The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Selective Reporting Hurting NASCAR Teams Without Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday August 30, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Hope you’ve been staying safe. This column might look a little like a rush job, but it has to be this way because I’m writing up against a power outage due to Irene.

Welcome to Talking NASCAR TV, where critiquing race telecasts is the name of the game. This past weekend, NASCAR’s top-3 series each raced at Bristol Motor Speedway. Now, I already covered SPEED’s telecast of the Camping World Truck Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 200 from Wednesday night in the Critic’s Annex last week in the Newsletter. So let’s get cracking on the other two series from this past weekend, plus the IndyCar race as an added “hurricane” bonus…

Food City 250

On Friday night, ESPN returned to Bristol Motor Speedway to provide coverage of the Nationwide Series. The usual crew was on hand, so let’s get right to it.

Once again, the vast majority of NASCAR Countdown was spent in the Pit Studio (conveniently located in what appears to be a parking lot overlooking the backstretch). There, Briscoe, Wallace and Daugherty hyped up the race.

Of course, the first person that they mentioned was Kyle Busch. It was like he was the only thing on their minds. An early discussion segued into a montage of Kyle’s accomplishments at Bristol. However, during this montage, the audio was all screwy. The thought that came to mind while I was watching it was, “this sounds like it’s being blared into a bucket.” Or, something like that. I was reminded of a clip where the Seven Network was talking to Dick Johnson during a race and he mentioned that lead commentator Mike Raymond sounded like he was talking into a bucket over the radio. I tried to find the clip on YouTube for you guys, but no dice.

ESPN also played a feature where Trevor Bayne showed viewers around his hometown (and Dr. Jerry Punch’s current place of residence) of Knoxville, TN. Did that piece look familiar to you? Well, it should have. It was a replay of the same feature that ESPN ran back in March for the Spring race at Bristol. It just appeared to be cut down a little bit more. ESPN, it is nice that you want fans to get to know some of the Nationwide Series regulars a little better, but I don’t think you can do that by clearly replaying stuff from almost six months ago.

There were also six pre-race interviews, including one with Kenny Wallace. Even with all of his improvement this year in much better RAB Racing equipment this season, I think this was the first time that Kenny got a pre-race interview all year. Kinda sad, when you think about it since he’s been in the top 10 in points most of the season.

Tim Brewer’s normal Craftsman Tech Garage segment concerned the use of different implements to fix crash damage. It included the “Roush Roller,” a carbon fiber tool that has to be outrageously expensive, and “Rusty Wallace’s personal favorite,” the surplus aluminum baseball bat. Surprisingly, this cart wasn’t all that necessary for most of the drivers. I guess that’s just a side effect of the remodeling at Bristol, allowing for more racing room.

During the race, there was a lot of focus on the frontrunners. I know; it seems like a normal refrain every stankin’ week, but it’s the truth. It seemed that you had to be in the top 10 or so, perhaps even higher up in the order, to get any coverage at all. That is highly suspect, especially when the top-4 finishers were Sprint Cup regulars. There were a couple of Nationwide regulars that received coverage, like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., but then again, Stenhouse is the points leader. If the points leader didn’t get coverage, then the problem would be that much worse.

Having said that, ESPN did provide viewers with a couple of split-screen segments in which they focused in on two different on-track battles for position. I like that kind of stuff.

As for our booth commentators, Reid really didn’t do much for me Friday night. Nothing he did on-air was memorable. He was just OK. He wasn’t really screwing up people’s names or anything like that, but he didn’t really add much to the telecast. When that happens, it’s the Jarrett and Petree show. I’m fine with the two of them. They’re both knowledgeable, easy to understand and work well together.

Since the race ended so quickly (the entire event was over in about 85 minutes), there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. Here, ESPN came to the plate. There were 13 post-race interviews, covering a number of different drivers, Nationwide regulars and Sprint Cup interlopers alike. There were also two checks of the point standings, one in the scroll while Carl Edwards was being interviewed, and one standalone graphic.

In addition, there was some wrap-up analysis from the Pit Studio and the broadcast booth before ESPN left the air. To give you an idea of just how much time needed to be filled, ESPN fit all those interviews, point checks and analysis, along with three commercial breaks, and still left with ten minutes left in their time slot. I guess no one thought the race would end that quickly.

