The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED's Continuous Coverage While ESPN Shouldn't Have Bothered by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday November 1, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where discussion of new wrinkles in race coverage is the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series returned to Martinsville Speedway for their fall race weekend. Wrecking, of course, not commercials appeared to be the main subject throughout each broadcast; but for fans, one special adjustment gave an added boost to their viewing experience.

Let’s delve in and find out just how well this adjustment turned out.

SPEED brought Continuous Coverage to the truck race at Martinsville – a new idea that proved a nice addition to the broadcast.

Kroger 200

On Saturday afternoon, the Camping World Truck Series returned to action at Martinsville Speedway. Let’s just say that even though it was only a 105-mile long race, it will be very memorable for all types of different reasons.

Pre-race coverage was actually quite focused on the race itself. There were not very many features to take away from the action. After recapping Talladega, the majority of Setup coverage was based around doing a couple of interviews and championship discussion.

One feature did have Brendan Gaughan and Timothy Peters visiting a local school to talk to the students about achieving goals and being a positive role model. One of those assembly-type things. I know I would have enjoyed something like that when I was middle school-age; it was just OK for this telecast, though.

During the race, SPEED debuted a new facet to their broadcast, known as “Continuous Coverage.” Basically, it’s their version of side-by-side (of course, SPEED can’t call it that because the name is likely under copyright by ESPN for use in their Izod IndyCar Series telecasts). The setup is not dissimilar to what FOX came up with for Dover back in May, with one significant difference: the race coverage window is a little smaller than it was on FOX. Not as much vertical picture is dedicated to the race, but roughly the same horizontal picture. No logos for the sponsors were shown outside of the box where the commercials were running, which leads me to think that this format is still a work in progress.

Regardless, this Continuous Coverage came just in the nick of time. Take that away, and SPEED would have had a rather rough broadcast due to the fact of so many important things happening during commercials. Just introducing the Continuous Coverage Saturday allowed viewers to see Max Papis’ crash on the backstretch live. Of course, as you now know, that was a payback for what Todd Bodine felt that Papis did to him on pit road during a round of stops.

Earlier in the race, SPEED missed a restart, at least two and maybe three passes for the lead due to being in commercials. The first of these breaks was on Lap 10, which is really early for a race at Martinsville. Just based on what we saw Saturday, having the Continuous Coverage for truck races on SPEED might end up being a bit of a double-edged sword. Mind you, this addition is only with it in the second half of the race, like ESPN does with NASCAR NonStop (the first Continuous Coverage wasn’t until Lap 130). They’ve definitely got some kinks to work out with this system if they plan to use it anymore. However, this test run could be considered a decent start. Friday night’s race in Texas will be a bit longer, so SPEED will be able to get a better gauge.

Aside from the Continuous Coverage, the booth was very good on Saturday. There was plenty of enthusiasm and no boredom at all. Judging by how NASCAR officiates races these days (especially in Sprint Cup), I’d imagine that some fans were amazed that there weren’t 12 cautions instead of the nine. Multiple spins did not result in yellows. As far as ovals are concerned, you only see this “yellow flag conservatism” at Martinsville. Anywhere else, and the spins for David Starr, Parker Kligerman and Matt Crafton would have all resulted in yellows.

Despite the short 200-lap distance, SPEED allotted 2.5 hours for the race telecast. As a result, there was plenty of time left over for post-race coverage. SPEED provided viewers with nine post-race interviews, along with checks of the unofficial results and point standings. There were also multiple replays of all the shenanigans that occurred in the last couple of laps and after the race. SPEED attempted to get words with everyone involved, but not everyone was able (they admitted that they tried to get an interview with Papis, but he left the track before they could get any time with him).

The Continuous Coverage will likely be a boon to SPEED’s coverage of the Camping World Truck Series once it is perfected. As of now, it is a work in progress. Also, us race fans should take a close look at what SPEED is doing here. Just because of ownership of SPEED (SPEED is part of News Corporation, which is also the parent company of FOX), I would not be surprised if the finalized version of SPEED’s Continuous Coverage becomes whatever FOX wants to call it during their portion of the Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2012. Remember, they never had a title for their side-by-side commercials since they apparently created it in a matter of days simply to beat ESPN.

