Kudos to Fox for its coverage of rain-soaked Daytona 500
Given the cars, speeds, and tracks involved, NASCAR doesn't have much of a choice but to pull the cars onto pit road when the rains arrive. In turn, NASCAR's television partners usually respond with a mixture of on-track interviews under umbrellas and pre-taped video packages. With Sunday's Daytona 500 delayed all afternoon due to rain, Fox did a little of that. But they also did something a little different; they aired a clipped version of last year's Daytona 500 as well. It was an approach much appreciated and one TNT, ESPN and NBC should take note of for coverage in the future.
Filling time during a short rain delay generally isn't a difficult challenge for the networks. The plethora of personalities in NASCAR's garage make this a relatively simple exercise. Giving guys like Clint Bowyer or Brad Keselowski a live mic and time to talk = ratings. Moreover, allowing these kinds of drivers a platform can only help build the sport. The main reason many of us are fans today isn't because of a close finish or a dominating performance. We're fans because we found a driver that we really identified with. In an era where “corporate” drivers are the norm, getting a peek behind the curtain is a welcome change.
Brad Keselowski Champions' Diecast
But an extended rain delay is something else entirely.
Driver interviews have a ceiling. One interview with Keselowski is a treat. Three or four wears on the patience of everyone involved. The driver will run out of interesting things to say and the interviewer runs out of appropriate questions to ask. Instead of serving to connect the viewer to the driver, the repeat ends up causing the opposite reaction. And some drivers simply are more interesting than others. Being an effective speaker is both inborn talent and learned skill- not everyone has it and some are more compelling interviews than others.
The other alternative, pre-packaged videos, also come with a downside. A network could easily burn through their entire library of segments for a season in one or two extended delays. What then? The producer has to juggle the needs of filling time in the moment with the recognition that NASCAR's season is a long one. He or she may well need sometime a week down the road. Moreover, as with the drivers themselves, there are only so many “evergreen” stories that can be produced and thrown into the vault. At some point the well will run dry and the network is left with hours more to fill.
The worst possible solution (from a NASCAR fan's perspective) is the old standby, the “regularly scheduled programming”. Any one of the three can dip into their library of programming and find something to fill the airtime. No, re-runs of “House” or “the Simpsons” might not be what the NASCAR audience tuned in to see, but it costs the network virtually nothing and fills the time. Sure, some advertising agreements will need to be re-negotiated. But it's better than hour #4 or 5 of the Mike Joy Marathon. That's no slight on Mike; he does an outstanding job as NASCAR's voice on Fox. But everyone has their limit.
Instead of emptying the vault or exhausting the drivers, Fox chose something else entirely. After a standard round of interviews, they began airing last year's Daytona 500. For a casual fan whose interest in the race was slight, they still got to watch restrictor plate racing at the World Center of Speed. Hardcore fans instantly knew what they were watching (or at least could read the scrolling messsage at the bottom of the screen). But those are the same fans that have been waiting all winter long for NASCAR's return- and for them, a taped race is better than no race at all.
Re-airing last year's race also led to plenty of unintentional comedy. As the replay ran, various NASCAR accounts on twitter aired a running commentary, treating the event as the 2014 race. Fox News- a part of the same media organization as the network airing the race itself- allegedly put up a tweet naming Jimmie a three-time Daytona champion and winner of the 2014 event. Johnson even said that he received congratulatory texts from “friends” after the conclusion of last year's race aired.
Something tells me those texts were pretty illuminating as to who Johnson's real friends were. At the very least, JJ has a much better idea who on his contact list actually knew something about NASCAR.
All told, it was a far better choice than that made in years past for rain delay coverage and it's worth looking at for future rain-delayed events. The networks all have a deep library of prior races in their library; Fox and TNT both have races dating back to 2001 while ESPN has races in its vault going back almost to the network's very inception. Every track and network has at least a handful of classics in its archive. Instead of doing third and fourth interviews with drivers who'd rather be sleeping in their motorhomes, let's open those archives up. As an example, how great would it be to hear Benny Parson's voice on color commentary just one more time?
Proper planning could make the replays even better. Alternate commentary is a fairly common feature on DVD releases of sporting events. NASCAR's television partners could do likewise on a rain-delayed re-airing of a race, potentially using the voices of the drivers involved. Carl Edwards has proven to be an entertaining commentator in select ESPN events. Why not have him join the crew in calling a race where he either won or flamed out in spectacular fashion? How entertaining might it be to have Edwards and Keselowski describe the final laps of the Talladega race that ended with Edwards in the catch fence?
Showing an old race wasn't a no-brainer decision. So for all of the flak that Fox catches for the problems with its coverage, they deserve credit for getting this one right. They took a chance in opening the door and deserve the credit for doing so. On a side note, they also showed that they heard fans loud and clear by moving the driver update bar back to the top of the screen. Fans hit the ceiling during the Sprint Unlimited race when Fox tried moving the bar from the top to the right hand side of the screen. Instead of stubbornly sticking to their guns, Fox restored the bar to its top-center location.
Finally, Fox did an outstanding job in sticking with their coverage. The Daytona 500 is supposed to be an afternoon event that fits neatly within an afternoon broadcast window smaller than that taken up by the NFL. Instead, the race coverage ran all afternoon, took a short break for Bob's Burgers and American Dad, and returned for an evening that obliterated the network's Sunday night lineup. That lineup included two of Fox's longest-lasting and most popular shows in “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”. Instead of shifting the race to a secondary network to protect their primetime lineup, Fox left the race right where it was (and where it belonged). It could not have been an easy decision to make.
So credit where credit is due. Fox took a creative approach to filling the time during its rain delay and then stuck with NASCAR even at the cost of its “Animation Domination” primetime line up. As a result, NASCAR had the opportunity to put its biggest race and season kickoff on network television in that primetime slot. Nothing but kudos to everyone involved in Fox's broadcast on Sunday; they've earned it and then some.
Oh, and getting “Noah” to sponsor a rain delay? Genius.