Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: Why Did FOX Play NASCAR TV Roulette At Bristol?

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where we break down race broadcasts in detail. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were both in action at Bristol Motor Speedway. I don’t know about you, but I’m still a little tired from Sunday’s marathon… the second one in less than a month for NASCAR.

Drive to Stop Diabetes 300

Saturday brought the Nationwide Series back to Bristol Motor Speedway for more action. When “Thunder Valley” lengthened the spring race from 250 to 300 laps, in 2006, the track envisioned more of the same action that satisfied crowds of up to 130,000 people in the early 2000s. But that didn’t really happen — and still hasn’t happened, even to this day.

As is the norm this time of year, college basketball was everywhere on ESPN’s family of networks last weekend. As such, the America East Championship game betweenSUNY Albany and Stony Brook ran long, cutting off the first eight minutes of the Nationwide show.

Kyle Busch won yet another Nationwide race Saturday, but unlike previous wins this year, the broadcasting coverage represented a slight improvement.
Kyle Busch won yet another Nationwide race Saturday, but unlike previous wins this year, the broadcasting coverage represented a slight improvement.

Keeping up with the theme (unfortunately) from Las Vegas, the majority of the attention during NASCARCountdown was given to Cup drivers double-dipping. At this point, I couldn’t really care less as to what Kyle Busch is thinking during pre-race before a Saturday support event, because ultimately, he does not matter to the Nationwide Series. Busch is not a team owner anymore. He’s just the dude that comes in and wins because he’s addicted to winning.

The only Nationwide-only drivers that got mentioned here were Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Dylan Kwasniewski. I’ve previously established that Dillon and Elliott are specific points of emphasis forESPN this season. Kwasniewski’s references seemed to mainly have to do with his talent, plus the fact that he wrecked in qualifying and was forced to start in the back after his team repaired the Rockstar/AccuDoc Solutions Chevrolet.

During the race, a large amount of the coverage was centered upon a couple of the Cup drivers — Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick in particular. However, there was still coverage of many of the Nationwide regulars; more than they got in Las Vegas, at least.

Unlike Las Vegas, there were no controversial passages of commentary. It was just a regular race broadcast. The pictures showed Kenseth especially just cutting through the field like it was nothing. I’d never seen anything like that at Bristol unless the slower cars were damaged.

ESPN did a very good job getting down to what caused the debris caution at lap 214. We got replays of the metal bar, from parts unknown emerging from James Buescher’s car and nearly being run over by Busch. That is footage we don’t always see, so I’m happy that it made the broadcast.

However, I was not so happy that we never really saw what caused the last caution. We just saw Jeremy Clements slow on track, clearly due to wall contact. There was some discussion in the booth about the upcoming restart, a commercial and then the restart itself. That bites. I wanted to know what happened there.

Since Saturday’s race ended relatively quickly, there was a somewhat higher amount of post-race coverage than usual. ESPN brought viewers seven interviews and checks of the unofficial results and point standings before leaving. Compared to post-race coverage that we’ve seen this season, it’s a step up.

Overall, we received a slightly better than average (for 2014) telecast from ESPN. Even though we lost some pre-race analysis due to the aforementioned America East game, we got some decent coverage for position on track — although there was still too much Cup interloper coverage for my liking. Then again, they are dominating these races with impunity.

Food City 500

Sunday brought another marathon outing for the Sprint Cup Series, and for FOX. There was a full nine hours and change between the start of pre-race and the end of the telecast — due, of course, to a lengthy rain delay that, like Daytona, saw a day race become night.

By the time that the regular pre-race coverage began, FOX was already hunkering down for a lot of time stretching. That meant a heavy dose of Chris Myers and the Waltrips. Yeah, maybe not the best way to pass the time, but FOX believes that by going with the double dose of Waltrip, it’s putting its best foot forward. However, I enjoyed the period of time that Brad Keselowski spent in the Hotel. That guy is a pleasure to watch at times.

Ultimately, the primary topic that everyone’s talking about now is how FOX handled the rain delay on lap 125. They decided to stick with the telecast until 6 PM ET, then broke away. In that time, they showed 26 driver interviews, plus talks with Rick Heinrich from Goodyear (in regards to Jimmie Johnson’s tire issues) and Jason Ratcliff. I’m happy with how extensive it was, all in all.

Alex Bowman’s battery caused a big mess on the track at Bristol. But was FOX’s awkward shift to FOXSports 1 a bigger one?
Alex Bowman’s battery caused a big mess on the track at Bristol. But was FOX’s awkward shift to FOXSports 1 a bigger one?

Then, there was the whole mess regarding Alex Bowman’s battery falling out of his Dr. Pepper Toyota, which caused the third caution on lap 67 — or, at least I think it did. I only say that because the second caution was also for debris, but it was not shown. Fans were instead treated to shots of a paper-like substance all over the place. It was inferred that it was toilet paper, but in reality, it was material from inside of the battery.

