Monday, April 30, 2007
The return to rumor and innuendo was swift. The joy of Jeff Gordon writing his name once again in the NASCAR record book took a backseat. It was time for suggesting "something was going on" with Johnson and Mears. It was time for making Marty Smith answer demeaning questions. It was time to guess "what finger" Tony was pointing. It was time to embarrass Jeff Burton. Yes, once again it was time for the "anti-NASCAR voice" to return to ESPN2 and his position of power.
Erik Kuselias was back on NASCAR Now. This time he had a full hour to belittle a sport he does not understand, and he did a great job.
Kuselias is not a man who will go quietly into the night. His single on-air goal is to build gossip and innuendo where there is none. His focus is quickly moving through the hard news until he can get to the point where his "lawyer style" questions can be forced on others. You must choose for Kuselias. Someone must be "graded." One of two choices must be "selected." You must either "confirm or deny." You must answer "yes or no." You must choose.
There can be no free-flowing conversation in his world, and that is for one reason. It would quickly reveal the fact that he does not know anything about NASCAR. And make no mistake about it, he does not. Those around him pay the price.
The Daly Planet has tried to suggest that the NASCAR Now reporters be allowed to speak freely, and with each other, in the program's news section. Today, that attempt was made with completely disastrous results. Reporters Angelique Chengelis and David Newton attempted to talk spontaneously to each other, and the host. Kuselias looked like a deer-in-the-headlights. Remember, he has absolutely no NASCAR knowledge. He could not speak with them, follow-up, or react. He does not know what they are talking about. And he is hosting ESPN's flagship one hour NASCAR weekend-in-review show. Amazing.
Jeff Gordon might have thought that appearing on NASCAR Now would be a pleasure. This weekend was historic, and Gordon is a great live interview. With all the technology surrounding ESPN, it was incredible that Jeff Gordon was interviewed...by phone. No matter how much it cost, Gordon should have been live on-camera like every other person in this program. This was Gordon's day, and a time that will not come again. A cell phone call just does not make it for a key NASCAR TV partner like ESPN in the first year of their return to the sport. If Gordon was unavailable for a TV interview, Kuselias should has told us why. Now, let's move along to the other Jeff.
The ESPN camera was thrust in Jeff Burton's face after the NEXTEL Cup race at Talladega. He finished 34th after a wreck. He was frustrated. He was tired. He was disappointed. The ESPN reporter actually asked "how would you assess the day?" The look on Burton's face was priceless. This was the epitome of how ridiculous NASCAR Now has become. Burton took a deep breath, and politely answered "we got in a wreck...so it wasn't very good." If only he had said "fantastic, I intended to finish just this way. Aren't you from NASCAR Now? Here's your sign." Somewhere, Bill Engvall would be smiling.
As a final note in this column, I would again appeal for ESPN to understand that there were three national touring races and several key regional touring series events this weekend. Who made the decision to feature only NEXTEL Cup in a one hour show about...NASCAR? The Craftsman Trucks got a ten second video highlight, and no interview with the winner. The Busch Series, actually run on ABC, got a fifteen second highlight package, no interview with the winner, and no follow-up on the nineteen year old pole sitter. This is sad, but there is more.
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour was holding the classic "Spring Sizzler" up at Stafford Speedway in Connecticut, the Whelen South Mods were at Caraway, North Carolina, and the Busch East guys were slugging it out at the historic Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. Not only were there no highlights, but none of these series has ever been mentioned on NASCAR Now. Never.
As we move into the month of May, things have to change on this program. To see Mike Massaro on the studio set making a brief appearance as a "reporter" was tough to take. Massaro has been the heart-and-soul of ESPN's NASCAR legacy for the past six years. Why not give him a chance to host some episodes of this program, and let some other ESPN personalities like Alan Bestwick get the same chance? Even Shannon Spake might deserve an opportunity to step-up and host a program or two. She has been working harder than anyone else on this series since Daytona.
When things aren't working on a NASCAR team, the owner shakes things up. Drivers, crew chiefs, spotters, and everyone else is fair game to be part of the changes. Since February, NASCAR Now has been sputtering. Now that three months have passed, and only Ryan Burr has been successful in the host role, its time to shake things up. Take stock in the fact that the news reporters, the field reporters, and the studio experts have been well-received. Then take an honest look at the single problem with the show, and make the change. The time is now, the only question is, can ESPN overcome its own ego and straighten things out for the overall good of the sport? After today's show, let's hope the answer is yes.
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Sunday, April 29, 2007
As many NASCAR fans remember, when the restrictor plates came to Talladega, everything changed. Speeds that had crept-up into the two hundred and fifteen miles-an-hour range now sat at one ninety five. Teams that made and boasted about horsepower now sat mid-pack, starved for the very air that cemented the reputations of guys like Robert Yates, Runt Pittman, and the late Randy Dorton.
This also affected the way television portrayed NASCAR. No longer could the old-school "big power boys" be painted as former moonshiners who really could tune a hot rod. Now, the story was the slow building of frustration until "the big one" happened in the pack, with drivers unable to get out of the way. Over the following years, this emphasis on accidents replaced the real stories of the race.
Fox Sports fell into the trap this year of hyping "the big one." There are plenty of stories that were in-progress before Talladega, and will be discussed again next week at Richmond. This week, however, they were put in the trunk because the media has become obsessed with "the big one." That term is quickly becoming as annoying as the endless "Chase for the Cup."
Fox continued to struggle with the Hollywood Hotel, despite the best efforts of Chris Myers to try and "act" his way through the NASCAR news and notes. Myers interview of Dale Junior was incredibly uncomfortable, with Junior standing and glaring with his arms folded. Why it was aired is anyone's guess.
With all the on-going issues in NASCAR, its tough to swallow the fact that Juan Montoya playing the NASCAR on Fox gang at paintball was a feature that should have aired in this pre-race. Maybe the two hour RaceDay on SPEED program would have been a better place for this to be shown. Perhaps, without the real and serious tension of a dangerous racetrack just prior to racing, the paintball deal might have been fun. In this show, it was kind of embarrassing and revealed a little boredom with "just racing" by a crew that has been doing it now for several years.
Once on the track, things flowed smoothly thanks to the leadership of Mike Joy. His perspective can help to keep things focused and upbeat even during the most boring of single file laps and pit stops under caution. Luckily, the race exploded with twenty three laps remaining, and wound-up being an exciting event.
The Fox tech and production crew continues to be the most positive element of these telecasts. When viewers expect perfection, that is a sign of the consistency these producers, directors, and entire crew have shown this season. The ability of the pit reporters to contribute information freely throughout the program is a credit to the overall race philosophy at Fox. Thanks to the recent re-framing of the "flying boxes" video effect, it actually works quite well in many situations.
As any regular reader of The Daly Planet knows, we have had a big issue with the NASCAR on Fox decision earlier this season to begin showing only the top two cars cross the finish line. At both Bristol and Martinsville, viewers missed top drivers like Junior, Tony, Juan, Jeff, and others finishing the event. As I mentioned this week on Sirius Speedway with Dave Moody, when only the fans at the track see the lead lap cars finish, something is just not right.
This week, at Talladega, the late caution and yellow flag finish allowed the NASCAR on Fox Director to show the lead lappers cross the line, because there was no other way to do it. When the series goes to Richmond, it will be another production decision about how to show the finishing cars to the viewers in the best manner for all the fans.
Talladega ended with a thud, but the NASCAR on Fox performance was informed and consistent from start-to-finish. Kudos to the crew for not hyping the small amount of fans who protested the yellow flag finish with their beer cans. In the old days, at Rockingham, they used to throw chicken bones on the backstretch. Some things will never change.
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RaceDay from Talladega might have been the best example of NASCAR TV in many years. That is not a comment that comes easily to me, but I have been thoroughly convinced that SPEED has hit on a combination of personalities and behind-the-scenes professionals that is simply outstanding.
This week, a diverse amount of information needed to be relayed to the NASCAR fans. It included serious topics like Tony Stewart's angry comments, the violent Busch Series wreck of Kyle Busch, and the touchy subject of Jeff Gordon passing Dale Senior in the record book.
In addition, there was a major race to be previewed. After the Busch race, it was clear that new dangers awaited with the pavement change. It was clear that tensions were high with the season starting to become "real," and "The Chase" starting to become an issue. As always, it was going to be interesting to see Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace talk to us in the unique style they have developed.
The glue that holds this two hour live event together is host John Roberts and reporter Wendy Venturini. Roberts continues to be the best discovery of the executives at SPEED. He has risen to the challenges presented to him, and hosts a wide variety of programs for the network every weekend. His clarity and focus is unmatched, and his ability to deal with a wide variety of NASCAR and entertainment personalities allows RaceDay to be free-wheeling and consistently interesting.
Wendy Venturini is about to explode. Trust me on this. The only question is what direction her explosive career path will take. A smart, savvy, well-spoken young woman with a wicked sense of humor and a great on-screen presence can chart her own course through the TV landscape. Let's hope she decides to stay in the racing world. Venturini needs to be given a larger presence on SPEED to insure that she continues with the network. While present on the weekend, she goes missing during the week, and viewers know it. As previously suggested by The Daly Planet, perhaps a shot at hosting Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing on SPEED might be a wonderful opportunity.
