The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Handles Bristol Adversity But Struggles With Their Own by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday March 22, 2011

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Hello, race fans, and welcome to Talking NASCAR TV, where race telecast dissection is the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series returned from their week off to race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, the American Le Mans Series presented by Patron Tequila (ALMS) held their season opener on Saturday morning at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida.

However, before we start, Versus announced their new on-air broadcast team for Izod IndyCar Series broadcasts on Monday. There are some returning members, but plenty of changes, one of which could impact the NASCAR on-air teams later this year. Most notably, Robbie Buhl is out of the broadcast booth, replaced by Wally Dallenbach, Jr. Dallenbach has never driven a race in what is now the Izod IndyCar Series, but he did drive in four CART races prior to his time in the Cup Series. Dallenbach will join Bob Jenkins and Jon Beekhuis in the booth. It is unclear whether Dallenbach will continue with TNT’s Summer Series for the 2011 season, as three Versus race weekends conflict with the Summer Series.

In addition, Marty Snider will join the broadcast team as a pit reporter. He will technically be replacing Robbie Floyd. However, Snider will still maintain his ties to Turner Sports and continue to work on pit road for TNT during their Summer Series of Sprint Cup races. For those race weekends, Floyd will return to substitute for him.

In addition, Kevin Lee has been promoted from Versus’ coverage of the Firestone Indy Lights Series to serve as a pit reporter as well. He will be replacing Jack Arute, who left Versus at the end of last season. If you saw that 2010 finale from Homestead, you might have noticed that Arute was very irritable on-air, getting into an argument with Beekhuis under a caution. Now, I imagine that that happens from time to time during commercial breaks, but not on-air where the viewers can hear it. Lindy Thackston will return to pit reporting for her third season and likely still host the pre-race show.

With that … we’re on to the critiques from Sebring and Bristol.

Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh From Florida

On Saturday morning, the American Le Mans Series presented by Patron Tequila held their season opener, the 59th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh From Florida. The race also served as the season opener for the International Le Mans Cup (ILMC), a de facto world sports car championship that is sanctioned by the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the sanctioning body that puts on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June). As a result, a new numbering system was put in place just for Sebring and the Petit Le Mans in October. All teams running just in ALMS had to put a zero in front of their normal number since ILMC teams are assigned their numbers for the full season.

Before we even get into the race critique, I must talk about the new TV deal that the ALMS has reached for the 2011 season. Last season, ALMS had an agreement in which SPEED covered most of the schedule, with the exception of Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. Those races were streamed online at americanlemans.com live and aired on CBS via tape-delay. The delayed broadcasts were actually what amounted to documentaries, entitled “Road Warriors.” I critiqued the Mid-Ohio documentary for The Critic’s Annex last season and noted that it was a different, and not necessarily enjoyable, way to watch a race.

In the offseason, ALMS signed a multi-year deal with ESPN to give the series more exposure. The deal gives the series telecasts on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. On paper, it doesn’t sound bad, but that’s not the whole story. The amount of live coverage of the series on television has dropped to zilch for 2011.

Yes, all races will be covered in their entirety. Also, new for 2011, qualifying will be covered in its entirety for the first time. However, all of those broadcasts will only be available on ESPN3.com. In order to get access to ESPN3.com, you have to have permission from whatever internet service provider and/or cable company you do business with. When you go to the ESPN3.com site, you have to pick your provider from the approved list and sign in using your password. Thankfully, the service is free.

The problem is not everyone has cable internet or broadband service. Also, not all entities actually make the service available to their subscribers (Time Warner Cable was actually a longtime holdout before finally making it available late last year). Quite a few fans cannot access the service at all. SPEED has a similar option, SPEED2.com, but there is nowhere near as much content.

When the deal was announced, one of the major selling points was the idea of being able to watch on your Xbox 360. I looked into that since I have one here. Unfortunately, that is currently unavailable for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers. Makes me wonder who actually can take advantage of that. In addition, once that becomes available, there are more hoops to jump through. You have to go to a special site and get a special code that you have to punch in on your Xbox 360 to get access. The whole deal is pretty annoying.