Someone went to the bathroom, grabbed a bunch of toilet paper and let Darrell Waltrip have at it with the toilet paper on air. That person is a moron and the display was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen on FOX in years. Bowman is probably the only person that benefited from the mess, and he only benefited in his follower count on Twitter. Also, FOX has a research department. Why didn’t someone look it up and tell the broadcast booth about the paper-like substance in car batteries? They shouldn’t be getting that information from one of Bowman’s Twitter followers. FOX dropped the ball.

Then, there was Steve Byrnes’ interview with Paul Menard, which resulted in some angry comments on social media. Basically, some fans on Twitter believed that Menard was acting in a condescending matter toward Byrnes when he asked him about his wife likely to enter labor soon. It appears that Menard is a very private person away from the track and doesn’t want to involve close family in his racing exploits, hence why it appeared that he brushed off Byrnes’ question. It should be noted that Menard at least tried to be polite, but I’m not surprised people would think he was being a jerk. When I interviewed Menard in 2011, in my first one-on-one with the driver I came away from that interview thinking I had angered him. Turned out that wasn’t the case, of course but for some reason he can unintentionally give that impression from his tone.

This situation probably could have been handled better by both sides. However, since Byrnes is the one conducting the interview, technically he is responsible for making sure that lines weren’t being crossed. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if Menard puts conditions on future interviews (Ex: “Don’t ask about my family.”) because of this incident.

The move by FOX to leave Bristol for alternate programming at 6 PM should not surprise anyone; they did it at Daytona as well. However, the move to FOX Sports 1 perplexed some, angering others. Why did FOX do it? Simple: it had a full night of new programming on tap, including its new show, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey(hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson) and didn’t want to preempt it. The shows that FOXchose to show were all up for the night over last week, with the exception ofAmerican Dad at 7:30 PM. FOX likely felt that its regularly scheduled programming would score a higher number instead of the race.

I know that there aren’t very many NBA fans that read my articles here at Frontstretch, but think of it as being similar to the NBA on CBS in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Back then, the NBA signed a four-year deal with CBS that saw it continue on as the official broadcaster for the league. However, that $74 million deal, as described as Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball gave CBS “…carte blanche to run playoff games on tape delay, tinker with playoff dates/times and scale back on the number of Sunday telecasts.” In other words, it stunk, but it was probably the only kind of deal that the NBA could have gotten in an era where drug use (especially cocaine) was rampant and the league had what could be eloquently described as a pretty serious image problem. Also, cable television was in its infancy at time. ESPN didn’t launch until two years after the deal was signed and the NBA didn’t have a national cable TV deal until the fall of 1982.

NBA ratings in that time period were pretty putrid compared to the rest of the programming on television. The most notable instance of tape delaying occurred in 1980, when CBS gave affiliates the choice of airing Game 6 of the NBA Finals (Philadelphia-Los Angeles) live or airing the normal Friday night lineup at the time (reruns) and showing the game at 11:35 PM. Yeah, at that time, CBS’ Friday night lineup was The Incredible HulkThe Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas. The latter two were top-10 shows at the time, averaging a rating nearly three times that of the NBAFinals. As a result, all but four affiliates (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland, Oregon) aired the game on tape delay. You might remember what happened that night; it’s one of the greatest games in NBA history.

Granted, the above is an extreme example of network thinking in regards to sports versus scripted programming, but relatively similar in tone to what happened Sunday. FOX likely believed, especially after what happened with the Daytona 500 telecast, that its regular programming would garner a higher number than what the race would have. However, we do have the overnights from what FOX chose to run.Cosmos at 9 PM. was FOX’s highest rated show of the night with an audience of nearly 5 million. Family Guy had 4.5 million, while The Simpsons had a shade over 4 million at 8 p.m. My best guess is that Cosmos, which premiered on March 9, is the primary reason for the race being shifted.

From what I could tell, the ratings were fairly decent until FOX ditched the event. The overnight rating for the 124 laps of action on FOX was 4.1, down slightly from last year, but in line with what we’ve seen so far this season. The rain delay coverage to 6 PM got a 3.4 — decent retention despite obvious stretching for time. However, the move to FOX Sports 1 resulted in the loss of nearly half the audience from the rain delay (from 3.4 down to 1.8).

The move itself killed the audience; hadFOX kept the race on network instead of moving it to cable (or for many, digital cable) the number would have been a lot higher — maybe not regular ratings, but it probably would have beaten the primetime schedule. The move is worrying for me. I know that FOX wants to build up FOX Sports 1, especially since the channel will be airing points races for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series starting next year, but this just isn’t the time for that posturing. Channel placement is less than ideal in many markets and many people simply couldn’t find the race, threw their hands up and did something else.