Venturini had NASCAR's Jim Hunter on-camera responding to the Tony Stewart's situation. When a top executive like Hunter is comfortable talking live to a national TV reporter about a touchy subject like Stewart, it is a statement about Venturini's credibility and trust factor. Watching her develop into a top TV professional right before our eyes on SPEED has been a pleasure. Let's hope she stays for a while. Let's hope she stays for a long while.
The producers of RaceDay have also grasped the concept that has eluded many other NASCAR TV partners. That is the inclusion of video footage from the past to reference current and future events. To hear the late Larry Nuber's voice, to see the old ESPN graphics, and to listen to the race call of Bob Jenkins was an emotional experience for veteran NASCAR fans. Even more of this as the season goes on would be welcome. Kudos to SPEED for stepping-over the small-minded network boundaries of sports TV for the good of the sport and the fans.
As speeds at Talladega once again creep toward the magic two hundred mile-an-hour mark, SPEED brought out an amazing feature report. Focusing on Talladega, high speed, and the legendary Bobby Allison's accident, this wonderful feature brought a sense of perspective for new fans, while reminding the veterans how NASCAR has changed in response to the problems of the past. The ultimate topper was the surprise appearance of Bobby Allison himself on the set. With all the reverence that is due to him, the RaceDay crew absolutely celebrated Bobby and his contributions to the sport. A wonderful segment that will not be soon forgotten.
As the season continues, RaceDay needs to focus on stepping back and helping the NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck Series. This part of the sport would really benefit from more exposure on national TV and the strong feelings that Spencer and Wallace have for NASCAR as a whole. In a season packed with difficult struggles for many TV programs and series, RaceDay on SPEED continues to be an example of great NASCAR TV.
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Saturday, April 28, 2007
It was January 5th when ESPN President George Bodenheimer spoke about the network's commitment to the NASCAR Busch Series. Bodenheimer said that the Busch Series was "one of the jewels in the rough" in the ESPN NASCAR agreement. He followed it up by saying that "fans will notice a new shine on the gem with ESPN's elevation of the series."
John Skipper, who is the Executive VP of "content" for anything ESPN, said that "having the NASCAR Busch Series on entirely one network is really going to serve the NASCAR fan and allow us to tell a story all year long."
Well, here we are in late April. ESPN has yet to follow one single Busch Series story, integrate the Busch Series into NASCAR Now, or offer the Busch Series the type of exposure it promised. What went wrong?
The answer, of course, is NEXTEL Cup. The same identity problem plaguing the Busch Series is plaguing ESPN's coverage of it. After opening the pre-race show with generic NASCAR crash footage and endlessly promoting "the big one," the show switched gears and totally abandoned the Busch Series as it so often does. Tony Stewart and his NEXTEL Cup comments were at the top of the show, including a replay of his Sirius Satellite Radio interview.
ESPN then brought to the infield studio Jeff Burton, who drives regularly in the Busch Series. Burton is a great representative for the Busch gang, and this high-profile TV time could really focus on both the series and the race today. Unfortunately, Burton was immediately asked to address the NEXTEL Cup issues raised by Tony Stewart, and then he was done. Jeff Burton never spoke about anything connected with the Busch Series in this segment. Nothing.
ESPN then returned from commercial with a thirty second video montage of violent NASCAR wrecks at Talladega. When one was especially violent, they put it in slow motion and played music while the footage ran. The "new" ESPN loves violence. Host Brent Musburger then turned to Jeff Burton, and asked "how do the big ones get started?" As Burton answered this non-Busch Series question, ESPN played again the same violent accident footage. The Busch Series race...never mentioned.
Brad Daugherty, another mis-cast soul, then spoke very earnestly about Jimmie Johnson telling him that Jimmie's heart rate gets really high at Talladega, and that makes it hard on the driver. Daugherty closed with "at the end of this (long) race...if you are not in great shape...your decision-making becomes questionable." Daugherty was speaking, of course, about the much longer NEXTEL Cup race the next day. Jimmie Johnson was not in the Busch Series race. Never once was the Busch Series mentioned. Not the weather, the track temp, the race length... nothing.
Then, the "booth team" of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree then came along to comment on this race. Jerry asked DJ "generically" about drafting, the big wreck, and how to win at Talladega. He then asked Andy "generically" about deal-making on pit road, who the driver runs with, and how to win. Punch then threw to Tim Brewer for a profile about restrictor plates. Between Punch, Jarrett, Petree, and Brewer, the Busch Series was never mentioned. Not one story, comment, or phrase by the booth announcers described anything about the Busch Series race they were about to call. Musburger then led to commercial by teasing Dale Junior's DEI issues and an upcoming interview. Never mentioned the Busch Series.
The following video feature on Dale Junior visiting a Navy ship was a wonderful metaphor for the topic of this column. Along with Junior, Busch Series regular Shane Huffman came along on this US Navy sponsor visit. Just like the Busch Series itself, Shane quickly became completely and totally invisible. The story was the NEXTEL Cup driver, his presence, and his public relations duties to his sponsor. Huffman was the wooden Indian standing by the door. Everyone walked past, no one cared. Just like the Busch Series.
Following up the DEI feature, Mike Massaro asked Junior about DEI contract issues and the NEXTEL Cup race. Junior actually took it upon himself to switch the focus to the Busch Series. His comments were the only moments of Busch Series "specific" information up to this point in the show. Then, Clint Bowyer added a moment of additional information, and the only real preview of what today's race might bring. It was the two drivers being interviewed that offered viewers direct information about what was going on at the Busch Series race at Talladega...the drivers.
Jeff Burton was allowed to answer one question before Musburger made his usual college sports "inside joke" with Brad Daugherty, and the pre-race show was over. Just like that, the opportunity to focus on the actual Busch Series race, personalities in the series, and news stories was squandered again by a network obsessed with NEXTEL Cup racing. This was the NEXTEL Cup pre-race show done one day early.
It is understood that ESPN and ABC are preparing for NEXTEL Cup telecasts later this season. It is also understood that many of these same on-air personalities are trying very hard to make sure they are part of those telecasts. ESPN executives have stated that changes are coming, and that has not helped the "team spirit" of the ESPN gang.
Unfortunately, it is the Busch Series that is taking it right in the teeth from ESPN. The Daly Planet has documented time and time again the reluctance of NASCAR Now to even show Busch Series highlights, or prepare feature stories on Busch teams. Now, even in the Busch Series pre-race show on ABC, the focus of the entire show is NEXTEL Cup, and the high-profile personalities in that series.
Perhaps, if ESPN tuned into RaceDay on SPEED on Sunday mornings, they would understand that this same information will be repeated completely in a two-hour live broadcast that is tremendously popular with fans and viewers. It might make a little more sense for the ESPN gang to focus on the stories surrounding the race at hand, the Busch Series series itself, and the upcoming race strategy.
Just imagine being 19-year-old Busch Series pole sitter Brad Coleman. After setting the world on fire in your "Carino's Italian Grill Chevrolet," ESPN and ABC decide that your accomplishment is worthy of a ten second mention, and no interview in the pre-race show. No interview of the 19-year-old on the Busch pole at Talladega. Who could even imagine that the Busch "regulars" would be treated like this? Something is just fundamentally wrong with this decision, this pre-race show, and the ESPN Busch Series coverage. Maybe Mr. Bodenheimer and Mr. Skipper might want to revise their memo.
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SPEED Channel continues to quietly offer some of the best on-track NASCAR TV coverage of the 2007 season. The NASCAR on Fox crew stepped-over to SPEED to telecast the Talladega NEXTEL Cup qualifying on Saturday afternoon. It turned-out to be an interesting and emotional session. It was also great TV.
The stories going into the weekend were well-documented. Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip proved to be well-informed enough to address all of them. As the session progressed, the Fox Sports veterans were savvy enough to document the action on a car-by-car basis, and used the down time between laps to address the top news stories of the week. Mike Joy continues to be the best play-by-play announcer currently on the NASCAR TV trail. But, during this telecast, another story was also unfolding.
Very quietly, TV veteran Steve Byrnes has been asserting himself as a presence on high-profile NASCAR broadcasts. In this Talladega qualifying session, Byrnes joined Jeff Hammond in the Hollywood Hotel. No one has ever looked more at home. The upbeat personality of Byrnes mixes so well with the entire NASCAR on Fox gang that it really puts the spotlight on the "outsider" Chris Myers.
The Daly Planet has spoken several times about the struggles in the Hollywood Hotel this season, both with production issues and Myers quirky and eccentric behavior. Myers is almost the David Letterman of NASCAR, his style is either understood or completely mystifying. This season, his act is getting old.
Byrnes brings to the Hollywood Hotel a level of knowledge and TV professionalism that allow him to relate to both the hardcore NASCAR fan and the casual viewer. His personality has long made him a SPEED TV favorite, but his role has always been as a pit reporter or talk show host. In this new role, Bynes really helped to give the infield commentary position new relevance. He and Jeff Hammond really work well together, and the best part is...it showed.
