move like this one, it would be SPEED. They already had the most pre-race interviews of the TV partners last year, a reputation that I guess just means they would be the most willing to expand. With a boost from “The Corral,” SPEED had a total of ten pre-race interviews to get the fans reacquainted with plenty of their favorites.

A separate feature focused on ThorSport Racing, a team that has raced in the Truck Series since 1996 (full-time since 1997) and their insistence on keeping their base of operations in Sandusky, Ohio. Unlike the portrayal of the city in Tommy Boy, Sandusky is definitely not dead (in fact, during the summer it gets a lot of tourists thanks to the local theme park). The piece showed the obvious, that the city is proud of ThorSport and their success in the series after struggling during their first few seasons of existence… but it was tastefully done.

One note before moving on: TruckBuddy is back in exactly the same guise as it was towards the end of 2010. That’s good and bad. Good in that we can see uninterrupted race coverage during commercial breaks, but bad in that we don’t get an integrated leaderboard. That needs to be fixed, and soon because it hurts the application. Another complaint seen on Twitter was that nascar.com needs to label which driver is on each in-car (or in this case, in-truck) channel. That is something to look at. Granted, one of them was marked as the “Waltrip Cam” all night, while the other was in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s truck. That is something to look into for the future, though.

The race coverage was decent. Compared to the other two events, the trucks put on a somewhat more traditional type of race with less bumpdrafting. Darrell Waltrip, who was in the booth in place of brother Michael, kept himself in check for most of the night. Phil Parsons could actually say something, for a change.

As for SPEED’s new pit reporter, Hermie Sadler, he fit in very well. I shouldn’t really be surprised since it’s not like Sadler is new to the network, but I didn’t really know what to expect from him going in. Based on Friday, he’ll do just fine in this new role. And then, there’s the matter of his partner; I’ll admit here that I could care less about Ray Dunlap cutting off his ‘stache. At least SPEED felt the need to have a little fun at his expense, and it was what they did to bring attention to the change that worked out well. There’s something about seeing someone like Jennifer Jo Cobb or Johanna Long wearing fake mustaches that makes me chuckle.

However, when the race came down to the finish, Darrell slipped into his old ways. The run to the line could be described as nothing short of cheerleading for Michael. Despite the magnitude of the moment – winning on the 10th anniversary of his first Daytona 500 victory – we just can’t have that in race commentary. With all of the Earnhardt tributes that have aired over the past week and change, it is notable just how similar Darrell’s call sounded to how he called the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500. Darrell was blatantly biased in that call back then, and he definitely was Friday night as well. That is indisputable. Yes, I can understand that it’s a family situation here, but you have to be professional under any circumstance.

Post-race coverage was pretty substantial. In addition to showcasing the results, there were six post-race interviews. Since there were so many wrecks that eliminated contenders, it was a rather interesting group that got interviewed beyond Michael in Victory Lane; among them was new point leader Clay Rogers, who’s running with limited sponsorship yet completed an impressive drive up to third place.

Next weekend, we will see the normal Truck Series crew back in place. Without Darrell in the booth and Michael racing, we will see the team, armed with the younger Waltrip, get back into their normal flow. Darrell’s unprofessionalism aside, they definitely have a good product to build on so we’ll see how SPEED does this Friday night.

DRIVE4COPD 300

Saturday, ESPN started its fifth season back in the NASCAR fray with few changes from 2010.

NASCAR Countdown was unnecessarily expanded to 75 minutes for the season-opening race. Much of the time was filled in with analysis from the slightly revamped Infield Studio. While that’s nice, there’s only so much that I can take of the same old analysts bantering back and forth before the green flag.

Since Danica Patrick was back in the field, there was the obligatory Patrick feature. Patrick was in a barren room with a canvas, showing in-car footage of her Nationwide Series exploits from 2010 as if they were drawn using pencils of different levels of hardness. Looked interesting, for sure, but we didn’t really learn anything about Danica’s upcoming 12-race Nationwide Series assault that we didn’t already know. Also, ESPN previewed part of the piece on NASCAR Now during the week, rendering this final segment even more useless.

At times, ESPN’s coverage of the Nationwide race on Saturday turned into the type of train wreck usually reserved for on the track.

Another feature saw Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett take to the track in near-identical race cars to get a feel for the new type of racing that would be seen during the event. The analyzing duo drove around the 2.5-mile tri-oval for approximately 20-30 minutes with a full radio hookup the whole time. Part of the exhibition was shown live on ESPNEWS, while the rest was edited down into the feature we saw on Saturday. It was one of those classic learning by doing type of things, like a lab in Chemistry class at school. Not a bad effort.

Other features covered Elliott Sadler’s return to the Nationwide Series, along with the new “pick a title” rule. Those topics have been discussed repeatedly throughout most of the offseason, so once again, ESPN didn’t really add anything to the discussion.

