CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Sagging television ratings have made NASCAR an easy target for critics who have panned everything from the cars, the races and the drivers themselves as reason for tuning out the past several seasons.
Listen carefully, though, and many a die-hard fan will explain that it’s actually the quality of the broadcast, not NASCAR, that has driven them away.
What had been a slight grumble about unsatisfying TV coverage — an animated gopher, negative announcers, unbalanced coverage and missed story lines — turned into a roar of frustration from fans following Saturday night’s Sprint Cup Series event at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fox had no post-race reaction from Kyle Busch, who had victory snatched away by a late caution and NASCAR’s version of overtime. And after devoting considerable air time on Denny Hamlin, who raced just 10 days after surgery to repair a torn knee ligament, Fox did not follow up on Hamlin’s decision to stay in his car the entire event.
Fans instead sat through two commercial breaks after the checkered flag that totaled almost seven minutes, then were shown brief interviews with only the top three finishers.
After investing almost four hours into the broadcast, the payoff just seemed sort of flat.
The frustration is not lost on Fox race producer Barry Landis, who two days after the event had the hindsight to recognize what the network could have done differently.
“We didn’t show exactly what happened: Mr. Kyle Busch didn’t decline, but adamantly refused to be interviewed,” Landis said Monday. “Denny Hamlin’s situation, we followed him all day and certainly would have loved to do a follow up. But the desire to get him out of the car to see the doctors … we were standing by him waiting, we just ran out of time.”
And time is at the core of this particular broadcast, which is now being singled out as the prime example of why fans have grown frustrated with watching races on TV.
But in fairness to Fox, the network was backed into a corner Saturday night largely because of PIR’s quizzical decision to lengthen its race by 63 laps. Because of NASCAR’s standard start teams this season, Phoenix officials shortsightedly petitioned NASCAR to add laps Saturday night so that it’s estimated crowd of 70,000 would see an actual night race.
Doing so, though, wreaked havoc on both Fox’s national broadcast and East Coast viewers who had to stick with the broadcast until almost midnight for what turned out to be incomplete coverage. Because the extra laps and overtime pushed the broadcast 50 minutes past its allotted time, Fox was forced to make hard coverage decisions on the fly.
Among them was giving extended coverage to Ryan Newman, who snapped a 77-race winless streak with a come-from-nowhere victory. Landis said the length of Newman’s drought warranted the extra time spent with the driver in Victory Lane, and the decision paid off.
“We knew he had to take care of his sponsors, but my sticking with him, I was proud that at the third question, the human interest came out of Ryan,” Landis said.
Then it was on to runner-up Jeff Gordon, who Landis said was an “absolute must” to interview after losing a late lead for the second consecutive race. The remaining time, less than a minute, went to four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished third but left Phoenix as the current points leader.
Fans curious about Busch or Hamlin had to either turn to team radio communications, available only through paid subscriptions on NASCAR.com, or to Twitter, where both drivers posted comments.
Fox could have ducked most of this criticism by showing the scenes surrounding Busch or Hamlin post-race, or having studio host Chris Myers explain the situation with either driver. Although Landis regrets no mention of Busch’s blow off, he defended not showing the video because it had a “TMZ feel” that could have painted an inaccurate portrait.
It all goes back, though, to the post-race rush Fox was in, and that falls squarely on the length of the event.
Adding laps made Saturday night’s race longer than just three events in 2009, and almost an hour longer than both of its races last season. At 3 hours, 48 minutes, it was far too long of an event and that’s something NASCAR needs to address going forward.
There’s not a lot Fox, or any network for that matter, can do when races run long. With firm commitments to advertisers and local affiliates, commercial breaks are obligatory and getting off the air in a reasonable amount of time is not negotiable.
And while it’s frustrating that network coverage is often caught in commercial when a caution comes out on the track — one of the loudest arguments made by television viewers — broadcast partners can’t be expected to predict when an on-track incident will occur.
There are things that could and should be done differently, and in many instances, both NASCAR and its broadcast partners have worked hard this season to make changes designed solely to produce a better product. Saturday night was a multilayered setback, but one that can be recovered from.