Perhaps, after this high-profile spin in the infield driver's seat, the NASCAR on Fox executives might recognize that Byrnes could play a role in returning the innovative TV concept of the Hollywood Hotel to a level of credibility it has been sorely lacking this season.
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Thursday, April 26, 2007
"Why this place could be wild...and maybe dangerous if Jeff Gordon wins."
Those are the words of NASCAR Now show host Erik Kuselias broadcast on national television on Thursday, April 26, 2007.
Kuselias is speaking about Talladega, a fast track steeped in a tradition of big wrecks, exciting races, and strong feelings for the Earnhardts. He is not talking about three-wide racing, the tricky entry onto pit road, or a controversy about Goodyear tires.
He is trying to incite a riot.
This former sports radio talk show host has done everything possible to insult the sport of NASCAR during his tenure as the host of this show. He has posed hateful questions, forced ESPN analysts to "choose" one argumentative point or the other, and most recently has begun using the ESPN2 airwaves to suggest that violence and anger should play a more prominent role in NASCAR.
He believes this because of his love of stick-and-ball sports that regularly feature fights, ejections, and demeaning trash-talking. He knows bloody hockey fights, bench-clearing brawls in baseball, and NBA players going-after fans. This is the ugly world from which Kuselias has come. This year, he has been thrown into an entirely different group of people that he does not understand.
This group has very different values, a very different way of living, and a very different view of this country. Unfortunately, Kuselias has never met them, gone to a race with them, or respected them. They are NASCAR fans. To him, they are nothing.
For the past three months, Kuselias has treated the millions of NASCAR fans in North America as idiots. He knows absolutely nothing about the sport, and his only understanding of competition comes from the whiny millionaires of the stick-and-ball world. They bring their felonies, unwanted pregnancies, angry physical altercations, and endless steroid and drug problems to the field each-and-every day. And radio talk show hosts like Kuselias eat-it-up. They feed on it. They live for it. They even encourage it.
Now, Kuselias is in NASCAR. We have Tony upset after not winning, Montoya flipping the digit, and Junior taking over at DEI. No fights, no felonies, no gun shots, no strip clubs, and no steroids. Kuselias is lost. We have about forty-five drivers who live within thirty miles of each other and go fishing on Mondays in Lake Norman. We have the "guys" coming over and racing go-karts at Clint Boyer's place each week. We have crews that have Bible study before PT. We don't race on Easter.
This weekend, Jeff Gordon is one of forty-three drivers who have a chance to win the NEXTEL Cup race on Sunday. There will be strategy, competition, excitement, and lots of sheer luck involved in crossing the finish line ahead of the field. Families will picnic, camp in their RVs, and fill the grandstands for a fun race at a great track. These facts are lost on Erik Kuselias and the producers of NASCAR Now. They will not interview the fans. They will not show the reality of the NASCAR experience. ESPN cannot believe that other than racing...this really is...all there is.
Over the past two months, this desire by Kuselias to "create" something controversial has been documented in The Daly Planet time-and-time again. While hilarious and embarrassing to actual NASCAR folks, Kuselias is clearly trying to appeal to the same sports radio fans that chant obscene slogans, hurl objects, and make most professional football, hockey, and baseball games a nightmare for a family to attend.
Now, he has his eye squarely on Talladega. He has begun to pitch the scenario over-and-over again that if Gordon beats Earnhardt to-the-line, "something bad" just might happen. Of course, NASCAR Now has replayed the "great beer can throwing incident" each and every time Kuselias "suggests" that "something" might happen. So, they even suggested what the "something" should be. What great guys.
How much lower and dirtier can ESPN2 and NASCAR Now get than suggesting that fans should misbehave and "harm" Jeff Gordon if he wins? Kuselias actually said that Talladega "might be dangerous if Jeff Gordon wins." On NASCAR Now, on national television, on a Thursday before the race.
Jeff Gordon is a stand-up guy. I have worked with him countless times on TV shows and races. He is funny, talented, and comes from a well-rounded family. The best part is, he can drive the wheels off anything that comes his way, and he chose NASCAR. Now, years later, he is still regarded as a threat every race week.
Erik Kuselias is a hack. He is a sleaze artist. He talks down to anyone associated with NASCAR, as if they live in a trailer and watch COPS a lot. He has bullied drivers, upset reporters, and angered fans with his arrogant and demeaning behavior. Now, he is suggesting that Jeff Gordon might be "in danger" if he wins, and passes Earnhardt Sr. in the record book. This cannot be allowed by NASCAR to "just pass by."
NASCAR is over fifty years old. The sport races from coast-to-coast, and demands that drivers and team members give their entire year to it. There are charities, fundraisers, and time-honored traditions that make America what it is today. Anyone who has witnessed the national anthem and a military fly-over at a NASCAR race on a sunny Sunday afternoon knows they are creating a lifetime memory with their family.
Simply put, it is time for Mr. Kuselias to take a long time-out from NASCAR Now. It should happen without any hesitation on ESPN's part, and it should happen right now. It should be quiet and personal and come from the most senior management at the network. Do it now, and the "NASCAR nation" will allow ESPN this mistake in their first year back to racing.
But, if ESPN leaves this man in-place after his threatening words and sleazy innuendos, they will have cemented their return to NASCAR as a total failure off the track.
Unfortunately, if there is a Yankees-Red Sox game on in the ESPN Newsroom, no one will probably notice this "little issue" with NASCAR. Of course, we already know that no one at ESPN cares.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Tuesday, despite the presence of top NASCAR reporters on its own staff, NASCAR Now chose to credit The Associated Press as the source for the show's "lead story" on DEI negotiations.
The resulting anger from NASCAR Now's own reporters just added to the "ESPN vs. NASCAR" tension that has been building on this program since Daytona. Its a struggle between the non-NASCAR "hype guys" of ESPN and the "real NASCAR guys" on the show who live the sport every day. It is very real, it comes through clearly on-the-air, and its about to get ugly.
On Wednesday, in a move that still has heads shaking, NASCAR Now lead the show by actually playing-back over three minutes of audio from the "Tony Stewart Live" show on Sirius Satellite Radio. Let me say it again. They played the Tony Stewart Show on ESPN2. I bet that got the attention of the ESPN Sports Radio guys. Maybe the big Sirius logo on the ESPN2 TV screen helped.
I know it got the attention of the NASCAR Now reporters. They were the ones Tony did not speak to at the track. They were the ones unable to report on Tony after the race for ESPN2. Now, they are the ones sitting-on their hands while NASCAR Now plays-back a national Sirius Satellite interview of almost four minutes on their show. And its of Tony...on his own show. I wonder how that is working for the stress level in the NASCAR Now newsroom?
In the TV world, we call that "importing content." Taking a block of information from one source, and using it in another show. Normally, it is information not available elsewhere, or something very newsworthy at the moment. In this case, Tony Stewart kept his mouth shut until he got back to Sirius, then provided exclusive content for that network. You see, he works there. Along with our friend Matt Yocum as Producer, Tony has his own national network show. Its very popular and sometimes controversial. Now, Tony and Matt have basically re-aired an entire Sirius Satellite Radio program segment on ESPN2.
The popular NASCAR Now reporter Marty Smith was then brought on-camera, basically to speak to the Sirius Satellite Radio story. Marty confirmed Tony Stewart was not required to go to the media center after the race, and then confirmed that NASCAR can do anything it wants to fine a driver for his actions of comments. Looking directly at show host and "hype king" Doug Banks, Smith said that the answers to these questions..."are obvious." Marty was not smiling.
Somewhere at ESPN, someone made a very bad decision. The NASCAR Now reporters could have come on-the-air and dealt with this Tony Stewart issue in thirty seconds. A driver blows off the media and then talks about himself blowing off the media on his own exclusive satellite radio show. Then, the exact same media he ignored takes exactly the same content and re-airs it on a TV network. This must be the reason they make Motrin.
They "hype kings" roared in this program, including the fake story of Gordon and his flag, Kyle Busch "leaving" his car, whether the Busch Series will start "a chase to the Cup." As a topper, they played-back video of Montoya jokingly flipping the digit as if he commited a felony. One Daly Planet emailer suggested this show has become "Access Hollywood" meets "Around-The-Horn."
In closing, Doug Banks eventually read scripted questions to top reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount right off a page. They knew them in advance, Doug rehearsed them in advance, and the entire "news" portion of this program was a sham. The best part is, the two reporters knew it. You could see in their faces that this joy ride was coming to an end. The only question will be, how ugly will it get?
A while back, ESPN Program Director Julie Sobieski promised change in NASCAR programs as the network evaluates their performance. After a great show on Monday filled with hard news and lots of information, this show again showed that NASCAR Now does not know "who to be" on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The show refuses to acknowledge the other NASCAR racing series, refuses to acknowledge CASCAR, and refuses to do any behind-the-scenes profiles of anyone involved in this sport. No wonder mid-week is slow! Anyone ever hear of viewer mail?
