On February 7, 2017, Frank Buhrman posted an insightful article entitled "Media Coverage Today Could Be a Lot Worse" in which he discusses how today's coverage, which some view as information overload, is much preferred to the near barren wastelands of coverage he and fans of the earlier days of racing endured. I too second his assessment, having been raised on the smattering of clips on Wide World of Sports, yearly Indy 500 coverage by the Louisville Courier-Journal and an occasional National Speed Sport purchased on trips to Salem, IN or DuQuoin, IL. Hardly an information diet for a growing race fan!
Frank is absolutely correct - "Media Coverage Today Could Be a Lot Worse" because as we've seen in the past, it has been a lot worse and it's something I pray we never see again. I do appreciate what we have and am continually amazed with each new source or enhancement (sorry, it's apparently THE word for the 2017 season).
With that said, I also believe that media coverage today could be a lot better, especially in the area of television coverage. When television race coverage expanded, everything changed. Rex White summed up television's role in that age so well in his quote noted in PattyKay Lilley's article entitled "A Few More Nicknames and Some Quaint Quotes"
"I never dreamed I would see the sport where it is today. But I did see that when television got into it, there would be no end to where it could go. With television, you could get into everybody's house. People that had never been to a race could see it on television, and then after they went to a race, they're hooked."
Television was the "hook" that got race fans from the local tracks to the big tracks. It was the "hook" that got non-fans to races where they became race fans. Once fans, television sustained them between live races and whet the appetites to return to the tracks.
Almost as important was television coverage’s impact on sponsorships. Businesses had brand loyal fans to sell their products to.
Back then, The Race was the focus. Everything was about The Race. The Race was why there was a broadcast at all. The booth personalities became who they were because of how they presented The Race. They understood their role as well as Nance's Third Law of Racing - Good coverage can't make a bad race good, but bad coverage can make a good race bad. They presented The Race. Whether The Race was a nail-biter or a snoozer, it was what it was and presenting The Race to us as accurately as possible was their job. With just a thimbleful of the technology available today, they did it and did it well. The results were evident as the sport exploded.
Then something changed.
From my perspective, everything changed in 2001 with FOX coming on-board. I had high hopes, with expectations that their entry would take the sport to new levels. Even though not a fan of their broadcast team, I hoped they would be successful as they brought a fresh energy to the sport. Although my hopes were high my expectations were not; all I hoped for from them was MRN/PRN with pictures. If they could do that at a minimum, we would all win. Anything beyond that was as they say around here, gravy.
Regretfully, they took the sport to new levels, just not the direction I'd hoped. The fresh energy was hardly taken as positive, especially by the more experienced fans. Their entry brought a divisiveness (we know best what you fans want) and a change in the focus. Beginning with their first drivers' lineups with the logos of those car sponsors who had not advertised with them pixilated out so as to not be recognizable, they sent a clear message The Race was tertiary, behind The Broadcast and The Bottom Line.
Initially, the broadcasts seemed to have an old Monday Night Football feel to it and that could have been OK. Mike Joy easily filled the role of Frank Gifford. Unfortunately, Darrell Waltrip seemed intent on being both Dandy Don Meredith and Howard Cosell, while Larry McReynolds was odd man out. Race starts began with Waltrip's now famous BBBLGRB sendoff and race finishes would often see DW occupying all three roles, stealing calls from Joy or talking over him, making the finish unintelligible.
In between, poor camera coverage seemed unable to capture any on-track action and incidents were rarely shown live. Extended segments of commercials were broken up with short clips of cars on the track, much like the Wide World of Sports coverage mentioned in Frank's article. The only differences being, FOX was live instead of delayed and instead of The Race being interspersed with segments of wrist-wrestling and log-rolling it was endless commercials or in-booth shilling for a specific make of car. Throw in the overused Turn Cam and FOX's beloved "Digger" only added fuel to the growing fire of fan dissatisfaction. Coupled with an increasing number of Broadcasts ending with a saying that is now almost as famous as DW's sendoff - "Where did he come from?" fans displeasure grew.