Frontstretch TV critic, Phil Allaway, has one request to ESPN for its broadcasts… cover more of the field.

But one thing stuck out about this broadcast: ESPN needs to properly cover the whole field. Doing one nice Up to Speed where you dropped back to 17th just isn’t enough; that’s giving people lip service. Also, I suggest trying to dig deep and creating some more interesting features on Nationwide regulars. Don’t be afraid to jump a little out of the mainstream and go further down the grid. Everyone has a story. Remember when SPEED did that feature on Chris Lafferty last year that aired on NCWTS Setup? That was an interesting piece with information that no one would have ever found out about if the segment wasn’t done. I know ESPN is capable of doing such things. They’ve got more than enough manpower at their disposal, although the general lack of their own production facility in the Charlotte area is killing them (they sold the place where they shot the weekday editions of rpm2night with John Kernan after they canceled the show).

Irwin Tools Night Race

On Saturday night, ESPN brought viewers coverage of the Sprint Cup Series from Bristol. However, the real story this past weekend was obviously Hurricane Irene. That storm is the main reason why I’m writing this 90 minutes after the race ended as opposed to Monday.

For the first time in years, ESPN chose to put the race on ABC. However, this shift created some problems. Since we’re still in the middle of the NFL Preseason, some ABC affiliates (most notably in Phoenix, Arizona, Nashville, Tennessee and Houston, Texas) were scheduled to air games on Saturday night. For those 11 markets, the race was shifted down to ESPN2 (Houston’s coverage was shifted to a digital sub channel). Then, you had markets on the East Coast pre-empting the race for Hurricane coverage, like Raleigh-Durham, Philadelphia and New York City.

That was big enough of an issue for ESPN’s Andy Hall to put out a statement Saturday afternoon, stating that ABC would air the race as originally planned. However, if your local affiliate chose to air alternate coverage, they would tell you where to view it. Thankfully, here in Albany, it didn’t come to that (although I did miss approximately five laps of the telecast for a live weather cut-in towards the end of the race).

To get a better grasp of the atmosphere surrounding the race, ABC/ESPN chose to keep the Pit Studio outside of the track and have Briscoe, Wallace and Daugherty host NASCAR Countdown from Victory Lane on top of a building in the infield. Interesting choice; however, it meant that they all but had to yell in order to be heard.

A new SportScience feature on G-Forces aired. The main point of emphasis here is that Sprint Cup drivers can now face upwards of three G’s in the turns at a place like Bristol. That is actually substantially more than in the past. G-Force data under normal racing conditions is not really readily available for the general public (it’s really only made available when someone has a huge wreck), but ABC/ESPN once claimed (way the heck back in 1994) that Cup cars generated 1.8 G’s. Granted, that was 1994 and probably referred to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since the cars are substantially quicker and have much less body roll today, the number must have increased, but I’m not sure by how much.

A Tech Garage feature on driver headrests followed up on this point. While it is true that Rusty Wallace really didn’t like the side headrests and didn’t run one for the longest time at Bristol, there was also a time when NASCAR wouldn’t allow anyone to run one. They claimed that it was a safety hazard at the time. Check out Rusty Wallace’s seat setup at Watkins Glen in 1989 at the 9:37 mark of this clip. I don’t know how good that black square hanging off a roll bar was as a head rest, but it sure wasn’t connected to the rest of Rusty’s seat.

ABC also replayed the same Kyle Busch montage from Friday night, complete with Heart’s Barracuda playing in the background. Luckily, they fixed the audio this time.

Since NASCAR Countdown was only allotted 30 minutes as opposed to the hour that we’ve gotten used to over the past few weeks, that was just about all we got. There were only three driver interviews, a low for ABC/ESPN’s portion of the schedule (the aforementioned Kyle Busch, plus Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers).

Once again, there was a large focus on a certain group of drivers during the race. I can even break it down into groups for your benefit. Those groups were at the very front of the field (Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Johnson), and another group towards the back of the top-10 (Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Ambrose, etc.). If you were outside of those groups, especially early on in the race, good luck. For example, A.J. Allmendinger ran as high as sixth and basically got bupkus on-air until well after halfway – even though he was very close to moving up into the top 5.