Also, before I move on, the idea of Michael Waltrip excessively pimping sponsors cropped up again Saturday. Sometimes, I watch the race with a group of fans and they will point things out like this habit to grouse about, coverage-wise (they were generally positive on the Continuous Coverage, though). I don’t blame them for not liking Waltrip’s close relationships with sponsors, especially Aaron’s, who he has worked with since 2000. Waltrip needs to watch himself; he really skirts the line of inappropriateness at times.

Grand Prix of India

Very early on Sunday morning (5 AM Eastern Daylight Time, cripes), the Formula One World Championship was back in action at the brand-spanking new, literally just completed last week Buddh International Circuit for the inaugural Grand Prix of India. It should be noted that it was touch and go as to whether the race was even going to go off at all because there was fear that the circuit wasn’t going to be finished in time. This was not so much an issue with the track surface, as that was completed ahead of time. It was the facilities (seating, mainly), that was in question. Dust also played a huge role.

As always, SPEED started their telecast out with the Mercedes-Benz Pre-Race Show. That show featured a recap of practice and qualifying. Also, they showed off the available tire compounds from Pirelli for the race. Interesting to note that the harder “Medium” compound was actually the option tire, while the “Soft” compound was the primary tire. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Of course, even Formula One is not immune to the realities of motorsport. Granted, it’s been over 17 years since the last time a driver was killed in a Formula One car, but the racing fraternity seems to have become more inclusive since 1994. SPEED aired a piece where they had certain personalities (Sir Jackie Stewart, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, etc.) talk about their reactions to the recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli. Of those that spoke, Stewart and Webber’s comments stood out the most. Webber is a contemporary of Wheldon and used to race against him. He spent his time talking about experiences racing against Wheldon in Formula Fords and spending time with him. Stewart, on the other hand, talked about the sadness that comes with having a fellow driver you were close to die on track. It appeared that Stewart was referencing the late Jochen Rindt, the posthumous 1970 World Champion. He then mentioned about how drivers have to put aside that sorrow in order to race once again (he was back in the car 20 minutes after Rindt’s fatal practice crash in Monza). There was also a moment of silence at the track for Wheldon and Simoncelli, but that occurred during a commercial break. SPEED replayed said moment of silence for viewers immediately after the break ended.

Pre-race was pretty good, content-wise. However, the race was not so good. Let’s face it; it was outright boring. Sebastien Vettel was unbeatable. In fact, past lap 30, the only thing that seemed to be in doubt was whether Vettel would achieve the “Grand Slam,” which is when you win the race from pole, lead every lap and set the fastest lap of the race. Only the fastest lap was in doubt towards the end, but Vettel definitively set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 59 and coasted to victory.

However, Varsha, Hobbs and Matchett are very good at making such a boring runaway seem interesting. Since SPEED has no control over what is shown on-screen during the race (they do have limited replay control, but no live footage control), FOM has to help out as well. Since Vettel wasn’t feeling any pressure all day, FOM chose to focus on battles further down the field, which was a good idea. Even with this strategy, there still wasn’t all that much to show. SPEED’s Charlotte-based booth was very lively for 5-7 AM and gave viewers the insightful commentary that we’ve come to expect from the trio over the past nine seasons.

SPEED was able to show the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa live since FOM was showing the incident from Hamilton’s in-car camera. Admittedly, I didn’t realize that Sunday was the fifth time just this season that the two drivers had come together on track. However, this was the first time that contact between the two drivers resulted in a spin. Massa was given a pass-through penalty for causing an avoidable incident here (Hamilton was alongside him, and Massa basically took himself out).

Post-race coverage was more or less typical for SPEED. Due to the regulations, there is basically no time in a telecast for exclusive post-race interviews. As a result, we have to live with what FOM gives us. That means the podium ceremony, press conference and checks of the unofficial results, drivers’ points and constructors’ points.

Basically, I came away from SPEED’s telecast thinking that the race was boring. Can’t do much about that. SPEED’s booth did their customary great job, bringing in outside information in order to make the telecast more interesting to watch, but there is only so much that can be done to spruce up a dud.

TUMS Fast Relief 500

Finally, we get to Sunday’s action from Martinsville. Much like Saturday’s Truck race, Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 will go down as a wreckfest with plenty of hurt feelings. How did ESPN fare on Sunday? Let’s find out.

As usual, we’ll begin with NASCAR Countdown, which was a little shorter than normal. Instead of a one-hour show, Countdown was scheduled for 30 minutes, but ran a little closer to 40. This was due to a start time scheduled to be just before 2 PM.

