The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Commercials Or Racing? Ads Overwhelming ESPN Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday November 15, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where critiquing race broadcasts is the name of the game. We’ll use any way possible to make sense of some of the decisions made on race telecasts, even referencing 20-year-old straight-to-video animated films, like last week. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series each had their penultimate races of the season at the newly repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway.

The big story at Phoenix this weekend, starting with Saturday’s Nationwide Series race was the track’s new configuration. Did ESPN cover it effectively?

Wypall 200

The beginning of Saturday afternoon’s Nationwide Series coverage was delayed substantially due to college football. The culprit this time? Michigan State and Iowa. This instance is the first time that we’ve had a game run really long this season ahead of the Nationwide race. Basically, all of NASCAR Countdown was wiped out.

Had Iowa scored and closed the margin down from 16 to 8, ESPN was going to air NASCAR Countdown and likely the beginning of the race on ESPN Classic. In fact, ESPN’s Andy Hall tweeted as such on Saturday. However, Iowa Quarterback James Vandenburg threw a costly interception with a couple of minutes left. This pick allowed the Spartans to run out the clock.

ESPN had enough time to do two things before opening ceremonies. One was an interview with points leader Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. The other was a montage of opinions about the new configuration at Phoenix from a few Nationwide drivers. Unfortunately, there were some pieces that bit the dust due to the scheduling. For example, Jamie Little did a one-on-one segment with Danica Patrick that she was talking about on Twitter Saturday before the race. Perhaps that will air Saturday afternoon since Patrick is in the No. 7 once again.

During the race coverage, there was amazement on ESPN’s part when it came to drivers making use of the apron in the Dogleg. I didn’t realize that they had left all that space on the backstretch open like that until Friday afternoon. Everyone seems to be in favor of stuff like that these days, but I’m not. It gives people excuses to cut the course and leads to stupid rules that I detest, like the yellow line rule at Daytona and Talladega.

A significant amount of the coverage on Saturday was centered upon the two championship contenders, Stenhouse and Elliott Sadler. Granted, both of those drivers were relatively close to the front most of the race (that is, until Sadler was wrecked late in the event). With such a setup, even the leader of the race was not given all that much coverage (unless it was Stenhouse that was leading). Aric Almirola won the pole for the race and led the first 66 laps. While he was leading, Almirola seemingly got very little attention.

Morgan Shepherd received a little more coverage than normal since he managed to have a decent run for maybe the second time all season. His No. 89 car was on the lead lap when he was swept up into the big crash with Sadler, Jason Leffler, and Almirola. I want to say that the interview Dr. Jerry Punch did with Shepherd was his first on-air interview during a race this year.

Post-race coverage was a mess. ESPN ran long by roughly 10-15 minutes due to the amount of wrecking that occurred during the race, and a red flag caused by a late crash that all but completely eliminated Sadler from championship contention. As a result, ESPN chose to end their broadcast during winner Sam Hornish, Jr.‘s cool-down lap. Weak. I think this instance is the first time ESPN has cut off early since the travesty that was the 2007 Sam’s Town 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park (you might remember that craziness). However, unlike that… evening in Memphis, Marty Reid mentioned that there would be some post-race coverage on ESPNEWS.

I was expecting a normal post-race setup since it was already off of ESPN2. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Basically, what they did was create an intermission in College Football Scoreboard over there so that ESPN could air minimal post-race coverage. That coverage included the winner’s interview with Hornish, along with interviews with Brad Keselowski and Stenhouse. The whole thing lasted maybe two minutes. Weak as heck. You could even argue that such a setup could be considered an insult to Hornish.

ESPN’s actions on Saturday showed that almost anything associated with college football is more important to ESPN than the Nationwide Series. Post-race coverage got moved to ESPNEWS not for a game, but for a show that shows highlights of college football games. The next game wasn’t scheduled to start until 7 PM. I don’t know how many people watch College Football Scoreboard, but I doubt more people watch that than a live sporting event.

