NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: TNT’s Wide Open Coverage Has Some Gaps

There is nothing quite like a Saturday night race – especially one presented without commercial interruption. The Coke Zero 400 on TNT was a thrilling broadcast from start to finish, even during some of the long green-flag runs, in large part because of the Wide Open Coverage that gave us the ability to watch far more of the race than usual. According to cawsnjaws.com, the network broke away from full race coverage for just 17 minutes all night long. Of course, there were far more times when their sponsors popped up in the video box at the bottom of the screen, but TNT did not do a bad job at all of integrating those mandatory commercial ads during the race broadcast. The extra space created by those special ads was used wisely, with extra information about drivers placed in what would have been a massive HD ribbon of blank space.

But for all the extra racing TNT wound up offering fans, there still remains some problems to be solved after their second attempt at Wide Open Coverage. The ticker for the race ran at the bottom of the screen, instead of at the top; and below the ticker was a blank space that was filled repeatedly with driver stats. The information was good, but the thumbnail pictures of each driver were too big for the blank space, and the top of their headshots obstructed the ticker when displayed. Making the pictures smaller would have been an easy solution to an obvious problem; luckily, the ticker’s information rolled behind the driver’s picture and into a viewable position.

And then, there was the issue of what the network would call “branded content.” Although TNT placed the commercials within the broadcast well, it did seem awkward how Bill Weber would break out into praise for Coors Light in the middle of a Kyle Petty-Wally Dallenbach conversation about the race. You know it’s something that had to be said, but it always came out looking like an interruption more than anything else. The actual commercial ads themselves that popped up during the event did not obstruct the racing action very much, but it would have been a better idea for TNT to make the racing picture smaller and place the ad in the blank space, instead of sometimes blocking views of the race track itself with the sponsor on the screen.

The only commercial breaks in the broadcast were local commercial breaks, which likely will never be avoided. But these were well-placed by the network, and were cleared in plenty of time to capture the entire last segment of the race. In particular, it was great to be able to see every pit stop and restart that we miss so often during the course of a normal broadcast. However, during one of the rejoins to the race coverage from a local break, viewers could still hear what sounded like Dallenbach talking in the background before Weber began the rejoin script. That mistake happens sometimes, but it had to be a relief that Wally was not caught dropping an F-bomb – like Kyle Petty was when he was an in-car reporter for TNT at Sonoma last year. Even with fewer commercials, the audio guy needs to know when to press that mute button!

But even with those minor mistakes, it’s clear the people in FOX, TNT, and ESPN/ABC’s sports advertising departments need to work with the major sponsors of NASCAR races to make the revenue feasible to do this kind of coverage, or other variances, far more often. In an interview with Frontstretch’s Matt Taliaferro, Executive Producer of NASCAR on TNT Jeff Behnke said that the reason their network and others cannot do coverage like this is because it is cost-prohibitive. Well, sponsors and marketing masters need to begin devising a plan to work around that; it’d be a big plus for their fans if they can make this coverage happen in as many races as they possibly can. As I said during one of my columns about FOX’s NASCAR coverage, the networks need to keep up with the ever-expanding realms of media that are making television obsolete, and commercial interruption-free broadcasts are a huge step in that direction.

Despite the serviceable execution of the Wide Open coverage, TNT did make a few major errors in its overall race broadcast:

  • At the end of the race, two key pieces to the finish did not make their way home to the viewers. The first involved the major crash on the last lap. TNT’s camera crew and directors solely focused themselves on the big crash and neglected to do any kind of split-screen of the side-by-side battle for the lead, a battle to the checkers that later had to be decided by video. The second foible happened when the boys in the booth were so busy analyzing the big crash that they neglected to show live footage of race winner Kyle Busch’s burnout. Showing the burnout of a race winner should be mandatory for all race broadcasts; and at the very least, the director of the broadcast could have at least thrown up a split-screen of Busch doing his spinout while the boys rambled on about the wreck.
  • There were also a few mess-ups in the pre-race coverage. When Marc Fein asked Petty what his tips were for the race, Kyle said his only tip was for drivers and fans to stay hydrated with Coke Zero. Man; that product plug was worse than any Michael Waltrip has ever done.
  • Lindsay Czarniak has done a splendid job on pit road this year, but a before-the-race mess-up was funny to hear, nonetheless. Czarniak was not quite expecting a toss to her while preparing to interview a driver, and viewers heard her producer quickly telling her a fact about that driver – something which she immediately said on the air. This only goes to show that the pit-road reporters do not actually have all of their facts memorized; but still, they still do a great job and should be commended for their work.
  • TNT spends a lot of money trying to look professional during its broadcasts, but no amount of cash can make up for the fact that Petty’s lips and words were not at all synced up when he was driving the pace car.
  • Can someone explain why the crew had to film several of the Wally’s World segments at Pocono? Why couldn’t he drive the TNT car at New Hampshire and Daytona? Live driving footage is way better than voicing over the NASCAR.com RaceView every week.
  • * TNT also needs to check the spelling its crew uses on the rundown ticker. Two-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s name was spelled “Jimmy” on the ticker all race long… and that’s not the first time that’s happened, either. He is not Kirk Shelmerdine, people… spell his name right!
  • ESPN did a good job during its Nationwide Series broadcast Friday night. One of the shining moments of the race was actually the post-race show, when Jamie Little interviewed Mike Wallace after his nephew Steve Wallace wrecked him on the last lap. Wallace’s quotes were great, but two thumbs go up for Little, who did not wuss out and asked Wallace the question about how to handle a family member wrecking him.
  • One glaring ESPN mistake occurred away from its improving NASCAR team again. The Sunday morning ticker on SportsCenter read the race results for the Coke Zero 400, followed by a headline that Paul Menard sat on the pole for the race. Obviously, the person who inputs information on the ticker forgot where the “delete” button on the computer was. As we’ve said before in this space, mistakes like that should not happen if you want to be taken seriously as a leader of NASCAR coverage.

TNT’s final race of the season will be at Chicagoland next week, once again held under the bright lights of Saturday night. Check this column next week for analysis of the television coverage, as well as a look at what ESPN will bring to the NASCAR table towards the end of July!

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