Frontstretch sends our condolences to Rusty Wallace, son Stephen and the rest of the Wallace clan for the loss of their patriarch Russ (Rusty’s dad). Russ passed away late Sunday night at the age of 77.

Due to the death of his father Russ on Saturday night back in St. Louis, Rusty Wallace was not in Martinsville on Sunday. In his place was Dale Jarrett, making a somewhat rare appearance in the Pit Studio prior to the race, along with Marty Smith. ESPN did not announce Russ Wallace’s death at that point, but simply said that Rusty had to attend to family issues.

The main piece that ran during NASCAR Countdown was a one-on-one interview that Smith conducted with Brad Keselowski at Talladega. It was an interesting conversation, one that had partially aired on the Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now. I took away that Keselowski’s not exactly out to make friends. He just wants to win. He’s had a big personality shift over the past couple of years due to this desire. Also, he’s quite bitter as well. He’s still angry about being taken out at Las Vegas in the Nationwide race back in 2008. The Talladega victory in 2009 was the turning point.

Up until earlier this year, Keselowski felt disrespected by some of his peers. That changed after the testing crash at Road Atlanta and the run that commenced afterwards.

Since it was Halloween weekend, there was also a short piece on drivers and their favorite Halloween costumes from the past. I guess that’s just typical these days, although I could really care less.

One of the biggest stories that came out of Sunday’s race was the fact that Travis Kvapil’s jackman, Sean Irvan, was hit on pit road during a stop by Mark Martin. Irvan suffered a concussion and strains of his neck muscles and the MCL in his right knee. However, based on ESPN’s coverage on Sunday, I had no clue that this injury had occurred. I didn’t learn about it until after the race had already finished, and only because Front Row Motorsports, via Breaking Limits, put out a press release stating that Irvan had been injured, taken to Martinsville Memorial Hospital for treatment, and released.

In the past, ESPN would have had their hand forced here. This is because NASCAR would have been forced to throw a yellow so that the gate at the exit of Turn 4 could be opened for the ambulance to exit the facility once the Infield Care Center had made the decision to transfer Irvan to a hospital. This forced caution happened on at least one occasion in the past (a safety worker fell off a truck during a yellow and was injured). Now, there is a pedestrian tunnel underneath Turn 4. Irvan could have been wheeled through said tunnel to an ambulance just outside the track to be taken to the hospital and no one watching the telecast would be any the wiser.

Look, I know that Kvapil’s No. 38 team would almost never fall within the top-24 rule that Shannon Spake so eloquently described to me back in 2009. However, when something such as what happened to Irvan occurs, that is an extenuating circumstance, as far as I’m concerned. The script must be broken and the incident reported on. It is your duty to do so. Maybe ESPN doesn’t have any video that shows what happened. I don’t care. If you don’t have any video, tell the audience that you don’t have video, but still bring up what happened. Tell the viewers what went down, and provide updates. I’d like an explanation as to why a story such as this one was missed on the telecast.

As for the rest of the coverage, it was a bit hard to watch. There were a lot of close-ups of the on-track action. As we know, that may show off your wares, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best way to cover a race. Taking that kind of approach means that home viewers miss out on a bunch of different things. A random dude sitting in the grandstand in Turns 3 and 4 would be able to see a lot more things than we could at home. Yes, it’s interesting to be able to look down right into the cars to see the drivers at work. However, that doesn’t work all that well during the race. It’s more of a benefit for qualifying coverage.

ESPN also had a lot of bad luck while covering Sunday’s race. A number of incidents that put the race under caution happened during commercial breaks (at least four, two of which occurred during the NonStop breaks in the second half of the event).

However, the one that really ticked me off was the wreck on Lap 361 that took David Gilliland out of the race. This happened during one of the NonStop breaks. No replay was ever shown of the crash. Instead, after the round of pit stops, we got another NonStop commercial break, followed by a replay of Brad Keselowski gaining spots on pit road. Once that was finished, the green came back out. I guess once that occurred, it was out of sight, out of mind. At this point, I don’t really care about Keselowski’s exploitation of NASCAR’s speeding policies, which are archaic at best on the shorties (of course, that is a discussion for another time). I want to know what happened to get Gilliland in the wall. No one bothered to mention how it happened. That is a travesty. What the deuce, man? I don’t care if it’s Chase time, you need to show us and/or tell us what the heck is going on. Otherwise, you’re useless and fans will abandon your telecasts in favor of listening to MRN (or PRN) Radio and/or simply using Twitter for updates. Twitter, as informative as it can be, is patently ridiculous as a primary strategy for gathering information on a live race that is televised live. It is best as a supplement.