So, after you jump through all those hoops, what did you get from ESPN3.com at Sebring? The first thing I noticed was that there are separate feeds for international viewers and viewers from the United States. My best guess is that the only difference lies within some of the graphics (kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour). Regardless of those slight differences, ESPN used an all-British broadcast booth for their feed.

On play-by-play was John Hindhaugh, the highly excitable chap who did the commentary on the “Road Warriors” specials last season, and on Mobil 1’s The Grid, which airs on SPEED. He was joined by Jeremy Shaw. The two have worked together with Radio Le Mans on ALMS events for the last two years. In a move against the grain with endurance races on television, both men did the entire 12-hour race, plus pre and post-race shows in the booth, nearly 13 hours straight. Just for that, I’ll give them the Ironman award. On pit road was the trio of Rick DeBruhl, Kelly Stavast and Jamie Howe, all three with a background covering sports car racing.

The race coverage was quite decent to watch, but it appears that the commentators have little to no control over what the cameras are actually shooting. Viewers would see a spun car on course and the commentators would reference it, but we couldn’t get a close-up of the specific car involved. Weak.

The service itself was far from ideal. At no point the whole time I watched the coverage did I see a picture equal to that of Standard Definition television. Why? Apparently, picture quality is determined based on bandwidth availability and whatever you’re watching ESPN3.com on (in this case, my laptop). The picture quality is shown on a scale from one to five. The user cannot change the quality, which bites. Still, the audio is great, even though it sounded like Hindhaugh and West were talking into a bucket at times.

I think some viewers might take a while to get used to Hindhaugh and West in the booth, but they’re very enjoyable to listen to. They are enthusiastic about the on-track action and do not stray from their purpose. Apparently, they also have an unfortunate tendency to “curse” certain drivers (you know, talk about how good they’re doing, only for the car to break about 40 minutes later). That happens, I guess.

Now, ESPN3.com’s coverage is one thing. The actual TV coverage that viewers got on Sunday is a whole ‘nother story. Check out the Frontstretch Newsletter on Thursday for my thoughts on the highlight package.

Scotts EZ Seed 300

ESPN started out their coverage with a special one hour edition of NASCAR Countdown. At the start of the show, there was significant discussion about the tire issues that plagued both series on Friday. Robin Pemberton appeared on the program and spoke on how Goodyear and NASCAR came to the decision to first go away from the compound used in August, then change their minds to go back to it. Good move.

There was a feature where ESPN followed Trevor Bayne for a couple of days in and around his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee (which is relatively close to Bristol). It was an interesting look at Bayne, but with all the stuff he’s done since he won the Daytona 500, we didn’t learn anything new. There were also ten pre-race interviews.

Early on in the race, there were two major stories for the broadcast. One was Jennifer Jo Cobb’s refusal to start and park, well-documented while the other was the scoring issues that Frontstretch’s Brody Jones alluded to in his special Five Points piece from Bristol.

In regards to the Cobb situation, ESPN was right on top of it. Admittedly, this incident has garnered 2nd Chance Motorsports the most exposure they’ve ever gotten from ESPN since they joined the series last year. Dr. Jerry Punch and Jamie Little tracked down the two principals and asked for their side of the story. Cobb gave a nice interview with Punch, while owner Rick Russell claimed that he couldn’t hear Little and ignored her. It looked like he wasn’t even trying to listen to the question. Yes, he was without ear protection, but his actions came off as incredibly bush league and disrespectful. Sure, you can refuse an interview, but not that way. Also of note, Marty Reid made multiple mistakes regarding who was in the No. 79. Several times, he stated that Charles Lewandoski would be in the car when Little stated that Chris Lawson would be in it whenever they got on track.

As for the scoring issues, the scroll itself was kind of screwy early in the race. Luckily, that fixed itself by Lap 10 or so. However, the auxiliary stats were not available. Reid would periodically update that the scoring was still screwed up every once in awhile and as a result, ESPN could not chart the race off pit road.

After the competition caution, the scroll disappeared all together. ESPN has often used it as a crutch to provide their coverage to cars further down the pack. Usually, that would mean an alternate method would be required. Instead, ESPN stuck to the normal plan, and there were no rundowns given at all. Quite frankly, it was even rougher to watch than it was in the pre-electronic scoring days (prior to May, 1993). At least there was some good racing for position in that segment. However, without the scroll (and their scoring monitor), ESPN’s booth commentators were outright lost.

