Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NASCAR Now: ESPN Without A Parachute

Several times over the last few weeks, the NASCAR Now set has been vacant except for the host. Today, Doug Banks found himself in that position with a lot of racing news and information to pass along. Unfortunately, Mr. Banks is a talented hip-hop "urban DJ" with a national radio show...but not one ounce of NASCAR experience. It seems strange then, that ESPN would put him in the position of shouldering the burden of their flagship NASCAR show all alone.

Logic aside, Banks took the challenge and waded into a program deep in tech talk and racing issues. ESPN has moved to an entirely scripted program in order to help Banks, and it really takes the life out of a show like this. Its one thing if Banks is just reading a script over some highlight video, but interviews are just brutal. And who should show up as the first interview but Jimmy Johnson.

Unfortunately, Banks had to read each and every question word-for-word to Johnson in a painful display of NASCAR Now's credibility gap. When Banks was forced off the script by Johnson, he could not even begin to remember how to "talk NASCAR." This interview had all the excitement of a legal deposition.

Then, the legendary Ricky Carmichael stopped by to check-in after his recent stock car debut. Mark Martin is helping Carmichael develop his oval track skills, and Ricky's debut was a little less than stellar. It appeared that not only did host Doug Banks not know exactly what happened in the race, he also did not know the magnitude of Ricky's motorcycle career. About halfway through the interview, Carmichael began "helping" Banks understand that he was just a little more than a good "dirt bike rider." "I've been a racer since I was five...I won the (national) championship ten years in a row." It didn't help. Finally, as if NASCAR Now could not dig itself any deeper, Banks asked Carmichael about the fact that he and his wife just had twins. "Getting any sleep?" said Banks. To which Carmichael replied, the twins were born a couple of weeks early and they are still in the hospital. Tasteless and ill-informed on ESPN's part.

Finally, Marty Smith and Terry Blount appeared on video to respond to several scripted questions by Banks about news items. Even during this discussion, which could not be totally scripted, Banks was lost. He does not know the NASCAR officials and racing names the reporters use, and quickly exits the interviews as soon as if relieved.

ESPN has the perfect right to craft this program series anyway they want. They have the perfect right to use any on-air talent they choose, and feature any content they select. Several ESPN executives have been critical of my columns, because I am not sensitive to the "learning curve" that ESPN2 is going through. As a former ten year ESPN employee...I appreciate the spin, but I am not buying it. Not for one long network second.

ESPN and ABC had plenty of time to ramp-up and rehearse this effort long before they unleashed Erik Kuselias and Doug Banks as the new faces of NASCAR to the nation. Now, they are behind the 8-ball and having no luck in digging themselves out. Its time for a change. This is only the tip of the NASCAR iceberg. By the time July rolls around, there will be three or four times the information and news stories going on than there are now.

NASCAR itself cannot be pleased with this freshman effort from their brand new major TV partner. This is their face ESPN is putting forward, and the sport is taking it right on the chin. ESPN's coverage of the racing is great, and the at-track news programs have been professional and interesting. What happened in the studio? Wrong people? Wrong location? We all have situations in our lives that do not work out the first time. In order to make them work, we change them. Let me say that order to make them work, we change them.