Since the race ran over its timeslot (the end of which was reached with 40 laps to go in the race), ESPN had a short post-race. There were interviews with the top-3 finishers (Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson), along with the winning Crew Chief (Darian Grubb). There was also a check of the point standings before ESPN left for Sportscenter, half of which was centered upon the race. Replays were also shown of Keselowski’s spin on the final restart. There were no replays shown of what happened to Joey Logano, or to Clint Bowyer on the final lap. Knowing all the craziness that went on Sunday, ESPN also should have been on the lookout for post-race shenanigans, say, between Vickers and Kenseth, Montoya and Ambrose, etc. As far as I know, there weren’t any. It just felt incomplete; simple as that.

ESPN’s telecast Sunday left a lot to be desired in many different ways. There was a lot of focus on the frontrunners and the use of close-ups really did not help the telecast much at all. I could care less about blimp usage here; just make sure that viewers can see what’s going on. Cover all the stories that happen during the race and don’t play favorite. That is all I ask. Apparently, that was too much for the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

That’s all for this week. Next week, all three of NASCAR’s series will be back in action at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s your listings for the weekend.

Friday, November 4
Time Telecast Network
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1 ESPN2
1:00 – 2:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 2 ESPN2
4:30 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
6:30 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino 350k SPEED

Saturday, November 5

Time Telecast Network
9:30 AM – 10:30 AM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 3 ESPN2
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN2
12:00 – 12:55 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
12:55 – 3:30 PM Nationwide Series O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge ESPN2
8:00 PM – 12:00 AM World of Outlaws World Finals SPEED

Sunday, November 6
Time Telecast Network
9:00 AM – 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 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 ESPN
~7:00 – 8:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM SPEED Center SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2

I plan on providing critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races from Texas. The World Finals from the Dirt Track at Charlotte will be covered in the November 10th edition of the Critic’s Annex.

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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Rome
11/01/2011 08:19 AM
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ESPN just S*cks. I think they may be planning some type of money grab. My theory is that they are trying to turn off TV viewers so that they can drive them to some (as yet undeveloped) cable or online coverage, that will be much better, but that will come with a pay per view fee attached. Conspiracy theory sounding?, perhaps, but why else would their coverage be so bad? Theya act like they are trying their best to drive viewers to watch something else.

Great article

Matt L
11/01/2011 09:18 AM
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That was the worst ESPN Sprint Cup broadcast of the season.

JTW
11/01/2011 10:57 AM
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I agree with Matt L. That was THE WORST ESPN Sprint Cup broadcast of the season. The continuous coverage is a joke. It’s almost as if ESPN is saying “see, things are happening on the track that you can’t make out in our teeny weeny little screen and we have the power to keep showing you commercials which number into the 300’s”. What has happened to NASCAR and NASCAR TV broadcasting is criminal. I’m so sick of manufactured drama and the fake celebrity of idiots like DW, Mickey, Hammond and their ilk. Give me MRN/PRN any time! Oh and pay per view for NASCAR? Not this former fan!

Jim
11/01/2011 01:05 PM
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Agree, Agree, Agree. I turned the race off because I got tired of the non stop “Non Stop” commercial breaks. ESPN seems to think that as long as the viewers can see the racing action, albeit on a screen a fraction of normal viewing size and then covered with attenuated sound from advertising, we’ll be fine with it. Wrong! When they go to it at 20 lap intervals at times, and we’re talking Martinsville laps here, that is way too often. And Matt gave this race 6 cans of Corona?? (I didn’t know Corona came in a can)

As for Speeds’ Truck race coverage, you were spot on as well, Phil. They got off to a bad start and had to work hard to recover, but failed miserably.

When Papis’ caution came out, they should have cut that break short and went back to live action, but they didn’t. And showing restarts from the backstretch is a big no-no, particularly the first one of the day.

While watching that race I was thinking, maybe DirecTV losing Speed won’t be such a bad thing after all.

Now they have an agreement and price gouges – I mean adjustments – are next.

chipmunkss8
11/02/2011 01:55 AM
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glad i was in the stands ,great race i will watch the replay but how it sounds ill be doing alot of fast forwarding