Many folks watching Saturday’s telecast should be forgiven if they figured Kyle Busch was the only car on track.

Even once timing and scoring returned for good after the second caution, the focus was still exclusively on the front runners, and especially on Kyle Busch. Note to ESPN: there is more on the track than just Kyle Busch. Granted, the front running bias means that there wasn’t all that much Danica emphasis (that is, until she wrecked), but it’s still not a good thing.

As for the 10,000 laps led milestone that Busch reached on Lap 265, I really didn’t care about it. I’d argue that Busch didn’t care, either. ESPN did seem to make a big deal about it, though. Must have been a talking point last week during the Tuesday afternoon conference call.

Since the race ended relatively quickly, there was a good amount of post-race coverage. There were post-race interviews with seven drivers and the winning crew chief. There was also a check of the driver’s points and some wrap-up analysis before ESPN left the air.

Saturday proved that ESPN’s booth does not handle adversity very well. It’s like the first season of Dream Job (remember that show?). One of the challenges on there put contestants on set and told them to read the script that they had written via the teleprompter for their highlights. At an undetermined time, they would kill the prompter, forcing the contestants to think on their feet. It was a little painful at times to watch… and so was Saturday.

Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City

Sunday brought the usual suspects back out for FOX’s coverage from Bristol. The pre-race show was what we’ve come to expect from FOX. That is, it was heavily focused on the trio of Jeff Hammond, Darrell Waltrip and Chris Myers on their portable stage on pit road. They have near unilateral control of the proceedings, which I am not a fan of. There continues to be hardly any pre-race interviews on the show, which I despise.

Because of these lack of interviews, I propose that FOX import “The Corral” from NCWTS Setup into FOX Pre-Race Delivered by Pizza Hut. I am a definite fan of SPEED’s new feature for 2011 in the Setup, despite the fact they were the network that needed such a pre-race feature the least.

The only feature that aired as part of pre-race was a quirky attempt to create the perfect driver for Bristol. After deliberation between Waltrip and Hammond, they created a concoction of a few different drivers’ traits. Didn’t really want to see that. The feature aired at roughly the same time as Bristol’s driver introductions with personally-selected songs, which quite a few fans would have preferred to see instead.

The reasons why the intros weren’t shown vary. The general opinion is that FOX didn’t want to play royalties for the music. I don’t think that would have applied here. FOX wasn’t playing the music, the track was. At press time, I’m trying to get more information about it and will update this critique when I get some.

There was also a one-on-one interview with Carl Edwards that was conducted by Darrell Waltrip in the Bristol infield. It was relatively well done.

During the race, FOX insisted on a lot of tight shots for much of the event. As we’ve seen in the past, such a strategy can, and most likely will bite you. Viewers have no perspective of what’s really going on at the track and when big things happen, there is a good chance everyone will miss it.

That was the case on at least two occasions late in the race on Sunday. Firstly, when Kevin Harvick went on his long slide on the backstretch, viewers saw the Harvick slide, but nothing else. Meanwhile, behind Harvick, there was the wreck between Bayne and Montoya. It took three minutes of replays before viewers could see that Bayne definitively ran over Montoya.

Right after that restart, Travis Kvapil also fell victim to a tap from Mark Martin. After the spin, the camera simply focused straight in on Martin’s car while Kvapil spun. Yes, Joy commented on the fact that Kvapil had spun and that the caution was out, but why focus in on Martin like that? Viewers were forced to wait for replays to see what Kvapil’s slide looked like even though all it would have taken was a quick pan to the right. C’mon now, that’s weak.

Post-race coverage was fairly typical by FOX standards. There were six post-race interviews and checks of the unofficial results and point standings. There was also post-race analysis from both booths before FOX left the air.

