The view from my couch

Fox vs. NBC - A Comparison

Before I started this season-ending comparison of the two networks, I went back and re-read most of my reviews during the year to refresh my memory. Each network has itís strengths and weaknesses and each brings a unique perspective to broadcasting NASCAR events.

In comparing the two networks, I couldnít help but think that the NBC crew really did their homework during the off-season and the earlier part of this year. Not only did they make vast improvements over their 2001 broadcasts, but they examined the things that fans complained about during the Fox portion of the 2002 season and improved upon them as well. Of major note was that the NBC producer, Sam Flood, made a marked improvement in dealing with the dynamics of a race broadcast. The viewers saw none of the technical glitches that plagued the NBC broadcasts last year. In the area of improvements over what Fox gave us, NBC refused to use anything like Darrell Waltripís annoying "boogity, boogity, boogity" at the start of the race. Secondly, although my notes show that NBC was actually the one to coin the phrase "young guns" during their Daytona 500 coverage this year, Fox was the one who jumped on the phrase and overused it over the next five months. I was thankful to see that NBC realized how tired the fans were of hearing the annoying references to age and refrained from using the term throughout most of their portion of the season.

Larry McReynolds and Wally Dallenbach came across as the two guys who worked very hard to improve their performance this season. McReynolds made it clear each week on Fox how serious he was about doing the best job possible to provide useful background information to the fans and also strived to keep the entire Fox team focused on the race we were watching. Dallenbach seemed more comfortable in his role in the NBC broadcast booth this season, and his natural sense of humor emerged. One negative I noticed was that the NBC folks appeared to feel that since there were such strong personalities and conflicts in the Fox booth that they had to make it appear that Dallenbach did not get along with his co-hosts, Benny Parsons or Allen Bestwick. I found this mock dislike to be transparent and unnecessary. Many times Dallenbach didnít agree with Parsons or Bill Weber, but could say so in a pleasant way and without the fake dislike.

An across the board comparison of both networkís broadcasts in 2002 shows that NBC was clearly the best. The Fox corporate philosophy of hype and sensationalism just doesnít sit well with me. I tune in to see a race, not a network that thinks it has to turn the broadcast into something as fake as a wrestling match or Survivor. Occasionally, NBC used gags or silly pre-race antics, but, overall, they seemed to do the better job staying focused on the racing. The NBC production team also made vast improvements in the area of not "dumbing down" the broadcast as they did in 2001. We rarely heard Allen Bestwick say "for those of you new to NASCAR..." The fans were also not subjected to "tight/loose graphic" each week as they were last season on NBC.

Another of the Fox strengths is Jeff Hammond. While I still feel he is underutilized in that silly Hollywood Hotel working with Chris Meyers, his timely illustrations with the Fox "Cutaway Car" were excellent and added significantly to the Fox broadcast. Hammond's illustrations clearly beat out Benny Parsonsí use of the "Ford 360" car on NBC. While Iím mentioning the "hotel" and Meyers, I certainly hope Fox drops both of them. Perhaps Hammond could work as a pit reporter or trade off with McReynolds or Waltrip in the Fox booth. Speaking of "ole DW," all Iím going to say is Iím not looking forward to his return in February. The man was a championship driver seventeen years ago, but he just needs to get over himself a little bit and focus on the races more. Parsons was a champion over twenty years ago, as well, but learned a lot in the way of professionalism from his years working on ESPN.

Between the two anchors in the Fox and NBC booths, I much prefer Allen Bestwick over Mike Joy. I may complain about Bestwick at times, but he definitely shows who has control of the NBC booth by providing leadership to the group and keeping everyone focused. Joy needs to learn to assert himself a lot more in this direction. Many times this season, McReynolds had to step in and get the Fox group refocused on the race at hand. Bestwick also did an excellent job in leading his group in several timely discussions of such issues as the consistent of the red flag by NASCAR when accidents occurred in the last few laps of a race.

I also appreciated that Bestwick would throw in last minute things as NBC went to or returned from commercial, such as telling us the top five or who had pitted. My biggest complaints about Bestwick involve his dwelling on the number of wrecks in a race and the constant need to pat the NBC folks on the back when they chose to break from commercial early. I know that Joy has as much technical knowledge and love of the sport as Bestwick, but it just somehow seems to get buried under the hype on Fox and the constant chatter from Waltrip. My biggest complaint about Joy is his tendency to yell "TROUBLE" whenever there is an accident. Granted the urgency of it may be dictated by the corporate philosophy at Fox as I donít remember him being quite so emotional on TNN.

