The view from my couch

ESPN2 Coverage of Bashas' Supermarkets 200
by Cheryl Lauer
April 25, 2007

It's been a few weeks since I did my last review of an ESPN race broadcast. The network has used some different commentators during this time, giving Rusty Wallace and Jerry Punch a few weeks off, but this week we welcomed Punch back to the booth. Andy Petree has been holding down the fort and beginning last week he was joined by Dale Jarrett in Wallace's place. Overall this was a pretty good broadcast, but I still feel ESPN needs to work harder to find it's own identity and stop copying every [bad] thing that Fox has done. However, I have seen some general improvement in the last few weeks.

Pre-Race Show

For a second week in a row, last week's pre-race show on ESPN2 was pre-empted when tennis ran over, so the feature on Shane Huffman scheduled for last week was shown during the pre-race show for Phoenix. It was a pretty good feature; however, ESPN2 seemed to spend more time talking about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. than they did about Huffman. I found this extremely disappointing because there are so few Busch regular drivers running in the series anymore, yet when ESPN chose feature one of them, they still spent more time talking about the Cup driver who owns Huffman's team.

Other than this one story which was supposedly about a Busch driver, as usual ESPN2 spent most of the pre-race show focusing on Cup drivers running in Busch. They continue to mix in Cup highlights in their montages during the pre-race show as well. In a time when the Busch Series is in so much trouble because of the invasion by Cup teams, it would seem like ESPN2 could do a little more to promote the drivers. Instead, they treat their broadcasts as the Cup-Lite races they have become, focusing on Sunday's stars instead of the Busch regulars.

ESPN2 also fails to introduce the starting grid for the race (another bad carryover from Fox). They continue to show the starting grid in a streaming ticker. Even if the ticker includes a picture of the driver, it is still not the way for new or veteran fans to learn about each driver and where he's starting.

Lastly, if it wasn't bad enough that TV and NASCAR chose to set the start of the race for 9:30 p.m., the green flag didn't actually drop until 9:45 p.m. If TV thinks working folks on the east coast are going to stay up this late for a race, they are sadly mistaken. ESPN2 is really doing a disservice to their advertisers, because I, for one, ended up recording most of the race and watching it on Saturday morning. This way, I simply fast-forwarded through all the commercials. I'm not saying that fans in other times zones don't benefit from these late starts, but Census figures show that 79.9 % of the U.S. population lives in the Eastern or Central timezone, with 47% being Eastern time zone. So by the later and later starts that we've seen in the last few years, TV is running the risk that 80% of their viewers will do what I did and simply record the race to watch the next day. And from the empty stands that I saw during this race, it appears the late start didn't entice very many fans in Arizona to attend the race in person. So, I guess I have to wonder what really is the point? Oh yeah, that's right, ESPN2 was showing another sport during the traditional 7-9 p.m. timeframe. Okay, that explains it all!

The Race

One thing I really do like about ESPN2's coverage is the wonderful classic rock they use to segue to and from commercials. If nothing else, this brings back good memories of the classic coverage NASCAR we saw on ESPN in the past. Good job, guys!

For some reason during the race, on every single restart, ESPN2 chose to do their imitation of the Fox Crank It Up, for which they have their own cutesy little name, Full Throttle. While I think these segments can be good at times to give the viewers at home a chance to just listen to the race cars, I have never been a fan of the video shots we get during them. Fox and now ESPN feel they must show stationary camera shots to compliment the sounds of the cars going by. Since restarts can bring some of the most exciting racing, the camera needs to stay focused on the front of field. This way, the viewers can see not only the battle for the lead when the cars start nose to tail, but also the lapped cars fighting to get a lap back on restarts. Added to the fact, ESPN used Full Throttleon every restart during the race, was the fact they chose to play the audio from team spotters. Okay...again this could be interesting if used sparingly, but not every single restart. And then, someone got the bright idea to play multiple radios at the same time! This was just really annoying noise as you heard people talking over people. What was ESPN thinking? And they played the multiple radios every single restart during this race as well. What I don't understand is how they can call this Full Throttle at all. More like "full overload." Please ESPN, just cool it on piling on the audio-visual effects all at once!