The resultant outcry of The Broadcast was not only from "experienced" viewers but "new" fans who just wanted something that was seemingly impossible to see - The Race. FOX Sports' Chairman and CEO David Hill's response to fans displeasure was a refusal to make changes along with an "I'm right-you're wrong, now get over it and like it" attitude (my observation not a quote-but it sure could have been). It didn't sit well with the NASCAR viewership either. The FOX belief that The Broadcast could overcome anything including bad races and diminishing track attendance was severely flawed. Not surprisingly, the viewership numbers began to drop as fans, tired of pleading for The Race over The Broadcast realized no change was coming. They decided The "Product" was no longer worth The Price - their time investment. As Law One from the Three Laws kicked in (The Buyer not the Seller Determines a Product's True Value) many shut off their TVs and found life after NASCAR. They joined a growing fan demographic, the dreaded "Lapsed Fan" - formerly active fans but for reasons unknown to the Sanctioning Body are no longer active. Anyone familiar with Law Two could see that coming, as objects (fans) with poor television coverage no longer had a reason to stay in motion.
Coupling this with a less than racy on-track product has resulted in Nance's First Variation of Law Three which says "Bad coverage of bad racing equals bad results for TV viewership and Track Attendance." It needs no further explanation. The numbers speak for themselves.
If NASCAR is going to improve its appeal and try to reclaim some of its former glory and status it experienced from the time Rex White uttered those words above until the downturn in 2006-two things must occur - The Racing must improve and Media Coverage of that racing, especially Television Coverage must get better... Now!
We are still early in the new season, a season of change. You name it and it's been changed. It's my hope that The Broadcasters take advantage of this widespread change to improve The Broadcast by turning back time and actually bringing us The Race.
Although it's hard to tell, I actually think I can see some positive changes. One is the novel concept of allowing pit reporters to actually report from the pits. In the past, though titled pit reporters, these people acted as pit collectors, gathering information and passing it to The Booth where it was then dispersed as from an all-knowing source. Actually seeing pit reporters report is refreshing and a minuscule step in the right direction.
The jury is still out on this one, but possibly one of the benefits (more likely an unintended consequence) of Stage racing may be it finally forces FOX to broadcast The Race. There seems to be a wee bit more focus, less time for the Booth to take us off into the weeds, never to bring us back. There have been times when I seriously doubted FOX could broadcast an NHRA drag race properly and I'm not talking about the entire event, a single race in an event. Maybe, just maybe these new race format enhancements are helping them out.
Finally, I seem to detect a nearly imperceptible shift in The Booth from the one who Hill described as "He's kind of like a missionary with enthusiasm; he's like the Billy Graham of NASCAR" to the other members in the Booth. It's probably wishful thinking overriding truth or maybe it's finally professionalism overcoming passion (BBBLGRB aside) but we'll only know for sure as the season progresses.
Bottom line - we have so much farther to go yet... there is so much room for coverage improvement, so many exciting opportunities to get back to where Rex White envisioned the sport could be and where it once was. Of course, The Sanctioning Body needs to step up and improve The Product while The Broadcasters do their part to bring the improved Product to the household televisions or whatever viewing device is being used by fans these days.
I am hopeful though. You are probably surprised, as these writings make many think David Nance is actually Eeyore's pen name. However, I am hopeful as the season goes on FOX adapts to covering the new race format and NBC watches and learns and hits the ground running when their half of the season arrives.
Pessimistic? No, as Frank mentioned earlier, I've seen worse than what we have now and if you've been watching for very long at all you have too. No, when it comes to race coverage I now consider myself an optimist, a total optimist like the optimistic twin in that old familiar story.
You remember the one about the "twin boys, five or six years old. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities – one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist – their parents took them to a psychiatrist.”
“First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. 'What's the matter?' the psychiatrist asked, baffled. 'Don't you want to play with any of the toys?' 'Yes,' the little boy bawled, 'but if I did I'd only break them.'”
“Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. 'What do you think you're doing?' the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. 'With all this manure,' the little boy replied, beaming, 'there must be a pony in here somewhere!'”
When it comes to race coverage, since 2001, the racing manure has been piled high and deep. For sixteen years, the remnant race fans wanting to see The Race have dug through it with their bare hands knowing that with all this manure there must be A Race in there somewhere.
Hopefully, this will be the year we'll find it.
It will be none too soon.