Once the actual event began, there was something very obvious in the way that ESPN covered Saturday’s Nationwide race. They gave an inordinate amount of coverage to whoever was battling for the lead at that moment, regardless of what was going on behind them. Why? Let’s just be honest; the whole two-car drafting system, compared by some (like Andy Lally) to chain or train races that one would find at an Eve of Destruction was really giving me headaches. Behind the leaders, though there would be somewhat more traditional forms of restrictor plate racing that was all but invisible to viewers at home.

Apparently, ESPN wants to focus more on the drivers than on the championship this season. I have no clue how such a strategy would be different from what we’ve seen from ESPN over the past four seasons. As you may remember, there hasn’t been much of a championship battle since ESPN took over the Nationwide Series.

But that strategy seems to restrict itself to covering just the drivers within striking distance of the lead, all the time and every time they could. Even the infamous Patrick was pretty much invisible if she wasn’t up front. She did get quite a bit of coverage when she was getting pushed by Bowyer before the infamous “ditching” incident left her falling back. Plenty of radio chatter was played showing that she really wasn’t the best pusher out there, with Bowyer the primary complainer … but that’s about all she wrote (or televised).

It also seems that the broadcast booth expected to have a race where very few cars would actually finish on the lead lap. As a result, it was a little hard to keep track of anyone behind the top 4 once there was a long, green run. They were effectively dead to ESPN.

If the race was a bit of a letdown, coverage-wise, then post-race was a travesty. Of course, that catastrophe was outside of ESPN’s control due to technical issues. Turns out the audio just plain died right before the Victory Lane interview with Stewart. Viewers saw the interview, but with no sound which caused ESPN to take a commercial break after a minute of silence. However, since they were so close to the end of their timeslot, they basically got the sound back and went straight to their special Daytona 500 Preview edition of SportsCenter when they came out of the break. Bestwick did apologize for the issues and notified viewers that more post-race coverage would air shortly thereafter.

In their defense, ESPN did replay the Victory Lane interview that Vince Welch did with Stewart during the Daytona 500 Preview, albeit 18 minutes and two commercial breaks in. There was also a post-race interview with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. before the focus returned to Sunday’s race. I would have preferred more post-race coverage than that, though to be honest.

The bottom line with it all is ESPN cannot expect to go through an entire 34-race schedule and only cover a few drivers per race. Such a practice would alienate and anger fans; they would be wise not to repeat such a narrow focus again. You need to show the whole story when you cover a race, and on Saturday, ESPN clearly failed to accomplish that task.

Daytona 500

Finally, we come to the big kahuna.

FOX returned its entire crew to Daytona, but there were a couple of changes to pre-race. The longtime “Hollywood Hotel,” where hosts Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond get stashed was briefly jettisoned in favor of using the stage that SPEED had been occupying for their NASCAR Live! shows during the week. Fans who paid the extortion (unsure of the cost, but knowing that it was $65 a person for the day of the Coke Zero 400 last year, it had to be a little more than that) to be in the Sprint FanZone, in addition to whatever their ticket cost could watch the trio on stage for the first 40 minutes of pre-race. The interview with Kevin Harvick was there as well, although I have no idea why they decided not to have Harvick on stage to begin with.

Kevin Harvick was one of the first drivers featured on-air as FOX kicked off their 2011 season of NASCAR coverage.

Now since it’s FOX, the pre-race concerts are back, and if you remember my previous early season critiques, then you might remember me not being a fan of them. But they’re not going anywhere, anytime soon which means Brad Paisley was the headliner on Sunday. Since I’m not a country music fan, I cannot gauge how good his performance was; I just don’t know enough about his style to project that. I do know that it took up 10-20 minutes of the pre-race coverage.

However, there was another brief performance by Dierks Bentley on the permanent stage inside the Sprint FanZone. He will be performing a version of his song, “Sideways” before every one of FOX’s 13 races this season, for better or worse. It seems that FOX is trying to designate “Sideways” as “the official song” of NASCAR on FOX since Eric Shanks took away their theme.

One feature definitely drove the typical FOX mentality that a lot of fans really cannot identify with. Early on, there was a spoof of the syndicated celebrity gossip show TMZ where the analysts and pit reporters, posing as random staffers, previewed the upcoming season. In addition, there were clips of guerrilla-style confrontations with drivers. It’s one thing to preview an upcoming season; it’s quite another to make a fool of yourself in the process. Not cool. Please do not repeat.

Probably the most tasteful feature done was the one with champions from other disciplines (Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky, Lance Armstrong) talking about Johnson’s championships and putting it in perspective. It was interesting to watch. Still, despite having 70 or so minutes of pre-race coverage, there were only five pre-race interviews. I don’t understand why FOX spends so much time on pre-race analysis when you have a bunch of drivers chomping at the bit to actually converse on air. If you’re going to have a pre-race show of that length, please give me more interviews during that time.

