Editor’s Note: This column is the second of a three-part series Matt’s writing about the pending return of NBC to covering the sport full-time. Come back for Part III Thursday!
Since a lot of ya’ll are new to this and I’m not, let’s review the basics here. NASCAR is not an entertainment broadcast. It’s a sporting event. Hopefully it’s an entertaining sporting event, that’s your job, but “entertaining” is the adjective not the noun. Your job is to broadcast the race as it plays out. Doubtless as you’ve got your ducks in a row to take the baton for FOX, a lot of folks working in cubicles have come up with some “segments” you want to air with every broadcast. Go back right now and review them each to see what they might potentially add to the race broadcast. Eliminate half of them, then eliminate half of the half remaining, then two thirds of the rest. NASCAR doesn’t have scheduled time-outs, a seventh-inning stretch, quarters, periods, or any of that nonsense. They are no scheduled stoppages of play. (Yeah, we have yellow flags but they don’t happen at any set time, or at least they shouldn’t. See above.)
The worst thing you can do is bring to a race is a pre-set script based on what you think will likely happen. Because invariably it won’t. At a micro-level, let’s look at a local news reporter, her camera guy and producer set to do a second-segment two-minute piece on a local country music radio station’s anniversary concert on the river. Yep, we’re going to show Tim McGraw singing for a few seconds, note what a good time everyone is having, find one or two people willing to put down their beers and put in their teeth to say how excited they are to be there, and close with a note how that radio station (oh, did we forget to mention they’re our sister station?) is now number one in the market. But while the pretty reporter is reading her script and the producer is reminding the fans what words they can’t say and what body parts they can’t show, all of a sudden there’s a riot breaking out because they’ve run out of the promised free t-shirts. People are overturning vehicles, setting crap on fire and beating the snot out of one another. Ummm… we’re going to have to deviate from script and our time slot to report breaking news. Someone flash the big red “Breaking News” graphic because I ain’t got a word to say right now other than “yee-haw!”
You’ve got to be quick on your feet and react to what’s happening, not what you thought might. That’s the beauty of live sports. Sure, that driver might have taken over the lead early in the race and led every lap since with 10 laps to go, but there’s no saying that he might not split an engine right down the middle like Uncle Barney’s trousers while he was playing horseshoes at the family reunion. For the height of idiocy, be sure to review FOX’s month-long coverage of Kevin Harvick’s headlong attempt to match Richard Petty’s record for consecutive top-two finishes. It’s like the broadcast team went mute when it didn’t. Let’s go back to ace reporter Annie M., who is now flashing the SWAT team.
Yep, you can’t predict the action and you can’t focus on one driver. While the topic is open, when reporting who just entered the pits it’s Johnson (not Jimmie, I hear Jimi and I still think Hendrix not Hendrick) in the number 48 car. (Not the Lowe’s Chevy. Not to pick on Johnson, that’s the way it should be for all drivers across the board. Stewart (not Tony and certainly not Smoke) in the number 14 car is running 37th. You don’t have to and shouldn’t mention sponsor names. If that car is being shown on TV, we’re seeing them for ourselves. As the Joyce Julius seconds add up, those sponsors are happier than a monkey beating off in a gum-gum tree. I mean, if you do it any differently and it’s Kasey Kahne in the Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, but in the next moment its Busch in the number 18 car people might think they’re using sponsors’ and manufacturers’ names because Chevy and the insurance folks bought ads for the broadcast while M&M’s and Toyota did not. You wouldn’t do that sort of nefarious crap, would you? In the Constitution, you have the separation of Church and State. There’s got to be that same sort of gap between broadcasters and the advertising department. Otherwise, it’s not a race interrupted by commercials, it’s a commercial interrupted by more commercials.
You knew it was coming. We have to talk about commercials. They are perhaps the chief irritant that starts fans to grinding their teeth. I’m a realist. That $4.4 billion has to be recouped somehow. Since we’re not paying to watch the race, you have to sell commercials. I get it. But as noted above, NASCAR has no scheduled TV timeouts. Somehow you have to find a way to space those commercials and limit the length of the breaks at least to the extent they don’t preclude an attentive fan at home from being able to fathom how the race is playing out. Ultimately the only solution is to convince sponsors to accept the side-by-side format (like IndyCar, Formula 1, soccer and on and on) so their ads are shown in the big box while what’s going on out on the racetrack is shown in another.