Let's hope that cooler heads will prevail, and NASCAR Now can right its ship before things get any worse. Making quality national reporters employed by ESPN2 dance like puppetts while answering scripted questions is not going to attract viewers to this show. Airing entire segments of other network's programs on NASCAR Now while the reporters watch may elicit a much different response. Without the news, NASCAR Now is running on empty. It might be time to check the fuel gauge.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Let me say one thing right at the top of the column today. Readers have been critical of my comments about NASCAR Now, the daily NASCAR-themed program launched by ESPN2 this February. Comments have been forwarded that ESPN needs time to get "back into" the sport, and that the new show hosts "don't really" have to know NASCAR. Many say I should not criticize the program, for fear that ESPN will cancel the only daily NASCAR show on TV.
Since the inception of The Daly Planet, there was never an intention to single-out for criticism one program series, one network, or one type of race coverage. This season of NASCAR on TV has simply proven to be an incredible mix of outstanding success, and mind-bending disappointment. Both of these elements have touched ESPN, SPEED, Fox Sports, ABC Sports, ESPN2, and NASCAR Images.
Now, we find this column addressing a thirty minute NASCAR Now program that aired on Tuesday. Only one day after perhaps the best NASCAR Now episode of the season, the network returned to its "bi-polar" existence. ESPN2 rolled-out a totally scripted program on national TV hosted by a person who is clearly unfamiliar with the sport. As so many readers ask me in email...how is this possible on ESPN? Would a non-NFL person host NFL GameDay? Would a non-baseball person host Baseball Tonight? Does everyone at ESPN just read a script now? The answer is no. For some reason, ESPN has decided that only NASCAR deserves this treatment. The real question is why?
When Doug Banks appears as host, NASCAR Now is a tightly scripted program read slowly with no errors. Its a bit like a fifth grader reading a book- report for a teacher. Banks has built himself an fantastic career, only it is not on TV and it certainly is not about NASCAR. In everything I have read, he is a caring and charity-oriented hip-hop urban DJ with a heart-of-gold. He has built a huge radio following, and is regarded as a stand-up guy. The only problem is, he is hosting a nationwide NASCAR show on ESPN2 that will help or hurt the sport at a very critical time. That, my friends, is a problem. Its not helping.
Compounding the host problems are the very strange decisions made by the production staff on a regular basis. NASCAR Now boasts as reporters Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Angelique Chengelis, David Newton, and Shannon Spake. ESPN also owns Jayski.com and ESPN.com, two sites associated with getting the scoop on the biggest NASCAR stories. Can you believe what happened to start this show?
As the first story, Doug Banks proudly said "The Associated Press is reporting that Junior is being offered 51% of DEI valued at 55 million dollars." The sound you heard next was the thud of the ESPN reporters hitting the floor. Leave it to the AP to get the NASCAR scoop on ESPN. I guess that begs the question of why we need all those pesky ESPN reporters? You know, the ones that the show is built around?
Official "ESPN.com NASCAR Insider" David Newton was actually brought on-camera to speak to the AP story. Think about that statement. Imagine asking your own senior reporter to comment on a story that lead a show where he is supposed to be providing the news? Why didn't Banks just ask Newton, "do you feel like a total failure now David?" What a memorable moment in NASCAR Now history. We get scooped...and report it.
From the beginning of this show, The Daly Planet has asked that the "experts" be brought-in to interview the NASCAR personalities. Tuesday, Kurt Busch was unfortunately interviewed by host Doug Banks in a poorly scripted exercise in bad television. After asking Kurt about his brother having Junior make some laps last week, Banks actually asked Kurt Busch if Dale Junior driving his car would be a problem. At that moment, I do believe the world might have stopped spinning just for a moment to watch his reaction. Give Kurt Busch a ton of credit for patiently telling the un-informed Banks that having the national spokesman and symbol of Budweiser in North America driving the Miller Lite car...might be a problem. Could anyone actually make this up?
Banks then led NASCAR veteran Tim Brewer through a painful interview about Jeff Gordon and Dale Sr., a story that is already old. Brewer made lots of references to things like Dale sending Jeff "the milk," and Earnhardt being "old school." Banks never comments on anything Brewer says, because it is clear he does not understand it. Brewer must be wondering just what his role is when he is quizzed one slow disjointed question at a time. No follow-up, no conversation, just answer and leave. This type of interview has defined this series since February.
Finally, ESPN rolled-out their new fantasy NASCAR league, which requires sign-up and registration on ESPN.com. It makes absolutely no sense, but that does not seem to matter. Users sign-up, and then pick one driver against another driver in the race. It makes no difference where they finish, just who finishes higher than the other. A very nice man was on with Doug Banks "picking" fantasy things that he had "made-up." Who he was, and why he was talking NASCAR was never explained. Another fantasy.
This thirty minutes of NASCAR Now brought back all the old memories of just what a struggle this series has been since it began in February. Hopefully, it also helped Daly Planet readers to understand that NASCAR deserves the same respect and knowledge that is given to the stick-and-ball sports by ESPN. This is a long-term commitment by the network to this sport. There are plenty of talented TV anchors available who can step-in and right this ship before the network enters the big time with NEXTEL Cup coverage. That will bring a whole new audience to NASCAR Now, and they will ultimately decide if this show will survive. Right now, its still a toss-up.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click-on the COMMENTS button, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for stopping-by.
Monday, April 23, 2007
ESPN2 debuted a re-vamped one hour NASCAR Now on Monday night. Somehow, the finality that NASCAR fans are tired of the "fluff" and ready for some "stuff" has reached the hallways of Bristol, CT. Changes in this program were top-to-bottom.
Host Erik Kuselias threw to video highlights of the NEXTEL Cup race right-off the top of the show. With a good script, Kuselias made it work, but perhaps a more veteran voice might "sell" the highlights with authority. Luckily, the best decision was to go directly to soundbites of Jeff Gordon post-race. This allowed the only outstanding issue, about the Earnhardt flag tribute, to be addressed right away.
Stacy Compton showed-up and put the Gordon victory, and his tribute, in perspective. Compton is a very good historian, and his plain language and calm demeanor really helped to finally end the NASCAR Now hype. Nicely done by all parties.
At long last, ESPN used the cell phone to call Steve Letarte and get him to explain how his #24 team stayed-on the lead lap, how Jeff did in the car, and what the tribute meant to the team. This was a feature that NASCAR Now has to commit firmly to each Monday, and expand. Kuselias was absolutely told to avoid the type of "hype" and "drama" that has defined this program series up to this point. Good idea.
NASCAR Now seems to have grasped the concept that raw footage from the events of the weekend works as "in-bumps" on the show when returning from commercial. It was so nice to hear ESPN using announcer sound from the NASCAR on Fox gang, as if they finally acknowledged we are all in this together. More footage in this hour, for any reason, would be welcomed. Fans miss a lot by only seeing the final on-air broadcast.
Shannon Spake hustled to get JD Gibbs on-camera to address the frustration of Tony Stewart. Gibbs did a great job explaining what we all knew, Tony wants to win. Eventually, Erik Kuselias might discover that intensity is exactly what Tony fans love. Spake also addressed the Gibbs COT issues, and actually got a friendly sign-off from Kuselias. That is the clincher that times have changed, Erik was nice.
Tim Cowlishaw continues to be out-of-place on this show. He is the only non-experienced commentator on the set. His "conversational" comments are used only to address the "take it or leave it" sports radio questions poised by Kuselias. As in this program, Stacy Compton laughed at Cowlishaw, and put him in his place about Tony Stewart's "antics." ESPN needs to move Cowlishaw back to an opinion-based position on ESPN.com or ESPN The Magazine. Places where the hype still lives.
Shannon Spake and her Producer are still continuing to crank-out quality features like the one in this show on Hendrick Motorsports. Her low-key and laid back style really fits well, and she seems to be able to stay in the background, and let the information and personalities speak for themselves. She is a nice surprise this season.
Kuselias brought out Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis for the regular news segment. For some reason, NASCAR Now will not allow the two reporters to speak to each other. This is a problem that the show must correct. Marty Smith could easily host the entire news segment, bring-in the other reporters, and then pass-the-ball back to the show host when the news is done. NASCAR Now continues to deny the problem that two of their three co-hosts cannot engage in free-form NASCAR conversation. The individual scripted questions are maddening.
SportsCenter regular Neil Everett lent his voice to a fantastic piece on the relationship between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. The core of this feature was the on-camera soundbites with Jeff after the Phoenix win, and Dale Junior speaking directly to Gordon's respect for Jr.'s father. The public does not get from NASCAR Now this type of "direct relationship" with the sport very often, and it was nice to see. This is the kind of understanding and preparation that will help fans to believe that ESPN knows NASCAR...once again.
Ryan Newman appeared live, but Kuselias conducted the scripted interview. This is the weakness of the show, and always has been. Newman has talked to non-racing journalists a lot, and he was calm and patient. Needless to say, the questions were horrible, bordering on the in-accurate. Even though this liveshot was a free promo for Newman's sponsor, it would have been a good time to ask some hard questions.
Closing with a promo for next week's Talladega race, the show left one big question on the table. What happened to Friday night's Busch race? Where were the highlights and winner interview? That is the only NASCAR series on ESPN2, it was a good race, and yet nothing made it to the "weekend recap" show? Did I mention the race was on ESPN2? Did I mention this show is now one hour long?
