The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Will SPEED Be Driving Away With Sprint Cup Come 2012? by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday June 21, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where race broadcasts are the name of the game. You won’t find people using modified golf carts on track to run their rivals out of fuel here.

This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were back in action at Michigan International Speedway. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series made their return to The Milwaukee Mile.

However, before we start, there’s some breaking news. Sports Business Journal is reporting that FOX is looking to potentially shift some races (as many as six) away from the FOX Television Network to SPEED. Granted, I would not expect the production to be all that different on SPEED as opposed to FOX, but it would take away some fans’ means of watching races. SPEED is available in 78 million homes, but some cable systems (mine included) have been moving the channel to the Digital Sports Tier, requiring digital cable and the extra cost for the sports package (for me, $5.95 a month) in order to view the station. A lot of fans aren’t going to like that move if it comes to fruition. What races could get shifted to SPEED if this happens? Take a step back to 2002 or so and check which races aired on FX. Dover, Richmond, events like that. Those would be candidates to be shifted.

Also, a quick announcement. I will be traveling to Daytona Beach to represent Frontstretch during the Coke Zero 400 weekend. As a result, I will not be critiquing TNT’s annual Wide Open Coverage from Daytona. Hopefully, Meatwad does not make an appearance on the broadcast this year. Here we go.

The Milwaukee 225

On Sunday, ESPN returned for their third race of the season, The Milwaukee 225 from The Milwaukee Mile. The coverage started out with Honda Pit Stop, the IndyCar Countdown show.

Honda Pit Stop started off with a recap of the Firestone Twin 275’s from Texas Motor Speedway.

Since the race was run on Father’s Day, ESPN aired a feature where certain drivers talked about what their fathers mean (or meant) to them. It was a nice look into the private lives of drivers, which we really don’t see all that much. In addition, there were five pre-race interviews and some pre-race discussion in the booth before the race began.

During the race coverage itself, ESPN kept up the Father’s Day theme by constantly referencing the drivers (seven of them) who were fathers and actually doing a father-themed Up to Speed (yes, this happened). It was a little weird in practice.

Unlike some of ESPN’s NASCAR telecasts, the Izod IndyCar Series telecast focused mostly on battles for position around the track. Since Milwaukee (for open-wheelers) is a short track in every sense of the word, there was no shortage of on-track action, and ESPN made a point to cover all of it.

However, outside of Will Power’s issues early on in the race, most of that coverage was centered at the front of the field. In a race with only 26 starters (two of which didn’t make it beyond Lap 15), that’s not so good.

Reid and Goodyear are basically throw-away guys in the broadcast booth at this point. They don’t really bring anything to the booth, but they don’t really take anything away either. Cheever is only in the booth for the Indianapolis 500, so he wasn’t back this week. We’re better off for that because Cheever is to racing commentary like Tim McCarver is to baseball commentary—useless. Having said that, I’m sure that some race fans were happy that Reid was not in Michigan this weekend.

ESPN nearly missed a restart due to being in a Side-by-Side commercial. As a result, they were a little slow getting to the wreck involving Sebastian Saavedra and Alex Lloyd. In the future, ESPN should not cut it so close with the Side-by-Side commercials to restarts. It also brings to mind a question: as long as local breaks are not involved, the network can break out of a commercial at any time to show something (wreck, major turning point of the race, etc.). Can ESPN do that with Side-by-Side commercials? It is a question that has rarely been asked.

Since the race finished right up against the end of the timeslot, post-race coverage was quite limited. There were interviews with race winner Dario Franchitti, second-place finisher Graham Rahal and fourth-place finisher / co-points leader (with Franchitti) Will Power. There was also a check of the points standings before ESPN left the air.

I generally enjoyed watching the action at Milwaukee. It really served as a way for me to cool down after the technological issues I had during the Cup race (written out in detail below). Having said that, ESPN never really gives those drivers outside of the top teams much airtime. If not for the wreck at the end of the Indianapolis 500, JR Hildebrand wouldn’t be getting much coverage from ESPN.

Of course, he got swept up into another wreck Sunday, resulting in an interesting exchange between Reid and Goodyear about what Hildebrand must be going through with his team owner, John Barnes. This was actually quite notable as Goodyear actually was able to use his vast experience to help out the viewers, which doesn’t really happen all that often. What I’m trying to say is that Goodyear isn’t used correctly in the booth. He is almost never asked to reflect on his own career and relate his experiences to anything going on in the present. If Reid played to this strength a little more often, it would make ABC’s remaining broadcasts from Loudon and Las Vegas that much better.

Alliance Truck Parts 250

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series returned to Michigan for their first-ever Spring race on the two-mile oval. ESPN televised the race on ABC. Since ESPN also broadcasted the Izod IndyCar Series race from Milwaukee, the alternative plan was put into motion. That means that Bestwick was in the booth with Briscoe taking his place in the Pit Studio.

Countdown was heavily focused on the race itself and interviews, which was good to see. Usually, the discussion is so focused on the Pit Studio that very little time is actually spent with the drivers.