Another thing that ESPN2 did again this week was cut away from green flag racing to have Tim Brewer demonstrate something on their version of the Fox Cutaway Car. I can't even remember the cutesy name ESPN has for this feature; again simply something copied from Fox that they overuse in my opinion. Tim Brewer has been a pleasant surprise in his role with ESPN, but don't do things like this during green flag racing - save it for caution periods. In addition, why not get rid of the talking heads from the set trailer in the infield (another imitation of Fox's silly Hollywood Hotel)? Let Brewer give us his insights from the infield if you simply must have people besides the three commentators in the booth. Eric Kuselias adds absolutely nothing to the broadcast and is just plain annoying in my opinion. Race broadcasts didn't have "hosts" twenty years ago and they don't need them or ridiculous sets in the infield today.

This was Dale Jarrett's second week in the ESPN2 booth and overall I think he did a very good job. He's very articulate and has current knowledge of driving and how the cars handle. He showed that Friday night in explaining how the drivers could use the apron at Phoenix to help their cars turn or late in the race when Bowyer was looking for a faster line around the track. DJ also did a very good job not assessing blame when accidents occurred. Unfortunately, near the end of the race, it seemed like he was bending over backwards to avoid casting apsersions on anyone. But overall, I still liked that he tried to see both side of a situation and not be quick to blame a driver because of any personal bias. I'm sure Ned is proud of how he's been doing!

Frequently during this broadcast, ESPN2 went through the field and the pit reporters gave us an update on issues drivers were having or told us how their cars were running. This is a good feature if not overused (as NBC starting doing the last couple of years). It gives viewers an opportunity to see more than just the leaders and allows the pit reporters to excel in giving us the updates. Speaking of pit reporters, Vince Welch has joined the ESPN team the last few weeks and though I don't believe stock car racing is his background, he's done a good job. Same with Jamie Little. Veterans, Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick continue to be the standouts on pit road because of their long years of covering NASCAR.

Unfortunately, ESPN2 has fallen into the habit of overuse of the in-car cameras (as both Fox and NBC have done). Again, these views can be good if used sparingly. Unfortunately, someone in production has decided that viewers simply must "feel" like they are in the race cars way too often. To the point, they show significant passes using them instead of the outside view. Frankly, I find nothing interesting about seeing out the side window of a car as another fender pulls up or drops back. On lap 31 of this race, ESPN chose to show the pass for the lead via in-car rather than the traditional outside view. Please consider using these views less frequently. If you are trying to garner new viewers, I truly believe they'd be more likely to follow racing week after week if they could actually see the passes from the normal view. These are the things that drew me to racing in the late 1980s.

It was refreshing that we heard very little about Steven Wallace this week. I guess if his father, Rusty, is not in the booth, the producer doesn't feel he needs the "family ties" overdone. Yes, I want to see Busch regulars more, but not simply a shot of Wallace running in the back of the field alone just because his father is in the booth.

ESPN2 has used a lot of scanner chatter during the season so far, and Jerry Punch and the others have done an excellent job of not talking over it. For some reason, either someone is muting their microphones or else the producer is telling the announcers in their headsets when the scanner bites are coming. Unfortunately, Dale Jarrett frequently keeps talking over the radio communications. I'm sure this will only improve with time, but maybe until then, the producer could cut to the radios just a little less frequently until he gets use to the process. As I've said before, less can be better with all audio-visual toys available to the production crew.

At lap 93 of this race, ESPN2 did a "race recap" during green flag racing. Okay, I understand these are for the folks who just tuned in, but couldn't they wait until a caution period? There's nothing more annoying for a viewer than to cut away from live racing for this type of thing. In this instance, an accident involving Bobby Hamilton, Jr. occurred while ESPN2 was showing the recap, which caused them to have to show a replay of that.

During the ensuing caution, TV used another feature that I find useless - the "in-car reporter" where DJ talked to Jason Leffler on the radio. Can't the TV crew leave the drivers alone and let them concentrate on racing?

ESPN2 had excellent and multiple replays of every incident during the race. They also showed racing back in the pack (something that Fox rarely does). One suggestion I have is to zoom out the camera more frequently and show more than single cars running alone on the track. I don't care if the announcers or pit reporters are talking about a single car, it's more meaningful to show them in relationship to other cars on the track, than simply running alone. And a lot more interesting to the viewers.

