Thursday, August 16, 2007

ABC's "NASCAR In Primetime" Gets Strong Reactions

Sometimes, its only takes simple words to get across big emotions. Wednesday night, ABC unveiled their first episode of "NASCAR in Primetime."

This one hour original show produced by ABC News, took a very different kind of approach to TV content than we have seen before. Viewer reactions were mixed, but also very emotional.

True to today's entertainment TV, the program contained almost constant music playing "under" both the voices of the participants, and the racing cars themselves. That was surprising for ABC, who normally uses "natural sound" as a key ingredient in many news-oriented shows. That element was sorely missing.

That issue is even more curious given the fact that the sound of the cars and the roar of the crowd were frequent topics of the fans interviewed on the show. While some sports just don't have a lot of good sounds as they are played, NASCAR may be at the top of the heap in terms of awesome audio being available.

Many of us are used to the glossy shows recently produced by NASCAR Images in Charlotte, NC over the last several years. This company is the official TV production company of NASCAR, and also houses the tape library of racing footage.

They key ingredient that we have been fed by NASCAR Images is the sounds of the track. Cars, fans, and even jet dryers and airplanes have all been key to the high quality programs viewers have come to expect to see. ABC News took a very different approach, and that did not sit well with some viewers.

In almost documentary style, ABC took "chunks" of content and made them into segments. While it was clear that they had to walk a fine line, it was also clear that they crossed it several times in both directions.

Certainly, their selection of typical "NASCAR fans" was interesting. As well, their use of a small boy who somehow "seemed" to be speaking exactly the correct words the program needed to tie-up loose ends was curious.

Across the web, fans were screaming about ABC's choice of Juan Pablo Montoya as one of their "subjects." What most of them just don't understand is that ABC made this selection back in February, long before all the fun JPM happenings of this season unfolded. He could have been a total bomb, or had success. It turned-out to be a good call for this series.

Mark Martin and Johnny Sauter also proved to be good interviews, and fans got to know the history and racing bonds that run deep in both these families. The Mark Martin saga was well-documented in the national media, so when NASCAR in Primetime tried to hype the issue of Mark stepping-put of his car fulltime, most fans were puzzled. They already knew the answer, and had for many months. This was a pretty fundamental error, which could have been handled quite differently.

As the series progresses, it may run into some problems. I had understood that it would move around and show different drivers and teams, but the "tease" for next week seemed to clearly reflect otherwise. Fans already know what happened at Bristol to Sauter, Montoya, and the Army team. Practice was live, qualifying was live, and the race was also live on national TV.

NASCAR fans enjoy the greatest TV access to their athletes and teams of any sport in America. The success of Montoya, the frustration of Sauter, and the part-time schedule of Martin are old news. What would be nice is to see this type of documentary glimpse behind-the-scenes of different teams and drivers. This is what fans have been missing after the cancellation of several "NASCAR reality" series on the cable TV sport networks.

In the New York Times, veteran reporter Richard Sandomir writes that the series "offers nothing new about NASCAR." He questions the sudden motivation of ABC News to produce a primetime summer replacement series about NASCAR when the only thing that changed about the sport is ESPN now carries it.

Sandomir complains that the profiles of Martin and Montoya "don't emerge as sharply as they should." He also points out the lack of in-car camera footage and the relative lack of focus in tying-up loose ends. Clearly, one was when the show documented Sauter losing his "cool box" for driver air conditioning and then only followed-up on this situation during the entire Atlanta race. That would be a loose end.

As someone who watches a lot of NASCAR-related TV, this show seemed a lot like some of NASCAR Images early efforts before they evolved to the production level fans now see on Survival of the Fastest on SPEED Channel. It also evoked some of the memories of NBS 24/7 and the mysterious Beyond the Wheel, which seems to have faded from sight.

Someone at ABC News has by now probably seen the wonderful Ultimate NASCAR program series on ESPN earlier this season, and understood that this was the production level and the story quality that veteran fans have come to expect of NASCAR TV shows.

For casual TV viewers, this program might be a fun five weeks of simply seeing something they don't normally watch. ABC News captures emotion quite well, and the NASCAR gang is always plain-spoken and wearing their heart on their sleeve. Certainly, for non-NASCAR folks, the curiosity level is high and this program played right into it at full speed.

Unfortunately, for real hardcore fans episode one was simply a let-down. As Mr. Sandomir said, it "offers nothing new about NASCAR." Many fans watched because they wanted a new and exciting glimpse behind-the-scenes. What they got was lots of music, storylines they already knew, and a whole lot of fans who need Jenny Craig...badly.

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, and leave your opinion.


matt said...

Was this the best NASCAR Docu-show made? No. But frankly, it wasn't aimed at us. It was for the casual fan who didn't know about NASCAR. And looking at it from that perspective, it wasn't that bad. I don't think you can blame them for the stories being "old." I would assume it takes a while to produce and edit these types of shows, so they can't show Watkins Glen highlights the following Thursday. Even NBS24/7 was like a week behind. And yes, the fans were maybe "too" diverse but is anyone surprised?