The overall feel in the broadcast booth was a little different this year. I’d argue that the constant action on track kept our trio on task a lot more, but the shenanigans that I often ripped on in the past were not really evident. That is, until the end of the race, when old habits die hard: Darrell seemed to get a little too excitable and basically cut off Mike Joy. Just because a race is really exciting, DW, doesn’t mean that you can perform “cutsies” whenever you want to. Perhaps studying how the guys at MRN Radio call races with enthusiasm without talking over their colleagues would help him here.

Since the race ran long due to the multiple cautions, there was not all that much post-race coverage. However, for the time they had, it was OK. There were six driver interviews, along with an interview of Trevor Bayne’s mother. Now, obviously Stephanie Bayne was thrilled about Trevor’s win and both FOX and ESPN interviewed her, but I don’t really think they should have put that interview on the air over an interview with one of the Wood Brothers, or David Gilliland. Sure, do the interview, but keep it on file for future use, like a feature on the pre-race show in Phoenix. For those of you wondering, according to Front Row Motorsports’ Twitter page, FOX did interview Gilliland, but it had to be cut from the broadcast due to time constraints. No word on whether there were interviews recorded for the telecast with the Wood Brothers or Bobby Labonte as of yet.

Also, some writers on Monday went after the broadcast booth for not being quite critical enough Sunday. I tend to agree with them to a point. Many of the race’s 16 yellows were caused by people bumping inappropriately, like the Big One in Turn 3 and Robert Richardson’s crash. Both of those incidents were caused by a driver bumping their teammate with too much vigor. The booth referenced the contact, but appeared to just consider these incidents to be foregone conclusions with the current package. It doesn’t need to be much, but something needs to be said more pointedly about that and the way the racing’s getting affected. On the other hand, you can’t go overboard with criticism … but I don’t think the balance was there this time around.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, all three of NASCAR’s national series are in action once again. However, thanks to a schedule change, they are not hauling all the way out to Fontana. Instead, it will be the Phoenix International Raceway that will play host for the last time in its current guise. After the races end, the pavement will be chopped up and redone in time for the November, 2011 visit back to the speedway. In addition, graduated banking will be added in the turns and the backstretch dogleg will be reconfigured. The result will be a flatter and longer version of Concord Motorsports Park, I guess. There’s a PDF detailing the reconfiguration plan for PIR at their website available for public perusal if you’re interested in looking at the changes.

Here’s your listings for the week.

NOTE: All times listed are Eastern Standard Time. Please adjust for your time zone.
Friday, February 25
Time Telecast Network
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Happy Hour SPEED
1:00 – 2:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
2:30 – 4:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
4:00 – 5:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
5:00 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
6:00 – 7:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150 SPEED

Saturday, February 26
Time Telecast Network
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
3:30 – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
5:30 – 8:00 PM Nationwide Series Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 ESPN2

Sunday, February 27
Time Telecast Network
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 – 12:30 PM SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
12:30 – 2:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:30 – 3:00 PM FOX Pre-Race FOX
3:00 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 500k FOX
7:00 – 8:00 PM SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel with Dave DeSpain SPEED

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races for next week’s critique. In addition, I will also give some random thoughts and musings on anything that might come up.

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 FOX, SPEED or ESPN channels personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, 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

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
5 Points to Ponder: Pit Problems, Waltrip Must Go, And Ethics Run Amok?
Who’s Hot / Not In NASCAR: Daytona 500 Edition
Crime Scene Investigation: Denny Hamlin Looking To Bury Phoenix Hatchet
No Bull: Bayne’s Win Was Big For NASCAR… Now What?
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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
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…
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Sherri T
02/22/2011 10:08 AM
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I agree with you assessments on Saturday’s race. The concentration on the front is okay if you’re going to cover the rest of the field to an extent, but the concentration on the front of the field in addition to the constant play-by-play (unnecessary when we can see what’s going on) was annoying as heck.

Steve
02/24/2011 10:04 AM
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Why is everyone so worked up about driver interviews? All you get are the perverbial string of sponsor plugs and telling you they have a great car for the days race. I don’t get it.

My biggest complaint of the tv coverage has to do with DW. He brings the whole broadcast down with his cheerleading and constant schilling of Nascar/MWR/Toyota. And saying Michael was one of the best restrictor plate racers ever was a joke. He really proved that on Sunday didn’t he DW?

Wayne
02/24/2011 07:35 PM
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DW kept himself in check, WOW, that’s not what I saw. He is so unprepared he doesn’t even know the truck series title sponsor. His many on air issues and unprofessional behavior cannot be defended anymore, Mr. Hill.