The main feature in Countdown was a piece where different drivers talk about fatherhood, in honor of Sunday being Father’s Day, a feature similar to the one during pre-race coverage for the Izod IndyCar Series race, just with different drivers. It was a nice touch, but most of the drivers interviewed in the piece were Cup drivers.

In the race telecast itself, ESPN put a heavy focus on the top 10 drivers as if there were only the frontrunners on track. Everyone else basically was on screen only when they were lapped by the leaders, or if one of the frontrunners had some type of issue.

The exceptions to this rule were of the actual start of the race, and on restarts. In those cases, ESPN gave viewers some fairly nice wide shots that allowed us to see quite a bit of the action. For that, they should be commended, but still, as a viewer, I would like to see more of the action on track. It cannot be limited to just a sampling of the action. Coverage like this is part of the reason why so many fans hate races at Michigan and Fontana.

Since the race ended ahead of schedule, ESPN had plenty of time for post-race coverage. They responded by providing viewers with eight post-race interviews. There was also plenty of post-race discussion and a check of the point standings before ESPN left the air.

I’ve been saying it for the better part of two years, but ESPN needs to focus more on teams further down in the pack. Did you know that David Stremme finished 12th in the ML Motorsports No. 70 after starting in the back? Not likely. Stremme got three mentions on the broadcast all day. Two on pit road when Shannon Spake was calling his pit stops under green, and one right after a restart—that was it. Otherwise, he was invisible. That type of treatment is not good for the series, let alone ESPN itself. This policy that puts a lot of emphasis on Cup drivers only hurts the Nationwide Series, and ESPN’s investment in it.

Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400

Finally, we come to Sunday’s Sprint Cup coverage from Michigan. If you remember last week’s critique, I complained about the amount of commercials and some issues with RaceBuddy. Let’s just say both of them got worse.

Countdown to Green Delivered by Pizza Hut started off with the typical discussion with Petty, Czarniak and McReynolds. Interesting conversation that actually previews the race. As I’ve previously mentioned, Petty is the rock star of the bunch, but doesn’t make the show about himself (although he does claim that he’s a lot older than he really is).

Tony Stewart introduced a pre-race feature on A.J. Foyt Sunday afternoon.

The Pride of NASCAR feature was about A.J. Foyt, an interesting choice since Foyt never raced full-time in NASCAR, but instead cherry picked races for over 30 years, winning seven in 128 starts (including the 1972 Daytona 500). Tony Stewart narrated the introduction and talked about the influence that Foyt has had on his career. Although he never drove for Foyt when in the Indy Racing League (Stewart raced for Team Menard), Stewart idolized Foyt growing up in Indiana and runs the No. 14 today as a tribute to Foyt. Apparently, Foyt calls Stewart up and gives him the what for when things aren’t going that well. It was an interesting look at an often-overlooked portion of Foyt’s career, his moonlighting. In addition to his NASCAR efforts, Foyt also moonlighted in sports cars, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 Mk IV in 1967 with Dan Gurney and twice at the 24 Hours of Daytona (1983 and 1985) in Porsches fielded by Preston Henn.

Another feature showed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte going to a military base and doing some training simulations. Afterwards, the two men sat down for a two-on-one with Czarniak. We didn’t really learn anything from the feature, except about Earnhardt, Jr.‘s drive to succeed, which is just as strong as its always been, but had been sublimated due to his lack of recent success.

There were five pre-race interviews shown. One of those was with Joe Gibbs, who talked about the confiscated oil pans from his team and how he had signed off on them. Carl Edwards also showed up on the stage to talk about his weekend. He also brought some props once again, in reference to the valve out of his engine that he brought to the stage in Pocono.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I keep track of the length of commercial breaks during green flag action and the number of those breaks taken. Sunday’s race, although being only two hours and 36 minutes in length, contained over 40 minutes of commercials under green in 15 breaks. It’s just plain excessive, nothing else to it.

The only explanation that I can come up with is that advertisers are not willing to pay Turner Sports as much for their time due to the fact that we have RaceBuddy at our disposal online (when it wants to work). Also, the Wide Open Coverage at Daytona often requires special commercials to be made specifically for the telecast, forcing the networks to accept even less money. Hence, more breaks during regular racing, to the tune of a roughly 40 percent increase over the FOX portion of the season. It hurts, and we can’t really do anything about it.

As for RaceBuddy, I had serious issues viewing the action on there Sunday. It says something that the Adobe plug-in crashed six times before the command to start engines was given. By the time the telecast (including the RaceBuddy-exclusive post-post-race show) was over, it had crashed roughly 30 times. Ridiculous. In addition, when it was not crashing, the picture was choppy as heck (meaning it would stop and start constantly). At first, I thought it was Internet Explorer causing the issues, so I switched over to Firefox. However, I still had the issues throughout the race, even after I restarted my computer. Frustrating—can’t describe it any better than that.

The sad truth is that RaceBuddy was giving viewers great images. For example, I saw Earnhardt, Jr. hit the wall for the first of three times live, something I don’t recall being mentioned on TNT. By the time the race was at Lap 150, I was just so frustrated with the crashing that I all but said the heck with it. I’m going to download an Adobe update and hope that it works because I simply cannot have a repeat of Sunday’s RaceBuddy travesty.