A big thumbs up to ABC/ESPN for breaking out of a commercial break to cover David Reutimann’s wreck. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that, and I was happy. It did throw me for a second, though (what can I say, I’m not used to it). Speaking of commercials, I noticed that ABC/ESPN was using shorter commercial breaks in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races. There were no three-minute breaks in either race (the exception for me was the aforementioned weather cut-in around Lap 395), but most of you didn’t see that (it was exclusive to WTEN).

This shot, of Jeff Gordon racing Martin Truex, Jr. was pretty much all ABC showed over the final 50 laps of the race.

Apparently, a couple of drivers screwed up and drove through both pit roads during the round of green flag pit stops and cost themselves laps in the process. This mistake was not mentioned for well over an hour after it happened. That’s ridiculous.

Post-race coverage was pretty decent, scope-wise. ABC/ESPN provided viewers with eight post-race interviews (seven drivers, plus winning crew chief Paul Wolfe). However, the point standings were contained to only the scroll. This shift did anger some people on Twitter from what I could see immediately after the race. At least we got something, although it was not ideal (and likely didn’t need to be that way).

The overwhelming focus on a small group of about ten drivers really did hurt the coverage. For example, we saw basically the same thing for the last 50 laps: Jeff Gordon trying and failing to pass Martin Truex, Jr. It was basically the same failed pass, lap after lap, over and over again. At what point do you try to find something else with a legitimate chance of success?

Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma

On Sunday afternoon, the Izod IndyCar Series returned from a week off to compete at Infineon Raceway. Versus was back to televise the race, but with nowhere near as much pre-race coverage as viewers have become used to. Why? The substantial pre-race show comes as a result of live coverage for the Firestone Indy Lights, which usually precede the Izod IndyCar Series on race day. However, they did not make the trip to Sonoma.

As a result, there was a shorter version of IndyCar Central on tap. It started off with a rehash of all the issues that surrounded the MoveThatBlock.com 225 in New Hampshire (the cautions, the port-a-john getting knocked over, rain, red flags, the controversial restart, and the double middle finger). Since then, the end of the race was protested, and the results were only made official on Thursday afternoon.

One brief feature showed J.R. Hildebrand (a native of Sausalito, California) hanging out with the San Francisco Giants at AT & T Park, wearing a Brian Wilson jersey and having a good time. Apparently, Hildebrand’s a huge Giants fan who had a Giants-themed set of driving gloves especially made for the race.

What was likely the highlight of pre-race coverage was when IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard joined Kevin Lee and Robin Miller at the IndyCar Central stage for a discussion. Compared to Brian France, Bernard is a far more visible leader at the track. You can actually find him most weekends, whereas France might show up eight times a year if you’re lucky. Miller has mentioned in the past, in his weekly mailbags at speedtv.com that he forwards interesting e-mails to Bernard on a regular basis and that he’s in (what amounts to) regular contact with him.

Here, Bernard discussed the fallout from Brian Barnhart’s decision-making at Loudon two weeks ago. He claims that he’s going to stand behind Barnhart for the time being, but that the rulebook does need to be changed for next year. That rulebook, which Marshall Pruett shows in detail here, has a catch-all rule that basically says Barnhart can do whatever he wants. That should be the first to go.

During the race itself, there really wasn’t all that much action. The first 65 laps were run under green and Will Power was obviously the dominant car. Versus tried to cover mainly the front of the field early on, but saw that such a strategy wouldn’t work. So, after a few laps, they went off and covered close races for position, wherever they were on the track. This philosophy was a great thing to see, especially after the front-running that ABC/ESPN showed at Bristol.

However, not all things were good. During a commercial break on Lap 17, there was a technical issue that occurred and caused the screen to go black. After roughly 30 seconds of this mess, Versus went to a side-by-side setup with commercials and a black screen where the race footage would be, then a full screen commercial. About a minute into the full-screen commercial break, the coverage returned unexpectedly. Jenkins noted that he was unsure what caused the technical issue, but that they were very sorry about it. That’s fair, and more than likely truthful. However, the issue doesn’t reflect well on Versus itself.

