A Tour Of The ABC/ESPN Compound

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It would be very neglectful on my part not to acknowledge Jeff Iannucci of My Name Is IRL, before getting into today’s topic. I didn’t even know of any IndyCar blogs until I heard Jeff and a few others interviewed on "Blogger Night" on Trackside a couple of years ago. I immediately pulled up his site and began to follow it. When I decided to start my own site, I contacted Jeff and he was very helpful in getting things rolling. He and I have never met nor ever talked on the phone, but we have swapped e-mails back and forth. I don’t pretend to know Jeff personally, but in the correspondence I have had with him – I can tell he is a really good guy.

Yesterday brought the announcement that personal and private issues have made Jeff reassess his priorities. Unfortunately for us that read his blog, he has come to the realization that his site is detracting from dealing with his personal issues. Jeff has made the correct decision to push away from his blog – and rightfully so. His family should and will come first. Selfishly, I’ll miss Jeff’s writing; but I wish him well and hope that things work out as well as possible for Jeff and his family.

Speaking of starting this site…Since I started this site thirteen months ago, I have made it very clear that I am not a fan of the coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series that is provided by ABC/ESPN. My complaints have been many and varied; ranging from the guys in the booth, to lack of promotion and a seemingly overall disregard for the series by the giant network.

Three weeks after I launched the site, I wrote an article comparing the Versus coverage to the ABC/ESPN coverage –which was none too kind to ESPN coverage. That night, I received a stern, yet tactful e-mail from Andy Hall, Manager of Media Relations at ESPN. Although he didn’t agree with a lot of my opinions, the e-mail stuck more to the facts. There were a couple of things that Andy pointed out that I had misstated. I thought I was correct, but could not find anything to back up my claim – so I ran a reluctant retraction.

Since then, I have been very critical of ESPN’s coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Surprisingly, during that time – Andy and I have actually exchanged some very friendly e-mails, even as recently as last week. I guess he and I have agreed to disagree.

Race Day morning, as I was finishing up my first post from the Speedway – Andy came by my desk in the media center and introduced himself to me. I was floored. Here was someone with an awfully important sounding title, with one of the most powerful sports entities in the world – coming up to speak to a simple blogger. A relative newby, at that.

What a great guy! We stood and talked about how both of our sons had played high school hockey, we talked about the upcoming race, he asked about the recent flooding in Nashville. This was a perfect example of someone that actually had a lot of power, yet didn’t take himself so seriously as to be aloof. This was my kind of guy.

As we talked, Andy asked if I would like a tour a little later of their on-site production compound. Would I? Was he kidding? Of course, I would. The only thing that may have deterred me from doing that was if a car owner suddenly asked me to drive in the race. Being reasonably sure that wasn’t going to happen, I jumped at the chance. He had another obligation, but told me he would call my cell when he was done.

As promised, Andy called around 9:45am. I met him at the gate of the TV compound and I entered into the sprawling mass of cables, satellite dishes and trailers. He quickly showed me the lay of the land. One trailer was for the on-air talent to use, another was an office for the producer. As I followed him through the maze of people running around, we continued to step over giant bundles of cables. All I could imagine was tripping over one and suddenly there would be no race broadcast that afternoon.

Andy explained the difficulties of producing a race broadcast at a track the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He told me that for a college basketball game there might be as little as five cameras and a truck that would show up that morning. For a normal college football game, they would use nineteen cameras. For a Monday Night Football production, they may use as many as thirty-three cameras. For the Indianapolis 500 this year, they used fifty-nine cameras and I couldn’t even guess how many trucks they had there.

He then took me over to a truck that served as sort of the central nervous system of the compound. He showed how every wired camera on the track eventually led into that truck. The mass of wiring on the side of the truck is pictured below.

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Then he took me into the production truck. Due to all of the delicate electronic equipment – this truck had to be kept very cold. As it was already becoming hot and humid, the dark cold room of the production truck was a very welcomed change. The giant room looked like what you see in the movies. There were screens and monitors everywhere. Then there were two rows of consoles that had more monitors and dozens of switched at each station. It resembled the Star Ship Enterprise.

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I asked a lot of elementary questions and Andy patiently answered every one. When we stepped outside, the heat and bright sunlight hit me like I was walking into a wall. I wanted to go back in. Instead, we stood out in the gravel parking lot and talked. I reminded him that I had written some very unkind things about their coverage. He acknowledged that, but also said he had no problem with criticism so long as it was presented fairly. He mentioned several of the other IndyCar bloggers and how he keeps up with what’s being said. I mentioned how I really wished Paul Page was back on the broadcast. The way he cautiously answered about how he is now back on the IMS Radio broadcast for the second year in a row, told me that there was no way Paul Page would ever be on another ESPN IZOD IndyCar Series broadcast. I suppose he is destined to be doing NHRA for the remainder of his career.

After watching the race broadcast late Monday night, I ripped ABC/ESPN again on Tuesday – not so much for their product, but for the announcing corp. Other than their bizarre opening of the broadcast, I had no real problem with their production – just the guys in the booth and Marty Reid specifically. I feel they need to get someone who sounds more passionate about the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

But Andy confirmed what I already suspected – the job of putting on a production like this, is much harder than we mortals can imagine. He showed where the director and the producer sit in the truck and explained how it is organized chaos in the truck. He discussed how as the guys in the booth are talking, there is someone talking in their ear giving different directions constantly. It did give me a whole new sense of appreciation for what it takes to pull off something like this.

