The view from my couch
This is Not Your Father's ESPN
by Cheryl Lauer
November 23, 2007
When the latest TV contracts were announced in 2006, many long-term race fans eagerly awaited the return of ESPN to NASCAR coverage. Fans like myself have many fond memories of the excellent coverage given to our beloved sport when ESPN was one of the few networks that would cover it in the 80s and 90s. I don't consider myself a pessimist, but for some reason, I just had this sinking feeling that we would not see the same ESPN coverage we all knew and loved prior to 2001. Since ESPN's final NASCAR race in 2000, a lot of things have changed in the TV world. Mainly the overabundance of graphics and computer images during sporting events and even regular TV shows. Pop-up ads for other shows, graphics inserted on the field during sporting events, highlights of the next segment of a program while going to commercial, etc. Somewhere along the way, the powers that be in TV land felt it was necessary to cater to the short-attention span and immediate gratification type of viewers.
When it came to race broadcasts, Fox originated the scoring "ticker," pointers, and music videos featuring drivers "acting like rock stars" in 2001. Although I've never felt any of these devices were necessary to the enjoyment of a race, someone in the executive production department of the networks was obviously sold on such things accounting for higher ratings for race broadcasts. It would never occur to them that the actual excitement generated by simply showing stock cars racing might account for increased viewership and converts to the sport in the 1990s and beyond.
When ESPN and ABC had their first press-conference in 2006 about their return to NASCAR coverage, several network spokesmen made statements about how excited they were to be reunited with NASCAR. I remember hearing a female executive from ESPN talking about how excited they were to promote "the NASCAR brand." As soon as I heard that statement, I realized that it was not going to be the same ESPN coverage so many of us loved in the past. It is a race - a sporting event, not "a brand."
Then came February 2007, and the entrance of what I like to call, the"new ESPN" - race production which bore little resemblance the the ESPN that most long-time fans remembered. This began with ESPN's Busch Series coverage at Daytona. Starting with Busch qualifying, ESPN rolled out there "cast of thousands" including their own "pit studio" to copy the Fox "Hollywood Hotel." Graphics, stats and pictures surrounding a car qualifying on the track. So much information squeezed into the screen, it made the view of the actual car so small on my 55-inch screen, that ESPN's claim it was HD was simply laughable. Then we were constantly reminded that Rusty Wallace was a past championship driver and his co-anchor Andy Petree was a past champion crew chief, notably that of the late Dale Earnhardt. Why must today's networks constantly try to impress us with their credentials all the time? ESPN also started trotting out several personalities from their other sports' coverage, such as Eric Kuselias and Brent Musberger. It was immediately clear that ESPN was going to force feed viewers with people who knew little or nothing about racing and clearly were there simply for some sort of cross-sport promotion for the network. As ESPN prepared for the Cup coverage to start in August, they also added football sideline reporter, Suzie Kolber to their "pit studio."
What was immediately apparent to me was that no one remained in the executive production group at ESPN who remembered the excellent coverage the network provided to the viewers in the past. Someone decided that ESPN was going to follow "the Fox model" in all things. Longtime readers are well aware that I am no fan of most of the things Fox brought to racing in 2001. I've been saying that network needed to drop the hype and "attitude" for 6 years and get back to basics of covering the race and all the drivers in it. Unfortunately, rather than relying on the race to tell the story, ESPN jumped right into the hype and overuse of graphical toys that Fox created. Beginning at Daytona, we heard terms and saw silly graphics like "draft lock" and later when Cup coverage began the nefarious "draft tracks." Then there's that silly CGI "jumbotron" inserted on top of the grandstands that ESPN used when returning from commercial. Why is it so difficult to just show the actual cars on the track instead of a view of them from a fake video screen?
Neil Goldberg, who led the fantastic ESPN production team back in the old days, went to Fox in 2001 and returned to ESPN this season. Unfortunately, rather then remembering the basics of race coverage, he appears to be the one who simply decided to copy almost everything that Fox did on the ESPN broadcasts. Rather than showing the starting grid each week, Goldberg chose to run a "ticker" of starting positions while a pit reporter or announcer was talking about "stories to watch." With as much time as is relegated to pre-race shows these days, why is it so difficult to show a graphic with a picture of the driver, his sponsor and car number with a voiceover from one of the announcers? If the goal of a network and NASCAR is to garner new fans to the sport, what better way to let the viewers see the driver and learn about their sponsor and car number?
