|PHOTO: ESPN MediaZone|
A race is, to put it lightly, a difficult thing to broadcast – particularly on television. The network is following multiple cars over hundreds of high-speed laps. The producers have to not only catch each important moment when it happens, but pick the right camera angle at the right time to best frame it. Inevitably, no matter how good they are, some of this information is lost. Whether a moment gets seen at all sometimes comes down to the awareness of the broadcasters themselves, both on pit road and, in particular, in the booth.
Consider, for example, the finish of the 1979 Daytona 500. In the booth, Ken Squier, one of NASCAR’s newest Hall of Famers, gave one of his most famous calls of the last-lap wreck between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. Just as importantly, Squier then had to quickly adjust to calling the finish between the new leaders. When he declared Richard Petty the new leader, the camera mistakenly caught the lapped machine of Buddy Arrington, a driver who was driving one of Petty’s old blue-and-red cars. Thinking on his feet, Squier quickly directed the cameras by saying “The leaders are in Turns Three and Four.” Fortunately, the direction came at the right time, and the finish between Petty and Darrell Waltrip was also caught on film.
Too often, I believe, television broadcasts of races have become more reactive than proactive. It’s rare when someone in the booth catches something before the cameras, or draws their attention to something before it happens. Most often, a wreck is shown already in progress before the broadcasters react. Cars enter and exit the garage without hardly a mention. This seems to indicate the booth crew is looking at the screens in front of them rather than the track, giving them the same limited view as anyone watching at home with the online leaderboard pulled up. It’s made NASCAR’s television analysts practically useless, which is perhaps the reason FOX came up with this “Drivers Only” idea in the first place.
Just as rare these days is the chemistry between those in the booth, particularly how well the three analysts play off each other and work as a team. Too often – whether on FOX, FS1, or NBC – the announcers miss an incident completely, shout over each other, or waste valuable air time trying to hype up the next segment or the next lap to keep fans watching. Other times, the tone shifts to disinterest, either through sheer exhaustion from building all that hype or because they have actually tuned-out. On top of it all, while the air is constantly filled with words, there somehow seems to be less and less information being conveyed. I personally find the Twitter feeds of on-track reporters like Jeff Gluck and Bob Pockrass much more informative than any FOX or NBC broadcast. More and more, bouncing back and forth between the TV and the computer feels like there are two completely different races happening.
Whether this is the fault of the broadcasters, the producers, or any other particular group is up to debate. But it’s clear the results have frustrated fans. If not, it seems doubtful that the “Drivers Only” broadcast would have even been suggested.
I don’t like to keep turning back the clock to a simpler time. I get it – things are different now. But at the same time, I don’t think that means we should all just keep our mouths shut and be happy with what we have. I think there’s still a lot that can be learned from the past, and that these lessons can fix mistakes.
While putting together my upcoming book on J.D. McDuffie, I was fortunate to be able to speak with “Gentleman” Ned Jarrett. He called last September, just days after his second guest broadcast during NBC’s coverage of the Southern 500. As we talked about McDuffie, we also talked about Jarrett’s Hall of Fame career, both as a championship driver and a popular radio and television broadcaster. In particular, I asked him about his career with ESPN from 1981 through 2000, and why his team with Bob Jenkins and Benny Parsons was so successful. The following is his full answer, reprinted in its entirety:
“Well, first of all, we liked each other and we trusted each other. And also we each had our own thing. Bob was a good leader and he could keep Benny and I headed in the right direction. Benny was a cheerleader and certainly knew the mechanical aspect of the sport, and that's where his expertise was the strongest. And I was blessed with the ability to keep up with the race and what's going on.”
“Now remember back in those days, they didn't have all the technology they have today. When I walked into Darlington last year, hadn't been in a broadcast booth except as a guest and been staying there long, and been working as a broadcaster, and I was amazed at how much technology was in there and information was available to you that we didn't have in those days because it hadn't got to that point. So I was good - God blessed me with the ability to keep up with the race, because there were times in those days that the scoring couldn't keep up with it, and you know when people start making green-flag pit stops and this that and the other and have a caution in the middle of the green-flag pit stops, and it can get very confusing, and I don't know, I just had the knack to see through those things and worked out pretty good.”
“So the fact that we played off each other and played to our strengths, and Bob knew how to lead us to our strengths and to capitalize on it and so it just happened that three people that loved the sport, knew the sport, and liked each other. I mean, Benny, I consider him to one of the best friends I've ever had, and Bob as a very close friend, too, and a tremendous amount of respect for him. We certainly didn't have the education that the announcers have today, but we just talked about what we saw, and fortunately we've been around the sport long enough that we knew what made it tick and even without having to do a tremendous amount of research on each driver, Benny and I knew them all very well, all of them were friends of ours, and we could - we didn't, not to let the cat out of the bag - but we didn't do all the research that might have been required of us because we were there, we were there every week, and we knew the people. We knew their habits, we knew their families, and so it just made it easier for us to do it that way than to try to do a situation and dramatize it and this, that, and the other, that's not our styles. And so people seemed to really enjoy that.”
In my opinion, what we got in Saturday’s race was the closest we’ve had to Bob, Benny, and Ned in years. Yes, these drivers were new at this, and could do better if given the chance. Yes, they can’t obviously keep doing it since they’re all active drivers. And yes, they were all doing it under the guidance of the current broadcasters. But there was also a noticeable camaraderie among them from all of them being thrown into this situation together. They all supported each other and made it through – much as when ESPN put Bob and his crew in front of the camera for the first time in 1981. They didn’t overhype anything or throw a bunch of distractions in our face. They weren’t perfect, but they were genuine. It was “back to basics” broadcasting at its best.
Maybe this is what we’ve been missing all these years, and what needs to happen going forward.
Maybe it’s time to clean house.