Andy is fully aware that many fans don’t care for the coverage. He has a tough job to do, constantly putting out fires started by people like me and all the while towing the company line as he tries to listen to the concerns of the fans. I’m sure he didn’t offer me the tour, just because he thinks I’m a great guy. No, I’m sure his motive was for me to convey to readers how committed ESPN is to the IZOD IndyCar Series. While I’m not sure of their level of commitment, so long as they are involved with NASCAR – I did walk away from the compound with a newfound appreciation for what it takes to produce a show of this magnitude.

I also came away with the feeling that Andy Hall is one hundred percent committed to ESPN, which he should be. But I was impressed with how personable and respectful he was of differing opinions. I saw him in the media center after the race, as I was about to leave for good. He made sure to wish me safe travels back to Nashville.

I don’t agree with a lot that his network does. He probably doesn’t agree with what I wrote on Tuesday. But the good thing about him is that he can disagree with someone’s stance, yet still be friendly with them. That’s a rare trait these days. Thanks for the tour, Andy. I hope to see you again some day.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “A Tour Of The ABC/ESPN Compound”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    As manager of media relations, clearly, a great portion of Mr. Halls duties at ESPN are to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion. One other thing that is clear is that Mr. Hall has a great deal of “respect” (read that as fear of and or, apprehension for what you may write in the future) for your blog George, perhaps more “respect” than for others, as you tend to have a much more reasoned and factual approach to evaluatiing a situation. Make no mistake, Mr. Hall has not continued his correspondance with you for his personal health, nor has he gone out of his way during the pre-production of the 500 to both introduce himself and offer you the cooks tour, because he had some time to kill and thought it might be fun.
    It is no secret that many of us feel much as you do about the ABC / ESPN run production / calling of IRL racing. The real thorn in their side is that they have consistantly been juxtaposed unfavorably with Versus. I do not wish to seem paranoid, but there is no question that individuals in Mr. Hall’s position would like to keep the negative opining to a minimum. His apparent openess and even handedness are the well practiced methods of a media professional.
    So, George please continue to make your observations about ESPN’s coverage, you see many of the same things that we see, and truthfully, it is the only way that we will ever get improvements made to the coverage of this sport.

  2. Mike Silver Says:

    While I am impressed by Mr. hall’s kindness toward you,I have only watched 20 laps of the race on DVR and am thoroughly unimpressed. The pace laps were nothing but talking heads. They missed both passes for the lead. The opening was way too weird for words. Whoever told Eddie Cheever to cool it obviously doesn’t know what good televisiion is. I guess Andy will be calling me soon.

  3. Scott Simmons Says:

    As someone who works in tv myself i know well what goes into these live broadcasts. It is HUGE for an event like Indy. But make no mistake, if ESPNs ratings for Indy car racing was better, their production would be better. It’s all directly related. Versus is (i hope) trying to build something with Indy so it just feels like they are putting more effort into the broadcasts. The best thing for them and us would be more eyeballs. That’s going to be the responsibility of the series itself i guess.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      I suppose my question would be, why would ABC/ESPN, bother to even go through that entire undertaking if what they plan to offer up is nothing more than mediocre. Why would they even be interested. I think it is the cart before to horse scenario. Does the IRL need to offer a more compelling product before ABC is willing to offer a higher standard of production (how about lets start with at least letting us know who dropped out of the race and why)…. Or perhaps if ABC began by putting the type of folks calling color for the race in the booth that don’t need to take a vial of no doze to remain alert during a 4 hour race. My second question is, is the scale of INDY out of the reach of Versus at this time, or is this simply a matter of ABC being capable of offering the IMS folks more fiscally than Versus…. ?

  4. I don’t wanna pile on, I’m sure it’s a difficult production, but it just seems like there’s a basic unfamiliarity with Indycar. And I’d rather have Darrell Waltrip in the booth because at least he could fake some enthusiasm for the event.

  5. At this point in my career in TV, I can hardly comprehend 59 cameras, plus the replay, tape, and graphics machines needed to put this show on…it’s fairly mind-boggling from a technical standpoint.

    My issue doesn’t lie with the technical aspect of the show, though — that part is plenty fantastic. My issue is with the producers putting the show on who just seem to not comprehend some of the complaints that are being raised by the fans who have to watch the broadcast. As important as Mr. Hall’s title sounds, I would say it’s a fair bet he doesn’t hold as much sway over the producers as any of us would like, and that’s a problem.

  6. Brian McKay Says:

    I’m sleep-deprived and not thinking too clearly now, but I’ll chime in and say that if 59 cameras, three boring talking heads and the given directors and board operators aren’t effective in entertaining the TV sports fans, CHANGE variables! ESPN could have fewer off-car cameras, different directors (who CARE about and KNOW the sport), DIFFERENT play-by-play guys, color commentators and analysts, MORE pit & paddock reporters, cameramen and antenna-holders…
    If the who and what that are used are ineffective, CHANGE!
    This is not the first week that anyone has complained publicly about Reid, Goodyear, or Cheever or praised the predecessors & alternatives. ABC/ESPN doesn’t care enough.
    I want to see Comcast’s Versus crew produce race broadcasts that’re shown on NBC and pre-race, post-race and lifestyle/behind-the-scenes shows for Versus.

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