The Frontstretch: ESPN Puts Themselves (Unintentionally) in a Dark Place at Atlanta by Phil Allaway -- Monday September 3, 2012

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ESPN Puts Themselves (Unintentionally) in a Dark Place at Atlanta

Couch Potato Tuesday · Phil Allaway · Monday September 3, 2012

 

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where race broadcast criticism is the name of the game. This past week, the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series were each at Atlanta Motor Speedway for 1,000 miles of racing and wearing tires down to the cords. Speaking of wearing down to the cords, I’m pretty sure that Trevor Bayne did quite a bit of that on Sunday night if his practice laps Saturday were any indication. His car seemed to be more at home at Lebanon Valley than Atlanta.

Also of note, we’re getting into college football season again. Countdown prior to both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races was affected by games running long. I have no idea why ESPN thinks that it is a good idea to allot three hours per game. They have to run exceptionally fast in order to finish in that amount of time. At this point, ESPN literally has the power to dictate terms to schools about when they start games (the Tuesday night MAC and Sun Belt Conference events are just one example of this.) I’d suggest moving the start times up, but I guess they’d probably wait until next year to execute any changes.

Finally, Jamie Little stated on her Twitter page back in July that she thought she would be back on pit road by Richmond, but according to the press release that ESPN sent out on Monday, that’s not the case. However, I’m sure that you’ll see Little pit reporting again before the end of the season. With that said, onto the critique.

All three of the top NASCAR series visited Atlant Motor Speedway this week. SPEED and ESPN brought the action to TV viewers, in their own distinct ways.

Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 200

On Friday night, the Camping World Truck Series was back in action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. For SPEED, the big story on this night was Kyle Busch’s return to the series. Hooray. I really don’t think I cared about that, to be honest. Regardless, there was a nice little montage of Kyle’s accomplishments in the series.

The primary feature on the Setup was a piece where Ty and Austin Dillon travel to a couple of places in the Atlanta area, apparently to promote the AdvoCare 500 and give away tickets to the race. This manifested itself in one of the more unusual games of Dodgeball that I can remember seeing. Picture a combination of GSN’s Extreme Dodgeball and Spike’s SlamBall and you’ll get a good idea of what was evident here.

That was followed up by a climbing competition between the brothers at what looked to be a Bass Pro Shops. I still think the whole dynamic between Austin and Ty is kind of played out on pre-race shows. I would have liked to see a feature with someone else, or even a replay of the piece on Timothy Peters that aired on RaceHub last week (which I wish NASCAR’s YouTube page would post instead of clips of Jimmy Spencer throwing helmets).

Another piece had the race’s namesake, Jeff Foxworthy, tour through the garage and talk to drivers about the strangest stuff they’ve seen at tracks. This was nothing short of an ad for his Grit Chips that sponsored the race (apparently, they’re spicy?) and a medium for Foxworthy to tell Redneck jokes or something similar to them. Not impressed. Surprised that Foxworthy didn’t throw in a plug for his new game show, The American Bible Challenge as well.

Sandwiched in between these two pieces was some pre-race analysis and a couple of pre-race interviews. It was weird this week. Both pre-race and race coverage could be best described as a sandwich. The meat was good, but the buns might make you sick.

The race coverage was full of competitive action for position, which is always great to watch. SPEED’s booth always does a great job bringing us the action and Friday night was no different, despite the fact that Waltrip sometimes drives me nuts.

For a race that ended as fast as Friday’s event did, the post-race coverage was very slim. There were only two post-race driver interviews, plus an interview with winning crew chief Marcus Richmond. There was also a check of the point standings before SPEED left the air for SPEED Center a full half-hour early.

C’mon, dudes. I can understand leaving a little early in this circumstance due to running out of people to talk to. However, you gave us the bare minimum when you should have gone beyond the norm. It is like going to a local wrestling match just because 1990‘s WWF wrestler Doink was going to show, then he all but no-shows a match, then scampers away due to bowel issues (Note: Link contains strong language and adult content galore. Viewer discretion is most definitely advised) There definitely should have been more post-race coverage. I left with an empty feeling.