After the halfway point, Tony Kanaan dropped out of the race with a stuck throttle. Following his post-retirement interview, Kanaan joined Jenkins, Dallenbach and Beekhuis in the broadcast booth for the final 15 laps of the race. In that time, Kanaan talked about how drivers had to adjust their driving style to compensate for the differences between the red and black tires. In addition, Kanaan provided additional input in regards to braking points and such. It was interesting to listen to, a good move for Versus to bring him into the broadcast – even so late in the race.

Post-race coverage was fairly substantial since the race ended relatively quickly. There were nine post-race interviews, along with a check of the point standings. Of course, being the Izod IndyCar Series, there was a weird rule interpretation that dropped Giorgio Pantano from sixth to 17th at the finish (defending the inside line is considered to be blocking in the series – you get no “moves.”) Pantano seemed clueless about it when interviewed by Marty Snider, and I don’t blame him.

Aside from the technical issues, Versus gave viewers a pretty good broadcast to watch. Kanaan was great in the booth when he was explaining his on-track experiences from Sunday and how they related to what he was seeing live. Versus just needs to make their overall technical package tighter so that interruptions like we saw Sunday don’t happen again. Also, I would still like the scroll to be on-screen when Versus goes Through the Field. It would be beneficial.

That’s all for this week. Hopefully, next weekend is nowhere near as annoying. It will be Labor Day Weekend, and NASCAR’s top-3 series will all be in action at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Seems kind of weird that this will be the only race weekend there this year, but there you go. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series are scheduled to race in the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix on a circuit setup around Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium and the Light and Pratt Street Pavilions near the Inner Harbor.

Friday, September 2
Time Telecast Network
2:40 PM – 4:20 PM American Le Mans Series Qualifying ESPN3.com^
5:00 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED*
6:00 – 7:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Atlanta 200 SPEED
10:30 – 11:00 PM SPEED Center, Friday Edition SPEED

Saturday, September 3
Time Telecast Network
11:00 AM – 12:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
1:30 – 3:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
3:30 – 5:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
4:15 – 7:15 PM American Le Mans Series Baltimore Grand Prix ESPN3.com^
5:00 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
6:00 – 7:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Qualifying Versus
7:00 – 7:30 PM SPEED Center, Saturday Edition SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30 – 10:00 PM Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 ESPN2

Sunday, September 4
Time Telecast Network
10:00 AM – 11:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
2:00 PM – 5:30 PM Izod IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Baltimore Versus
3:00 – 6:00 PM American Le Mans Series Baltimore Grand Prix ABC*
4:00 – 4:30 PM SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
4:30 – 6:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
6:30 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
7:30 – 11:30 PM Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 ESPN
12:00 AM Monday – 1:00 AM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
1:00 – 2:00 AM Wind Tunnel SPEED

*- Tape-delayed
^- Available via password-protected online streaming. Check with your local internet provider.

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races from Atlanta in next week’s critique here at Frontstretch. For the Critic’s Annex this week, I’ll cover the Darrell Waltrip special that I was originally going to cover on Thursday before the plan changed. For September 8th’s Critic’s Annex, I will cover another new episode of The Day. It will cover the infamous 1992 Hooters 500 and it is scheduled to premiere Thursday night at 8:00pm EDT. For those of you who haven’t seen the race, I’d imagine that it would be a near must-see.

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:

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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Linda
08/30/2011 09:56 AM
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While the commercials may have been shorter there were way too many of them. Seemed like every 10 minutes they’d break to a commercial. It was more like commercial tv with a little racing mixed in. And when will they stop covering only the chosen few, especially at Bristol where there’s racing all over the track. I just really hate ESPN coverage of Nascar.

Matt L
08/30/2011 02:44 PM
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Reid was terrible on Friday night. His dull call of the finish did not match the energy of the actual finish.

I was counting the minutes between commercial breaks Saturday night. The first half of the race had a commercial every 5-7 minutes. It seemed better the last 100 laps, maybe they ran out of commercials.

DoninAjax
08/30/2011 07:49 PM
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When there are more laps run during commercials than televised segmments, it’s time to re-watch the ladies play golf.

Steve
08/31/2011 10:14 AM
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In the 2 groups that you broke down that got the most coverage, 3 of the drivers in the 2 groups were the chosen ones (Kyle, JJ, JG). Every week they try to will JG to the win and it hasn’t happened. The favoritism shown to Hendrick and of course their love child Kyle by ESPN is pretty obvious by this point.