How did FOX announce their plans for the move? Chris Myers simply told viewers that if the race resumed, it would be on FOX Sports 1 right before FOX left for alternate programming (which meant an infomercial here for classic country music CDs that was originally supposed to air at 4:30 PM here). I switched over to FOX Sports 1, and it was running a Test Drive special on the Chevrolet SS, followed by Shut Up and Drive!It didn’t really note any program alerts for the race until about five minutes beforeShut Up and Drive! ended. There were absolutely no live cut-ins, which was the primary reason why I watched FOX Sports 1 for the 75 minutes between the end of the FOX segment of the broadcast and the restart.

How did most people figure out that the race was going to resume? Twitter. While having Twitter around in these circumstances is quite vital, NASCAR’s overall audience trends older than the fans that tweet about NASCAR. Those people would be dependent on TV helping them out here, and FOX laid a dang egg. Even ESPN did a better job with the Phoenix Nationwide race in this circumstance, and that treatment was still horrible. Had they done their job of getting the word out, the audience likely still would have declined, but nowhere near as much.

By the time FOX Sports 1 cut to Bristol, the drivers were already in their chariots, ready to crank them up. Most of the alerts in the on-screen information bar talked about the NCAA Tournament, whose brackets were being revealed at the time. By the time the coverage finally returned on FOX Sports 1 at 7:05 PM (they decided to start the regularly scheduled replay of the K&N race from Phoenix at 7 PM for some stupendously dumb reason that I can’t explain), the cars were already rolling off of pit road. It could have been handled a lot better. Simple as that.

That’s just here in the United States. In Canada, viewers outright could not see anything beyond 6 PM on television. Eventually, TSN streamed the conclusion of the race online, but that’s horrible for our neighbors to the north. In addition, the Canadian feed of SPEED, which continued beyond the August 17 launch of FOX Sports 1 and 2 here in the United States, was recently cut off with no replacement. Just a bad week all around for Canadian NASCAR fans.

Having said all that, FOX actually did a better job than what we’ve become accustomed to in actually covering the on-track action once the race resumed. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by everything else. Once the race finally ended around 9:30, we got a normal amount of post-race coverage before the telecast almost seamlessly folded into NASCAR Victory Lane (aired live due to the circumstances).

FOX’s telecast featured great racing and Darrell Waltrip apparently nearly fainting on-air Sunday. It also featured ridiculous mistakes (the timing and scoring issues during the delay that may not be FOX’s fault, Myers referring to Timmy Hill as “Timmy Smith,” etc.). However, FOX has put way too much money into NASCAR andNASCAR fans to cast them aside like it did Sunday night.

That’s all for now. Next week, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will travel out to the West Coast for a couple of races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. We’ll have to see if the end of this year’s Auto Club 400 rivals last year’s for drama. Here’s your listings:

Tuesday, March 18
Time Telecast Network
2:30 AM – 3:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network

Wednesday, March 19
Time Telecast Network
3:00 AM – 3:30 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
1:00 – 3:00 PM IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge: Sebring FOX Sports 1*/(from March 14)
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network

Thursday, March 20
Time Telecast Network
2:00 AM – 2:30 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network

Friday, March 21
Time Telecast Network
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1 FOX Sports 1
4:30 – 5:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice No. 1 FOX Sports 1
5:30 – 6:00 PM NASCAR Live FOX Sports 1
6:00 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour FOX Sports 1
7:30 – 9:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying FOX Sports 1

Saturday, March 22
Time Telecast Network
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM K&N Pro Series East PittLife 125 FOX Sports 1*/ (from March 15)
12:30 – 1:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 2 FOX Sports 1
1:30 – 3:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying FOX Sports 1
3:00 – 3:30 PM NASCAR Live FOX Sports 1
3:30 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour FOX Sports 1
4:30 – 5:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
5:00 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series TreatMyClot.com 300 ESPN
7:30 – 10:30 PM AMA Monster Energy Supercross: Toronto FOX Sports 1

Sunday, March 23
Time Telecast Network
1:30 PM – 2:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay FOX Sports 1
2:30 – 3:00 PM FOX Pre-Race FOX
2:30 – 4:00 PM motoGP World Championship: Qatar FOX Sports 1
3:00 – 6:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 FOX

Monday, March 24
Time Telecast Network
12:00 AM – 12:30 AM NASCAR Victory Lane FOX Sports 1
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network
9:00 – 10:00 PM motoGP Moto2: Qatar FOX Sports 2* (from March 23)

*- Tape-delayed
/- Highlighted Coverage

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. This week, in the Critic’s Annex, we’ll have an article about the advantages and disadvantages of internet streaming races, with emphasis on the recent launch of FansChoice.tv and the WWE’s new online-exclusive network. And before you ask, no, I’m not critiquing the WWENetwork for Frontstretch because we don’t cover wrestling, but the venture in and of itself could be groundbreaking.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, if you would like to contact any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX Sports

At this point, there is still no public contact email for NBC Sports. When they finally get around to creating a new link, I will post it for you.

As always, if you choose to contact the network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than ones full of rants and vitriol.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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