Fixing racing on TV

 
Recently there has been increased scrutiny and criticism of televised race broadcasts. While some of these negative reviews have come from average folks like me who are used to following racing from the comfort of home, some have come from professional motorsports writers who for whatever reason did not get to watch from their normal spot in the pressbox or infield.

I don’t disagree with criticism that focuses on poorly directed and executed broadcasts. I’ve seen too many. But my Navy training and background has instilled in me the need to be constructive and offer some suggestions along with the criticism. Therefore, below are three ways to improve race broadcasts on TV. As always, you are free to agree or disagree, and to offer your own ideas.

1. Less is more. There is way too much “stuff” involved in putting the average race on TV these days, beginning with lengthy preview shows, way too many talking heads and elaborate set pieces that are rarely used. Better that broadcaster follow that age-old maxim, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and cut back. How? Try these for starters:

— With few exceptions (Indy and Daytona come to mind), pre-race shows should be no more than a half-hour, preferably 20 minutes or less. The races are long enough as it is, so adding an hour isn’t going to entice new or casual viewers more than once, and what is shown to preview the race is old news to committed fans.

— Any pre-race shows should be done by the same announcers who will call the race; that’s right, get rid of the “Hollywood Hotel” or “infield studio,” and the folks who inhabit it. Instead, have the race announcers — who should be subject-matter experts, not just hired voices — give any information needed to understand/enjoy the race in short, concise bites. What to do with the warm/fuzzy features, interviews and recaps of last week’s race? Put them on any of the daily or weekly news-formatted racing shows that appear on my TV schedule.

— Emphasize the reporter part of being a “pit reporter.” Ask the Who/What/Why/When/How type of questions we were all taught on the first day on the job — you know, the ones the average fan wants answered — and drop the editorializing and folksy chatter. Although some of these folks know their stuff and deliver the necessary info concisely, others appear to being trying to win an Espy award every time they get on the air.

You know who they are, the ones who take a simple piece of information (“Crew chief Joe Blow said the vibration was caused by a loose lug nut,”) and turn it into a breathlessly dramatic half-minute (“Ricky Bobby told crew chief Joe Blow something was wrong, maybe a loose wheel or a wheel going down, so Joe Blow told him to come in and Ricky pitted from running in the top-10 for four fresh Goodyear tires. Ricky hit his marks and after a typically quick stop by the Wonder Bread crew, complete with two cans of Sunoco race fuel, Ricky was back on the track a lap down but the fenders were intact and he was back racing for his first win since Richmond in 2004. Joe Blow checked the wheel and in fact it looked like a loose lug nut, but at least the Wonder Bread Chevy can get that lap back through the wave-around or the Lucky Dog.”)

— Whenever possible, the pit reporters should just feed info up to the booth for the play-by-play announcer to work in as appropriate: “Dario Franchitti has lost three places in the last lap, we’re hearing with a vibration that may cause him to pit early…”

— Get rid of the cut-away car or “tech garage,” and use technology instead. Have prepared computer animations ready to run in side-by-side (more on that concept in Show Me Now below) to help explain issues involving set-up, motors, drafting, tire wear, etc. Use them sparingly, and only when the demonstration will actually help viewers understand what/when/why/how.

2. Show me now. It seems like a silly thing to have to say about a live broadcast, but seeing what happens when it happens is very important to viewers. Of course we understand sponsor commercials are the reason the race is on TV in the first place, but there are ways to work the money-making into the flow without sacrificing the “show me now” aspect viewers want. How? Think about these ideas:

— Side-by-side coverage of the Izod IndyCar Series works pretty well on Versus right now, but the “side” with the live action is too small. Consider making the “money” picture smaller (yes, I know that would probably mean the ad rate has to go down) or using a split screen with equal parts.

— The “Wide Open” coverage by TNT of the Summer NASCAR race at Daytona could offer a potential model for future races, with pop-in windows for commercials as well as the announcers reading adverts mixed into their commentary much like a radio broadcaster would.

— World Cup and other soccer matches have been broadcast commercial-free, with adverts inserted into a crawl at the top or the on-screen scoreboard. This would require finding enough companies/organizations willing to “sponsor” different sections of the broadcast.

— One variation of the above would be to broadcast just the final third of a race commercial-free, and use other methodology for the first two-thirds.

— Only show commercials during caution periods. Yes, this may upset diehard fans, but let’s face facts: nearly every pit stop looks like every other pit stop, and as it stands now viewers generally only get to see and hear details about two or maybe three —­ generally the leaders — each cycle. If a mistake or problem happens on a pit stop while in commercial, the broadcast team can show that stop after the live picture returns, as well as resetting the field based on which driver got off pit road first.

3. Live in the moment. This suggestion refers to the increasingly obvious attempts by broadcasters to apply predetermined “storylines” to races. Long the bane of NFL broadcasts, this approach has been most obviously applied to the near-constant coverage of IndyCar regular Danica Patrick’s initial forays into NASCAR. Despite running in the back of the field, sometimes laps down, Patrick gets as much attention from the broadcast team as the race leaders.

Again, it is understood that broadcasters would want to highlight drivers or teams that are of interest either because of an event (drivers “dumping” each other, Patrick’s NASCAR debut, etc.) or the stature of a driver (two words: Junior Nation). But, as opposed to artificially shoving it down the viewer’s throat, this can be accomplished in an organic, natural way as part of the regular race coverage. If the driver in question is struggling, say so and move on.

One huge benefit of “moving on” is there will be more time to discuss the status of more drivers. Instead of limiting the “up-to-speed” recaps to the top-10 (or rarely, top-20), let the viewers know how every driver is doing. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process, especially for the bottom half of the field, but one thing it will do is help give some airtime to the sponsors of teams that don’t regularly run up front.

The bottom line is the broadcast team should be flexible enough, and smart enough about racing, to keep pace with and take advantage of events as they happen — instead of relying on a predetermined script with certain names highlighted.

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