My two major complaints were the music under the racing sounds (which you already mentioned) and the disjointed storytelling. It was very hard to follow the "story" of the race when it was interrupted with the "personal stories" of each driver. I think ABC would have been better off spliting the show in two halves: one for the driver's stories and one for the race. The fan's comments could be interjected anywhere.

I thought it was a nice first attempt, but no where near as good as NASCAR Drivers 360 and the other show show similar to it that aired on ESPN last year.

Anonymous said...

The best part was the in car audio when Jeff Gordon & Montoya were tussling with Gordon a lap down...JG came off as a whining baby...had the shoe been on the other foot....See there is a blue flage with a yellow stripe that the starter means move over son, a car on the lead lap needs to go and your in his way.....

Tripp said...

Not all viewers are part of NASCAR Nation.

It doesn't take much figuring to determine that "NASCAR In Primetime" is designed to promote ABC's Busch and Cup broadcasts. Nothing new here. One can always count on the Los Angeles ABC station promoting events at Disneyland on its local news. Is it right? The purists, starting with Uncle Walter will revile against it, but it is the way things are today. Time to move on and accept it.

This program may have been produced by ABC news, but viewers would only know that if they watched the credits all the way to the end and saw the copyright notice. Why was this produced by the news unit when it was clearly entertainment programming, albeit informative. They call that "infotainment".

Finally, the question must be asked, "who was the primary target audience for this show?" Not the mainstream NASCAR fans. There wasn't enough new information for those folks. Think of it more as an outreach program to those with an interest in motor racing, guiding them on the route to understanding Nextel Cup racing. Within that context one must consider successful. True success will be measured by the ratings.

Finally, one would not be surprised to see that eloquent young man with the "99" cap as a pit reporter for Speed or ESPN in about 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Beyond The Wheel win an Emmy? Or a Grammy? Or a Tony? Or something?

B.A. said...

The show was not produced for “new” race fans. It was said at the beginning it was filmed early this year. Clearly, no new information was going to be revealed.
It was broadcast later at night. New fans aren’t going to stay awake on a work week to watch it.
This was produced for entertainment reasons. Everything on TV is.
The 1st episodes are for MM fans. If you’re a fan, it was a good show. If not, it certainly is easy to find many things to comment on.
Whether the “fans” featured were employees or family members, doesn’t really matter. They are still fans. It must be a slow news day (and it is) that folks reporting on NASCAR would attack the integrity of the fans. I believe that is called, “cutting your nose off to spite your face.”
It was an entertaining show.

SophiaZ123 said...

I am SO GLAD others commented about the CONSTANT MUSIC as I must say, that was a real turn off for me.

As was the CHOPPY camera work. but if somebody was watching to see what NASCAR was about, it did not come off as offensive, aside from the obese buffoons that were caught on camera and the "genius kid."

The thing I liked about NASCAR 360 is when there was CONVERSATION, there was NOISE in the background at ALL except for maybe a driver's dog's bark.

I did not think this show was aimed at ME at all.

But I think they should REALLY THINK about taking out the music sound for the rest of the shows..if that is possible.

And turn UP the engines. :-)

I am just glad it did not show drunks all over the place but I realize there are more shows left..and they picked some real Einsteins to CLOSE the show with!?

Just so glad, John, to see you mention the music...I found the bluegrassy stuff intrusive over one racing segment especially, tho it all bugged me. And I love Bluegrass music..and classical..and even some Opera...but sometimes, the constant "noise" is too much. LESS IS MORE.

I wish they would do another NASCAR 360

Anonymous said...

Where exactly were those fans who were interviewed? Were they somehow beamed into a sanitized studio and placed in front of a backdrop ? Very strange surroundings.....without the typically entertaining "track noises"....
Somehow, I expected more from the show and fell asleep before it ended. Johnny Sauter did not intrigue me, although I always find Montoya interesting and delightfully different.
I will tune in next week, with hopes of a more engrossing hour in prime time. There are, after all, many more stories to be told.

I believe a weekly recap of current news would be far more effective than months old footage.

Regarding the diversity of fans, the surface of that topic was not even scratched. If ABC only knew....

Sal said...

I would love to comment on the show, but my ABC affiliate decided to run a show on polygamy instead. Go figure.

jfs-va said...

Folks...this show was fantastic...ok well, the parts featuring Connie Montoya. :>)

But seriously, it was pretty much old news for NASCAR regulars.

Anonymous said...

I happened to have watched the show with a couple who are not NASCAR fans. They normally watch Top Chef at 10 PM, but knew I was into racing and tuned in as a courtesy to me. It was interesting.

My first thought upon hearing the Ry Cooder style blue grass intro was that it was a subtle reference to the "hillbilly" fans. My companions liked the music, however. They especially liked the increased tempo as the green flag dropped. "Cool!" Oh well.

I learned nothing new, but then I read Jayski's etc. My companions, especially the lady, loved the driver segments. She actually had tears in her eyes as Martin's story was playing out. And she identified with Montoya's wife.