The meat of the coverage, which is really the most important part of the telecast to most of my readers, was quite solid. I was happy with what we got there. However, everything else was a mess. I have no clue why.

NRA American Warrior 300

On Saturday night, the Nationwide Series returned to Atlanta for 300 more miles of action. Kevin Harvick opened up a can on the field that hasn’t been seen in years. But, how did ESPN do? Let’s find out.

When it came time for NASCAR Countdown to start, the Southern Miss-Nebraska game still had nearly eight minutes remaining. ESPN then made the immediate call to move Countdown to ESPNEWS. I guess that’s a step in the right direction. Previously, they would just sit there and wait and wait. If features couldn’t air because of the wait, it would just get pushed back a week.

ESPN joined Countdown 21 minutes late, right in the middle of a discussion about Travis Pastrana and Danica Patrick. We got interviews with the duo and a prediction that Patrick would drop like a stone. That happened Sunday night, but not really on Saturday. It just looked that way because Harvick was over a second a lap faster than Patrick.

Speaking of Pastrana, he had a great run on Saturday night until he wrecked. Knowing that he had stayed out during the sixth caution (the McClure crash), he was probably in need of a stop and drove past the use-by date on his tires.

Unfortunately, for race fans, once the green flag fell there really wasn’t all that much racing for position shown. Most of the action seemed to be around the restarts, then there seemed to be a focus on individual cars. Many of these individual teams were ones with Cup drivers in the seats, except for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

There were some other gripes as well. Kasey Kahne dropped out of the race on Lap 128, but it wasn’t mentioned on the broadcast at the time. 30 laps later, ESPN did interview Kahne. He made it sound like the tire issue on Lap 106 eventually caused him to drop out, but he really didn’t go into much detail. There were also some strange sound issues on the restart from the fourth caution. Sound effects for graphics were going off despite nothing happening. Found that rather annoying.

Now, what you’re probably going to take away from this telecast is the whole spat between Harvick and Brad Keselowski over the water bottle. The bottle did not bring out the yellow. However, ESPN did show multiple replays of Keselowski throwing said bottle out of the car, including one from inside of Keselowski’s car. Harvick apparently saw these replays on Sprint Vision during the yellow and was angry at Keselowski as a result.

After the race, Harvick confronted Keselowski and said his piece. Keselowski kind of just sat there and took it, thinking that Harvick was making himself look bad. However, Keselowski stated (in response to a fan) on Twitter Monday that he believes that ESPN was solely responsible for the confrontation. It is one thing to want to play up storylines, but Keselowski is accusing ESPN of trying to create stories where there is nothing.

Post-race coverage was average. ESPN provided viewers with four post-race interviews, including chats with both Keselowski and Harvick. The pit reporters relayed information to both drivers that the yellow was not thrown because of the water bottle. The responses: Keselowski was flustered as heck. Can’t recall seeing him like that. It was like he was in shock or something. Harvick must have said something that unnerved Keselowski.

Meanwhile, Harvick took a different stance and seemed to immediately put it on ESPN, saying in response to Dave Burns telling him that the bottle did not cause the yellow, “Why‘d you guys keep showing it on the replay, then?” He then continued to say (for lack of better words) that NASCAR didn’t want him to win.

Needless to say, ESPN is the Nationwide Series’ exclusive TV partner. They are in the business of televising the races, reporting on what happens in them, and explaining why these things happen. The storylines that often get pimped on Countdown, NASCAR Now and other shows, that’s stuff that naturally happens. ESPN doesn’t influence the occurrence of any of it.

I don’t believe that ESPN tried to create a storyline here just to benefit themselves. However, I do believe that they should have tried to find the piece of aluminum that really brought out that caution. They’ve got enough cameras and people on-site that should have seen something. Then, they could have shown that video to both Keselowski and Harvick and ended this whole stupidity before it got out of hand. Instead, we’ve got fightin’ words, taps on the face and scowls. ESPN would do well to go back and look at as much of the coverage from Atlanta as they can and find the debris this week. They have video from the whole race from every camera on-site. And when they do find evidence of it, show it to both Harvick and Keselowski (and everyone else, for that matter) so that this whole stupidity goes away.

