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.
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