Kobalt Tools 500k

Sunday afternoon brought the big boys out to play on the tricky (and extra slippery) one mile tri-oval. Early morning rains threatened to delay the start of the race, but that didn’t turn out to be any issue at all.

Of course, the biggest story entering the event was Kyle Busch’s return to the No. 18, the stripping of M&M’s from the car for the remaining two races of the season, and Kyle’s remorse for his actions in Texas. ESPN showed clips from Busch’s top-12 availability press conference and when team owner Joe Gibbs spoke as well. Busch definitely seems a little different than he did after wrecking Hornaday, but we’ll see whether this incident has really resulted in a change down the line. I’m not willing to state that he’s changed for sure yet, but I’m also not willing to write him off.

Kyle Busch, returning to Sprint Cup competition at Phoenix remained one of the big stories within ESPN’s NASCAR Countdown show.

Like on Saturday, one of the main topics of discussion (other than Kyle Busch’s return to the seat) was the track itself. To that degree, ESPN aired a feature on the new configuration at Phoenix. This included footage shot during the open test held last month that included input from Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in the piece.

Probably the most interesting feature that aired on Countdown was a look at Jimmie Johnson away from the track. The general opinion of Johnson is that he’s boring as heck, or “vanilla.” That’s not necessarily so. Friends of Johnson including of all people, Jason Sehorn, waxed nostalgic about shenanigans that they’ve gotten into off the track with Five-Time. The overarching tone here was that Johnson really knows how to unwind. However, at the same time, he’s apparently the nicest person you could know. Basically, there’s nothing that I didn’t expect people like Sehorn, Casey Mears, and Lindy Hornaday (Ron’s wife) to say about Johnson.

Finally, there was an interesting piece on fuel mileage racing narrated by Marty Smith. ESPN stuck Smith in a 1970s Oldsmobile (possibly a 442, but I’m not sure) and had him talk about how the COT’s introduction has brought along an increase in the amount of fuel mileage racing while hanging out at Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s sprawling estate. Our own Tom Bowles has talked about how this change has come about due to an inability to pass on-track. Smith didn’t mention that here, but he did mention the near complete elimination of loopholes in the rules due to the infamous “Claw” that NASCAR uses to inspect the cars.

During the actual race telecast, there was a significant increase in discussion of where drivers were running during the race as compared to Texas. As a result, there were no massive plot holes to speak of here, along with no rabbits, basset hounds, or banjo-playing possums. However, there were a number of drivers that got little coverage, if any at all. Our own Beth Lunkenheimer ranted on Twitter during Sunday’s race about how Cole Whitt basically got diddly-poo’s worth of attention until he spun out just past halfway.

As I predicted last week, ESPN did, in fact, have the points as they run on the screen below the scroll for nearly the entire race. No surprise there. Granted, there wasn’t all that much movement since both Stewart and Edwards spent the vast majority of Sunday’s race up front. After 312 miles Sunday, they settled absolutely nothing. It’ll be back next week as well.

The big track story in pre-race was the slickness of the oval. While this condition was a problem early on, it evened out in the second half of the race. I’m not really sure if the commentators expected that (both the Nationwide and K&N Pro Series West races on Saturday were wreckfests), but they simply went with the flow.

Unfortunately, one of the main issues that many viewers had with Sunday’s broadcast was the sheer number of commercials, especially in the second half of the race. I have stated in the past that I don’t like ranting about that because it isn’t anything that I could legitimately do anything about. ESPN has to pay for their broadcasts somehow (remember, they’ve got $50 million in equipment at the track every weekend, and they’re paying roughly that much more each year just for the rights to televise all the races they do). However, what I can gripe about is the placement of said commercials. The second half of the race seemed to be one NonStop commercial after another. At one point, ESPN came out of a NonStop break, showed four laps of green flag racing (maybe one and three-quarters of a second minute), then took another NonStop break. That’s just ridiculous. You can do something to make the segments longer, yet still get in all your breaks.

