It probably doesn't surprise you that much of my misspent youth occurred in front of the TV, watching sports. You name it, I watched it. Of course, times change, and I don't watch that much anymore, but one of the events I still make sure to catch is the Indianapolis 500. It's not what it used to be, but for some reason I got into Indy when I was just a kid, and the love of the race has stayed with me ever since. The race was this last weekend, and thanks to the publicity from Danica Patrick it shaped up as one of the biggest races in years; needless to say, after returning from church I was glued to the tube. Unfortunately, this year's ABC telecast served to highlight just how far coverage of the race, if not the race itself, has fallen.
Those of you much younger than I am might be surprised to learn that the race wasn't always shown on live TV - in fact, for many years the only way to hear the Indy 500 live was on the radio. You wouldn't think that auto racing would work on the radio, but it did. It became a shared experience for fathers and sons, listening to the race (on one of the largest radio networks assembled) while changing the oil in the family car, working in the yard, or taking a drive through the country, all the while dad teaching son about cars and life. A modest rite of passage. The race was always kind of exotic when heard on the radio, the imagination filling in the blanks as the announcers described the scene - the thousands of balloons, the colorful grandstands, the marching bands, the flash of the cars as they screamed down the main staightaway. ABC would show highlights that night, but it was never the same - especially if you already knew who won the race. In the late 80s ABC started showing the race live, and eventually that became the way to follow the 500. At least here in Minneapolis, you're hard-pressed to find a decent signal to catch the radio broadcast. But the race is carried on XM satellite radio, and this year's broadcast was as good an ad as you're ever going to have for subscribing to XM.
I knew trouble was brewing when I read earlier in the month that ABC, going for a younger demographic, had replaced the famed (at least in racing circles ) Paul Page as announcer with Todd Harris (described by ABC as one of the "most respected young talents"). Page, the "Voice of the 500," had been doing the race since 1976, first on radio and then making the move to ABC's live broadcast. Harris, known previously as a sideline reporter for college football, would be doing his first 500. Replacing Paul Page would be like taking Keith Jackson off of college football, or (leaping to the past) removing Walter Cronkite from coverage of the moon landings. Of course Page's main fault (like that of Bob Jenkins, another excellent race announcer who was replaced on ABC) was that he was getting old. At 59, he's 20 years older than Harris. Never mind the experience; never mind that the announcers are barely seen on the broadcast. ABC wanted that younger demographic, and their rechristening of Indianapolis as "Speed City" (complete with "edgy" graphics and music) showed they were determined to get it, come hell or high water.
Now, I'm sure Todd Harris is a fine young man, and if he lived next-door we'd probably get along famously. But let's face it - his coverage of the race was a disaster. Instead of Page's smooth, expert delivery, we had Harris, who like almost every announcer you find on, say, ESPN SportsCenter, is in the habit of talking very loud and very fast, with the result that it sounds like he's trying to fit 12 words through a mouth that can only handle 8 at a time - they just don't all fit. And as for the shouting, thanks to this great new technological advance - it's called a microphone - you don't really have to do it to be heard.
And then there was his coverage of Danica Patrick. Now, I'll admit I was rooting for her as well, but I wasn't announcing the race. Harris was, and his objectivity was sorely lacking at times. For one thing, he constantly referred to her as "Danica," as if the two were old friends. When Patrick took the lead for a lap during a round of pit stops, Harris treated this as one of the major accomplishments of western civilization. It's true that Patrick became the first woman to ever lead a lap at the 500, but I suspect she would have been the first one to downplay this achievement - after all, she might say, if you're planning on winning the race you'd better be in the lead at one time or another.
When, late in the race Wheldon passed Patrick just before a caution flag froze everyone's position, Harris was obviously in agony watching the replay - if only the flag had come out a couple of seconds sooner, Patrick would have stayed in the lead. His disappointment was obvious. Patrick still led with seven laps to go, and to hear Harris describe it this would be a moment that we'd all remember for the rest of our lives - one of those "where were you" moments right up there with the JFK assassination, the moon landing, and the O.J. trial. I'd pretty much tuned him out by the time he started comparing her with Amelia Erhardt and Sally Ride, for fear he'd be mentioning Marie Curie and Mother Teresa next.
Unfortunately, when Harris wasn't on the air, we were being assulted with commercials, every third of which seemed to be for Cialis. Whereas dad used to teach his son about cars, now (if families watch the race at all) dad has to spend his time answering the question, "Dad, what's erectile dysfunction?" For heaven's sake, can't we limit impotence drug ads to late in the night? I know they've become big advertisers on sports ("Barry Bonds is up to start the next inning, and if you can't get it up here's a message from Viagra.") but it shows there truly is no shame any more. And then there were the endless promos for ABC's new reality dancing show. Boxers have always been known for dancing around the ring, but if I have to watch Evander Holyfield trying his hand at ballroom dancing one more time, I think I'll scream. Either that, or bite someone's ear off. It must have been a great disappointment for ABC that they had to keep interrupting their promos to show the race.
The unfortunate thing about all this is that the race was one of the more exciting in recent years. Patrick did steal the show, of course, and would have been the center of any telecast (although it would have been easier to take if you had confidence that the announcer knew what he was talking about). Dan Wheldon was a worthy champion - as most winners do, he figured out a way to avoid trouble, to stay on the lead lap, and to lurk in the background until late in the race. Aside from Harris, the ABC coverage was pretty good - former driver Scott Goodyear added some real insight into the action (including an excellent explanation of why a car stalls when it's trying to leave the pits), and the pit reporters and camera work were dependable as always. The weak link was Harris, and since Harris was the lead announcer, it was a weak telecast. Maybe the drug companies can come up next with a medication that cures announcing dysfunction. And maybe next year we'll have XM, and a decent broadcast to go along with ABC's live pictures.