August 20, 2017
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Shoddy American Flat Track TV Coverage Cuts Out

The motorcycles may be state of the art but television coverage of the American Flat Track racing series, which has streamed on FansChoice.tv, has so far this season looked more like it has been produced by a high school audio-video department than by experienced, professional broadcasters. Sloppy camera selection, rubish announcing, and inconsistent audio have plagued the telecasts, exacerbated by the irritating fact that the audio is shared over the public address systems at the tracks.

Last night, with the series stopping at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina’for the Harley-Davidson Charlotte Half Mile,  the stream cut out shortly after the start of the final event in the Twins competition and didn’t return during the race. No one watching online saw Bryan Smith make it three consecutive wins for the Indian’s “Wrecking Crew” team.

While the viewer outrage certainly didn’t match the “Heidi” incident back in November 1968 – when NBC cut away a New York Jets-Oakland Raiders telecast with a nine seconds remaining, only to see the Raiders score two touchdowns and win the game – there was blowback on social media as stunned flat track fans protested.

Why did this happen? The Twins finale got off to a very late start a due to an extended red flag during the final event of the Singles competition. Did the feed “time out” as a result and no one was able to get it back up? Or did someone accidentally pull the plug? No matter, the ill-timed outage gave a black eye to American Flat Track and FansChoice.tv, especially bad timing as the return of Indian to racing and a revived rivalry with Harley-Davidson is bringing new fans and attention to the sport.

It’s at times such as this when a good first impression is important. Unfortunately, the stumbling and bumbling presentation of American Flat Track and FansChoice.tv is providing reason for laughter and scorn. It’s a problem that American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock needs to address and fix before the next race in the series, the Arizona Mile in Phoenix on May 13.

Why is that necessary? Because viewers these days are accustomed to and expect polished presentations during sports coverage. Currently, American Flat Track’s coverage is cut-rate, with too few cameras and audio snafus. While shot selection on the actual race action is adequate, it’s often the case that a camera operator will pan for a cutaway shot and have it appear in the stream. That’s the director’s fault for not calling another angle to be shown while the initial cameraman sets up a shot. Again, amateur hour.

Calling the action is play-by-play man Scottie Deubler, who is in his ninth season. He does a solid job of keeping track of the riders during the heats but, with his loyalties divided between informing viewers and entertaining the crowd in grandstands, he sometimes comes off as a shill. Telling race spectators “Let’s put our hands together…” when a rider gets up from a crash is pandering and insulting to those watching elsewhere.

Most annoying is Deubler’s repeated use of “ladies and gentlemen” when saying what’s going on. And why does every racer have to have a nickname? The constant alliteration ranks right up there with announcer John Sterling’s obnoxious home run calls on New York Yankees’ radio broadcasts.

More problematic is “sidelines reporter” Bubba Blackwell, who plays the part of slobbering goober and whose redundant questioning is grating. It was years ago that sports writer and author Robert Lipsyte coined the term “jockocracy” – later popularized by Howard Cosell – that to described the downside of clueless athletes transitioning to the booth. Blackwell is a current-day example.

Both announcers need to remember that Indian’s early success this season is bringing in new spectators who perhaps need more basic information and background on the sport. Admittedly, it’s a fine line as you don’t want to alienate long-time fans with too much basic info.

During Saturday night’s telecast, audio was often absent during replays and was virtually non-existent during the intermission performances of Ray Martin of the local band Shame for Sydney. Not only were Martin’s songs muffled and unintelligible, the framing of the shots was horrible (see above picture).

An argument might be made that bad streaming is better than no streaming, but given the shoddiness of the telecasts to date, that’s debatable.

Still to come is American Flat Track coverage by NBCSN, which presumably will be an improvement. It better be. The press release back in January announcing an “exclusive television partnership” promises “one-hour, tape-delayed telecasts on Thursday nights.” The telecasts begin in July and run for 18 weeks.

What this says is that NBCSN regards American Flat Track as filler fodder as the events will presumably appear months after the actual races have been run. Why bother with ancient history?

The entry of Indian into American Flat Track presents the series with a rare opportunity for massive growth. So far, American Flat Track and FansChoice.tv are blowing it. Time to rip up this effort and start from scratch because the racers are too talented and the action too compelling to be so thoroughly shortchanged.

(Editor’s note: During a 42-year career in journalism, Bud Wilkinson spent 12 years as a TV columnist for “The Columbus Dispatch” in Ohio and “The Arizona Republic” in Phoenix and more than six seasons as off-ice reporter of live Phoenix Roadrunners’ telecasts on the regional cable network ASPN.)