For the past decade, Fox Sports has put together some of the most consistent, well-rounded broadcasts in the history of NASCAR. Never straying from the three-man booth of Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip, the network has achieved remarkable continuity on-par with its MLB and NFL broadcasting teams.
But, 12 years into their partnership with the sport, this year's Fox broadcasts have taken a significant step backwards. Nowhere was that more clear than Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, where a decent race suffered significant production miscues that proved detrimental to the quality of the broadcast.
Missing important race action due to commercials has been a pet peeve of fans watching NASCAR on TV for years. In response, a broadcasting crew has two options to minimize this annoyance — either cutting right back to action after an accident and delaying the commercial break, or utilizing the split-screen format that keeps race action in a minimized corner while still displaying the ads.
But, by failing to choose either and, consequently, keep fans current on two different, race-altering occurrences, Fox dropped the ball on Sunday.
In the early race incident that eliminated Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch from winning contention, Fox was early in a commercial break. Rather than cutting back to race action, as networks have done in past years for significant accidents, they played through the entire break; when coming back to broadcast, they still ran a Sprint promo with a shot of a smoky racetrack in the background.
Fans following the race with Twitter or live timing and scoring knew of the incident a full three minutes before they got to see a replay.
The same thing happened later in the race, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon made contact on the backstretch, Gordon's tire deflated, and he spun into the wall. Once again, Fox chose to play through the entire commercial break, rather than interrupt it for a quick replay of the incident and going back to finish the commercial break.
In this age of instant information, that doesn't fly anymore.
Meanwhile, Fox has adopted the split-screen commercial format, commonly marketed to fans as "Side-By-Side," for this season. But, it shows up so infrequently as to almost be nonexistent. According to cawsnjaws.com, the first three races of the Sprint Cup season featured only 28 commercials (out of 353) in the split-screen format.
The network used to claim that its policy was to interrupt breaks to show action if necessary, rather than run split-screen ads. On Sunday, it was neither.
Say what you will about the sideshow associated with the broadcast, be it the gimmicks of Digger or the banter of the Waltrips. Fox has a much larger problem to deal with during its actual race coverage: missing major action during commercials. Hopefully, Bristol was just an aberration, and will serve as a learning (or re-learning) experience. If not, fans may be looking ahead to a disappointing few months as they wait for TNT to take over.