A Few Suggestions For NBC

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A couple of weekends ago, when parts of Indianapolis got up to ten inches of snow – Nashville just got a lot of cold and dreary rain. It made for a miserable late-March weekend. To the chagrin of Susan, I decided to brighten my weekend considerably by watching the full race recording of the 1993 Indianapolis 500.

Like many of you, I used to set my VCR before going to the race. I would actually set two of them because I wanted a higher quality recording. One would get the pre-race and first portion of the race, while the other started up two hours after the first. The four and six hour speed for one tape made for an awfully fuzzy recording. In those days I had a friend who had high-quality video equipment. I would take my two VHS cassettes to him and he would edit out the commercials. Years later, I had him transfer those same high-quality VHS tapes to DVD. The result is that my recordings of old races are far better than anything I can find on You Tube. One of these days, I ought to do the racing world a favor and upload my races from the early nineties onto You Tube. Someday.

Over this past weekend, I watched the complete broadcasts of the last three Indianapolis 500s on You Tube. The differences between the broadcasts of the 1993 race and the 2017 race were very noticeable – tilted in favor of the broadcast from almost a quarter-century ago. With NBC about to get the full IndyCar package in 2019, the folks there should go back and take some cues from those old tapes, when they sit down and decide how they are going to improve the broadcast of the 2019 Indianapolis 500 over what ABC had devolved to.

Of course, the picture was much better from the newer HD telecasts. The colors were crisp and vivid, while the sound and graphics were much improved. But it seemed ABC got stale and lazy or did things on the cheap. Meanwhile, after watching broadcasts from both eras, there are some of the things I noticed that NBC should strive for.

Different camera angles: If you go back and watch races from the early nineties, you’ll immediately notice how many more camera angles were used back then. Maybe HD cameras are so much more expensive today than the standard-definition cameras of the nineties, that economics forced fewer cameras.

In recent broadcasts, the basic shots are from outside Turn One looking head-on down the straightaway. Then they go to a shot outside Turn Two. From there, the shot originates from a tower placed midway through the backstretch on the inside of the track. That follows the cars all the way into Turn Three. An alternate angle from that shot is the camera placed outside of Turn Three, which mimics the shot looking down the main straightaway. That camera follows the cars into Turn Four where the camera outside Turn Four picks them up and the cycle repeats itself. With few exceptions, that’s how ABC now follows the action around the track.

When you go back and look at the old ABC coverage, you’ll immediately notice more elevated shots from inside the track. I don’t know if these were cameras sitting atop the old Master Control Tower or if these cameras were on scissor lifts or stationary platforms. I grabbed this screenshot from a blurry You Tube video (not my DVD). What was different in those videos is that the car (or cars) would be followed from a straightaway, through one turn and a short chute and heading into another turn.

1993-1

This shot also creates a unique sound. If you’ve ever been deep into the infield while cars are on track, you hear the constant sound of a car as it winds it’s way around the track. The pitch never changes, but you can tell the direction of the sound is constantly changing as the car makes its way around the track in roughly forty seconds. That’s the sound you get from this shot. It’s unique and not the standard sound you get from the standard shots around the track. You would probably have to see what I’m talking about to know what I’m talking about. But if you have seen any of the Indianapolis 500 race broadcasts from the early nineties, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Get the cars at the finish: ABC didn’t do everything right in the early nineties. As they do now, even back then one of my pet-peeves was how ABC/ESPN treated the finish of the race. For decades, it seems that ABC would follow the leading car(s) down the front straightaway. The camera would pan out as the car got closer. Then, just as the car crosses the start/finish line, the camera inexplicable zooms in on the starters stand. Instead of getting to see the winning driver’s reaction or what cars may be crossing the line in second or third, we get to see a close-up of twin-checkered flags flying. If I ever see that shot again it will be too soon.

Flag

The only time ABC deviated from this was in 1992 when ABC missed everything in the live shot. It was, and still is, the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history. Yet someone in the production truck decided to swap the camera angle just at the crucial moment when the cars of Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Goodyear were crossing the yard of bricks.