Then we have another one of my least favorite things brought from Fox by Goldberg - the four-way split for pit stops. I will admit most of the season, ESPN and ABC used the traditional 3-way view on the right side of the screen with the overview of pit road on the left. But somewhere in the waning part of the season, someone in the production group decided to return to the silly four-way split. This view makes it impossible for the viewer to see where the driver is on pit road in relation to other drivers when he exits.
I will say that ESPN seemed to use a little less of in-car views, something that has been overused by all of the networks the last few years. There's nothing worse than missing the "outside" view of a pass for the lead or position, because an in-car camera is showing us vacant track or simply an a-pillar of a car! I had heard one ESPN executive claim that they want viewers to "feel" like they are in a race car. This isn't a video game! Viewers want to see the outside view when cars are passing for position. If the network wants to go back and show a second view from an in-car camera, that's fine.
But enough about the technical gizmos copied from Fox and cast of thousands from the ESPN roster, let's talk about the announcers in the booth. I love Jerry Punch and this is not his first stint at anchoring race broadcasts. Many fans seem to have forgotten or simply don't know that Jerry anchored the truck series broadcasts alongside of Phil Parsons prior to 2002 when ESPN held the exclusive contract for those races. He did a excellent job with those races. Perhaps it was the lack of hype or pressure as opposed to the tremendous amount of stress that comes with the Busch and Cup series. All I know is that I read so many complaints on the web and in racing publications about Jerry Punch this season. Many times, the writer complains that he doesn't show enough emotion when there is an on-track incident or at the end of the race. I guess I'm not in the camp that needs a Darrell Waltrip or Larry McReynolds inserting artificial emotion for me to enjoy a race. In my opinion, many times those things are done to draw attention to the announcer instead of letting the race speak for itself. If a race is boring, so be it. No amount of hype from the broadcast team is going to fool a viewer into thinking the race is exciting, if it's not. Someone in executive production at the networks might believe that race fans are stupid enough to fall for this tactic, but trust me, most aren't. They are actually insulted by someone in the booth telling them how exciting something is when it's obvious it's not. Point in case: Rick Allen on SPEED's truck coverage these days. How many times have we heard him declare "exiting side by side racing!", but by the time he's gotten that entire phrase out, the pass is already over and the trucks are running a boring single-file again. To a longtime fan, side by side racing is two or more drivers racing for a position for several laps, not just through one turn of a track.
Now I'm not saying Jerry Punch's performance in the booth has been perfect this year. I've personally noticed he's made quite a few mistakes on names or drivers, but I'm more than willing to cut him some slack because of his long history in the sport. I'm pretty certain the director is screaming in his ear half the time and it has to be difficult to think and listen at the same time. I've listened to enough of the "TV feed" on my scanner at races in the past to know that someone is constantly talking to the announcers and pit reporters. I am always amazed that they can come up with anything coherent in that type of atmosphere. With ESPN, I tend to wonder if director, Rich Basile, might be a lot of the problem. I know that this was his first gig as director since he moved over from the technical director's job at Fox this year. It has to be a huge leap from being the technical director - the person who switches the cameras during a broadcast, to the responsibility for the overall direction of a broadcast. In the last few races of this season, I even noticed Allen Bestwick making some mistakes with names on pit road and Allen is a person who almost never makes these types of mistakes. So, my personal opinion may be that a lot of the mistakes are being caused by a "rookie" director and the constant bombardment of direction into the headsets of seasoned veterans like Punch and Bestwick.
Let's discuss Rusty Wallace's performance as an "analyst" in the ESPN booth. As with Dr. Punch, fans are screaming for Rusty to be replaced in the booth. But from everything I read, it seems clear that viewers have very short memories. They complain about things like him talking too much about family members to his mentioning Miller Lite as the sponsor of Kurt Busch's car. To begin with, it is quite clear that the producer has chosen to cover Stephen, Mike or Kenny Wallace and Rusty is expected to comment about them. Many times, it appears to me that he is reluctant or very uncomfortable doing so, but is simply following the directions of Neil Goldberg. Prior to Fox coverage in 2001 and the increase in coverage of Michael Waltrip by his brother, we rarely saw this type of thing being pushed during race coverage. Ned Jarrett was the consummate professional during the old ESPN coverage. He always referred to his son as "Dale Jarrett", rather than drawing attention to the family relationship by saying "my son." The same was pretty much true about Benny Parsons and his brother Phil when he was racing. To me, it just seems like today in the "kinder, gentler" or "reality" society, TV executives think they must push these relationships during race coverage for some reason. They need to realize that the perceived nepotism is not something most viewers enjoy at all. And to those complaining that Rusty is promoting Miller because he probably still has ties to his former sponsor - do they simply not remember how often Darrell Waltrip uses his position in the broadcast booth to hype Toyota (the car make of his own and his brother's teams?)