For me, there was nothing new. It was repackaged old news. For my companions, it was an interesting reality show. Their opinion of NASCAR is low. It's only reason to exist is to promote sponsors. Race cars are mobile billboards, and the actual race is an afterthought. This show opened their eyes to the human side of NASCAR.

Personally, I thought the show was so-so. My companions thought it was entertaining and educational. ABC apparently did OK with the non race fan target audience.

Vince said...

I hope ABC didn't think this show would appeal to the hard core Nascar fan. Because it was all old news for us.

I agree with everybody else about the music. Can it! Did anybody notice some of the music sounded like the sound track from the movie Deliverance? Thanks ABC. Stereo type us Nascar fans again.

Anyway, it was all old news. And I don't feel sorry for the Nascar drivers that have to make"sacrifices" to race. I'm referring to the Mark Martin interview. Guess what? The average Joe Blow makes sacrifices every day to support his family. And we'll never be famous and rich like the Nascar boys. Boo hoo! Mark Martin made it sound like it was such a chore to be a driver. Give me a break Mark. Look what Nascar and us fans have given you. And he basically said racing wasn't fun. Well why doesn't he retire then? He's a driver that is way too negative for me sometimes. I wish they would have profiled another driver other than him or Montoya for that matter.

Anyway, it was a so-so show. I probably won't watch it again. I thought the high point was that little boy with the #99 hat. He was a hoot! Erik with a K better watch out. That kid will have his job in another few years!!

Scott said...

Granted, I was expecting something close to Nascar Drivers: 360, but Nascar in Primetime didn't even come close. It was boring through and through and just reinforced the stupid redneck stereotype of the sport with the fans they chose to provide commentary. There really wasn't any exposure of everyday life for the drivers outside of traveling to the track. Hopefully the next few episodes will improve, because the only way to go is up for this show.

jen said...

i love that kid too! i think espn should hire him as a race analyst.

i felt that the show was blatantly a commercial to attract new fans to watching the show, and new KINDS of fans. which i guess is fine, being a pretty atypical nascar fan myself i'd be happy for the sport to develop a more diverse fan base. but if they want actual fans to watch this show, they need to throw us more of a bone. i agree that trying to drum up suspense over mark martin's decision to run a partial schedule was ridiculous.

the only thing "new" and worth watching (besides the precocious kid), in my opinion, was the footage with connie montoya. i'd be interested to see more about what the drivers' lives are like off the track. that's why i tuned in. in fact, i'll probably watch again next week because of the teaser about what mark martin did on his first weekend off.

jen said...

oops, correction: i meant that i thought "NASCAR in Primetime" was a commercial to attract new fans to the SPORT, not the show.

Desmond said...

First, the good news: We heard from the fans! John has been talking about how the fans should be involved in the NASCAR programs. However, the boy in the Edwards hat was creepy. Is he really that smart, or was he only an actor fed lines by the producers? If ABC News did use an actor, then shame on them to the worst degree imaginable.

The bad: the "will Mark Martin race" tease. We all knew what happened if you pay any attention to NASCAR at all. The show's target audience was clearly those who rarely if ever see races, qualifying, etc.

Overall, slightly worse than Drivers 360/Drivers Non-Stop. Not even close to Beyond the Wheel.

Anonymous said...

NBS 24/7 was not a week behind. It was split 50-50 with a follow-up from the previous week's race, and then the highlites from this week's race.

Joe said...

i was really board with this show. I actually gave up on it on the last segment and flipped on a DVR of the ESPN NASCAR series that ran a few weeks ago to wash the blandness out of my eyes.

If I was a new fan, I don't think this show would make me like NASCAR more. I, the old fan, didn't think it was that great.

I couldn't really find the message they were going for. Just crappy TV.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for more of a NASCAR 360 type show but all I got out of it was old news. I probably will not watch the rest of the series. The other thing that I noticed was that at least 2 of the "fans" were actors and the little boy had to be reading from a script, although he did do it more convincingly than the host of Nascar Now.

Anonymous said...

The show was ok. I think they jumped around too much and you were left filling in the spaces. Enjoyed Montoya & his wife. And if you have been to a race you have seen some of those fans they showed. There are all kinds of fans! I will keep watching just to see if it gets any better. being from WI it was good to see a home boy on the program.

Anonymous said...

I have been a racing fan since the 80s and I liked it! I know it is "old news", but that just made me realize just how much has happened this season!

Anonymous said...

Ok, the music was a negative and I've been to races and not all the fans look and sound like offense meant!
However, my husband and I enjoyed the show. Of course we knew stuff, but it also reminded us of things we had forgot.
We loved the little boy. Why is it so hard for some people to realize there are some pretty smart and precocious kids? He was a hoot.
Last, my son who is 28 and rarely watches a race and my step daughter who is 25 and occasionally watches, both liked the show.
Bottom line this is a lead in to the CHASE which will be carried on ABC. The drivers have also been on the GMA in the morning. They are looking for new fans. We gripe when they don't do things, then we gripe when they do.