The NBC production team excelled in several areas this season. First they continued and expanded the use of the Through the Field feature that they used infrequently in 2001. In this, they were head and shoulders above Fox, who rarely tried to do a complete field rundown, choosing to concentrate on the leaders or featured drivers only. During Through the Field, NBC showed the strength of the producer and the teamwork of the pit reporters in their ability to describe how each driver is running and to make a seamless pass-off to the next reporter. I listened to Sam Flood queuing the reporters while I was at races this fall, and believe me, it requires a huge amount of behind the scenes coordination by everyone involved in this feature. Even when there was a pass for position among the cars being featured, the pit reporters kept on top of changes and didnít miss a beat. As the NBC portion of the season progressed, at times NBC expanded the Through the Field coverage to include up to twenty-four cars or most of the cars on the lead lap. My only suggestion is that they try at least once a race to show the entire field so every driverís fans can see them and know how they are doing in the race.

Although Fox tried to feature radio communications between drivers and their teams during the race, they seemed to lack some coordination between the production truck and the booth. Most times, someone in the booth would "talk over" these transmissions and the viewers would miss out. The NBC team, again, showed excellent coordination on this feature. Rarely did anyone "talk over" the radio communications and Flood choose many times to delay playing the scanner bites for a few seconds to a few minutes. This would give the booth personnel the opportunity to explain what we were about the hear and the situation in which it occurred. Iíd much rather have the communications delayed just a bit, so that I could hear what is said clearly. Also, NBC followed ESPNís lead and began putting information on a graphic as to whose team we were hearing, something I don't believe Fox ever did.

NBC also started adding some truly useful information to their "ticker" during green flag pit stops. They started highlighting those who had pitted in yellow, so the viewers could follow who had yet to pit. This aided in seeing which cars stayed out the longest before pitting for future reference in the event gas mileage became an issue later.

In 2001, Fox was the first network to break from commercials to show an accident at the Daytona 500. NBC really made the most of this practice in 2002. They broke from commercials quite often, and not just for accidents. Many times, they came back to the action when a top driver had a problem or there was a significant pass for the lead.

Speaking of commercials...I know they have always been a so-called "necessary evil" in TV broadcasts. To me, it seems like race fans have seen an unprecedented amount of commercials in the last two years. Everyone knows that Fox and NBC paid a great deal of money to get the rights to NASCAR races, unfortunately, the fans are the ones who really pay the price. And both Fox and NBC are guilty of choosing to show some of the most exciting races on their cable partners, F/X and TNT, where more advertising time is sold than on network broadcasts. Consequently, the fans get to see less and less of the more action-packed races at places like Bristol, Richmond, or Rockingham. In addition, both networks have continued to increase the use of on-screen "billboards" during what is suppose to be race coverage. The fans got to see cheerleaders jumping across the track on TNT and endless promos for shows like Witchblade. On F/X, racing action on the screen was cluttered up for ads for F/X movies or The Shield.

Anyone who follows my reviews knows that I detest the overuse of graphics and GPS data by both networks. This information can be useful if used sparingly. Iíd have to give a slight edge to Fox for their Fox Trax over the NBC "bubbles." But only a slight edge. Sometimes Fox had three "trax" converging as cars entered pit road and effectively covered up the cars. NBC overused their "bubbles," many times simply to show you the leader on a single-file restart or the show the number of a car alone on the track they were featuring when the number on the side of the car was already clearly visible. NBC also detracted from their excellent Through the Field features by using the floating "driver bubble heads," many times covering up the cars they were featuring. All I can say to both networks is: Use a little more restraint and save the graphics for when they are most meaningful!

Iíve read that NBC made the decision to place more focus on pit road this season and the result was a excellent. Their pit reporters Matt Yocum, Bill Weber, Dave Burns and Marty Snider won the pit reporter"war" hands down. They constantly kept the viewers informed of pit strategy, mechanical woes on teams, tire problems, etc. They functioned as an integral part of the broadcast team and were always supplying interesting tidbits about various teams. Yocum bridges the gap between the two networks, working for Fox during the first half of the season and NBC the second half. I can only hope he carries some of the strengths that the NBC team displayed back when he rejoins the Fox team of Dick Berggren and Steve Byrnes. I have always thought Berggren was very knowledgeable of the sport, but he asked some truly horrible questions in 2002. Iíll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just following the usual "hype" marching orders from Fox corporate.