FOX has proven once again that you cannot rely on tight shots to call Sprint Cup races, especially at places like Bristol. You just miss way too much stuff. Also, at places like Bristol and Dover, the front bumper cams tend to make their only appearances of the year. Sure, they’re pretty cool to look at, but you can’t see all that much if the cars are right up against each other. In the future, FOX needs to show more of the show, same as ESPN. Just not a good week in general, TV-wise, at Bristol.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series make the haul back out west to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Late March should make for nice weather in the Inland Empire with a lower chance of precipitation than in the past. In addition, both the Izod IndyCar Series and Formula One hold their season openers as well in St. Petersburg, Florida and Australia, respectively. Here’s your listings, and please note: all times are in Eastern Daylight Time. Please adjust accordingly to your location.

Friday, March 25
Time Telecast Network
1:30 AM – 3:00 PM Formula One Grand Prix of Australia Free Practice 2 SPEED
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
4:30 – 7:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
7:00 – 9:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
10:00 – 10:30 PM SPEED Center, Friday Edition SPEED

Saturday, March 26
Time Telecast Network
2:00 AM – 3:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Australia Qualifying SPEED
1:00 PM – 2:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
2:30 – 3:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
4:00 – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
5:30 – 8:00 PM Nationwide Series Royal Purple 300 ESPN
7:00 – 7:30 PM SPEED Center, Saturday Edition SPEED

Sunday, March 27
Time Telecast Network
1:30 AM – 4:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Australia SPEED
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 PM – 12:30 PM SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
12:30 – 2:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:30 – 3:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg ABC
2:30 – 3:00 PM FOX Pre-Race Delivered by Pizza Hut FOX
3:00 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 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 SPEED

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races in next week’s critique here at Frontstretch, guaranteed. The Izod IndyCar Series race will also be covered. As always, if anything interesting pertaining to TV telecasts breaks in the next week, I’ll be sure to cover that as well.

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, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel 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 a 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:
Five Points to Ponder: Empty Seats And No Bump & Run? Are We In Bristol Anymore?
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Bristol-Fontana Edition
Growing Up Is Hard To Do: But If Kyle Busch Does It, Will It Make Him A Champ?
No Bull: Thunder Valley Full Of Lightning – Why Bristol… and Kyle… Still Entertained
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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
A Swan’s Broken Wings Equal NASCAR’s Next Concern?
Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
Sprint Cup Series Facilities Can Build Upon Fan Experience by Looking to Their Roots
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philip renwick
03/22/2011 10:28 AM
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If your driver is not in the top five, you never hear about him. There was many more story lines in the race. Keso who was wrecked early in the race came back from 35 two laps down to finish 18 on the lead lap, would have thought that would have been worth talking about.

RamblinWreck
03/22/2011 11:31 AM
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I like the use of the bumper cam. It’s about the only camera that really captures how fast and how close these cars run. It’s the “focus on the leader” camera they use too much. Especially when the leader is one of their Chosen Ones.

Michael in SoCal
03/22/2011 01:29 PM
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Kinda a Busch-league move (pun intended) to use a picture of Kyle Busch’s car from last year instead of this year’s Nationwide COT.

Joe
03/22/2011 05:26 PM
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C’mon Phil. Pretty weak critique of the Sprint Cup race. Thank goodness I listen to the race on MRN / PRN while watching on TV otherwise I would have had almost no clue as to what anyone in the field was doing other than the Toyota’s.

tn865linda
03/22/2011 09:49 PM
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When the fans complain so much about ESPN’s coverage and only following the leaders, why do they insist on doing it anyway? Surely they know or do they just not care? I dread when they take over the Sprint coverage. These TV producers for both networks are real idiots.

Steve
03/23/2011 11:48 AM
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I have a question Phil that I hope you can answer. When you speak of the Fox prerace show, you always mention the sponsors like so:

“Because of these lack of interviews, I propose that FOX import “The Corral” from NCWTS Setup into FOX Pre-Race Delivered by Pizza Hut”.

Can’t you just say Fox prerace show or is this something that you have to do? Thanks

I was extremely annoyed at the coverage of the Harvick spin. It took about 10 replays before we actually got a good shot of what happened behind him. Very weak.

And is it just me or are we always seeing replays of action because we are always at commercial. Passes for the lead are always missed.

Follow ups are terrible too. Where was the debris for the caution within the last 150 laps. They never said or showed. And they never followed up on the tire issues either. But yet DW has the cajones to tweet that the coverage was good.