Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ESPN2 & SPEED: NASCAR TV Needs A Face-Lift

Please don't let this headline leave you scratching your head. While it is true that NASCAR events have practice, qualifying, and racing covered live, one other thing is also true. ESPN2 and SPEED Channel are struggling with the Monday through Friday balance of programming for the sport.

On Mondays, the racing world catches its collective breath and takes a look back at a weekend of on-track activity. SPEED used to offer a multi-hour block on Monday Nights anchored by Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing. Now, all of the shows other than INCR are gone. The day after a NASCAR weekend, fans get one hour of tired highlights with three tired drivers...and that's it.

ESPN2 comes with NASCAR Now, a thirty minute studio show based at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, CT. From the beginning, this show has disappointed. In my conversations and emails with reporters, columnists, and fans the same sentiment is echoed over-and-over again. They just don't get it.

There are two central elements that have been missing from both ESPN and SPEED's Monday through Friday NASCAR TV coverage. The first is follow-up. NASCAR leaves a mountain of stories on the table as the cars cross the finish line of each race. This is the reason The Daly Planet has been so vocal about the TV networks showing the finish of all drivers. The story of this sport is not the winner of the race, and both SPEED and ESPN have forgotten that. It is time to follow-up on all the "stories" of the race, throughout the field.

The second missing element is the fans. What happened to their voice? SPEED Channel shows fans on camera briefly, but only allows selected calls on one hour of WindTunnel each week. ESPN avoids fans like the plague, and started the season with Brent Musburger in the "Fan Zone" at Daytona...with the fans standing a safe distance away behind a rope. Nice touch.

This sport is a dialogue, and the conversation begins at the end of each race. Tony Stewart, Matt Yocum, and all the other radio show hosts are laughing out loud at SPEED and ESPN. How is it possible that NASCAR radio is alive and well during the week and NASCAR TV is a wasteland? Even as SPEED continues to bring us more "lifestyle" programming like Pinks, Unique Whips, and SuperBikes, NASCAR radio is blazing ahead at full speed. The recently added "SPEED Road Tour Challenge" is no more than a poorly done MTV clone. SPEED has created and then cancelled over ten NASCAR shows in the last several years. Remember NASCAR Nation with Leanne Tweeden?

There are thousands of NASCAR-themed websites like this one, thousands of NASCAR video clips on, and over one hundred hours of NASCAR-themed radio delivered during the weekdays. How are the two NASCAR "partner" cable TV networks missing the boat? Here are some suggestions from the tons of email delivered to The Daly Planet.

Give Dave Despain a break, move him off INCR and let him host a two hour Monday Night WindTunnel that is strictly NASCAR-themed. Place it after Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing, so that the highlights of all two or three races over the weekend would already be done. Despain is great at letting fans talk, but the Sunday WindTunnel is a swirl of motorsports, and NASCAR is not the theme. SPEED needs to understand that the fans are already interacting with broadcast and satellite radio, posting to websites, and putting their videos on the net. All of these elements should be incorporated into this show, and it should embrace the new technologies that both SPEED and NASCAR Images have been avoiding. Its called a multi-media platform.

On the ESPN side, there is no doubt that NASCAR Now needs to move to the Mooresville, NC area. Just as ESPN originally discovered with RPM2Nite, there is no credibility to using Bristol, CT staffers for a sport that lives in one geographic area of the country...just go there. With ESPN making a major multi-year commitment to the sport, its time to extend that commitment into a studio presence in the area. Life would be a lot easier for NASCAR Now if drivers could literally just "stop by" for an interview. In addition, the synergy of a Mooresville headquarters would spread out through the other ESPN networks and technology applications like The availability of information and content would be exactly what NASCAR Now needs to right itself.

I know its hard to comprehend, but ESPN is in trouble. NASCAR could be one of the key elements that helps to end this slump. The recent failures of technology applications like ESPN Mobile, the essential shuttering of ESPN Classic, and the mess at have taken the wind out of this group's sails. They are losing the BASS war, have their own ESPN News taking a bite out of SportsCenter, and ESPN 360 is still without focus. Step up to the plate, invest in NASCAR, and watch the fans return to the ESPN family as quickly as they left. Our memories of John Kernan have not yet faded.