Rusty does get caught up in using personal catch phrases or overdoing explanations about things like aero push quite often. But viewers seem to forget that Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip do the same things. Those two seem to think creating their "signature" phrases is a good thing. I do cut Rusty a lot more slack as this was his first year in the NASCAR booth and was clearly a big learning process for him. No one can deny that he has much more relevant knowledge of the workings of a race car than Waltrip who hasn't raced in many years or competitively for the last several years he still drove a car. I think part of Rusty and Dr. Punch's problem is the perceived need by today's production crews to fill every single minute during the broadcast with chatter. Again, something Fox started and is not necessary for the enjoyment of a race by most viewers. As I always say, let the race speak for itself. I honestly believe both Wallace and Punch will improve with time and if they are allowed to relax a bit more in the booth.
I wasn't a fan of Andy Petree in the early part of the season - he just seemed too tentative to me. But he improved a great deal over the season and became more confident as he became more comfortable in his new role. I still see no need for the Fox-created "role playing" by a former driver and crew chief in the booth though. That's just silly in my opinion. They aren't driving or crewing the car anymore.
Early in the season, I really liked Tim Brewer in the "tech center," but as the season wore on, he was overused and at inappropriate times. He totally lost me when describing an engine losing a cylinder and summing it up as "this is the dead puppy in the litter." What an awful and unprofessional analogy!
I remember a couple of times this season where Wallace and Petree seemed to want to create controversy when one driver got into another. I don't know if they were coming up with this themselves or being coached by the producer/director to do so. I tend to believe the latter. One incident I remember was when Jeff Gordon got into the back of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and moved him out of the way. Wallace and Petree went off on a tangent saying what Earnhardt's father might have done in a case like that - how Gordon needed "to watch out" like they were actually hoping for some sort of retribution. This was simply unnecessary and served to try and create controversy when none existed. Another attempt by the production staff to "spice" up an otherwise boring race?
Let's talk about "story lines." This is one place where I agree wholeheartedly with other viewers' comments. All season, ESPN seemed to want to create the story lines during a race, instead of letting them develop as the race progressed. I realize that all of the networks have a story line going into a broadcast and have done this for many years - including the old ESPN. But it just seemed like ESPN tried to make the racing fit their pre-determined story line every week. If it wasn't Earnhardt, Jr. or a former winner at a track, it was the ridiculous insistence on them focusing too much on the Chase drivers in the last ten races. Then as the Chase boiled down to only three drivers, besides the absurd obsession with Gordon and Johnson, they insisted on focusing on Bowyer when it was clear he was really out of the championship race. Yet non-Chase drivers having better runs were simply ignored. Viewers want to see all the drivers on the track, not just the ones TV wants to be the story. Fans know the Chase was created to help TV ratings; a goal which failed miserably this season. With their ratings dropping with every race, you'd think someone at ABC/ESPN might've thought to cover more of the rest of the field each week. I truly believe this is what drove so many fans away from races this year and since the Chase was created.
During the last few broadcasts on ABC, the director chose to use the split screen quite often. The problem is, he made some very bad choices on which picture to feature in the larger view. When there are drivers racing for position, don't put a pit stop in the larger view. Another huge mistake the director made all season was to switch to a full-screen view of Tim Brewer in the "tech center" during green-flag racing. Not only were these segments redundant most of the times, but they almost always seemed forced. If a team took a spring rubber out during a pitstop, here we have Brewer pretending to do the same thing. All networks need to scale back on trying to educate the viewers. The rest of us learned about these things without constant and repeated illustrations of them.
Commercials are always a hot issue with the viewers. Yes, I understand they are a "necessary evil" on network TV, but missing restarts and lead changes for them really drives me crazy. I heard an ESPN executive on XM radio claiming they didn't know when the field was going back to green. I'm sorry, but that is just plain hooey! Any knowledgeable race fan knows that the pace car turns off it's lights one lap before going back to green. So TV absolutely does know when the field is about to restart and how long a lap takes under caution. The director simply chooses not to get back for the restart. And please, don't try to fool the fans by saying "we just went back to green" when they can clearly see the cars are already on the backstretch or may have even run one or more laps. We simply aren't that stupid, no matter what TV brass wants to believe.