Post-race coverage was decent, given the amount of time that ESPN had available to them. There were seven post-race driver interviews, along with an interview with the winning crew chief (Kenny Francis). Also, knowing the situation that is currently surrounding the Red Bull Racing Team, there was also an interview with Jay Frye, the Vice President and General Manager. In addition, there was the usual check of the point standings before ESPN left to get to SportsCenter.

ESPN’s coverage from Phoenix was an overall improvement on what we saw in Texas. The commercials did become a serious issue in the second half of the race, but that just seems to be a fact of life when it comes to Phoenix. I should have known going in that it was going to be an issue since Phoenix races are some of the shortest on the schedule. I’ve complained in the past about Phoenix races having these types of problems during the FOX portion of the season.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the final one of the season for NASCAR, as all three of the “National” series will crown their champions at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Here’s your listings:

Friday, November 18
Time Telecast Network
11:00 AM – 12:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
12:30 – 2:00 PM Nationwide Series Practice ESPN2
3:00 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
4:30 – 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 Ford 200 SPEED

Saturday, November 19
Time Telecast Network
1:00 – 2:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
2:30 – 4:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
4:00 – 4:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
4:30 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Ford 300 ESPN2

Sunday, November 20
Time Telecast Network
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
11:00 AM – 2:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 – 5:00 PM V8 Supercar Championship Series Falken Tasmania Challenge SPEED*
3:00 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 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

*- Tape-Delayed

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series season finales from Homestead for next Tuesday’s edition of Talking NASCAR TV here at Frontstretch. For this week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex, I will cover Saturday evening’s seemingly interminable Casino Arizona 125, the season finale for the K&N Pro Series West.

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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Gordon85Wins
11/15/2011 10:57 AM
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The constant barrage of ads during races is no small part of the reason I stopped watching. That and hearing ESPN, Fox and NASCAR all condescend to us about the billion dollar contracts that must be paid for somehow. Cry me a freaking river.

The Mad Man
11/15/2011 11:56 AM
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Since 2004, ads not racing has become the focus of both NASCAR and the networks. Maybe if NASCAR Media Group wasn’t writing the scripts and dictating policy as to what will and won’t be shown we fans at home might actually see some racing interrupted by a commercial or two instead of commercials interrupted by a few laps of racing.

Jim
11/15/2011 12:47 PM
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The people at ESPN seem to think that we as fans are okay with the “Non-Stop” BS because we can still “see” what is happening on track. But they’re dead wrong. When they run them practically on top of each other, it just makes a fan want to turn the channel or turn the TV off. Another thing they do that is wrong is, while in “Non Stop”, a caution would come out for a wreck, and they stay in their break rather than switch back to live action. That ticks me off too.

Bottom line is, the second half of any given race for ESPN is now known as a non-stop commercial fest.

Julia
11/15/2011 03:12 PM
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I did not think NBC aka Nothing But Commercials, could be knocked off the top of the worst TV coverage of racing list. But ESPN did it! I don’t even watch it live anymore because of the non stop commercials & Kyle Busch being shoved down our throats as the best driver ever in history! It soo annoying & boring, I just DVR it & FF thru the commercials & watch with the mute on

Chris
11/15/2011 09:48 PM
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I defend ESPN’s decision to cut off Saturday’s race as soon as it ended. Let’s face it, there are lots of college football games on and you want to show real action over interviews.

As for the commercials, I can’t tell how much too much is with NASCAR NonStop because you can still see the race unless you’re blind. To be perfectly honest, these telecasts are very expensive, and the network has to get ad support to offset the cost. If you’re still seeing the race, it doesn’t feel as bad as if the commericals were full screen.

Wingcars6970
11/15/2011 10:21 PM
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Mr. ESPN – If you have anything smaller than a 60” TV that Non-Stop is virtually useless. I find it barely big enough to follow on a 65”