While those of us in the crowd saw this:

1992-Indy-500

Viewers at home saw this:

92FinishTV

What I would prefer is that unless a close photo finish is expected like in 1992 or 2006, use the shot looking straight down the straightaway as they did back in 1991 below.

Flag91

You get a better perspective of where the other cars are and you can see the driver wave his fist in the air in celebration.

Don’t mess with the chemistry: People always nostalgically refer to the days when Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Sam Posey called the races for ABC, but they were not together for that many races. The three of them called each Indianapolis 500 from 1988 through 1995. Danny Sullivan was added to the mix in 1994, before replacing Posey in 1996. In my mind, Sullivan was subtraction by addition in 1994. He added very little to the broadcast, but took away airtime from the entertaining banter between Posey and Unser.

As is the case now, ABC did not do that many races in those days. Generally, but not always, ABC would do Long Beach, Indianapolis and a portion of qualifying, Milwaukee, Toronto and Michigan and maybe a couple of others. Those not broadcast on the big network went to ESPN, when Paul Page would be paired with Derek Daly as the analyst. So Unser and Posey only did the ABC races. While Daly was interesting to listen to, it was Posey and Unser who were the most entertaining.

Whether or not Posey and Unser actually liked each other at all is up for debate, but they played off each other brilliantly. Unser was very matter-of-fact in his analysis and pretty well told it like he saw it. Posey was the dreamer of the two and looked at racing in a poetic sense, far from Unser’s brutally honest approach. They were exact opposites and that’s why it worked. Paul Page was smart enough to relay information about what was happening on the track and then just sit back and let Posey and Unser go at it. It was sometimes awkward, sometimes priceless – but it never got old.

Regardless of how well they did or didn’t get along, there is no denying that the three of them had great chemistry on the air whenever they got together. Throwing Danny Sullivan into the mix in 1994 messed up the chemistry. When Sullivan got a ride with Pac West for the 1995 season, viewers were the main benefactor.

Before Paul Page was unceremoniously dumped by ABC after the 2004 season for the inept Todd Harris; he had been paired in the booth with Tom Sneva, Parker Johnstone, Scott Goodyear, Gil de Ferran and Jack Arute. No combination of analysts and announcers ever came close to the magic created by the trio of Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Sam Posey.

The current NBC crew has good chemistry, but it is not to the level of Page, Posey and Unser – but it is still good nonetheless. Leigh Diffey as the lead announcer is a little more excitable than I’d like, but he is very knowledgeable and seems to get along well with his team – which is key. Some point to the ABC Monday Night Football booth of the seventies as an example of not having to get along to be successful. In my mind, that’s the exception and not the rule.

Aside from Diffey screaming a little louder than I’d like, the pairing of Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy has worked from the very start and keeps getting better. Most of the NBC pit reporters are every bit as good as Jack Arute, Gary Gerould, and Dr. Jerry Punch on ABC in the nineties. Current NBC pit reporter Jon Beekhuis actually served as a pit reporter on the ESPN portion of those early nineties CART broadcasts, and does a great job with NBC – especially on the technical side of things with his Professor B segments. Kevin Lee and Marty Snider are outstanding as well. Katie Hargitt has a racing background and has improved in her time in this role. She needs to grow a little more and get a little more seasoning to be on the level with her more experienced contemporaries.

But you can tell, the entire crew has chemistry and works well together. Throw Robin Miller into the mix and you’ve got magic at least approaching what ABC had twenty-five years ago.

Now that they’ve gotten the entire package starting next year, it will be tempting for NBC to poach some of the top talent leftover at ABC (and yes, there was some). As tempting as that may be, I’m not sure it would be good for their on-air product. Is Allen Bestwick better than Leigh Diffey? Perhaps, but Diffey seems to fit in well with the NBC crew. It’s hard to put a price on that.

What about Rick DeBruhl or Jerry Punch? Would you want to bring either one of them in at the expense of Katie Hargitt? That’s a tough call. Punch is obviously more experienced, but does he fit in with the rest of them? While Katie Hargitt still has room to improve, she seems to be well-liked among her NBC co-workers. There’s a lot to be said for that. Plus, I’m not sure at this point in his career that Doc Punch is ready to get into a seventeen race season-long grind. However, I could see them adding a fourth pit-reporter for the Month of May. I don’t know if I could think of anyone more deserving of that role than Dr. Jerry Punch.