Another bad trend in race coverage that ESPN embraced was to cut away from live racing for commercials, so they could be back in time for green flag pitstops. I can't tell you how bored I am watching green flag pitstops. Why not take that time to go to commercial and update the viewer on anything significant that happens on pit road in a replay? Most fans would rather see actual racing and restarts live and could accept pit stops in replay.
Suzy Kolber, Brent Musburger, and Brad Daugherty are three people ABC/ESPN simply needs to drop. They add nothing to the broadcast and trying to force-feed the viewers cross-promotion is another thing that is a dismal failure. Nobody liked Chris Myers' role on Fox and coming up with their own version of him on ESPN isn't a positive. It's clear Myers and Musburger don't even like racing and are just reading a script. Why bother? Kolber is the same in my opinion and I simply can't stand the sound of her voice. Bringing a football person to a race broadcast is not going to convince a race fan to watch football if they weren't going to before. I remember Brad Daugherty giving Robert Pressley his first chance in the Busch Series, but trying to build his credibility as a former team owner failed miserably for ESPN. Next, they tried to bill him as "the voice of the fans." Just saying something like this doesn't make it so - no fan is ever going to accept a basketball star as being "a regular fan." Most fans see through the device of having Kolber and Daugherty there simply for "diversity" and it's simply not working. If you want "the voice of the fans," get a regular person out of the grandstands.
The only times the infield studio was tolerable for me was when Allen Bestwick hosted it. He's a race broadcast veteran and professional who brings credibility the others will never achieve. Also, while he is the best pit reporter on the ESPN team, Bestwick is truly wasted in that role. He should be back anchoring broadcasts. If not the Cup races, then ESPN should consider giving him that job for the Saturday broadcasts next year. This would give Jerry Punch a less hectic and demanding schedule so he could focus on the Cup broadcasts.
As to pit reporters, Mike Massaro did a good job in the pits as did Dave Byrnes. Shannon Spake and Jamie Little were pretty much interchangeable in my book. Nothing special; nothing really offensive like a former pit reporter forced into the role on Fox. I just wish the producer had used all the ESPN pit reporters more in following up on drivers who dropped out of the race. This was a real strength of ESPN in the past; they always made sure and followed up on drivers with mechanical problems or who wrecked out. This year if they weren't in the Chase or Earnhardt, Jr., they pretty much didn't matter to the network.
Why does every network feel they must constantly pander to the Earnhardt, Jr. fans? I know he's the most popular driver, but if he had 50% of the fans, that would still leave 50% of the viewers who like other drivers? Except when he was running poorly at Homestead, ESPN gave him a ridiculously inordinate amount of coverage every week. Sometimes this season, ESPN spent 15 minutes or more on Earnhardt when he was simply running alone on the track, not even racing anyone. That's just absurd! If they gave even half the time he gets to other drivers in the field, I'm betting ESPN would make a lot of fans happy. As I always say, every driver out there has fans and they'd like to see their driver at least once during a race.
I really resented when ESPN insisted on inserting "Sportscenter Breaks" into the race broadcasts! Yeah, they showed us a tiny view of the leader running alone in a PIP, claiming "live" from whatever track, but that was pretty much useless. If ABC/ESPN wants me to watch their broadcasts instead of football, don't spoil the results of the games by showing me the scores during the race when I might be recording the game to view after the race. The same goes for the stupid "bottom line" shown during actual race coverage.
I know the idea didn't originate with ABC, as NBC is the first one to ask NASCAR for later start times a couple of years ago, but the networks and the series really need to rethink this strategy. Besides the absurdity of the Chase, I think this is the second most likely contributor to lower ratings this season. Races starting at 4:00 or later just don't work for most folks on the east coast, which still had the larger population centers in the country. Despite NASCAR and TV thinking they'd entice more west coast fans to tune in, this device has backfired on them. While 10 years ago, I would never have considered not watching a race live, last Sunday, I found myself recording the race while I finished watching an exciting football game involving the Baltimore Ravens. A viewer might as well watch the game live since ABC was probably going to spoil the results for me like they've done the rest of the season with their ticker and "Sportscenter" breaks. The side benefit was that I could fast-forward through all the commercials when I finally got around to watching the race. So tell me again how these late starts are benefiting the broadcast sponsors?
Another thing ESPN has copied from Fox is the excessively long pre-race show. They both advertise the "coverage" starting an hour or more before the actual race starts. ABC was really silly to post a "countdown clock" during their pre-race shows after about 15-20 minutes, letting viewers know the green flag would not fall for another 30-50 minutes. Any time I saw that, I immediately switched the channel and watched something else. On second thought, maybe ESPN was doing me a favor so I didn't waste my time on the same "story lines," or silly picks by the ESPN people in the infield studio, etc.