On TNT, they spent a decent amount of time trying to follow battles for position. However, with the long green flag runs, there were only so many battles to show. An issue that I did have with the coverage was that there was very little discussion of what happened to Jeff Burton. Petty simply stated that Burton wanted to get out of the way of everyone on the restart with 37 laps to go. No mention was made of the gearing issue that led to it, or of Burton at all for the rest of the race—not cool.

Post-race coverage was ok, but not great. On TNT, there were six post-race interviews, along with checks of the unofficial results and point standings. However, they chose to leave the air eight minutes early despite the race only having a three hour and 15 minute timeslot.

On the RaceBuddy-exclusive post-post-race show, there was a full recap of the race, five more interviews and more checks of the results and point standings. In addition, there was footage shown behind-the-scenes of the Red Bull Racing Team. The feature included a team meeting, some radio chatter and a discussion with a NASCAR official and was an interesting way to end the day.

TNT’s constant commercial breaks make it very difficult for the broadcast to develop any kind of a flow. The amount of green-flag racing shown in between breaks was just about as long as the breaks themselves. At least we didn’t miss too much in those commercials. I don’t think that will be the case in Sonoma.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is one of my personal favorites though I don’t know if all of my readers would agree with me or not. The Sprint Cup Series will be making their annual trek out to Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, California for the first of two road races on the calendar this season. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will make their second trip to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The Rolex Sports Car Series will race earlier the same day at the 4-mile track on the undercard of a doubleheader. Finally, the Izod IndyCar Series returns to Iowa Speedway. Here’s your listings for the week.

Friday, June 24

Time Telecast Network
4:00 AM – 5:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe Free Practice No. 1 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00 AM – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe Free Practice No. 2 SPEED
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
6:00 PM – 7:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Qualifying Versus*
11:00 PM – 1:00 AM Saturday Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED*

Saturday, June 25

Time Telecast Network
5:00 AM – 6:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe Free Practice No. 3 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00 AM – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe Qualifying SPEED
12:00 PM – 2:30 PM Rolex Sports Car Series’ Rolex Sports Car Series 250 Driven by Visit Florida SPEED
2:30 PM – 3:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:30 PM – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
5:00 PM – 5:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
5:30 PM – 9:00 PM Nationwide Series Bucyrus 200 ESPN
6:30 PM – 8:00 PM Firestone Indy Lights: Iowa Versus
8:00 PM – 11:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Iowa Corn Indy 250 Versus
11:00 PM – 11:30 PM SPEED Center SPEED

Sunday, June 26

Time Telecast Network
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
11:30 AM – 12:00 PM SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe FOX*
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM Countdown to Green Delivered by Pizza Hut TNT
3:00 PM – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350k TNT
7:00 PM – 8:00 PM SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00 PM – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel SPEED

*- Tape Delayed
^-Available via free internet streaming

Like this week, I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Izod IndyCar Series telecasts. The Rolex Sports Car Series 250-miler will be covered in the Critic’s Annex on June 30.

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 any of the TV partners 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 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

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Joe
06/21/2011 11:55 AM
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The volume of commercials in Sundays broadcast was ridiculous. Phil, we need a VOICE with the networks. You are in the media business. WHAT CAN WE DO AS A GROUP OF ENTHUSIASTS? I’m not content to sit back and say “there’s nothing that can be done because that’s the way the networks opertate”. THERE HAS TO BE SOMEONE WE AS A GROUP CAN LOBBY. Do some research on our behalf and lead us in our fight to get back the sport so many of us love. Follow the money and lets get access to the decision makers. HELP US!

AnnieMack
06/21/2011 01:39 PM
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Admirable enthusiasm, Joe, but there really is nothing we can do. It’s all about the money and unless you and your lobby have enough to buy out the commercial time, you get what you get.

We tape the race and watch it in the evening since everything else is reruns. After fast-forwarding through the commercials, we watched the entire race in a little over an hour. I really thought I was going to break the fast-forward button going through all those commercials.

tn865linda
06/21/2011 07:48 PM
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Really do enjoy your articles so I know whether it’s just me. I really dread when ESPN takes over the Cup series. Their telecasts really stink, IMO. Totally agree they spend way too much time on the Cup drivers during Nationwide races. All we hear about is Edwards and Busch. They sure do like “Cousin Carl” but at least we don’t have to listen to that “Closer” crap anymore (Harvick). I really think Nascar needs to do more before NNS is dead. I don’t see these Cup drivers filling the stands so what’s their reason now? Stands aren’t even full on Sundays anymore. And sticking with only the leaders is really boring to watch. That’s why I get Raceview. Sorry you had the problems with RaceBuddy; I didn’t. Worked fine. Last week it froze on me but no problems this week. I like having the choices. Sooner or later, everybody is going to start to DVR the races so they don’t have to watch the commercials. I actually think more people would see them if they did side by side.

DoninAjax
06/21/2011 08:09 PM
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Why was the Alliance Truck Parts 250 a car race and not a truck race?