A couple points you might bring up here: With the big-screen TV craze that has swept America, they’re still getting more square inches of TV screen space than they did ten years ago. Secondly, no matter how clever your ad is, what a screaming bargain you’re offering, or how many cute retriever puppies you can show frolicking in fields of wildflowers, your message isn’t going to be seen or heard if nobody is watching. I’ll be honest. When I watch a race on TV, I always hit mute when the commercials come on. I’ll go to the kitchen to grab a drink and a sandwich. I’ll use the bathroom. I might step out on the porch for a smoke. Given the duration of some of those commercial breaks, I might write a novel. But I’m not paying attention to the TV until I see racecars running around the track again. And most fans I know do the same. If the race was being shown in a separate box I’d keep paying attention. Heck, if it was a good race, I might even piss in a Gatorade bottle to avoid missing the action. And because of that reptilian lobe in my brain that kept my forefathers from being snatched out of the sky by pterodactyls, I’m going to register at least some of the ad because there’s movement above what I’m looking at. That’s just how I roll. On the beach I might be checking out pretty women, but I’m still aware of any seagull overhead waiting to crap on my lunch.
Oh, I’m sure the advertisers will bitch and moan some, but just ask them if they’d prefer a small piece of a big pie or a big piece of a small pie. “Small pie”. Not Tastycake Original Snack-size Apple Pie. (Oh, for the record did you know that NASCAR fans in Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK get to see Cup races commercial free? Yee-haw! But of course with all those time zones, the races are probably broadcast at some awkward times during which any good German would probably already be in bed if he hoped to have any schnitzel in his wiener the next day.)
But back to the separation between advertising and broadcasting. OK, we’ve endured the latest commercial breaks. Back to the race! We don’t need a continuous barrage of commercial promos during the broadcast any more than some sponsors want the racing shown beside their ad. Yeah, McReynolds, we already knew what brand of tires the crews were going to bolt to the cars and what brand of gas would be poured in the tank without your hollering to remind us. Now, if there were two or more sorts of tires a team could choose, the reds being sticky but fast wearing while the blacks were harder but more consistent, and teams had a limited stockpile of both, that would be information I need. (And that might save NASCAR racing.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is very popular, but so are a lot of other drivers. We don’t need in-car shots paid for by someone to check on how Earnhardt is doing particularly when he’s running three laps down and you still haven’t shown the driver in sixth place. FOX’s Mike Joy referred to these sort of mini-commercials and mentions as “sponsor-paid enhancements” recently on Twitter. Truthfully, I had no idea that “enhancement” was French for “irritant.” I don’t care what movie is about to be released, even if it’s a blockbuster. I couldn’t give a flying flip at a rolling doughnut about what’s on NBC later tonight. They just showed me commercials for both during the break. That’s when the advertising gets done. While you’re sitting there spouting on about the history of the Goodyear blimp and the two leaders have just wrecked one another, something is wrong.
Another pet peeve a lot of people have with the current brands of race coverage is start times. Oh, they’re by and large consistent these days, which is a good thing, but why is that the scheduled air time has nothing to do with when the race really starts? Call me a curmudgeon, but I really don’t give a flying flip who your pit reporters think might win that day. (Some might assume they’re taking kickbacks to go pose in front of someone’s sponsor logo splashed pit stall. They wouldn’t do that, right?) As I see it, say the prayer, sing the song, fire the engines and get after it. If the race is scheduled at 1:00, I want to see cars driven in anger by 1:05. And spare me the pre-race stats. Yep, it’s fascinating that there’s been a green-white-checkered finish in four of the last nine events at the track. But like those prospectuses all say, past performance does not necessarily predict future returns. Is there going to be a GWC finish that day? We’ll all find out together because we’re watching the race together, right?
While we’re on the topic of payola, try to keep in mind that there are in fact 43 cars out there, not just Junior and his teammates and the JGR bunch. Yeah, some drivers have more fans than others, but damn it, there are Landon Cassill fans and they want to know how he’s running too. You hold the smaller teams’ futures in your hand. Their sponsors want their Joyce Julius exposure too. Deny it to them and those sponsors could leave, teams could fold and drivers and crew members might lose their jobs. Just because you’re the big pig at the trough doesn’t mean it’s OK to shoulder the piglets aside. It’s in the best interest of the sport to have a full field of at least somewhat competitive entries, not start-and-parkers like back in the day. And some of those little teams might one day might surprise you. We all thought it was a joke when some Chevy dealer started running All-Star Racing with Geoff Bodine at the wheel and look how that worked out. As it stands written in the Book of the Boss; “from small things, mama, big things one day come”.
(While we’re on the topic, if you’re going to call that guy “Mr. Hendrick” then it ought to be “Mr. Roush, Mr. Gibbs, Mr. Petty, et al. His drivers can call him whatever they like. Long time HMS crew chief Harry Hyde used to call him “Mr. Hendrix.” Seriously, old Harry never got the memo. Fans have a variety of nicknames for him, some of which are just impolite.)
Maybe you could add a segment every week called “The Last Word” to give the previous week’s last-place finisher a chance to say what went wrong and how they intend to fix it this week.