Sunday, July 29, 2007
ESPN's "Countdown" Leaves A Lot On The Table
The opening "tease" for the NASCAR Countdown show on ESPN was a strange mix of hype and drama. It assumed that NASCAR fans were tuning-in to the first race of the season. In fact, there were only seventeen races remaining in the year long schedule. ESPN had just not televised any of them.
Brent Musburger opened the show with a very strong statement that Indy was the top race in NASCAR for history and drama. What Brent really was saying is ESPN does not telecast either of the races from Daytona. So, for ESPN, this is their Daytona 500 and they are going to eliminate all references to the earlier part of the season.
After Dale Jarrett missed the race, he was added to the Infield Studio panel. Suzy Kolber hosted, with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty alongside. Kolber has been a quick study in NASCAR, and rarely misses a beat. She quickly sent the telecast down to Allen Bestwick for an interview with the pole sitter.
That done, ESPN had to decide on how to fill the remaining hour. Apparently, an Aerosmith music video was just what the fans needed. It certainly was strange that almost none of the racing video used during the song was footage from The Brickyard. In fact, the video featured lots of Daytona footage. That must not have made Mr. Musburger very happy. Maybe, "Sweet Irony" could be the next Aerosmith CD title.
Suzy Kolber left the studio for a pre-recorded interview with Chip Ganassi and Juan Montoya. Why this was not done by Rusty Wallace or Brad Daugherty is a good question. Kolber asked scripted questions that resulted in a fun interview but did not get across the kind of information that NASCAR fans needed about this race. Once again, ESPN's perspective is that this is the "first" race, while fans have been on this trip since February.
Brad Daugherty has been hanging in there since his introduction as the "voice of the fans" back in February. Alongside of Rusty and Dale, he was limited to answering general questions about non-technical issues. Why Daugherty was not allowed to interview anyone, prepare any kind of feature, or do anything outside of his little "box" begs the question of why he is along for the ride?
ESPN carefully avoided the reality of the DEI/Ginn merger. During a Dave Burns interview with Martin, nothing was said about the points situation, or the abrupt lay-offs of both drivers and crews. Mark Martin was never put on-the-spot about anything, and he carefully stated the company line that this merger was all about improving DEI as opposed to a sell-off of a failing team with only two assets, Mark Martin himself and a car in the top thirty-five.
Musburger returned halfway through the show to re-direct the focus of the telecast to Midwestern drivers who grew-up racing dirt. This was another professionally produced ESPN feature, and it gave fans a view of the sprint and midget car series that spend summertime racing across the Midwest. This feature would have been better served to appear in NASCAR Now, ESPN's weekly show.
It actually had nothing to do with the race itself, and took time away from the "hard news" stories that ESPN ignored like DJ missing the race, the "hired guns" in the field used to qualify, or the fact that NASCAR decided this would not be a a COT race. The COT for next year was never even mentioned.
In a very strange twist, ESPN re-aired a feature on Kevin Harvick that viewers had already seen earlier this week. NASCAR Countdown is the big time, and using dated features that have already aired is a bad decision. In addition, there was no live folow-up or "tag" with Harvick. Instead, Dale Junior was interviewed by Mike Massaro and gave fans solid information about his car, and his feelings about his chances.
Finally, with only ten minutes left in the show, ESPN's NASCAR "Insider" Marty Smith appeared to address some "hard news" issues. Following up on the Dale Jr. interview, Smith updated the DEI details with regards to "number gate," DEI sponsors, and for the first time exposed Mountain Dew as a player in the sponsor game.
Incredibly, Kolber then lead Around The Horn's Tim Cowlishaw and Brad Daugherty on a completely speculative "pick 'em" feature about who gets in "The Chase" and who does not. The transformation between the "NASCAR experts" like Wallace and Jarrett and the "ESPN experts" like Cowlishaw and Daugherty was harsh.
With only minutes to go before race time, this topic was off-center and bordered on the ridiculous. One spin, one blown tire, one bad pit stop, and these "expert" picks go right out the window. Maybe that stuff works in baseball, but not NASCAR.
With only minutes left in the NASCAR Countdown show, viewers finally saw Allen Bestwick. Following a feature on Jeff Gordon's Bowling Tournament, Bestwick only got a minute to try and get Jeff's feelings on the actual race and his chances. Then, Dr. Jerry Punch was finally introduced and his on-air team took a quick look at the race and the field.
Wrapping-up NASCAR Countdown was Brent Musburger in the new ESPN "tech center." The network's attempt at expanding the cut-a-way car has resulted in a stand-alone unit that gives Tim Brewer a quiet location to offer his technical information. Incredibly, with both Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick only a short distance away, it was studio host Suzy Kolber who interviewed Jimmie Johnson on the starting grid.
Several things are clear from ESPN's first NASCAR Countdown show before a NEXTEL Cup Series race. Everything that happened in the past, broadcast by either TNT or Fox Sports, will never be mentioned or referenced. For ESPN, the NEXTEL Cup series starts with The Brickyard 400 and continues to Homestead.
In addition, fan favorites Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick have been pushed aside by Shannon Spake and Jamie Little, true ESPN "cast members." Finally, everything revolved around Suzy Kolber and Brent Musburger. Neither of these two even took a minute to offer an introduction of Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, Tim Brewer, or any of the pit reporters. This was ESPN's first NEXTEL Cup race, with many new fans tuning-in.
What was new to fans, and should have been addressed, was ESPN's own history with NASCAR, who was going to be on-the-air this season for the NEXTEL Cup broadcasts, and what other NASCAR-related programs like the Busch Series and NASCAR Now are also on the ESPN family of networks. None of this was done.
Dr. Jerry Punch is the face of NASCAR on ESPN at the track. He has put his heart-and-soul into the year-long ESPN efforts with the Busch Series races. He should have been an integral part of this pre-race show, instead of being excluded. He could have interviewed Ganassi, done the feature with Gordon, or been able to offer his views on the topics discussed in the pre-race instead of Daugherty. Punch was the odd-man out on NASCAR Countdown.
ESPN now has sixteen more versions of this show to produce, and soon Kolber will also be doing double-duty as the sideline reporter for Monday Night Football. Now, with the glitz and glamour of Indy gone, the crew will move to the Pocono hills and be faced with the daunting task of focusing on the actual racing, the team stories, and the beginning of "The Chase."
It will be interesting to see how things go on NASCAR Countdown when Brent Musburger has to say "You're looking live at a big, boring track in Pocono, its really hot, and there is no room service at my hotel."
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