When it comes to the Busch broadcasts, ESPN failed miserably in doing what they claimed to be their goal when they won the exclusive contract for that series - giving the Busch Series it's own identity. Basically, all ESPN did all year was focus on the Cup drivers running Busch. Even in the standalone events when the Busch regulars should've been the primary focus, ESPN continued to focus on Carl Edwards and the few Buschwackers running in them. In reality, ESPN treated the Busch races as if they were a second Cup race for the weekend. By the end of the season, they went so far as merging the Busch and Cup stats for many of the Cup drivers. That made absolutely no sense to me. So much for creating a separate identity for the Busch Series. And nobody was enthralled with the "owners championship" even though ESPN kept cramming it down our throats in the last few weeks. How hard is it to simply coverage the race and the winner of the race without having to hype a useless championship?
Somebody at ESPN had the bright idea to play the team radios at the start or restart of the races this year. This started with their Busch Series coverage and continued infrequently during the Cup coverage. This might be a nice idea had some techno nerd not decided to play all the scanner chatter on top of each other. Talk about information overload! If ESPN feels they want to give the viewers "a feel" for the radio chatter, how about they pick 1-3 teams, play their radios one at a time and actually put up a graphic telling the viewer who they are hearing? But for heavens sake, don't play them on top of each other! That serves no purpose at all. Even when you are listening to a scanner at the track and hit "scan," you get only one radio at a time, before it moves onto a next one. In addition, you have the ability to look down and actually see which driver/team you are hearing. If you want to give fans at home that type of experience, do it right.
I know it seems I haven't said many positive things about ESPN. Honestly, in spite of the many criticisms I'd still pick their announcing crew over Fox any day. With the exception of Mike Joy, the Fox announcers spend more time trying to draw attention to themselves than commentating on the race. I do think Jerry, Rusty and Andy are trying to do a good job covering the actual race and not promoting themselves. And I'll take anything over DW's annoying phrase Fox chose to use at the start of their races. I know many fans have been so disenchanted with ESPN this year, they're actually saying they can't wait for Fox to return. Those people really have short memories is all I can say. Trust me, the same people will probably be screaming for the return of TNT or ESPN after a couple weeks with Fox in 2008.
Frankly, I think if ESPN can't come up with their own identity and stop copying so many bad things from Fox, they ought to look at the TNT/NBC broadcasts from 2001-2006. That production group didn't rely primarily on gimmicks, graphics, or self-promoting announcers. They chose a more conservative approach to the broadcast and tried to focus more on the racing. Something ESPN did in their past life. When they did a field rundown, they didn't just show those in the Chase. I don't know if a different management group is in charge at ESPN these days or not, but I do know that folks on several audio-visual forums I read complain about how ESPN "does everything except show the game" during their Monday Night Football games these days. I agree. In fact, watching two college football games on ESPN this fall, it seemed to me that the broadcast team lost interest in the games in the 2nd half. They spent so much time with visitors to the booth, they actually missed plays or extra points after a touchdown. I can only think this same misguided mentality is in place with NASCAR broadcasts. Please stop trying to pander to the short-attention span crowd so much and I'm betting your ratings will improve.
During the off-season, I'm hoping someone at ESPN will listen to all of this year's fan feedback and try and scale back the excessive number of people commentating on the races. There is no need for people from the infield to get involved in commenting on the race. Three people in the booth are more than enough for me - in fact, since 2001 I have questioned the need for three people in the booth to begin with - it seems like too much of a competition sometimes. Funny, I never felt that way when it was Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons. Those guys weren't ever trying to outdo each other as we have seen since Fox began it's coverage in 2001. Regardless, ESPN needs to realize that less really can be more. Less "race recaps" and less "story lines." Less repeating the same stats every hour or so. I can't tell you how annoying the last few races were this season with Jerry Punch telling us the same stats three times in the last hour or two. I don't know if this was his idea or something he was being fed from the director. As I said earlier, there is no shame in having a tiny bit of silence if there's nothing new or meaningful to say. That worked fine for the old ESPN and I don't remember anyone complaining.
This really isn't your father's ESPN anymore and that's a shame. Hopefully, ESPN will use the off-season to reflect on where they deviated from what make them the Worldwide Leader in Sports and most definitely how their original race coverage contributed to the explosive growth of NASCAR in the 1990s.
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