Sunday, June 10, 2007
Weber And Dallenbach Struggle To Fit In On TNT
As the rain delay at Pocono continued, it seemed somehow appropriate that Bill Weber was perched high, alone, and slightly damp in the new TNT infield set. Looking like something out of "Thunderdome," the infield anchor's desk was suspended in the air with no one visible except Weber. He was the odd man out.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the booth two drivers stood side-by-side, looked at each other, and tried to figure out how this was going to work. Kyle Petty was the new kid on the block, and alongside him was Wally Dallenbach...rudely chewing his gum while on camera. They both filled the same role, and represented the same viewpoint on the telecast. There were two...where there needed to be only one.
Kyle was a veteran who had just stepped-out of his NEXTEL Cup ride to work for TNT. Dallenbach had a short and un-impressive stint "playing" in NASCAR after a mediocre career in both open-wheel and sports car series. He is not the most popular former driver among the NASCAR gang.
At the same time, down in the infield and standing by the cut-a-way car was the man who should have been in the broadcast booth. Larry McReynolds is tremendous in his NASCAR knowledge and perhaps has no equal in his intensity. Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds in the booth would have been a home run for TNT.
As it worked out, McReynolds informed the booth of the winning strategy being tried by Jeff Gordon's team. McReynolds acted as the crew chief "analyst" on this show and traded fast-paced quips with Kyle Petty like they had been working together for years. And, he did it all from the infield.
With the NASCAR on Fox gang wrapping-up their coverage, it was tough to transition from the professional play-by-play skills of Mike Joy to the converted feature reporter Bill Weber. There was a mean-spirited nature to the NASCAR coverage on NBC Sports and now TNT with Weber at the helm.
He and Dallenbach trade insults, the pit reporters "dig" at the booth announcers, and Weber always sees the glass as half empty. Rather than the professional demeanor of Barney Hall, Rick Allen, Mike Joy, or Marty Reid, Weber takes everything very personally and seems to be upset in some way a lot of the time.
Dr. Jerry Punch is involved in the same type of struggle on the ESPN Busch Series races. Neither Punch nor Weber started out to be who they now are. Punch was a great pit reporter, and relished that role. Weber started out on Inside Winston Cup Racing with Ned Jarrett as the feature reporter. Weber has outstanding writing skills and thinks of himself as a journalist. This is his strong point, but play-by-play on live NASCAR races is not.
Marc Fein was the wildcard on the TNT telecast. Brought in as the new preview show host and the infield studio anchor during the telecast, Fein got solid reviews. A TV sports veteran, he brings the enthusiasm of a veteran without being caught-up in trying to show his personal knowledge of the sport. Fein was the bright spot of this telecast, and may get to expand his role after the production problems that arose during the first rain delay. TNT had some issues, and they revolved around Bill Weber.
Rain at a NASCAR race always demands flexibility and good humor. These are not the strong points for Weber. Even so, the TNT producer left Weber alone as the anchor on the infield set for more than an hour. Weber tried to direct traffic, but Petty and Dallenbach needed him in the booth, and Marc Fein should have been given the assignment of filling time from the infield set with Larry McReynolds and the pit reporters. Fein has the sense of fun that would allow Marty Snider to "spin" the new set and show off its flexibility. Weber just sat there mortified, and without a smile on his face. Wrong guy to have fun with on national TV.
Once the race started, the telecast took on a strange dynamic. Weber and Dallenbach have one type of relationship with each other, and Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds have their own working style. The "NBC style" of insulting each other and making inside jokes did not fly with Petty and McReynolds. They provided the commentary during the race, and often would wind up speaking directly with each other because they actually knew what was going on. Weber and Dallenbach looked, and sounded, like two guys who had been away from the sport for a while.
Through a boring race, Petty and McReynolds kept the intensity high, even as Dallenbach and Weber returned to their inside jokes and insults. Pit reporter Marty Snider is often caught up in this locker room humor, and it makes his credibility fall by the wayside. Matt Yocum, Ralph Sheheen, and newcomer Lindsay Czarniak refused to "join the NBC club" and instead concentrated on their pit reporting activities.
Czarniak was solid during the event, and just needs more actual race reporting to get herself up-to-speed. Like Wendy Venturini on SPEED and Krista Voda on Fox Sports, she is fearless and aggressive. Just what TNT needed for this short season.
As the race reached its key moment, Larry McReynolds and Kyle Petty were clearly the knowledgeable parties on the telecast with regard to race strategy. McReynolds hit the nail on the head with Gordon's team, and it proved to be the winning formula. Without the late Benny Pasons, Weber and Dallenbach were exposed as part-time NASCAR announcers who were just along for the ride. It was Petty, McReynolds, and the pit road announcers who carried this long broadcast through the two rain delays and all the way to the finish.
Give TNT credit, the new set is fun, the pictures were great, and the directing was first class. The entire telecast was solid from a technical and engineering standpoint. When they can have some fun with the infield set, it will be a great new show element that may top the Hollywood Hotel. In the meantime, they have some attitude adjustment to do with the gum-chewing analyst and the angry host.
With five races to go, TNT is going to find itself working alongside ESPN and staring at the network that will take-over when they are done. ESPN will be doing the Busch races during the TNT run, and then step into the big time. No doubt ESPN will be looking at both the good and bad aspects of the TNT experience and trying to put those lessons to good use.
After this first race for TNT, there are a lot of notes to take and a lot of things to do differently. This broadcast missed the good nature of the late Benny Parsons, but showed the determination of both Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds to keep the information flowing, despite the obstacles. Petty was a standout, and his time working previous races and on SPEED's Tradin' Paint has made him at ease on TV.
Before we know it, these six races will be over, and TNT will return to its bread-and-butter of entertainment programming. Perhaps, before that happens, this group of TV professionals will re-organize themselves into a cohesive unit that can allow TNT to put its best foot forward for both the sport...and the fans.
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