This new NASCAR Now format was a strong step by the network in turning a struggling program series into one with potential. The key will be if the thirty minute version of this show tomorrow can carry-on this new emphasis on hard news, facts, and footage. Time will tell, but this was a good start.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click-on the COMMENTS button, or email email@example.com in confidence if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for stopping-by.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Sunday morning I began to channel-surf for NASCAR shows. I was looking for highlights and interviews after the Phoenix racing weekend. ESPN2 did not re-air NASCAR Now, but they did have the 2006 Jump Rope Championship on at noon.
SPEED Channel did not have any NASCAR programming on-air until The SPEED Report that night at 7PM. This situation was not making me happy. Like many NASCAR fans, I am having a problem with my TV. That problem is called the Internet.
Well, I found my race report. I found my interviews. I found my video highlights. Even better, I found my future home for NASCAR TV and news. This slick and user-friendly environment delivered exactly what was missing from the TV networks. The edited NASCAR features used lots of footage from ESPN2, SPEED, and Fox Sports. They were better produced than most of the NASCAR Now highlights, and showed a deep understanding of NASCAR. The best thing is, I found it in two minutes.
His name is "bumpstop3," and his home is YouTube.com. As The Daly Planet has mentioned on several occasions, YouTube.com is the real home of NASCAR TV. There seems to be no restriction on footage use, no problems with content, and absolutely no issues with TV rights or copyright infringement. Wow, is this heaven?
"Bumpstop3" offered me a professionally edited video highights and interview package from the Phoenix NEXTEL Cup race complete with logos, sound effects, and footage I had not seen before. The video package on the NEXTEL race alone ran six minutes and forty-nine seconds. This is longer than one entire program segment of NASCAR Now. Old "bumpstop3" even added his own music to the package.
Beginning with the race set-up taken directly from the Hollywood Hotel, "bumpstop3" laid-out the kind of race highlights that NASCAR fans love. It captured the story of the race itself, complete with pit stop action, passes, and strategy. When it was displayed full-screen on my computer, it was better than watching cable TV. Wait, what did I just say?
Let's face it, the Internet is offering better and easier access to copyrighted NASCAR footage and highlights than the NASCAR TV partners. After seeing great footage from the Busch race, SPEED interviews, and other NASCAR events, I really wanted more from "bumpstop3." So, I dug deeper to find our friend Marty Smith taking some grief over the Pacific Northwest track, and even stumbled across the great finish on SPEED of the 12 Hours of Sebring. When I looked-up, I had been on this one page of YouTube.com for over an hour. That's when TV reality set-in.
The same question kept echoing in my mind over-and-over again. It was only one thought, but so profound and deep I really had to be quiet for a while and think very hard. This simple experience on a Sunday morning from my computer with old "bumpstop3" had led me to the key question that is still un-answered at this moment. Perhaps, you can take a minute and think about it as well. Here it is:
Other than the racing, why do I need my TV?
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click-on the COMMENTS button below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org in confidence if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for stopping by. Yes, I am still thinking.
After several weeks of very interesting production choices among the NASCAR on Fox gang, this week's NEXTEL Cup race provided some very positive changes.
First among them was the understanding by the entire NASCAR on Fox group of the magnitude of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and its impact on NASCAR. Both in the pre-race show, and in the race itself, this topic was treated with the respect and dignity it deserved. Hopefully the folks at TNT and ESPN will continue this understanding when they take over the coverage down the road.
Fox Sports has been working the "flying boxes," as The Daly Planet readers call them, into the coverage of NASCAR this season. On the whole, this video effect has been positive in allowing for more information and pictures to be displayed on the screen. The only downside is that often it is still confusing. It often pops-up before the announcers have time to explain it.
The "four flying boxes" coverage of pit stops has been great. This works really well, and contains customized graphic information for each car contained in this "quad-split" effect. This season, the pit information, coverage, and follow-up has been outstanding. This pit road team has been solid for several years now.
The Daly Planet will get more information on the audio troubles that plagued a portion of the telecast, and bring those details to readers when they become available. Every technical crew is eventually going to have some problems, with power outages and equipment failure the leading cause.
With the Va. Tech situation keeping this a couple of notches lower in intensity, Mike Joy and the gang did a solid job from a boring track with a new car being used. Everyone could see from the outset that passing was at a premium, and that makes the TV crew work even harder to keep viewers watching when there is still one hundred and fifty laps to go.
Several "flying boxes" were used to update topical stories within the field. They included cars that were the "biggest movers" being placed alongside the leader and the best battle on the track at that time. This is a great idea that needs some additional coordination with the announce team. Perhaps, Fox will commit to following the story of a single car or team throughout an entire race, and use this effect to keep checking-in. This could be a very positive thing as the season rolls-on.
Finally, after several weeks of complaining, some changes occurred at the finish line. No "flying boxes" for the crew chiefs, girlfriends, or pit crews this week as NASCAR on Fox let the top five finishers cross the line with an electronic graphic displaying their order. This was a great move, but everyone on the lead lap deserves the right to be seen finishing on TV after three hours of racing. As with this event, the race for fifteenth might involve five cars beating-and-banging all the way to the line. Meanwhile, the top five cars might have crossed the line all alone.
The race is not over when the winner crosses the line. The winning pit crew does not matter after the winner crosses the line. His crew chief does not matter. Same with his car owner, wife or girlfriend, and relatives. What matters is the other full-time dedicated NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams still on the track. They are racing hard for every position and point in a shortened season because of the "Chase for the Cup." With this format, every lead lap position counts more than ever before.
The entire NASCAR on Fox team puts on a fantastic show that has been a selling point for this sport nationwide for sponsors and teams. Another selling point should be that if you finish the race on the lead lap, your fans and sponsors get to see you finish. When Fox makes a commitment to this concept, they will have finally embraced the "new NASCAR" and all the changes that the "Chase for the Cup" entails. Fundamentally, not showing all the point scoring cars at the finish is still pretty tough to take.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply use the COMMENTS button below, or email email@example.com in confidence if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for stopping-by.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
Several weeks ago, I had quite a problem with the Tradin' Paint program airing on SPEED Channel. There were lots of issues with the program, the topics, and NASCAR's role in deciding what made it to the table for discussion. Fortunately, the folks as SPEED were quick to respond.
They made it clear that this program is a stand-alone production by the network, and is not influenced by NASCAR itself. Further, they stated that Michael Waltrip would be leaving the show by choice, and Kyle Petty would be taking the seat on the panel designated for a NASCAR driver. Other than John Roberts, who will continue to host the show, the other seat for the "journalist" spot would continue to rotate.
Unfortunately, most print journalists have a very hard time translating their words to the tiny screen, and it shows. This has lead to a string of very intelligent, but extremely boring reporters sitting on the panel, and slowing the show's pace to a crawl. They talk the same way they type on their laptop, slowly. Fortunately, SPEED Channel recently took a giant leap-of-faith, and it has paid-off in spades.
The Pemberton name is a familiar one to NASCAR fans. It is also a familiar one to me, having worked at the old Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC. During that time, Inside Winston Cup Racing was the flagship show, and Randy Pemberton was the reporter. He was a hard-working and hard-living man in the tradition of NASCAR "guys" at that time. His family was deep into racing, but Randy was deep into television. And his future was bright.
Ultimately, life deals everyone different hands, and the cards that were dealt to Randy did not allow him to return to the national TV stage until now. Taking his place as the "reporter" on Tradin' Paint has allowed the country to again hear his clear voice and passionate feelings about the sport. He also brings with it a life of experience with NASCAR that goes back into the 1970's.
In watching this weekend's edition, it was clear that Petty, Pemberton, and Roberts were a great team. With Roberts directing traffic, and then getting out of the way, both Kyle and Randy were able to speak directly to a very diverse group of NASCAR issues with authority and experience. These are two elements that have become extremely scarce in recent years.
Their views could only have been complimented by perhaps adding some additional graphics or videotape, called B-roll, to the program. Otherwise, SPEED seems to have finally found a combination of personalities that can cover a sport that is now so big, its even hard to describe. This could be the start of another distinctive and exclusive NASCAR franchise for SPEED Channel.
Best wishes to Randy on his return to TV, and his continued success with his "other" job on the DirecTV Hot Pass package as an announcer. It was nice to see him on national TV once again, and even nicer to hear informed opinions from people who know NASCAR.
MSN's Encarta Dictionary defines "bi-polar" as "having two different ideas, opinions, or attitudes." The key thing is that the word is used for only one subject. One thing that can be completely different whenever it wants to be. For those of us who follow NASCAR's TV programs, this term can only apply to one show...NASCAR Now on ESPN2.
Saturday morning welcomed the NEXTEL Cup preview and Busch Series review version of this show to the air. Ryan Burr, who is now referred to as "the good witch" by Daly Planet readers, was on-hand to host the program. Alongside in the Connecticut studio were regulars Stacy Compton and Tim Cowlishaw.
