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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18 comments:

bevo said...

the crew will move to the Pocono hills and be faced with the daunting task of focusing on the actual racing

ESPN focusing on the race?
Not a chance.

Anonymous said...

Could Earnhardt be any less interested or annoyed by the inane interuptions by Rusty/ESPN et al??

Anonymous said...

Shannon Spake is one cute little porker

Modman75 said...

Thank god this race is finally over....

If I heard Rusty say Aero one more time I was gonna explode.

And the "see the air" thing... that was horrible. Just show us the race.

Way to many people talking at the end...

HEY ESPN... thanks for not showing us anybody else finishing the race.

Ooops ... did Tony just say Bullsh_t? LOL thats gonna cost a few bucks

Anonymous said...

Jimmy Spencer on SPEED had the inestinal fortitude to ask Mr. Ginn why he dumped out halfway through the first season after his promised "major commitment" to Cup racing.

ESPN was nowhere to be seen on this issue.

Tripp said...

Fast start with a tepid finish.

The show set up quickly but each canned feature packed less punch than the one before it. The Harvick segment was fun. The Ganassi/Montoya interview started with promise but ultimately went nowhere. Did anyone find out what brought a tear to Chip's eye?

The "Bowling with Gordon" piece was simply lame. Viewers were shown that Jeff is a nice guy who cares about his charity work. This is not news.

The trackside pre-race interviews that followed were simply flat. Gordon put Bestwick on his back foot when Jeff registered an apparently good natured complaint about broadcasting his gutter ball and asking if they also showed his strike. AB's compass then clearly veered off magnetic north and never reacquired it. By the time Kolber's interview on the starting grid arrived the flow of salient information had slowed to a trickle.

What did the show have going for it? Dale Jarrett, who nearly always adds thoughtful and interesting comments to a broadcast. Since he was there as a commentator rather than a driver, there was no reason to pummel him further about this season's woes at MWR.

Tim's garage is fun, but the isolation has him coming off as stiff as he was during the early Busch races. Brewer's personality is anything but stiff. How much better would it be if they encouraged it to come out and play.

The only other positives for the ESPN show are a glitzy set, and that it is broadcast in HD. Compared to Speed's "RaceDay", "Countdown" is a virtual information-free zone. True, Speed devoted more than twice the airtime to the day's stories, but they delivered well more than that amount in information and insight.

Today's "RaceDay" show started with John Roberts wearing an uncustomary scowl and was invaded by ongoing technical gremlins. It was not one Speed's best. But it was substantially better than ESPN.

Anonymous said...

None of the networks have been able to figure out that the most informative pre-race show is also the simpliest to do. Just interview the drivers in the race, live. Do a grid walk, walk through driver intros. They're there, trust me. But no, FOX plays games like "Gas and Go" or "Photo Finish", TNT tries to discuss issues of the day but just repeats themselves over and over and ESPN uses taped features. I'm happy that Suzy is actually learing about NASCAR, but that's about all that's good about NASCAR Countdown so far.

Anonymous said...

Yea, I loved how it was Suzy Kolber interviewing the defending Cup champion down on pit row just before the race. "How does it feel to be here again?" "What's it like to have all these fans around?" Unfrickin' believable. My 3yr old could've asked those questions.

Come on, ESPN, you had Bestwick down there. USE HIM.

Todd said...

hey... speeds show is top notch..John, Jimmy and Kenny...That's what I watched and that's what I'll watch always...That bare-chested rocker on ESPN singing (?) is an insult to ANY NASCAR FAN, and...stop whining Rusty...you sound like a cup driver. Petree is a pleasant surprise, and Punch is getting better!

Anonymous said...

Suzy Kolber, please, everytime she is on she is reading from something, use people who know Nascar, her voice is annoying also. You had the chance to use DJ and blew it, not letting him really speak.

Anonymous said...

Suzy homemaker needs to go home or back to football. Brent is horrible. Espn needs to get it head of the sand and get Bestwick in the booth if they want to succeed.

Anonymous said...

You can take Brent, Suzy, Rusty, and Brad, roll them into one person, and they still wouldn't be capable of being part of a Nascar broadcast. ESPN has some skilled people aboard. Why don't they use the ones who have a likable personality and know Nascar to 'inform' the viewing audience.

Anonymous said...

No matter how much coverage ESPN does on Nascar, if they do not change who covers it, it will go defunct. Speed Channel is the very BEST and always will be. Suzy and Brent need to go back to where they belong, wherever that it!!! I do not know what ESPN has against Allen Bestwick. He is the greatest and most qualified to be the #1 announcer. He was booted off Inside Nextel Cup and replaced with an "idiot" named Despain. Please give me a break!! Whoever is responsible for these screwups will definitely regret it very soon. NASCAR needs to do more in depth searching for more reliable TV coverage. And I don't every want to discuss the end of the race which was atrocious to say t he least!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I miss Benny!

chas said...

Anything is better than TNT shoving that theme song by hinder down the viewers throat every commercial break. For the first broadcast in a long time, ESPN did pretty good. They need to tighten it up, and use less people.

Betwick, Rusty & Brad in the booth.
(Rusty PLEASE stop with the "right now" all the time). Brad is respected and talented, he should ask the tough questions of the guests. Shannon & Jamie as the field reporters. Marty Smith does the investigative, hard hitting pieces. (he is one of the best reporters on any sports network). Tim Brewer does the cut-away car/ techinical explanations. (another great job, always interesting).

Play the Aerosmith video at the beginning of the countdown to green flag. With this talented group, they should be able to put on one hell of a show as long as they do their pre-production homework. Lets give them a chance.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Chas on ESPN needing to cut down on all the personalities they bring...too many people and too many that are there just seem to be terrible fits (Rusty, I gotta tell ya! you're driving me to drink with the I Gotta Tell Yas).

I thought ESPN did a terrible job describing the actual on-the-track action. After the multiple wrecks, I seldom heard who took it to the garage, who was trying to fix damage with multiple pit stops, etc., unless it was one of the 'marketable' guys (ie Kasey Kahne, Jimmy Johnson). They were interviewing Kahne when another multi-car wreck happened, and they just let the interview run and never mentioned who was all involved. And they didn't interview Casey Mears until WAAAAYYYYY after his wreck.

And really, by the time Sunday rolls around, those of us who are NASCAR diehards have probably watched 'news' programs all week and I really DID NOT want yet another pre-race show to talk about the DEI/Ginn Merger in depth. I heard long dissertations on both Speed shows and then again on NASCAR Now and then finally again on pre-race. Gees, did they merge, I'm not sure. Everyone jumps on one story and no one tries to find any other angle. How about a feature on drivers looking for a ride? What's involved exactly in looking for a ride, sending resumes, making phone calls, showing up at tracks, etc. What about a weekly feature of all these developmental drivers I keep hearing about?

Anonymous said...

Two quick comments- Suzy is just horrible, she couldn't come up with an unscripted question or comment if her life dependend on it! They should at least give her cue cards up by the camera instead of her being so obivious about reading off her script on the desk.

Also, I usually tune into MSN for the races and turn down the volume on the tv but I couldn't find the race on MSN this week, so with 50 laps to go I just had to mute my tv and didn't listen to anything. Even following the race with no sound and just the picture was a better alternative to being subjected to the horror of ESPN announcers (except DJ).

Anonymous said...

Brad sucks, kick him off TV and bring Allen back full time!