But the value of good on-air chemistry cannot be over-estimated. NBC would be wise to make as few changes as necessary to an already excellent on-air crew.

One voice: I don’t really care who the lead announcer for the NBC coverage is. Leigh Diffey, Kevin Lee, Rick Allen or Allen Bestwick would all be good choices. But whoever gets the gig, make sure they are available for each and every race.

Last year, Kevin Lee did more races than Leigh Diffey, who had Formula One conflicts. NBCSN covered twelve races last season. Rick Allen opened their coverage at Long Beach, while Leigh Diffey was in the booth at Barber. Allen was back in at Phoenix, before Kevin Lee manned the booth when NBCSN resumed their coverage at Texas as well as the consecutive IndyCar coverage at Road America, Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Gateway. Leigh Diffey returned to do the last two races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. If you’re keeping score; that’s seven races for Lee, three for Diffey and two for Allen. Since Kevin Lee did more than double the amount of races than Diffey – an outsider might think that the job was Kevin Lee. They would be wrong.

With Formula One out of the picture at NBC, Leigh Diffey should be a lot more freed up this season, but I still hear there will be conflicts this season.

In my opinion, once NBC has the entire package beginning next season – there needs to be one voice for all seventeen IndyCar races. Whoever it is, when someone tunes into a race and hears a familiar voice – there should be no question that they tuned in to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

IndyCar CEO Mark Miles has stressed the need for continuity among race dates and broadcast partners. I think that extends to announcers too.

Minimize the graphics:  When it comes to technology and graphics, there should be a rule to follow – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. ABC got too cute with their real-rime graphics over the years. Their in-car camera shots had the scroll to the top with info-boxes on each side of the driver to the point that all you could see was the back of the driver’s helmet. To me, the whole point of the in-car camera is to give viewers a sense of what the driver is seeing. All of the graphics defeat that purpose.

I like having the scroll at the top, but make it smaller. In recent years, ABC’s scroll was so big it was obtrusive. It cut out a lot of every shot. I don’t need to see that they have the ability to insert a pretty checkered banner. Just give me the information without obstructing my view.

Spontaneous victory lane celebrations: Nothing looks as choreographed and contrived as something that is choreographed and contrived. That would be the case with IndyCar victory lane celebrations the last few years. It insults the intelligence of viewers to come back from a commercial break and see a winning driver just sitting in the car, only to see some network slappy over to the side giving the driver the signal to jump out of the car and celebrate now that they are back from break.

I know commercials are vital, but can they not wait until the winning driver jumps out of the car as soon as the car pulls into victory lane? By the time the coverage starts back, the driver has been sitting there for a couple of minutes and has already been congratulated by everyone close to them. What we see is all staged and fake.

Minimize shots of wives and girlfriends: I understand that not everyone is as hard-core about racing as I am. I also get it that there is a very human element to racing that fans want to see. But when there is a tight battle in the last few laps of a race; we don’t need to see a giant close-up of a driver’s wife, while the on-track battle is relegated to a corner of the screen.

The 1982 battle between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears was epic. ABC seemed intent on showing more of Dina Mears, wife of Rick, than of the actual on-track battle. Just as you could tell Mears was about to make a valiant effort to pass Johncock with just a couple of laps remaining, ABC cut to an extended shot of Dina Mears – leaving the viewers to wonder what happened to the pass.

Similar wife shots were prevalent in the 1989 race between Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr.; 1992 with Unser and Scott Goodyear, with wives Shelley Unser and Leslie Goodyear closely following along. More recently, Beccy Hunter-Reay and Adriana Henao got more airtime than their significant others; Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves in 2014.

NBC should make it a self-imposed rule that if there is a tight battle, there should be no cutaways to wives or girlfriends in the final ten laps. If they have to, put a small window with the spouse in the corner of the screen while the main portion actually gets…the race. What a novel concept!

