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.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.


Isaiah said...

John, I would rather spend the rest of the year watching TNT coverage than spending a second sitting through ESPN NASCAR coverage! ESPN has done such a crummy job with the busch series, that I really dont want to even watch the rest of the season. I am so happy to have HOTPASS on DIRECTV!!! The best part is having the Speed truck guys running the show. I love it...

Sal said...

Once again, Bill Weber proved that his strong suit is on air 'obituaries', or ponderously reporting on 'tragedies'. Bad news is right up his alley. kyle Petty was a fantastic surprise. And he was even honest enough to way on air that the race wasn't exactly going to bury the 'excitement' meter.

Anonymous said...

Bill Webber is as bad as DW, Rutledge and Ricky. Larry Mac was even better than his role at Fox. Kyle Petty was even better than expected. Marty Snider shows why he should head to the WNBA.
TNT had some really good points, Larry doing the analysis, Kyle Petty honestly evaluating what was happening on the track.
Somewhere, someone told Bill Webber he knew something about racing. Position with a network does not make you an expert. His facts are never correct, and yes, I look them up.
ESPN does offer a better "chemistry" in the booth. It's a shame Kyle Petty and Larry Mac will not be part of the covereage. The pre-race stuff will be sadly missing but Jerry Punch is good, along with Rusty Wallace and Andy Petry. I'm not sure the pre-race stuff will mix.
There is still the radio and DVR!

Anonymous said...

I don't suppose that Larry Mac will manage to get some work at ESPN, will he? It was kind of nice to have him on TNT because it made it seem a little(and only a little) like a continuation of the Fox broadcasts.

I also liked Kyle alot. I think my current dream team might be Mike Joy, Larry Mac, and Kyle.

At least having the same people on Speed every week gives some continuity to the season. I know that I can see Kenny, Jimmy, Wendy, etc. before and after the race.

KudzuCarl said...

When Bill Weber was named as the play-by-play guy for TNT, I wrote them to object. When NBC lost the package, I hoped that Weber would take the hint and go off to a place where his pomposity fits (play-by-play of royal weddings? live coverage of polo matches? in the pits at a fox hunt?). He is the anti-Mike Joy. Mike obviously loves racing and races, understands the issues, and doesn't talk down to the viewers. Where I will sit and watch a Fox race from start to finish, I always found something else to do during the TNT races -- just checking in now and again to see what was happening and knowing that anything I missed would be on the TIVO. Bet the advertisers love that.

Kinsta said...

Another great analytic post, good work!

I am glad to see that I am not the only one tired of Bill Weber talking down to the myself and the rest of the audience. With any luck he'll be relegated to "Inside Nextel Cup" and we won't have to endure his race coverage, ever, never again.

What I found great about the poor six race package from TNT is that three, two known and one new, personalities were exposed to the racing public. I really enjoyed Kyle and Lyndsay Czarniak did a great job. I just hope, in Lyndsay's case, she doesn't get a job at Speed, is integrated with the "Lifestyle Slant" the channel is taking and relegated to "the hot reporter" position has I enjoyed her pit road coverage.

So, another "team" and different coverage....I wish Formula1 raced every weekend.

Kinsta said...

ps. I miss BP.

Anonymous said...

I think the average 6 year old race fan has more knowledge about the sport than Weber does. And the interruption of commercials with a couple laps of racing is really irritating. Almost as irritating as Weber. TNT should say they're having 3 hours of commercials with limited race interruption. That would be truth in advertising.

Since the NASCAR brass doesn't bother watching the races on TV, we can expect the same, if not worse, interruption of commercials by even fewer laps of racing come next season when Total Nitwit Television (TNT) returns.

Thank the good Lord we only have to put up with Weber for 6 weeks, which is 6 weeks too long.

You have to feel sorry for Kyle, Wally, and Larry Mac having 6 weeks of their year ruined by Weber.

Tripp said...

Of the six TNT races, I only saw the last two and in that context their major issue was that they let the races get away from them. The primary responsibility of the booth announcers is to keep the viewers up-to-date on what's happening on the track. TNT never figured that out. Even with Kyle and Larry Mac trying to keep things focussed, the whole crew would end up splashing around in the middle of Lake Silly. They simply took their eyes off the ball.

The worst example I saw yesterday involved the many minutes that the network spent talking exclusively about the red number 8's power steering problem. Why a one-car shot of Jr. for that long? Were they waiting for him to wreck? The broadcast effectively screeched to a halt while everyone gave marginally important information about the car's power steering. Like a couple of pilots staring at a faulty indicator light while the plane arcs into a swamp, TNT's tunnel vision left the viewers in the dark about the racing on the track.

The missing element in the booth is BP. He not only was a former driver and a great story teller, he was a broadcast professional. There's no way to know exactly how much Benny contributed to keeping the commentary centered on the best action on the track, but clearly it was a bunch.

Wally cannot do it. He's best when commenting on a specific item or responding to a question. Wally doesn't drive the flow from the booth. He's merely along for the ride.

Kyle didn't do it either. He often ended up being sucked into the morass of silliness being built by others in the booth. Not to say that Kyle couldn't. It's obvious that Kyle is very smart, articulate and unafraid to say what's on his mind. He has a strong presence on the air and he's still learning how to use his talents. Perhaps next year.

And Webber? I'm still puzzled why NBC swapped him in for Alan Bestwick. Without Benny, he's simply a lost duckling heading for the weeds.

TNT lost their way again when Jimmy Johnson backed into the wall. TNT started a short recorded package just before the 48's tire blew. Seconds later they dumped back to live action. We saw the wrecked car and debris on the screen, but no information came from the booth crew for at least 10 seconds. Were they even watching the race?