Editor’s Note: ESPN, through PR spokesperson Andy Hall contacted us reinforcing the claim the network did, in fact show debris that wasn’t the water bottle. After informing viewership that NASCAR claimed the water bottle didn’t cause the caution, which occurred after the clips of Keselowski throwing the bottle out, they cut to a truck on the track where Reid said, ‘This was one of the two stops that were made during the commercial.’ However, it is difficult to make out what, exactly the track workers are picking up in the clip; ESPN also showed a clip of the water bottle being picked up in later broadcasts. They claimed the caution came out 92 seconds after the bottle was thrown.

AdvoCare 500

Finally, Sunday night brought the Sprint Cup Series back out to play for 503 big ones. Was this race any better than Saturday night?

Like on Saturday night, Countdown was adversely affected by a college football game running long. This time, the Louisville-Kentucky game ran long. Like on Saturday, Countdown started on ESPNEWS, and migrated over to ESPN when the game ended. What did you miss if you don’t have ESPNEWS? A little pre-race analysis in the Pit Studio and about half of Rick Hendrick’s interview.

Speaking of Hendrick, he spent much of his time talking about Jeff Gordon’s accomplishments and the 20th anniversary of DuPont sponsoring the No. 24. Interesting, I guess. Hendrick’s quite the smooth talker.

The main feature of the show was a piece on Richard Petty at age 75. Granted, Petty’s birthday was two months ago just before the Coke Zero 400, but since Petty made his final Cup start at Atlanta in 1992, they figured this was the best place to run it. Scott Avett narrated the piece, which talked about Petty’s accomplishments and general pop culture during his career. In addition, there were also comments from various racing personalities, both active and retired. I thought it was very well put together and really encapsulates what Petty ultimately means to NASCAR at large.

There was also a brief look back at the infamous 1992 Hooters 500, which I wrote a long form recap of for the Newsletter back in 2010 when Turning Back the Clock was a weekly piece. Just know that race is epic, and the whole dang thing is on YouTube, courtesy of Flyer2359 (Go in his videos, then go to Page 13).

Once the race got going, I noticed a couple of things. One, there was a large focus on single cars during the race. This kind of bites since we miss out on battles on track, wherever they might be. Maybe it is the long green flag runs, I don’t know. Around restarts, ESPN would show battles, but once spread out, we got a whole lot of single cars unless a couple of dudes in the top-10 were having at it. I suppose long runs are a good time to peruse through the field and find battles wherever they are on-track, and for whatever position, I don’t care where.

The single car focus was also supplemented by a substantial desire to show the drivers at work. I cannot recall a race in which more shots of the drivers “working the wheel” in the corners were shown. I think we know by now that Atlanta is a tricky track to get around. It doesn’t need to be shoved down our throats.

Whoever was leading during these long runs (Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., etc.) got an unnecessary amount of coverage. However, once they fell back (or prior to the point where they took the lead), they got very little. I doubt most viewers would have realized that Truex was in real contention unless they looked up at the scroll. This is why voicing out rundowns is so important during green flag runs. It decreases the chances of people coming out of nowhere to contend.

Also, our own Summer Bedgood noted on Twitter during the race that ESPN’s commentators sounded really dejected after the Johnson-Hornish-Newman crash on Lap 270. But not for the reason that you might think. They appeared dejected that Johnson crashed out instead of Newman. For Johnson, he locked into the Chase at Bristol, so he’s out there just to win and improve his base point total for Joliet. Meanwhile, Newman’s now in a win-at-all-costs scenario that can still be for naught if Kyle Busch somehow moves into the top-10 this weekend. I just found this interesting. I don’t believe that ESPN favors Johnson over anyone else, though.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since ESPN was right near the end of their timeslot. There were three driver interviews and a check of the points before ESPN left to get to the 11:30pm SportsCenter. The points were done in such a way that you couldn’t tell the margins in the top-10 because they decided to show who was in. Not a real fan of that. There are other ways to get that across than just putting “IN” where the point margins would be.