Also, it's simply not necessary to cut away from live racing to show us numerous recaps of the winner from last week. This is another trap that ESPN2 has fallen into that takes away from live action. Save this kind of thing for the pre-race show or use it during cautions.

ESPN2 does an excellent job covering pit stops, utilizing the traditional three-way split on the left side of the screen and the overview of pit road on the right. This enables the viewer to see cars leaving their stalls in relationship to others on pit road. Awesome job! Keep up the good work!

On the lap 160 restart, they used the split screen to show us battles between the leaders and also Dave Blaney and Kevin Harvick battling in the second panel. On the lap 170 restart, they did stay with the outside view as Kenseth passed Bowyer for the lead. These types of shots are great and need to be used more frequently. Unfortunately with 14 laps to go, ESPN2 went back to relying on in-car shots as Bowyer battled Kenseth for the lead.

Before the last restart, the ticker said the field was on 7 laps to go, but the announcers said it was lap 195. As I always say, if the ticker is not up to date, take it off the screen. How difficult is that? Things like this are very confusing for the viewers at home. With two laps to go in the race, the camera panned back to find some cars battling for position, then abruptly the director went back to the leader running alone. I'm just not a big fan of showing the leader running alone even at the end of the race. This is why so many fans say the races are boring these days. I've been to over 200 races live and I know there is always someone battling for position, even on the last lap. When they quickly cut to Yeley wrecking after Bowyer took the checkers, that just proves my point.

ESPN2 relegates the finishing order to a ticker (another copy of a bad practice started by Fox over the last couple of years). After Bestwick interviewed the winner, we were shown a graphic that there would be "bonus" coverage on NASCAR Now (which was following the race). Thankfully, when I set my Tivo for a race, I always add an hour or so in case of rain or red flags, so I got this "bonus" coverage as well. When ESPN2 cut to that show, we were first given only highlights, and Tim Cowlishaw proclaiming "Everything has been Hendrick, but this week Richard Childress wins..." Uh, what race was he watching? I don't believe there were any Hendrick cars running in the Busch race and I don't believe they've "dominated" the Busch Series either? These folks simply don't seem to be able to separate the Busch Series from Cup. As others have written at some length, in general the ESPN employees assigned to NASCAR Now don't seem to know what they are talking about most of the time. In fact the graphic on the desk for the show started out saying "NNCS at Phoenix" which I assume meant Nextel Cup. Guess the technical folks figured out they were suppose to be doing post-race coverage of the Busch race as it was changed after the next commercial.

Eventually ESPN did return to Phoenix for some post-race comments from the announcing crew and interviews with Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards. Of course there were no interviews with any Busch regulars at the end.

It's obvious the folks at ESPN are trying to do a good job of their coverage of the Busch Series; however, they seem to be stuck on Nextel Cup drivers and, to me, seem to treat the Busch races as simply a dress rehearsal for when they begin covering Cup in August. This is really disserve to the great drivers running the Busch series and making a living out of it. Perhaps in future weeks the pre-race shows could focus on those drivers more and not the Buschwackers.

As I said a month ago, it just seems like the people in charge of NASCAR coverage at ESPN in 2007 are not aware that the simple approach ESPN used through 2000 is what drew many of the current fans to the sport or stock car racing. Back then, ESPN relied on the excitement of racing to bring in new fans and keep them returning week after week. Granted, today's racing tends to be less exciting at times, but I believe both new and veteran fans want to see racing, not gimmicks. And I recognize that Cup drivers now make up over half the field for Busch races. I don't expect ESPN to simply ignore those drivers; however, with the large margin the points leader has, is the Busch championship really even a story anymore? Instead, why not take the opportunity to show the Busch regulars and guys competing for Rookie of the Year a bit more?

ESPN has assembled a good team to cover their races; however, they need to cut back on so many people being used on-air during each race. It simply isn't necessary and really smacks of overkill. I can't state enough that ESPN needs to cut out all the things they've copied from Fox and concentrate on covering more of the field during each race.

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