Updated on 09/17/2011 10:26AM

One hole in NBC's coverage


NBC-TV did another proficient job with its 90-minute broadcast of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, but the impact of the show was deadened by a handful of questions that went unanswered. In fact, the questions were never asked.

Questions should have been posed to Bobby Frankel, the trainer of two horses in the race, including the beaten favorite, Empire Maker. But NBC's reporters never collared Frankel after the race was over, even though a camera crew was assigned to the trainer as he watched the race from an unorthodox spot in Churchill's paddock.

As a result, viewers received a brief live shot after the race of an obviously disappointed Frankel talking to a newspaper reporter while leaving the paddock. But that's it. Frankel was never seen again, and, more disappointing, never heard from at all.

David Michaels, the producer of the broadcast, said that NBC didn't assign a reporter to Frankel, in part because the trainer chose to watch the race from the paddock instead of the owner's boxes. After the race, Frankel darted from the paddock and "disappeared into the crowd," Michaels said, before a reporter could locate him.

"Could I have done it better?" Michaels said. "Yes, probably. I probably should have had [reporter] Kenny Rice back there on him the whole time. But Frankel literally took off. That's Frankel. He's unpredictable."

Failing to get Frankel was the broadcast's most obvious black mark, and that oversight was somewhat mitigated by a post-race interview with Empire Maker's jockey, Jerry Bailey. Otherwise, NBC did a good job with much of the rest of the broadcast, setting up viewers for the main storylines with a slick but surface-deep opening feature and proceeding smoothly from there to the main event.

NBC's broadcast excelled when the network's reporters conducted a string of live interviews with Derby trainers as they made their way from Churchill's backside to the paddock. Those on-the-spot interviews have become the hallmark of NBC's coverage during the past three years, a welcome departure from the surfeit of pre-recorded material on the broadcasts of the network's predecessor, ABC.

Michaels has focused on bringing the sights and sounds of the Derby into the viewer's home, and he has succeeded on most counts, which is another reason why the Frankel fiasco was all the more glaring. The live interviews are especially useful in establishing dramatic tension by getting trainers to talk about their chances and emotions as the Derby creeps ever closer.

"I think we did a reasonably good job of bringing the live scene home," Michaels said. "We keep getting closer and closer to what it's like to be there on Derby Day."

The coverage became spotty after the race was run. In addition to neglecting to get quotes from Frankel, the trophy presentation was once again a discomforting disaster, and even Michaels acknowledged that the network needs more time to provide an adequate amount of post-race coverage.

As it was, NBC had at most 15 minutes of actual air time to get quotes from winners and losers, do an in-depth race analysis, and provide coverage of the mandatory trophy presentation. Michaels said he feels as if he needs at least an additional 30 minutes of air time.

"There were a lot of things we wanted to finish off that we had no time for," said Michaels. "It would be really great to have a half-hour post-game show to tie all those ends up."

Trophy presentations are normally interminable for any sporting event, and the Derby trophy presentation continues to resemble community theater - the blocking is all wrong, no one has memorized the lines, and the lead roles appear to be played by the director's in-laws. Since Churchill and NBC have sponsor obligations to fulfill, the ceremony isn't going to go away, and because the presentation is normally the first and only opportunity to interview the winning trainer and owner, NBC's entire crew needs to be much better prepared.

This year, watching commentator Charlsie Cantey fumble through an awkward interview with winning trainer Barclay Tagg had most viewers shifting uneasily in their seats. (Tagg's cryptic answers to Cantey's questions didn't help.) NBC officials said that a communications problem caught Cantey unaware, but the simple fact is that NBC doesn't need two people in the winner's circle. Bob Costas could manage the interviews all on his own.

Here's a hint about where to place Cantey instead: wherever the trainer of the favorite is watching the race.

* The overnight rating for the broadcast was down 7 percent compared to last year, to 7.7 from 8.3, while share was a 17, down from 19 last year. Each overnight rating equals approximately 675,000 households, while share measures the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to the broadcast. Final ratings were scheduled to be released Tuesday afternoon.