Right away, it was clear that things were on-track and priorities had been established. All three announcers addressed the Virginia Tech tragedy, and the NASCAR connections. Then, things moved-on to racing. Jeff Gordon made his mark with USAC pavement racing on ESPN. If anyone has not seen him on two wheels nearly flipping and never lifting, check-it out on YouTube. He seemed to use that experience with the COT at Phoenix. Gordon spoke on tape about his pole run, the COT issue, and the race. After a quick recap of final practice, it was directly out to the track and time for Tim Brewer to talk about issues, and Angelique Chengelis to talk about the news.
Chengelis is key to ESPN either building or losing credibility with the Dale Jr. story about contract negotiations. In this show, she stuck by her guns that a "deal is on the table" that has ownership as a part of it. She also covered several other hot topics including Michael Waltrip, and then professionally moved-on without opinion or commentary. That, my friends, is called news.
Surprising field reporter Shannon Spake stepped-up with a well-done story on Virginia Tech and the NASCAR community. Spake finally used the ABC News connections and footage that NASCAR Now has been avoiding to round-out her report. Spake appeared live on-camera at both the beginning and end of this feature to put things in a well-rounded perspective for viewers. It seems every racing season that for new reporters competition builds experience, but tragedy builds respect. Today, Spake earned well-deserved respect.
Taking a moment to remember its bi-polar roots, this edition of NASCAR Now effectively squashed the very same "Junior drove Kyle's car" story that the "other" NASCAR Now has been hyping all week. This is where it gets fun. This NASCAR Now even had exclusive sound from Junior saying "It was just a favor. I'm a throwback. I was really surprised by how some of the media took it, and spun it. And, I would do it again in a heartbeat." One might think that ESPN would know...Junior is referring to them!
As if ESPN could not get enough of NASCAR Now actually abusing itself, the show then moved on to Juan Montoya. Ryan Burr and crew actually had Montoya look them in the eye live and say "Its funny how you guys in the press make a big deal out of nothing." Montoya absolutely took ESPN to task for flogging the non-story of a minor spin in one race early in the season. Regardless of Montoya's style, the weekday edition of NASCAR Now embarrassed itself over this issue. Erik Kuselias was almost drooling.
While today's show was outstanding, someone at NASCAR has to sit-down with ESPN and explain what the Busch Series means to this sport. After a great race on Friday night, NASCAR Now ran only a one minute Busch Series video highlights package. It showed nothing but two crashes and the race finish. It did not even contain an interview with the winner. The criticism of ESPN's baseball highlights is that they contain home runs and hit batters, but never tell the "story" of the game. This is exactly what NASCAR Now is doing to the Busch Series, which ESPN2 pays millions to televise. This race deserved a set-up with pole and grid information, a detailed highlight package, and sound from the winner and other key drivers. How does Kyle Busch get crashed again in a Busch race and not get interviewed? That only happened last night, and now its NASCAR Now...get it?
The Daly Planet welcomes your opinions and comments. Just use the COMMENTS button below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org in confidence. Thanks again for stopping-by.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Lug nuts. There is little more that needs to be said other than those two words to understand how completely confused ESPN2 is about NASCAR. Besides the actual racing action on the track, things could not be more bleak for this network. In the first race back after the Virginia Tech shootings, ESPN chose lug nuts over human emotions and overwhelming feelings of sympathy and support. They chose lug nuts.
ESPN's Busch Series pre-race show is called NASCAR Countdown. Erik Kuselias was imported from his position as host of NASCAR Now to handle the pre-race anchor duties for Phoenix. He was not imported because of his strong performance or experience with the sport. He is simply ESPN's pick of their stable of generic "announcers" to fill this open "position." It did not go well.
Kuselias "whipped-around" with the pit reporters, and then things took a familiar turn. Drama was suddenly all around us. The sport formerly known as NASCAR had again become an ESPN-created soap opera. The issues ESPN chooses to address with "driver feuds" and "the Montoya update" leave NASCAR fans scratching their heads. Where is the information? Where is the "track smack?" Who has the fast car? How is this hard?
Kuselias then brought-in Brad Daugherty to talk to us in the first segment of the show about his "opinions." Both Mr. Kuselias and Mr. Daugherty are seemingly under the impression that NASCAR fans care what Mr. Daugherty thinks. Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett have been racing their entire lives and work for ESPN as well. Mr. Daugherty has been playing college and pro basketball. Despite the fact that he is well-respected in the NASCAR business community, that does not translate to national sports television. Especially, on a weekend like this.
After Daugherty and a cameo by Andy Petree, Kuselias led to the top priority of the show as selected by ESPN. It was lug nuts. Tim Brewer, bumped-off the set once again, was standing in the parking lot pointing at lug nuts. Brewer did his best to try and work some logic into this story, but it made no sense. There was only one story that should have led the show, and ESPN should be ashamed it did not.
Only after ESPN sold us Kawasaki motorcycles, Chunky Soup, Circuit City TV's, pizza at Cici's, and Coors Beer did any shred of normality return. After the hype, opinion, and of course commercials, viewers finally got the largest NASCAR news story of the week. The shootings at Virginia Tech and the extensive NASCAR connections. Thank goodness for Alan Bestwick, Jeff Burton, and Elliott Sadler. Their words helped everyone to put into perspective reality and life. There are times when racing can just plain wait. This should have been one of them.
Kuselias then referenced the "Junior wants 51%" controversy and introduced a nice feature by Shannon Spake on Earnhardt's JR Motorsports business. Unfortunately, Kuselias never had anyone on-camera from DEI, or put the report into perspective. It just led quietly to a commercial. This is a video feature that needs what is called a "tag." That is when a reporter comes on-camera after it is over, and follows-up the information with an interview. No such luck for ESPN2 viewers. Nice feature, no perspective. What a missed opportunity for the other big story of the week that broke on Jayski.
Finally, Juan Montoya looked right at ESPN's Jamie Little and said, "the press likes to make things up." Well, that was certainly no surprise to the viewers of NASCAR Now for the past two-and-a-half months, but maybe it caught pre-race viewers a bit off-guard. Little was sent chasing the non-story of two drivers bumping each other, one spinning, and the same one surprisingly being upset about it. If this is how ESPN2 is going to go about their business, it is going to be a very long season for those same pit reporters. Perhaps by early November, ESPN will figure out...this happens all the time.
When the ESPN2 cameras pulled-out for a wideshot of Phoenix International Raceway, TV viewers saw a nice, fast, flat track that has always been exciting. What they did not see was fans. The entire thrust of ESPN's acquisition of the TV rights for the Busch Series was to re-energize this series and bring it up in racing stature. One only had to watch the pre-race show, and then view the stands to confirm that things are not going in the right direction. If you hear anything otherwise in the NASCAR media on Saturday, just remember Montoya's words. "The press likes to make things up."
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Thursday, April 19, 2007
Since February, the TV story of the NASCAR season has been the return of ESPN to the sport. Along the way, The Daly Planet has spoken about both the positive and negative aspects of this new venture. We have also received and published selected comments from readers who feel strongly about these issues.
As reported by Anthony Andro of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, ESPN is continuing to look at changes in their NASCAR line-up. The quotes in the article, which is listed on Jayski.com, come from ESPN's Julie Sobieski. As the Network's Senior Director of Programming, Sobieski is clearly the point person for NASCAR issues. She said "we just had a big meeting this week with all our different groups. You'll be hearing about talent additions that haven't been announced yet. We make changes and take advantage of the opportunities."
This is certainly a positive thought for the portions of the ESPN NASCAR package that have struggled. In every new effort, there is a group dynamic that has to be given time to form, and then changed if it does not succeed. We see exactly the same thing in the racing dynamic of a NASCAR team. Regardless of the best qualities of the individuals involved, if a team just does not gel, change is the only solution. One thing is for sure, the ultimate goal is to help the team itself succeed.
ESPN has rolled-out an excellent group of production folks for the Busch Series races. The telecasts have been right on target, with strong performances from the large cast of announcers. This past week, Dale Jarrett debuted to positive reviews as the color announcer on the Texas race. Andy Petree has been strong all season, and has proven to be the "sleeper" of the bunch. His information is first rate. Both Dr. Jerry Punch and Marty Reid have worked hard to carve-out their niche as the lead play-by-play announcer. ESPN continues to use both, and Reid goes over to the open-wheel world shortly as Indy approaches.
There are, however, some issues that have been difficult for the network to even acknowledge, much less address. At the track, Brent Musburger is a fish out-of-water. He knows it. We know it. ESPN knows it. There is absolutely no disrespect in these comments, because Musburger does not need to prove himself in the TV world. I was present when he first walked into ESPN, and the feeling was electric. This role, however, puts a fantastic stick-and-ball guy in the position of hosting several hours of nothing but NASCAR. It just does not fit.
On the other hand, Tim Brewer is so under-used it is a crying shame. With the credentials that he brings to the broadcast, clogging up the infield set with other ESPN announcers is just wrong. Given the chance to assume the "Jeff Hammond" role, Brewer could finally show the depth of his knowledge and experience. When guests like Ray Evernham and Richard Petty come to the ESPN set, Brewer is at his best. When ESPN finally realizes what they have, perhaps he will not be banished to the parking lot pointing at a sway bar. It is, however, hilarious when he calls Musburger "Brett."