Proper flow for Indianapolis 500 Opening Ceremonies: It used to be that once the traditional ceremonies began before the Indianapolis 500, ABC would not cut away. One thing flowed right into another until the command to start engines and the drop of the green flag. It worked well for viewers at home as well as for those in attendance.

Then about eight to ten years ago, someone got the bright idea to start inserting long commercial breaks just before the command to start engines. That led to dragging out the ceremonies and essentially wrapping them around the breaks; thereby causing long silent and uncomfortable pauses for those of us actually sitting in the stands. It didn’t used to be this way.

Go back and watch some of the older coverage on You Tube. Paul Page announces that the traditional ceremonies are beginning, perhaps to give a cue to the stations that there won’t be any upcoming breaks for a while. You had the National Anthem, the ceremonial “Drivers, to your machines”, the Invocation, the Jim Philippi Memorial Day homage (which needs to come back), Taps, the flyover, the singing of (Back Home Again in) Indiana, the release of the balloons and then the command to start engines.

I went back and watched this part of the 1991 Indianapolis 500. It went uninterrupted without commercials. From start to finish, until the engines were fired – how long do you think the traditional opening ceremonies took? Only ten minutes. Surely the networks can figure a way to work in their commercials and still preserve the flow of the opening ceremonies.

So a cold and wet weekend led to me watching the 1993 Indianapolis 500, which led to these very lengthy suggestions on what NBC should and should not do when the get the entire IndyCar package in 2019. If you have any additional ideas or suggestions, leave them here. I know that a couple people in high places read this site every now and then. Perhaps they will see this, send it up the flagpole and at least a couple of ideas will be considered. Hopefully.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “A Few Suggestions For NBC”

  1. Excellent piece , George. I’ve had many of these same thoughts. Tough voting choice between WAY shots and opening ceremonies. All your points are great.

  2. To many in-car shots, leave them out unless they show something like contact or a great pass. If I want to see the stands or fencing go by I put a go-pro on my dash and then speed up the replay.

  3. BrandonW77 Says:

    Great piece George, pretty much agree with everything. I do hope you’ll come around on Diffey at some point. Sure, he can be a bit excitable but with him I always feel like it’s genuine excitement and not just manufactured for the camera, he’s a true student of the sport. I’ll take genuine excitement over fabricated excitement, non-excitement, or boogity-boogity excitement every time.

    • I don’t hate Leigh Diffey. Far from it. In fact, I agree with you about his genuine excitement and his knowledge. But sometimes I think the lead announcer should be a little more understated and let the others in the booth be more vocal. I’ll always go back to Paul Page. You rarely heard him raise his voice, but you never questioned his passion or enthusiasm. – GP

      • On the contrary, I think that Leigh Diffey doesn’t sound excited enough. The main announcer must provide the most excitement of all, even at the most unremarkable moments of the broadcast. Kevin Lee is great at it.

        I recommend you to hear some videos of Andrés Agulla and Alex Pombo of ESPN Deportes. They can do drama, action and comedy in a single sentence.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Killer analysis, George. Can’t say I disagree with any of it.

  5. Really great thoughts here.

    Personally I really like the view of the flagstand right after the leaders pass the line, something about that feels very iconic to me. The 2014 finish didn’t zoom in on the flagstand, but followed the cars all the way across the line… and I was disappointed.

  6. The shots of Teresa Fittipaldi and Shelley Unser in 1989 simply reinforced the tension of the closing laps (so thick, you couldn’t cut it with a chainsaw). I love how Paul, Sam, and Bobby kept silent and let the sights and sounds tell the story until 2 to go.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    You have a cold heart Geoge. I could not disagree with you more about cutting out shots of the wives and/or girl friends in the closing laps. As Steve writes above, those shots reinforce the tension of the closing laps. The ladies not only have an emotional investment in the winner, but they know full well that it is within the closing laps that accidents happen.

  8. Gurney Eagle Says:

    Wives and girlfriends should be relegated to a box in the corner. Under no circumstances should the on-track action ever leave the screen.