I don't know if the Chicago race was exciting or not because the announcers didn't tell me. All I could learn in the last third of the race was that Smoke was leading, Johnson was in the fence and Jr. was using Mark Martin's "Arkansas handle" to steer the Bud car. I might not have known that Kenseth was gnawing on Tony's back bumper for a couple of laps after a restart if my eyes were not on the screen.

Farewell TNT. Your off-season would be well spent going back to school on the basics of broadcast commentary. You might start by having Webber and Wally listen to the radio broadcasts of the remaining Cup races and watching the truck races on Speed.

Anonymous said...

I've been searching the blogs/reviews and surprised that no one has commented about TNT showing the race on a 1-2 lap delay at least for the latter third of the event. I was watching the race on TNT and also Track View. They were on a caution around lap 160 or so,. As I saw the cars going around under yellow on TNT , I realized that the Track View coverage was green. When I compared lap data, the TNT coverage was off by at least 1.5 to 2 laps from the "live" event. Have they been doing this the entire time?

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely correct.. I was at the race, in the pits in fact. I did notice that the race was being delayed by a few laps via the teams pit road TV monitors (they both watch the internal NASCAR link and the TNT link at times). You actually realize this in two main areas... 1) After Stewart climbed the fence TNT went to commercial for a few.. next thing you know he was in victory lane.. How did he get there so fast?... 2) Both Newman and Gordan were fighting for 10th place.. next thing you know they were finishing 8th and 9th respectively. What happened to the other two place holders?

I agree with you all.. I am a huge fan and love the coverage when its good, but I found myself fast forwarding the last 5 races (I didn't yesterday since I was there in person) on my TIVO.


Pop said...

EPSN's Busch series coverage has been pretty dismal, so I don't have high hopes for their Cup coverage. Also on a side note, how unsurprising that the didn't even mention the Best Driver Award at the ESPYs the other night.

Tripp said...

[quote] When I compared lap data, the TNT coverage was off by at least 1.5 to 2 laps from the "live" event. [quote]

Perhaps the f-bomb in Sonoma prompted the delayed broadcast. Although TNT is not held to the same "cleanliness" standards as broadcast TV, they are basically a family network. That image will not last long if the dialog sounds like something from "Ice Road Truckers".

You also have to take into account the propagation delay in satellite transmission, which probably happened at least twice between the track and your TV. I noticed that the telemetry was about 1/2 a lap ahead of a couple of Fox broadcasts.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the TNT "tape delay"...Cup Scene Daily talked about it today. I noticed it when the live-leader board would pop up caution alerts on my lap top at least 30 seconds before the broadcast would show them.
Regarding Bill Weber talking down to the least we didn't have to hear him explain how a green-white-checker finish worked as he seemed to do at the end of every TNT/NBC race last year.

Anonymous said...

In the mid-ninties, I began to see the over-commecialization of NASCAR. How did either Humppy Wheeler or Bruton Smith characterize the state of affairs of NASCAR? It is being "sissified".
Remember when some of the "GQ" drivers were complaining about the speeds at Daytona. Dale Sr. hurrmphed that if they were concerned about safety and speed perhaps they belonged in the turn 4 stands not on the track. Remember when NHL hockey reached its zenith on TV (went to a fight and a hockey game broke out).Well, the wine and cheese elites took care of that!! Hockey is now relegated to an obscure cable channel.
There used to be a perception that drivers were "brave" and there was an element of danger. What do have now? What made NASCAR ready for TV? The famous Yarborogh/Allision fight in Turn 1 @ Daytona. Will we ever see that again? Noop! It's a shame. There was a time when I waited with great anticipation for the weekend and NASCAR racing. Sadly now I can take it or leave, mostly leave it.

glenc1 said...

Anyone remember Bill Weber and his 10 minute questions from back in the ESPN days? It would take him that long to stage his query and put the microphone in someone's face...and then you'd get a guy like Marlin who would simply answer 'yup...' Absolutely hysterical...made Weber look like an idiot (not hard--remember his commenting on the infamous Stewart driver's suit change at the Glen?) When they replaced Bestwick with Weber, I was floored. I turned off the sound and switched on MRN. Other people told me that fans didn't like Bestwick; were always complaining on the chat boards & all about him. Could never figure that out; he was the 'best', pun intended. Wally needed Benny--they were better together, but Bill is just sour. Can I just say I miss Buddy Baker as well?

I'm surprised so many didn't remember how good Kyle Petty was doing the Busch series years ago--he hasn't lost a step since then, and probably gained some. I find Larry Mac's poor English skills somewhat distracting (the worst of all the broadcasters), but as a likeable personality with racing knowledge, I have no issue. But I think it's important to note that it's the first year of this deal, except for FOX. I doubt ESPN looked perfect all those years ago when they first started racing coverage, and the team they had has long been disbanded. Fans need to give all the 'new' networks a chance to find their groove. Even the stick and ball coverage has a dud now and again (anyone remember ABC's painful-to-watch Eric Dickerson, and more recently, the hapless Tony Siragusa?) Youch. But kudos to all the networks for having those reliable journalistic faces that we depend upon--Voda, Massaro, Bergerren, Yokum, etc, and the newer Venturini & Czarniak.

Scott said...

I think the switch from Bestwick to Weber in the Booth happened when Bestwick broke his leg and was out for a few weeks. Weber took over in the booth, and he must have impressed somebody...Anyway, I am not really looking forward to Jerry Punch; he is too robot-like, and Rusty referring to everyone as "cat" and talking about his Hot-Rod....!

Anonymous said...

glad I was in a car listening to MRN on Sirius during that race.