ESPN needs to define the role of Brad Daugherty. They know it, he knows it, and we know it. There are experts, analysts, and reporters on both the pre-race show and NASCAR Now. Then there is Brad. He is not allowed to do feature reports. He is not allowed to do interviews. He seems to be boxed-in by the very people who are trying to promote him. Give him a chance to be involved in the TV aspects of the ESPN coverage and let him prove what he can do. He always tells us who he "just talked to" or "just visited with" or where he "just stopped by." Can someone at ESPN give him a Producer and a cameraman so he can actually "show us?"
Finally, let's talk about the NASCAR Now situation that has drawn the most email and viewer comments from NASCAR fans around the nation. Its time to stand-up and say that this is a mess. For a network with so many outstanding and award-winning studio shows, this has to be the number one priority for change. It is unrealistic to think that "anyone" with TV experience can host this show. This has been painfully proven by Doug Banks and Erik Kuselias, both of whom seem to have been put in very bad positions by ESPN. Talk about being fed to the lions.
Many NASCAR fans have visions of John Kernan, Alan Bestwick, or even Bob Jenkins dancing through their heads. What they are all saying is, we need NASCAR credibility from the host of NASCAR Now, not a script reader. Just as Jayski built-up his reputation through hard work and endless hours, fans are looking for someone with a racing resume to fill this role. And the time to change this position is before ESPN ventures into NEXTEL Cup coverage. That clock is ticking.
It has been fun on NASCAR Now to watch Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Angelique Chengelis, and Shannon Spake deliver the mail day-after-day. Without their credible and timely news reporting, this show would be history. Spake has worked very hard to become a calm and efficient on-scene reporter with a good style and great camera presence. Hopefully, as NASCAR Now re-vamps itself, the reporters will be given more time in each show to relay what the fans want...real information. As one emailer said, "less fluff and more stuff."
The odd man out to me is Mike Massaro. During the "dark years" at ESPN, we saw Mike reporting from helipads, parking lots, and access roads. This one guy single-handedly kept ESPN and NASCAR together. His tenacity and dedication should have been rewarded with the host position on NASCAR Now. There is no one currently on-staff at ESPN that has more credibility with the NASCAR fans than Massaro. To see him as a pit reporter on the Busch Series is tough. After watching one episode of NASCAR Now, one might suggest it is tragic.
We shall see over the next several weeks what changes come from the network, and how those changes affect both the studio and field production levels of the entire ESPN/ABC family. Hopefully, positive change is just around the corner.
Since you have taken the time to read my views on these issues, please feel free to add your opinion to The Daly Planet by using the COMMENTS link below. If you would not like to be published, email can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org anytime in confidence. Thanks again for taking the time to read The Daly Planet.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Early on in its life, the classic ESPN show RPM2Nite began to designate days of the week for features within the program. Perhaps, the most popular of these was "Open Wheel Wednesday." The show established a rhythm that viewers could come to count on, and relayed information that viewers learned to trust. ESPN2's NASCAR Now is struggling with its Wednesday identity.
Doug Banks hosting the show means thirty minutes of tightly scripted teleprompter reading, but Doug seems to be a nice guy and looks great on TV. Unfortunately, NASCAR Now decided that bringing on Brad Daugherty for a general discussion of general points generally about NASCAR with lots of general opinions would be great. Especially, if Daugherty can give NASCAR Now over five minutes of their twenty-two minute show time. Watching Brad and Doug talk NASCAR on national television continues to be a strange experience. Why this led the show, and did not fall in the final segment, can only be explained one way. And I am not going there.
Reporter Marty Smith then came on with what should have been the lead story in the show, the ties between the NASCAR family and the Virginia Tech shootings. Marty should have led the show with his heart-felt and personal report, and then brought in the NASCAR crew member who is a Va. Tech graduate for a phone interview. There is no possible way that five or six minutes of Brad Daugherty's general rambling should have been placed ahead of this issue.
Smith and reporter Terry Blount returned, and answered scripted questions from Banks, which is always the most frustrating part of the show. Banks is unable to follow-up on any point, or even let the two reporters speak to each other because of his poor level of NASCAR understanding. When these two guys are talking, Banks has that deer-in-the-headlights look. Imagine, something in the show not on a teleprompter. Something that the host has to actually "know."
This show re-hashed some old topics from earlier in the week, used driver interviews and video features from earlier in the week, and generally was a throw-a-way for the ESPN2 boys. Imagine Brad Daugherty pretending that Banks was actually asking him questions for the first time in the ridiculous feature "fact or fiction." Toward the end of the feature, Daugherty was so flustered he forgot to pick 'em. He just talked and talked and talked.
My column of April 16th spoke about the culture clash between the "real" NASCAR guys like Marty Smith and Terry Blount, and the "fake" NASCAR guys like Doug Banks and Brad Daugherty. Sooner or later, ESPN will have to step-up and make some drastic changes in this program to attract viewers, and gain credibility. Right now, the "fake" NASCAR guys are still on NASCAR Now everytime you turn-a-round.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
April is working hard to bring-in May, and things in "NASCAR land" are about to change as well. Now, the reality of the first critical stretch of racing stands before teams who can still remember Daytona's cold weather. Those in the know understand that during the stretch of the next four weeks, the season will begin in earnest. Gone will be the easy smiles, the polite answers, and the hype. This stretch, beginning with next weekend's race in Phoenix, will also test the NASCAR TV partners like never before.
While the "NASCAR on Fox" gang will carry the NEXTEL Cup races themselves, there are big issues to be solved with this veteran group. The Daly Planet has been flooded with email addressing the decision of Fox Sports not to show all the lead lap drivers finishing the race. Only the first and second place drivers are seen, and absolutely no one else. This has been a conscious decision by the NASCAR on Fox production team. Fans can actually watch their driver battle for over three hours, have him finish in the top five, and never see him cross the line. No Earnhardt, no Stewart, no Johnson, no Gordon, not one driver will be seen finishing unless they are first or second. Why?
In the Hollywood Hotel, the antics of Chris Myers and the goofy cross-promotions for Fox Network programming has almost ruined the pre-race show. Last week from Texas, it was embarrassing. Rather than focus on NASCAR as a serious major sport in the US, Myers and Fox go out of their way to poke fun at everything associated with it. Myers "LA cool" personality has long been a fish-out-of-water at places like Talladega. Maybe, a fresh face like Krista Voda might be a nice change of pace for the viewers, and the announcing crew.
SPEED Channel continues its struggle to determine how much of a NASCAR partner they really want to be this season. Even as they announce a two day marathon of NASCAR programming surrounding the All-Star race, they have never replaced the Monday night multi-hour line-up or the Wednesday night prime-time race replays. The Daly Planet emailers point to NBS 24/7 as a show they sorely miss, and Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing as a show they sorely want to fix.
ESPN is only going to provide support programming for the NEXTEL Cup Series during this stretch, with their NASCAR Now series continuing on ESPN2. The network just expanded the Monday show to one-hour with less-than-stellar results. The Daly Planet has referred to this show as "bi-polar," depending on who is assigned the hosting duties. Veteran ABC Radio hip-hop DJ Doug Banks, ESPN Sports Radio talk show host Erik Kuselias, and ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr currently share the hosting duties. It is certainly easy to pick which host The Daly Planet emailers believe is best. If Mr. Burr was given this assignment five days a week, this show might improve its dismal ratings and awful on-air presentation.
So, here we go. This next month is going to be the first real endurance test for these TV "players," both new and old. When we add-in the availability of video from websites, pay-per-view race packages, and old stand-bys like YouTube.com, these next four weeks may prove to be as critical to the NASCAR TV partners as the NEXTEL Cup teams themselves. Good luck to all involved...we'll be watching.
The Daly Planet welcomes your thoughts and comments on the current NASCAR TV situation and the programs and people involved. Please use the COMMENTS link below to leave your response to this post.
Monday, April 16, 2007
There comes a time when it is impossible to continue to give "second chances" to someone who refuses to change. There comes a time when things are so bad that its almost hard to believe they will ever get better. On Monday, ESPN2 rolled-out the one hour edition of NASCAR Now. Promoted as a way to provide more race recap and analysis, the show turned out to be a culture clash between the "NASCAR guys" and the "ESPN guys." As the season continues, this has "Hatfields" and "McCoys" written all over it. And its starting to get ugly.
Erik Kuselias, the former ESPN Sports Radio talk show host, served as the studio host of this new one hour TV program. He is the king of the "Hatfield" clan, who likes to talk in radio-style accusatory sound-bites and use harsh and demeaning language. As the host, he constantly talks over anyone on-the-set, or anyone who appears as a guest. He is brutal. The most interesting part is, he is lost on any kind of actual NASCAR issue, has no clue to any NASCAR personalities beyond the obvious, and is absolutely oblivious that he is walking in the hallowed footsteps of RPM2Nite.
Tim Cowlishaw is also a "Hatfield." He will appear to talk about any subject, at any time, on any network. But, it must involve hype and absolutely no factual information of any kind. Nice work if you can get it, and he certainly has found his dream job on NASCAR Now. Cowlishaw and Kuselias make NASCAR Now into great sports radio. Unfortunately, ESPN has chosen to present this "talk show hype" in video form on ESPN2.