Honestly, I was not a real big fan of ESPN’s telecast on Sunday. I will say that there wasn’t too much Chase wild card discussion like I feared that there would be. Of course, that’s only a brief reprieve. Richmond will be ridiculous. I want these telecasts to be more inclusive, show more action down the order. As both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races this weekend proved, even some of the best teams can get lapped. Given a 100 lap green flag run, I think Harvick could have lapped the field Saturday night. Just because someone is a lap down (or two or three) doesn’t automatically make them a ghost.

That’s all for this week. Next week Sprint Cup and Nationwide are due to race at Richmond International Raceway.

Friday, September 7

Time Telecast Network
4:00am-5:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Free Practice No. 1 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00-9:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Free Practice No. 2 SPEED
12:00pm-2:00pm Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN 2
2:30-3:30pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN 2
4:00-5:00pm Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN 2
5:30-7:00pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN 2
7:00-7:30pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN
7:30-10:00pm Nationwide Series Virginia 529 College Savings 250 ESPN

Saturday, September 8

Time Telecast Network
5:00am-6:00am Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Free Practice No. 3 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00-9:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Qualifying SPEED
9:00-10:00am NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
4:30-5:00pm SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
5:00-7:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
7:00-7:30pm NASCAR Countdown ABC
7:30-11:00pm Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 ABC
~11:00-11:30pm NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED

Sunday, September 9

Time Telecast Network
7:30-10:00am Formula One Grand Prix of Italy SPEED
3:00-6:00pm Rolex Sports Car Series Continental Tire Sports Car Festival SPEED
7:00-8:00pm SPEED Center SPEED
9:00-10:00pm Wind Tunnel SPEED

I will provide critiques of both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races from Richmond in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. Catching Speed will appear in the Sept. 6 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 want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, 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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Sue
09/04/2012 09:16 AM
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Just a note about the water bottle issue. I do think ESPN created the issue on purpose. Brad threw the bottle out two or three laps B4 the caution but they made it look like he just had done it. Also watched Race Hub last night and they also made it into a big deal.I think Brad showed a lot of class in the news media by not reacting to the face pat by Harvick. Can’t say the same for Harvick or the Media or Steve Burns. Love your articles.

Andy
09/04/2012 10:22 AM
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You do terrific write-ups on the coverage each week. You highlight the problems that many of us see, but there’s no hidden agenda. You’re also willing to point out the good bits, something that’s lacking from other media critics.

Coverage has improved a little over the years but not enough. Not only is it not what it should be, but it’s below what ESPN gave us in the Eighties.

Part of this is the networks’ fault, part is due to the things that NASCAR is telling them is important. Things like in-car cameras that are nothing more than subliminal advertising placements.

Don
09/04/2012 12:01 PM
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Harvick of course has demonstrated once more why ,
In the pantheon of A*******, he is at the top. A complete jerk.

SHOEMAN
09/04/2012 12:21 PM
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Well said DON.

Carl D.
09/04/2012 12:49 PM
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How did Danica Patrick miss hitting the empty water bottle?

Joe
09/04/2012 02:35 PM
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Phil, any possibility of getting an interview with someone in charge of the racing broadcasts at ESPN? Maybe it would help us understand why the coverage is so poor. Talking about it is one thing but we need to figure out someway to change it and make it better!

jerseygirl
09/04/2012 02:42 PM
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Nice recap of the races. The nationwide race was a totally snoozer and the cup race wasn’t that much better.

It would be nice if the TV folks would use wide shots – let us see the race. People might actually realize there is a reason to buy a ticket and go to the track if they saw the racing instead of in car and single car shots.

DP would have hit it if it was a shoe! LOL

Phil Allaway
09/04/2012 08:13 PM
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Joe, I would love to interview anyone involved with ESPN’s broadcasts. In fact, I recently tried to, and ESPN declined my request. I mentioned it in the intro to my post-Michigan critique.

Sue, I still believe that Brad was out of sorts on Saturday night. Yes, he didn’t take potshots at Harvick, but he just wanted to be out of there. Harvick probably said something incredibly insulting or threatening to Brad on pit road.