Speaking of "corporate philosophy,", I felt that NBCís more low-key style of pre-race show was more suitable to racing. Bill Weber seemed to try his best to give us a great mix of live interviews and taped features, and keep the silly antics to a minimum. On the other hand, Fox seemed to focus on the gags and many times forget the informational side in their pre-race shows. Although, I do feel that Fox was quicker to ask people like Mike Helton the tough questions, whereas, NBC chose the less-controversial path.

I do feel that both Fox and NBC had a problem with showing the entire field. Each seemed to show a lot more shots of three teams who bought a lot of advertising for their broadcasts, Budweiser, Home Depot and UPS. The viewers would be forced to watch endless in-car camera shots from each of these driversí cars, even if they were not running well or there was no other cars visible from the cameras. Most times, these were just more commercials masquerading as racing coverage. Both networks did a poor job of covering what they considered the less-popular drivers back in the field. Although, I do feel NBC made more of an effort to keep us updated on the so-called back-markers. Many times, Bestwick or a pit reporter would let us know if one of them went behind the wall or came back out onto the track. Not always, but often. I just find it interesting that ESPN always managed to cover the drivers in the back of the field as well as the leaders. Ah, but they had less commercials to fit in, I guess.

The last thing I want to talk about is the trend of both networks in using music video montages as they go to commercials. Although, I donít remember this being done nearly as much by Fox as NBC. This fall, NBC even got to the point they were showing us highlights of the pre-race activities as they went to commercial. And most times they chose this instead of showing the viewers the action on the track. I like music videos a lot, but I tune in to a a race broadcast to watch a race, not music videos. Both networks need to examine the need for this type of thing and confine it to the introduction to or conclusion of the broadcast. But when it came to the music chosen for the broadcasts, I have to give the nod to Fox for having a much better choice of music than NBC.

Lastly, in going through my past race reviews, I noted the really low points in each networkís half of the season. For Fox it was the race from Daytona in July. The Pepsi 400 was the worse broadcast on Fox all year! And that was surprising, because it was their last broadcast of the year, and Iíd have thought they would want to go out on a high note. To begin with, some Fox affiliates were still showing baseball when the race started. Throughout the broadcast, Fox spent an inordinate amount of time promoting their switch to baseball coverage from NASCAR in July. To me, it became obvious what their agenda was from the beginning of the show: they were done with racing and ready to move on to baseball, even before the Pepsi 400 started. Then Darrell Waltrip reached an all-time high in focusing on his brother, Michael, during this broadcast. He thought "the driver" who wrecked Johnny Benson was terrible, until he found out it was his brother and then he back-pedaled, saying the wreck was Bensonís fault. Lastly, Fox never even mentioned the fans who pelted the backstretch at Daytona with seat cushions because they were angry that NASCAR did not red flag the race. Instead, they quickly signed off the air without ever mentioned this. They obviously were ready to begin their coverage of baseball quickly.

For NBC, while none of their broadcasts were anywhere nearly as bad at the Pepsi 400 on Fox, I felt NBC did a subpar job (for them) on a few races. During the August Michigan race, NBC chose to show leader, Dale Jarrett, running alone on the track for the entire last four laps of the race. They didnít seem to care that there was a lot of action among the top fifteen drivers. I was surprised to find that several drivers who had been contending for the win had dropped out of the top 10 and NBC never even mentioned that. To me, they focused on Jarrett only because his sponsor, UPS, paid for more commercial time. Also several of the last few races of the season on NBC/TNT really disappointed me, partially because they had way too many commercials during racing action, but also because of the focus on the championship contenders over the drivers contending to win that particular race.

Overall, I preferred NBCís half of the season to the first half with Fox. I think NBC kept a lot more focus on the racing and truly strived to give the viewers as much relevant information as possible during their broadcasts. This is not to say that the Fox crew is not also trying to do the best job possible. I just think the difference in the corporate philosophies between Fox and NBC is very obvious in the way they approach the race broadcasts. And I just tend to prefer NBCís more conventional approach.

Hopefully both networks will listen to the things the fans (and race teams) have said about their broadcasts and continue to learn from their mistakes and drop the components of their formats that do not work for the viewers. I also hope each network will incorporate some of the features that fans enjoyed from the broadcasts of the other network.

Sorry, this was so long, but it was a long race season!

You can send me email at cheryl@speedcouch.com.

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