Sunday, June 10, 2007
Sunday TV Face-Off: "NASCAR Now" vs. "RaceDay"
As the TV networks involved with NASCAR begin to formulate their "stretch runs," we are beginning to see the marked difference in the approaches to NASCAR racing by ESPN and SPEED. Normally, the racing programs on these networks do not overlap. However, now that the NEXTEL Cup races are back on Sunday afternoons, there is a head-to-head match-up that makes TV viewing very interesting.
ESPN2's Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now is a one hour show that focuses on previewing the upcoming NEXTEL Cup race, and reports on the news of the weekend. This Sunday, the network had Erik Kuselias hosting the program from the High Definition ESPN studio in Bristol, CT. Alongside Kuselias on the set were occasional NASCAR racer Boris Said and Dallas Morning New columnist Tim Cowlishaw.
With the full ESPN Busch Series crew producing a race Saturday night in Nashville, TN it was left to ESPN field reporter Wendy Nix to represent the network on-site in Pocono. Nix replaces David Amber, a Toronto-based ESPN reporter who had never been to a NASCAR race before being assigned the task of covering an entire NEXTEL Cup event by himself. Nix, who is married to a Boston Red Sox executive, appeared to be new to the racing world as well.
Supporting Nix at the track is NASCAR Now's "Insider" Marty Smith. This season, Smith has kept a smile on his face and the fans up-to-date on the news despite dealing with incredible obstacles presented by ESPN. The now departed show host Doug Banks would nod his head while Smith delivered the scoop, while both fans and Smith knew that Banks had absolutely no idea what Smith was talking about. Banks was let go of his high-profile job without as much as a word in the media. Meanwhile, Smith just kept on smiling.
Now, Smith is left on Sundays to contend with the high-volume and only slightly more informed show host Erik Kuselias. A Virginia native with a pleasant personality, Smith is often over-shadowed by the verbose former sports radio talker Kuselias. This contrast is the most interesting, because Smith has the information and credibility that Kuselias will never achieve.
Earlier this season, Kuselias tried to host the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show for the network and was horrible. He was yanked, and ESPN is now trying Suzy Kolber at the helm. So, on Sundays, Kuselias has his hour of power to be the ESPN program previewing the big race. Unfortunately, there is only one problem with that scenario. Its called RaceDay and is on SPEED Channel.
While Kuselias is in a suit and tie on a set in Bristol, John Roberts is in casual attire right in the middle of a sea of fans at the track. This is how the SPEED production team has managed to make RaceDay mandatory viewing for NASCAR fans. Roberts hosts two hours of everything from hardcore news to absolute mayhem. The fans love it.
Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace sit alongside Roberts, and voice their opinions on everything under the sun. Because race fans know both these characters quite well, there is a whole lot of commentary that is regularly taken with a whole lot of salt. These two serve to launch discussions, talk to drivers, and offer stories from their own racing experiences. Between Spencer's hair and Wallace's laughter, its impossible to ignore.
RaceDay's success is owed to the fact that Wendy Venturini fills the same role that Wendy Nix tried to fill for ESPN on Sunday. There is only one difference. Venturini has a lifetime of racing experience through her family's NASCAR and ARCA racing. Her years of hard work in the NASCAR TV industry have given her the right to ask anyone anything and go anywhere. The best part is, she usually does.
Her serious infield counterpoint to the hilarious Spencer/Wallace act really serves to strike the kind of balance that a preview program needs. Venturini's tribute to Bill France Jr. on Sunday in her "Real Deal" segment may have been the best video piece on the impact of France on the sport...and the people who live it everyday. This weekly feature has made an impact on the fans and the NASCAR community, and should wind-up making an impact on Venturini's career.
For two hours, RaceDay is just a part of the on-going race preparations. Drivers, team owners, broadcasters, and special guests come and go like the program is just a normal part of their lives. That feeling that RaceDay "just belongs" at the track is the key to why this series has become a franchise for SPEED.
Watching both NASCAR Now and RaceDay on Sunday really told the tale of two networks traveling different roads while serving the same sport. The billion dollar media company ESPN is telecasting all the Busch Series races, and the final seventeen NEXTEL Cup events. They will broadcast the entire "Chase for the Cup" on ABC Sports. Yet, they have one inexperienced host standing in Bristol, Connecticut with a part-time driver and a news columnist as their NASCAR studio presence. They have one reporter at the track who is clearly out of her element, and one news veteran who has learned to smile through the ESPN pain. NASCAR Now on Sunday mornings is a mess.
Meanwhile, RaceDay is a joyous celebration of racing, and everything that goes along with it. They don't judge, they just experience. John Roberts directs traffic, and lets the NASCAR community take to the airwaves for two hours of fresh and direct information. And this from the network that does not have one actual NEXTEL Cup points race, and not one Busch Series event. The bottom line is, SPEED knows how to have fun, and ESPN does not.
Sundays may still have two NASCAR preview shows for a while, but it is clear that ESPN is fighting a losing battle with no manpower or resources allocated to cover one of the biggest sports events every weekend. Right now, ESPN is on the ropes and the referee is counting. Without some big changes quickly, this Sunday morning fight is as good as over.
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