On this premier show, Boris Said and Stacy Compton lead Kuselias through a recap of the Texas NEXTEL Cup race. Then, the show slowly began to crank-up the hype machine. First, it was Montoya vs. Stewart. Then, Dale Junior in a Hendrick car. Mark Martin going part-time again. Finally, Kyle Busch in trouble because he was "gone" when they needed him. The garbage was just piled-up higher-and-higher by Kuselias and Cowlishaw until they made the one mistake that always shakes things up. They brought-in people who know.
Reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount are "McCoys." They appeared via liveshot and both seemed very eager to speak to a lot of issues. When these guys are on together, Kuselias changes instantly into Superman in the Kryptonite Cave. This is his worst nightmare, two guys who have been there and done that right in his face. He tentatively stepped into the water with his Earnhardt Junior hype. And then it happened.
Without wasting a breath, Marty Smith reached back and brought the pain to Kuselias and Cowlishaw like he has never done before. It was a smack-down of epic proportions, and showed the country the division that exists at ESPN between the people actually out working in the field, and the hype-kings of the studio. And as I mentioned earlier, it was ugly.
Smith leaned back and smacked Kuselias a mile on the "Dale Earnhardt Junior in a Hendrick car issue." Kuselias had been trying with all his might to make this simple act into a conspiracy of contract negotiations and anti-Theresa sentiment. He kept asking anyone who would listen if Junior was "making a statement." Smith forcefully said that he was personally standing there when "it happened." There was no conspiracy, there were no statements, there was just a friend asking Dale to run a couple of laps to move the car-up in points. Dale made sure and got permission, and then helped his friend out. Perhaps, a lot of us were just waiting for Marty to say..."and you are an idiot Erik!"
Kuselias tried to speak with Terry Blount on several issues, but Terry knows the entire NASCAR scene as well, and what he was saying was so far above Kuselias head that the host just spoke right over top of him and quickly moved the reporters off the show.
ESPN had to return to the hype, had to return to the ridiculous "fact or fiction" and "driver pick-em" segments that serve as advertising platforms, and nothing else.
With an hour of program time, one would surmise that ESPN would focus on The Busch Series, seeing as ESPN paid millions for the rights to the entire season. This edition of NASCAR Now again avoided The Busch Series like the plague. Mondays are for looking back at the entire racing weekend, not just Sunday. No where is this concept more lost than on the "Hatfields" of studio hype at ESPN than with the struggling Busch Series. The "hype kings" have no time for actual racing stories and interviews when there are rumors to be invented and motives to be created. Does the ESPN Programming Department watch this show?
Kudos to Stacy Compton for keeping a smile plastered on his face while surrounded by the ridiculous behavior of Kuselias. Compton patiently corrects the host over-and-over again on even the most basic points of NASCAR racing. Boris Said is happy to be working, and while he brings an upbeat personality to the set, he is also forced to deal with the sophomoric questions and rude behavior of the host. Compton and Said are working men trapped with a very bad boss and nowhere to go.
The animosity that reared its head between the field reporters and the studio host is bound to flare-up again. Pros like Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Angelique Chengelis, Shannon Spake, and Mike Massaro are not going to risk their reputation and credibility by getting caught-up in the "sports radio hype" that Kuselias and Cowlishaw bring to the table. While the "Hatfields" may rule the studio in Connecticut, the "McCoys" are on the road alongside the entire NASCAR family, and working hard. As the season moves forward, and more real and serious issues arise, there will be even a bigger difference between those who know, and those who just talk about it. And my feeling is, its going to get ugly.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
The solid performance turned-in by the announcing crew of the NASCAR on Fox telecast was again upset by the decisions of the Producer and Director from Fox Sports. After an incredible performance by the booth announcers, the pit road team, and even the Hollywood Hotel gang, it seems incredible that TV viewers nationwide saw only two cars cross the finish line in Texas. Let me say that again. TV viewers saw only two cars finish the race.
When this happened at Bristol, I said it was a big problem. When it happened at Martinsville, I said it was incredible. Now, at the huge Texas Motor Speedway, Fox asked viewers to watch a multi-hour race and then showed only the top two cars crossing the finish line. This is a fundamental failure that NASCAR must correct.
It is almost like Fox has adopted a policy that NASCAR fans are now so stupid they think the race is over when the winner crosses the line. How else to explain this incredibly bad decision that immediately flooded The Daly Planet inbox? Every fan understands that when the winner "wins," the rest of the field is still racing!
As if this incident was not enough, the announcers in the booth were clearly trying to call the remaining cars coming across the finish line, where drivers were battling door-to-door throughout the field to get their best finish. The Fox Sports Director even tried to cut back to Jamie McMurray, only to show two cars already finished driving away from the camera. This was just a fundamental mess on an Emmy Award winning telecast. Why?
Drivers that fans had watched for three hours deserve to be seen ending their race. Drivers that fans love, are endlessly loyal to, and proudly wear their colors deserve to be seen ending their race. Drivers whose sponsors advertise on the NASCAR on Fox telecasts and spend millions of dollars in support of their team deserve to see their car cross the finish line. Period.
What in the world has happened to the NASCAR on Fox production team? Whose bright idea is this, and how do we end it? Both ESPN2 on the Busch Series, and SPEED on the Craftsman Truck Series do not have these problems. They both celebrate the entire field finishing, and follow the other close finishes throughout the field until the race is done.
This is the third column that has been forced to skip over the wonderful aspects of a NASCAR on Fox telecast to register the shock and dismay of not only The Daly Planet, but the NASCAR fans who cannot believe they never saw their driver finish the race. As I mentioned earlier, what in the world is going on here?
During this season, RaceDay has been the best NASCAR-themed television show on any cable or broadcast network, hands down. This two hour extravaganza plays host to very serious discussions of NASCAR issues one minute, then features Kenny Wallace completely goofing on something ridiculous. Earlier this season, The Daly Planet referred to it as "Speed-a-palooza." Host John Roberts and reporter Wendy Venturini have established themselves as top TV professionals in the sport through their performance on this series.
Normally, Jimmy Spencer knows his place. As a retired driver with a questionable reputation, Spencer is a great foil for both Kenny Wallace and the numerous guests that appear on the program. He has kept himself well-informed, and grown into a much better television personality with each passing season.
On Sunday, Wendy Venturini presented an excellent two-part feature on Max Siegel, the new President of Global Operations for DEI. During the report, Mr. Siegel and Venturini mentioned Dale Junior's sister Kelley, who is his agent and business manager. It is no secret that getting the two Earnhardt "camps" together is Siegel's key goal. The end of the report led back to the set, where Jimmy Spencer waited. Then, all hell broke loose. And Jimmy Spencer may wind-up regretting it.
"Theresa Earnhardt gave Dale Junior his opportunity to race." It was with those ominous words that Spencer began his comments. After making sure that Junior knew his place, Spencer moved on to Dale's sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. "I am shocked that she kept her middle name. Why keep Earnhardt? I think her ego is so big and she is backing Theresa and Max (Siegel) into corners. She's not a good negotiator. If she was working for someone else they would probably fire her."
Spencer continued his comments with "I think she is using ego to control this direction, and Dale needs to be careful about it." Now done with Kelley, Spencer switched his aim back to Dale Junior, and was very eager to invoke the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the basis of his argument.
"There are a lot of true Dale Earnhard Sr. fans who will lose respect for Dale Junior (if he leaves DEI)." Spencer stated "I don't think Dale Junior needs to leave the organization. I don't like what Kelley (Elledge) is doing...how she is putting them (Theresa and Siegel) in corners."
Spencer closed with "Dale and Theresa and Max need to sit down and get this worked out. If the old man was still living, he would kick Earnhardt (Junior's) butt. I would hate to see that organization fall apart."
Whatever Spencer's motivation, his attack on Kelley Elledge was poorly timed. It has been well-documented that she had just undergone serious surgery, and is in the process of recovering. While she was on-hand at the opening of JR Motorsports new shop this week, she is far from full strength. In addition, RaceDay has always gone out of the way to be fair to all parties involved in NASCAR issues. This time, there was no Earnhardt Junior or Kelley Elledge standing by with Wendy Venturini to address this discussion. Had they been there, Spencer may have been singing a completely different tune.
I believe we have not heard the end of the reaction to these comments on national television. If the print media takes the ball and runs with it, there may be bigger issues on the horizon for Jimmy Spencer than his apparent hatred for Junior's sister.
UPDATE 9PM EASTERN TIME SUNDAY 4/15/07: On the Victory Lane program airing Sunday night at 8PM on SPEED, Jimmy Spencer issued an apology to Dale Earnhardt Junior's sister, Kelley Elledge. In reference to the comments detailed above, Spencer said he "kind of took it personal and he is sorry for what he said to Kelley." From this quote, I believe we can assume that Spencer felt he was somehow representing the interests of Dale Earnhard Sr. in his commentary during the RaceDay program. We can only see what repercussions these strong comments, and this brief apology, have on both the Earnhardt family and the fans.