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A tale of two networks: Two similar INDYCAR races with wildly different perceptions

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Will Power leads Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 1, 2012. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)
Will Power leads Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 1, 2012. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Media relationships are a tricky business. In order to get people to respond to you in anything other than clichés or dismissive silence, you need to get as close to them as you can without compromising your objectivity.

It's a balancing act that only the best in the business can pull off, and because I'm certainly not anywhere near being one of those, I frequently find myself too far on one side or the other.

It's one of the reasons why I dread writing critiques of any sort, but particularly of racing broadcasts. I know and like many of the people involved in racing broadcasting, and no matter how carefully I couch my criticisms I always feel guilty for making them, as if my assessment of a network's performance is an aggression against my friendships and acquaintanceships with the people tasked to carry it off.

But regardless of my qualms about treading on people's toes, sometimes criticisms need to be made - and after two races in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, it is abundantly clear who deserves the praise and who deserves the coal-raking when it comes to putting said races on the air.

St. Petersburg was broadcast by ABC - more correctly, by "ESPN on ABC." The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama hit the airwaves on the NBC Sports Network, formerly VERSUS, utilizing the same production team VERSUS employed last season.

The ABC broadcast, as is usually the case with ESPN, was slickly-produced but strangely predictable. Following a poignant and tasteful homage to Dan Wheldon - memorials are something at which ESPN excels - the race broadcast unfolded with almost none of the emotional engagement that marked its opening.

Quantifying the reasons for this is harder than it might seem on the surface. Sure, it would be simple to lay the blame on the booth personalities of Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear, or to castigate the ESPN producer for a truly perplexing directorial style that resulted in an almost total inability to focus on which cars were producing the best on-track action.

But it goes beyond that - at least in a visceral sense. Given the talent roster that ESPN has at their disposal - people like Rick DeBruhl, Vince Welch, and Jamie Little in the IndyCar pits, and Allen Bestwick, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree in the NASCAR booth - and the time-tested resources that the sports broadcasting giant can bring to bear on its properties, how can they fall so flat on their faces so consistently? Although NASCAR and IndyCar are fundamentally different in so many ways, the criticisms levied at ESPN for how their broadcasts present them are distressingly consistent.

The feedback I keep getting from disgruntled fans creates a narrative that alleges that ESPN on the network level has no real investment in their "niche properties" outside of the financial. No matter how talented the cast of characters they assemble to put on their broadcasts, fans feel like ESPN's racing broadcasts too often feel like a by-the-numbers exercise in obligation. Somehow, the passion and connection to the sport that the broadcasters themselves feel gets lost in the transition from the microphones to the satellite. Given the history ABC and ESPN have in racing - ESPN can take credit almost single-handedly for inaugurating the era of full-season racing coverage, for instance - this modern era image is exceedingly frustrating.

The NBC Sports Network INDYCAR broadcasts, on the other hand, continue to receive grateful acknowledgement from fan circles for their competence - surely an ironic response given how many technical glitches have historically plagued VERSUS and now NBCSN. It is a harsh thing to consider that praising NBCSN's "competence" automatically infers "incompetence" on the part of ESPN, but there is no denying the marked discrepancy in reaction between the two broadcasters.

In the case of Barber Motorsports Park, it was alleged that INDYCAR's Brian Barnhart was personally present in the NBCSN truck, helping to point out on-track action for the production crew. Whether it was Barnhart's eagle eye or simply better attention to detail at work, the Barber broadcast was chock full of live coverage of on-track action that at St. Petersburg was relegated to replays or ignored altogether because it took place back in the pack.

The three-person booth employed by NBCSN seems to be a better setup for race broadcasts, and indeed ABC has had better response when Reid and Goodyear have been joined by other personalities like Eddie Cheever. Perhaps it is because less time needs to be filled by play-by-play, allowing the on-track coverage to speak for itself; maybe the discussion between the "expert-level" personalities provides more insight. Whatever the reason, the interplay between Bob Jenkins, Wally Dallenbach, and Jon Beekhuis consistently draws raves from invested viewers.

The addition of Townsend Bell as a pit reporter and an ad hoc guest expert paid dividends as well - what he lacked in polish was made up for in spades by the currency of his insight. Bell's explanations and opinions added a significant layer of expertise, particularly in situations in which decisions made by Race Control needed interpretation.

Certainly, the NBCSN broadcast at Barber was not perfect - a rash of technical issues cropped up throughout the broadcast, and Robin Miller's segments generally felt ill-timed and, on occasion, spurious. But based on instant feedback on social media, viewers took away far more from the Barber race than they did from St. Petersburg - even if the number of viewers for NBCSN was significantly smaller than the network audience ABC enjoyed.

At the highest level of the discussion around 2012's first two INDYCAR races, it must be pointed out that, generally speaking, very little separated the two events in character. Both races featured very few passes for the lead outside of the pit lane, very little real racing for the top spots, and a paucity of full-course caution periods to artificially close the gaps between cars. Both races were surprisingly clean - between the two races, only one car was retired because of contact, which is an extraordinary statement to make considering how 2011 started.

More critically to this discussion, both races took place at tracks which are notorious for the lack of ability to overtake. Neither the street course at St. Petersburg, Florida, nor the road course at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, could be considered hotbeds of on-track action - in fact, they are better known as being glorified parade routes rather than racing circuits by pundits who are not impressed by chess-like strategy.

Why, then, was one race considered a "yawner" while the other was lauded as one of the best INDYCAR road races in memory? The obvious answer is presentation. Whether it is corporate culture in general or specific shortcomings and virtues that sway opinion is up for debate, but it appears that INDYCAR fans are convinced that one network "gets it," and the other does not.