Sunday, July 15, 2007
TNT Sports Goes Out Like A Lamb
Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, TNT Sports wrapped-up what is arguably the most troubled television coverage of NASCAR's top series that viewers have seen in a long time. This small six race "summer package" put NASCAR's NEXTEL Cup Series back on cable TV and got NASCAR a lot of money. The question is, did it do more harm than good to the sport?
The TNT package kicked-off in the rain at Pocono, and from the start was quite different than the NASCAR on Fox coverage that viewers had enjoyed since the Daytona 500. Key to the TNT problems was the placement of former reporter and journalist Bill Weber in the play-by-play booth. TNT then brought-in one of their own "in-house" announcers, Marc Fein, to anchor the pre-race and infield coverage. The resulting friction threw a wet blanket over these telecasts.
In the new TNT pre-race show called NASCAR on TNT Live, Fein actually had to deal with Weber on the infield set acting as both an analyst and a second host. Weber took every opportunity to remind viewers, and Fein, that he had more experience and knowledge than everyone else. By the time this show reached Chicago, Weber had been cleaned from the set after the first segment, never to be seen again in the hour.
The TNT Live program was off-key mostly because of the short number of races. The features in this show were thrown together, and often very disjointed. For example, this Sunday Wally Dallenbach visited Bud Moore to detail his World War II experiences and hear some NASCAR stories from this famous car owner.
What most NASCAR fans know, and vividly remember, is that RaceDay reporter Wendy Venturini did a "Real Deal" segment on Mr. Moore for the Memorial Day weekend show. Venturini's report was head-and-shoulders above the piece filed by Dallenbach. Perhaps, if the TNT production staff had selected another retired NASCAR veteran to speak with, it would have been more appropriate.
The saving grace of this pre-race show was the knowledge of Larry McReynolds, and the comments of Kyle Petty. With McReynolds coming directly off the Fox Sports package, and Kyle appearing weekly as a panelist on SPEED's Tradin' Paint, these two veterans came in and walked all over both Weber and Dallenbach.
Kyle is both polite and political in many ways, but he had just exited a NEXTEL Cup car after a third place finish in Charlotte and his credibility was great. He knew what was going on with the current crop of drivers and crew members. McReynolds was supposed to be "positioned" on the TNT infield "Lazy Susan" set, but he refused to accept his confinement. Larry McReynolds could not be contained.
He constantly interrupted Weber to contribute key elements to the race broadcast concerning strategy and on-going stories. Several times, like Pocono, McReynolds was the one who interpreted the winning move in the pits and explained why it was done. By the time the TNT package reached Chicago, Weber was so mad he would just stop in mid-sentence and sneer.."go ahead, Larry."
In the TNT package, when the first pre-race show ended, Weber began "the other one" and pretended that the first one, which he did not host...never existed. It was just another strange kink in this strange coverage. The Countdown to Green show was Weber alone with his analysts and in full "passive-aggressive" control.
Aside from the normal pit road interviews, TNT also kept "Wally's World" in this show. This fun lap with a celebrity used to be Dallenbach explaining the track and its details while scaring the holy heck out of an innocent victim. Back then, it was great to get some information and entertainment at the same time.
Now, TNT has changed it into Dallenbach literally reading a TNT promo while driving with the "star" of the show being promoted. By the time Chicago had come, Dallenbach got Bill Engvall as a passenger. The Big Kahuna of TNT was all strapped-in and ready to ride.
Fans had been bombarded by promos for Engvall's show, and as usual Bill yelled a lot and made funny faces while Dallenbach read the promo material about his TNT show. This is possibly TNT's most shameless moment in these shows, and it used to be one of the best. If Wally had blown a tire while purposefully rubbing the wall with TNT's biggest star, it also could have been one of the worst.
When TNT transitions to the race itself, things get a little weird. Weber has one type of relationship with Dallenbach, Marty Snider, and Matt Yocum. These guys have basically been razzing each other for a long time, and it gets tiring. Snider, Dallenbach, and Weber are the worst. Its almost as if they don't care that the viewers can hear this stuff. Many emailers tell me that listening to the TNT chatter on a scanner at the track reveals a whole lot more going-on between these three.
Meanwhile, Kyle Petty, Larry McReynolds, Ralph Shaheen, and newcomer Lyndsay Czarniak are on a separate team. They are focused on the race, and never waiver. It makes for a weird counterpoint to have Larry McReynolds running around and working his calculator while Weber and Snider give each other grief about personal issues on the air like teenagers.
During the race, Czarniak has proven to be a straight-forward and effective reporter who demonstrates a solid ability to deal with the personalities and issues in the sport. Hopefully, she will be able to continue in NASCAR in some television capacity after the TNT package is over. Daly Planet readers could certainly suggest some positions that she could fill over at another NASCAR TV network.
Chicagoland turned out to be exactly what many had imagined. This track lacked grip, the aero factor was high, and long green flag runs made the race less than exciting. This allowed Petty and McReynolds to work hard in talking about a wide variety of issues relating to this type of racing, what the COT would bring to these races next season, and how some cars were managing to find speed on this slippery oval.
TNT returned to their normal graphics package and commercial break format, which featured less in-program promos than other races earlier in the series. Throughout this coverage, TNT has been solid in general on the production side, even when the announcers are totally confused, as was the case in Sonoma. At Chicago, TNT's audio from the track was outstanding all race long.
Even with solid work from Petty and Czarniak, the star of TNT's coverage was the absolutely intense Larry McReynolds. He might not be conjugating them verbs too well, but he knows his stuff. Time and time again, McReynolds was the one talking directly with Petty from the infield as if he was the "crew chief" in the booth.
During the final three races of this package, the booth announcers would literally ask McReynolds for his opinion on issues, or even to answer questions about things happening on the race track. Without his hard work, TNT's package would have been missing a very vital piece of the puzzle.
So, TNT exits and ESPN comes on board to begin a long run of NEXTEL Cup coverage until the end of the season. This six race package has been memorable, and had its ups and downs like all TV series. TNT promoted their network, used the Daytona race as a "special event" to generate publicity, and had a tough time with some on-air decision making during the Michigan and Sonoma events.
This "mini-package" makes one wonder if the best interests of the sport were served, and what the other options for coverage could have been. We all know that ESPN will take The Brickyard 400 as "the beginning" of their season, and never reference the TNT or Fox Sports coverage. Weber, Dallenbach, and company will just slip quietly into the night with paychecks in hand, and a smile on their face.
Meanwhile, NASCAR fans are about to face yet another completely new cast of characters on the NEXTEL Cup broadcasts, complete with a new agenda and network marketing and promotion campaigns. In essence, fans just traded Bill Engvall for Mike and Mike in the Morning and SportsCenter. Welcome to NASCAR.
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