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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Are NASCAR Broadcasters Getting Too Impartial?

Last week, former NBA star and current ABC/ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty announced that his fledgling Cup team has formed a “technical alliance” with Michael Waltrip Racing. The JTG car, to be piloted by Marcos Ambrose and sponsored by Little Debbie, will naturally field Toyotas as a result. I wish all involved the best in this new endeavor. Certainly, Daugherty faces a daunting task getting his new team up to speed for the Cup Series, and I wish him more success than some other athletes from the stick and ball sports who have attempted the same with limited results. He’s off to a good start with a driver, at least: Ambrose is both a talented and likeable guy who’ll serve him well.

Meanwhile, officials at MWR have announced they are still moving forward with their efforts to field a fourth Cup team next season. That means that however tight the alliance might be between MWR and JTG, they will legally be separate entities. Whether this sort of alliance violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the new rule that will limit teams to a maximum of four entries is a topic for another column. And no, I’m not picking on Toyota here. When Jimmie Johnson referred to Tony Stewart as his “teammate” for next year – even though Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing will be separate entities – that tells a reasonable person something.

Anyways, what bothers me is a completely different angle of this thing. With one stroke of the pen, we have yet another TV “journalist” getting paid to comment on and analyze races, while also accepting checks from a sponsor and manufacturer who he’ll have a chance to promote during his time on the air – to the exclusion of others.

This isn’t a new problem. In addition to paid relationships with sponsors and carmakers, some NASCAR TV types have familial relationships with competitors. That’s the nature of the sport where so many sets of fathers and sons and brothers have competed. Ned Jarrett was broadcasting races for ESPN while his son Dale Jarrett was out there racing. Terry Cook’s wife was a pit reporter during Truck Series broadcasts. Benny Parsons called some races his brother Phil Parsons competed in. And obviously, you have Darrell Waltrip calling races his brother Michael Waltrip competes in.

But there are differences from the announcers now and the announcers then. When it came to calling races where his son Dale was a factor, Ned Jarrett was the consummate broadcast professional in most instances. He’d refer to Dale Jarrett simply as “Jarrett,” occasionally lapsing into calling him DJ but almost never taking sides as a fellow driver battled with Dale for the win. Ned also didn’t go out of the way to note what his son was doing when DJ wasn’t running well. Of course, the most glaring exception to Jarrett’s professional detachment was his call of the final laps of the 1993 Daytona 500. With Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt battling hard for the win, Ned Jarrett began urging on his son and offering him advice he’d never hear. But since it was so completely out of character for him, most fans found that call endearing rather than annoying – although one person disagreed. The next week at Rockingham, Ned Jarrett sought out Earnhardt, hat in hand, and apologized for what he felt was a grievous breach of professional ethics in favoring his son. Earnhardt just grinned and told him, “Don’t forget, Ned, I’m a daddy too” in letting him off the hook.

Now compare that to Darrell Waltrip today, who makes no bones about the fact he’s one of “Mikey’s” biggest cheerleaders. He’ll find any reason possible to mention his brother in the booth, even when the driver of the No. 55 car is running laps down as a slow moving chicane to lead-lap cars. Waltrip constantly swears that he’s seeing real improvement in MWR despite any on track evidence to the contrary, and he mentions his younger brother’s sponsors every chance he gets. It might be “Bobby Labonte in the No. 43 car,” but it’s usually “Mikey in the NAPA Toyota” when DW’s calling the race.

I guess the trouble really started brewing when Toyota decided they were going to go NASCAR racing midway through FOX’s first TV contract. Darrell Waltrip signed deals with the manufacturer to run Toyotas for his team, appear in a series of truly bad TV ads for them, and even run a few truck races at the wheel of a Toyota. Larry McReynolds also received financial support from Toyota for a racing team he was trying to run at the time. And both broadcasters all but tripped over their tongues touting Toyotas and their commitment to the sport in every broadcast.

For newer fans of the sport, let me explain a little about how this all works. There’s a firm called Joyce Julius that analyzes each and every race broadcast, sentence by sentence and frame by frame. They carefully document how many minutes each sponsor’s logo is shown clearly and in focus during a race broadcast, counting every mention of a sponsor during the race as well. It doesn’t matter if that driver is winning or running 43rd; it only matters how many minutes those logos are shown clearly and in focus, as well as how many times those corporations are mentioned. When the numbers are tallied up at the end of a race broadcast review, the company compares how many minutes of focus that company got and compares it to how much they’d have had to pay to buy a similar amount of TV advertising during the same broadcast. Sponsors then evaluate their spending on Cup sponsorship by that ratio. That’s why you’ve seen some companies that have formerly backed lesser Cup teams decide they’re better off buying TV commercial time rather than backing a team that isn’t running all that well. If you buy ads, you know you’re going to get airtime. But if your driver falls out on the first lap of the race and is never shown again… you get little to no exposure for your investment.

Thus, when a TV broadcaster is taking money from a company and using his position on the broadcast team to give them “mentions” and direct the coverage towards a particular car, they are repaying their corporate benefactors. In doing so, they are committing a grievous breach of journalistic ethics, the sort that get real reporters fired.

Let’s say, for instance, a print reporter was found to have been taking money from the Obama (or McCain) campaigns and was slanting his stories and coverage to favor his benefactor and denigrate the opposing candidate. That reporter would be out on his or her ass in the blink of an eye, and would be lucky to ever work in that field again.