  9. George, you and i are now officially old.
    not middle-aged.
    OLD.
    i agree with you and that’s how i know.
    based upon the 20-yo members of my family:
    Graphics For the Win. if they can’t get enough graphics
    on the TV screen, they click elsewhere. but wait, there’s more…
    One Voice. they don’t care. they have 50 voices for everything. finally, the wives/GFs…they’re all HOT. seriously, remember when you were 20-something? boys watch 5 seconds longer because.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Amen to that. If you can watch hot ladies and race cars on the same screen, I don’t see the problem with that. That is a good thing. And their emotions are real.

  10. I do hope NBC keeps the team intact next year. Katie has grown in her abilities and continues to improve. I was disappointed that Kevin Lee did not receive the call up, but I figured Leigh has a good contract with the network. Whatever! Friday cannot get here soon enough.

  11. S0CSeven Says:

    Over the years I have taken to calling the race the “Indy 500 Commercials”. A couple of laps of racing and then “we’re going to take a break so we can be back in time for the pit stops”.

    So that’s it then. Tons of commercials, boring pit stops, reaction shots of the wives etc….. and very little on-track action.

    How about broadcasting the race much like the American Fomula 1 team did.

    When the director feels the need for 5 minutes of commercials or an explanation of drafting…… he/she hits the PAUSE button on the race coverage! Do your thing! Make money! But when you come back to the race hit the PLAY button again. The viewers get to see 500 miles of racing and everybody leaves happy.

    The downside of course is that the race coverage would run an hour longer than scheduled and the race would be over before the coverage was. But man! Think of all the ****house of commercials you could get in and the fans would still get to see the WHOLE race .

  12. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    Enjoyed the Phoenix race this weekend and one thing I kept getting frustrated was to see which driver is behind whom lap-by-lap and you essentially have to wait for the scroll to go by until you get to your favorite driver in the scroll. Sometimes you end up missing that information due to action on the race.

    I just got off watching the F1 race at Bahrain and one of the things I like with F1 coverage is that the Drivers’ names are shown on the left of the screen with their order and real time display of the gap between each driver in a transparent template which doesn’t hinder action but shows the order and time interval throughout the race.

    F1 copies a lot of things from Indycar, however, I think sometimes Indycar and its TV partners have to adopt good things from other places as well. I want to ask NBC sports people in charge of telecasts to why not, change to the F1 format about driver order that is real time.

  13. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    My 14 yo son loves hearing Leigh Diffey, whereas I am growing ever weary of him. He’s not that bad, but I agree that his volume overshadows the quality of his calls.

    I did have the recent pleasure hearing Dario on a Formula E call recently and NBC needs to get him in the Indycar booth ASAP. Ideally I’d love them to dump Tracy for Dario. He was sooo so good on the F-e commentary, has a wry wit, is supremely knowledgeable, and is enthusiastic without screaming.

    You can also hear his love of racing in his commentary and you know he’d be a welcome voice for Indycar viewers of all sorts.

  14. Very well written post. My 2 cents says ditch Diffey. You are being overly kind when you said what you did about him. He screams and he walks over the color announcers all the time. I’ve been doing the same as you and enjoying the old races on YouTube and for my money you can not ever beat the team of Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart with Chris Economaki in the pits and Chris Schenkle doing rundowns. The current NBC booth wouldn’t make a pimple on those guys patooty for knowledge and passion as well as being well spoken. I know, I know, those were tape delay and all, but man why can’t we have something similar? At least we have IMS productions and the radio guys and that’s the audio I will ALWAYS choose over any TV.

  15. Kevin Murphy Says:

    After watching the pre-race ceremonies from 1991 and 2017 a couple of changes have taken place. in ’91 the National Anthem was performed prior to the Invocation. After the Anthem, drivers were given the command to get into their cars. So during the Invocation and Taps, drivers were getting into their cars. In ’17 the Anthem was after Invocation and Taps. Drivers didi not enter their cars until after the Anthem. So there is a 5-8 minute period for this to take place, prior to Back Home Again in Indiana. I believe the Speedway made this change and ABC is simply going to commercial during this time.

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