In a perfect world, there are folks who sell NASCAR broadcast commercial minutes, and there are the broadcasters who call and produce the races – two entities which should be completely divorced with the same level of separation as church and state. Yes, the TV networks need to, and obviously want to, make money broadcasting NASCAR races by selling commercials. But the broadcasters are there to tell the story of the event however it unfolds. If the driver of the Home Depot car is dominating the race, well, it’s just too bad that Lowe’s bought all those commercial TV minutes when their boy is a lap off the pace. The Home Depot car gets broadcast time, while the Lowe’s car does not because those responsible for televising the race are there to show the story, not appease corporations. Next week, the roles of the two drivers may be reversed, so it could all balance out in the end. And if it doesn’t… that’s the way the competition shook out.

But right from Jump Street, FOX ushered in a new era in race broadcasting in 2001. Their very first major NASCAR event was the Bud Shootout, and when the drivers’ names and pictures of their cars were shown to set the field, only those sponsors who had bought TV commercials during the broadcasts had their logos shown on the cars. In contrast, any corporations that didn’t buy ads had their cars shown with the logos airbrushed out. The move caused instant outrage, and FOX had to back down.

Still, next time they show the field on pit road, notice which cars the network tends to focus on – you can bet it will be the ones whose sponsors bought TV ads during the subsequent broadcast. It’s still being done, just much less subtly now. In an era where UPS was a major sponsor during the race broadcasts but Dale Jarrett was running poorly, somehow or another the UPS car always managed to get more screen time than a guy whose car was running sixth. We’re not longer watching a sports broadcast, we’re watching an unending litany of advertising billboards. And meanwhile, in the booth and in the studio, certain supposed journalists are adding their own drumbeat with their constant mentions of favored drivers and corporations while trying to get the cameras refocused on the appropriate cars. Lots of cars get towed back to the garage area after wrecks, but note which cars the cameras seem hypnotized by as they are hauled away. Listen for which drivers get interviewed after a wreck or a blown engine… and you’ll notice the pattern that develops.

Michael Waltrip isn’t going to make many lists of one of the best NASCAR drivers ever born, but he will go down in history as one of the best marketers a sponsor could enter a deal with. Yeah, Waltrip might run lousy a lot, but he’s going to get his face on TV and tout his sponsors. His brother will help see to that during the FOX part of the season; then, Waltrip will appear on a bunch of panel discussion shows during the week and keep plugging those sponsors as shamelessly as he can get away with. It’s an art form to him, but a major annoyance to many fans I speak to – and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t watched an episode of This Week In NASCAR/Inside Nextel Cup in years.

You might compare this madness to the late-night TV shows. Nobody pretends otherwise, but Letterman and Leno are entertainers – not journalists. They want big name guests to draw the TV ratings and sell TV commercials during their programs, while the big stars want a chance to appear and tout their latest film, TV show or album. Their staffs are trying to book guests that they feel bleary-eyed Americans might stay up to see, not those whose movie companies are willing to buy ads during the broadcast for. Meanwhile, the journalists in the industry are the film critics who pick or pan a film based on what they thought of it, getting no compensation from those studios to do so. If they’re caught, they’re out a job.

I can’t ever recall an NFL broadcast where an analyst tried to promote an advertiser’s product. You never hear them say, “The defense looks a little flat. They might all want to try an AMP energy drink” or “Look at the way those Nike athletic shoes are allowing the receivers to pivot on this slick field!” So, why do NASCAR fans have to put up with this boorishness week in and week out? My guess is because the broadcasters think ya’ll are too stupid to notice it.

It’s time the networks sit down and decide to act professionally. During a race broadcast, it should be the “No. 20 car” or “Stewart” but never the “Home Depot Chevy” (And the same goes for all other competitors, of course.) Show the action no matter what sponsor logos are in view; there’s enough damn commercials without turning the broadcast into a three-hour long one. If a broadcaster has a financial relationship with a sponsor, that should be revealed, and he should be compelled not to talk about or even mention those sponsors during a broadcast. Sure, the drivers need to be able to plug their backers, and if they win or run well, they will get their chance. But direct post-race interviews to drivers who might have something interesting to say – that’s what the fans want to hear after a race, not drivers backed by broadcast sponsors.

Race broadcasters make a comfortable living, and they’re entitled to it. They’ve reached an elite level through hard work and success at their fields of endeavor, whether it’s as a journalist, a driver or a crew chief. They need to live with those salaries, not try to supplement them through commercial work or alliances with key players in the sport who have an interest in getting air time during broadcasts.

Me, I’ve never gotten close enough to the game; I’ve never been offered much beyond a few free ball caps and beers. I’m happy out here in my own little orbit, a safe distance from the big planet. But back in the day, I got a little too close to the sun in the music industry. I watched big name disc jockeys in this market accept money, drugs and sexual favors to play and promote certain albums and songs on their programs. I also knew of record stores that lied to Billboard about which albums were selling in an attempt to drive a disc up the charts. When all was said and done, it ended badly for those involved, and I was happy to have kept a safe distance. That close encounter forever soured me on the music industry, however – except for rock & roll. Some things – Harley Davidsons, rock & roll and stock car racing – are too pure and holy to sacrifice to financial expediency. As such, I hope the TV networks will impose some sort of journalistic ethics on their key players before the line between what’s a commercial and what’s a race broadcast gets any fuzzier.

(For the record – I do not get paid anything by Harley Davidson. I paid for mine, and the folks at Smaltz’s Harley Davidson were nice enough to give me a free ball cap and t-shirt.)

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