Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Sunday And Monday Versions Of Dave Despain
There has been no other topic that brings a bigger avalanche of reader comments than the on-going Inside NEXTEL Cup saga on SPEED Channel.
The dynamics of this Monday night show have been off since Allen Bestwick and Johnny Benson got unceremoniously dumped several years ago. While most of The Daly Planet comments focus on the remaining original panel members Michael Waltrip and Kenny Schrader, one person has been a confusing presence since his arrival.
Dave Despain is a grizzled TV veteran. Viewers who have been around for a while may have vivid memories of Despain describing Terry Poovey cranking the big number 18 Honda through the first turn on the Springfield, IL dirt track. In many circles, Despain is still synonymous with motorcycles. It was clearly his passion.
In the old ESPN NASCAR coverage, Despain played a role as the host of the pre-race program which was called NASCAR Today. In the even older CBS days, Despain was an aggressive pit reporter who knew everyone and could talk to anybody in NASCAR.
The original idea of SpeedVision was to split the programming between cars, boats, motorcycles, and airplanes. Each category would get about twenty-five percent of the programming, and that would set-up a network that satisfied the passions of racers and hobbyists across the nation.
After a change in management, the structure of the network began to be a flexible landscape of programming that showed the business philosophies of those in charge. Gone were the airplanes, gone were the boats, and almost gone were the motorcycles. Shows and series came and went like the wind. Some were outstanding, others were horrible.
One idea that had some clout was a motorsports version of the Larry King Show on CNN. Every night for one hour, King captivates an audience by bringing on guests from all walks of life and letting them tell their story. It works because he brings out the best in anyone, and never steps on their views and opinions. His respect for the guest makes the show click.
SpeedVision decided to follow that format, and begin a Monday through Friday one hour primetime talk show. It was going to feature guests from all over the world of racing. All forms of cars, bikes, and anything else with a motor would be fair game. From the highest profile drivers to the behind-the-scenes "brains" that make racing fun, this show would open wide and present it all.
The two key elements of the new series would be the ability of the viewers to call-in and speak directly with the guest, just like the Larry King show. Where else could anyone with a phone talk to Mario Andretti? Dale Earnhardt? John Force? The secret of the show would be the diversity. There was only one issue remaining.
Who could possibly have enough general knowledge of all these different kinds of racing to host this program? Five days a week, this host would have to know the guest, his sport, the current news, and then handle the live phone-callers for the entire hour. Someone would be making a life-changing commitment.
The call went out to find Dave Despain. This glib, confident, funny and occasionally irreverent TV veteran would be perfect for this role. Once Despain was signed, the name for the series was put out into the press...Wind Tunnel.
SpeedVision finally had a bona fide in-house star on the air five days a week interviewing everyone in the racing world. The series was great, the guests high-profile, and the conversations with the callers were fascinating.
Then, the grim reality of television and ratings and profits took hold. A new management philosophy swept through the network and gone was Wind Tunnel. Now, where Wind Tunnel once stood, people pimped their rides, created fake drag races, and "stunted" on their over-priced man toys without helmets.
One single night of Wind Tunnel remained standing. On Sunday nights, Dave Despain would have to try and cover the racing topics of an entire week. Much to his credit, Despain stayed at SPEED. He also began to slowly bring this show back-up to the level of popularity it deserved. He put his heart and soul into this effort. Then, out of the blue, something strange happened.
The TV executives at SPEED decided to once again expand Despain's presence to Monday nights. But, it would not be another edition of Wind Tunnel. Despain was made to walk directly into one of the biggest train wrecks in SPEED's history. He was now the host of Inside NEXTEL Cup.
This past Sunday night, Jeff Gordon sat talking live to Despain on Wind Tunnel. They were both having a great time. Gordon talked openly about all kinds of topics, and he and Despain went back and forth about the various aspects of Talladega, the COT, and even Jeff's new baby being in Victory Lane. It was great TV.
When the telephone lines went down, Despain calmly handled almost the entire interview by himself. This included a hilarious version of The Newlywed Game that showed Gordon's sense of humor and how much this NASCAR champion really trusted Despain. Then, Despain transitioned to Formula-1 with Bob Varsha, and even talked with Bruton Smith before calling it a night. This is the Dave Despain of Wind Tunnel. The Dave Despain of Sunday nights.
Monday, a stumbling Despain lost his place during the Inside NEXTEL Cup program completely several times. He even admitted it on-camera. He used a script with note cards, and read the video highlights like a high-schooler. He watched the conversation between panelists, and then swung-down to send the show to commercial break with the same tired lines he has used all season long. This is the Dave Despain of Inside NEXTEL Cup. This is the Dave Despain of Monday nights.
With only a handful of INC shows remaining, its time for SPEED to turn Despain loose on Mondays. Let him bring to Inside NEXTEL Cup the same wonderful elements of his personality that he uses on Wind Tunnel.
These "two" Despains are completely different. One is confident and assertive, the other is easily intimidated and out-witted. One is funny and knowledgeable, the other stumbling and unable to organize even a taped show about racing.
Last week, there was laughter on the set of INC for the first time in a long time. It may have been more from relief that the season is about to end rather than the program's content. This week, there needs to be some changes.
Despain needs to step-up and show himself as the experienced racing TV veteran that he really is. Why he has been held in check on this boring and stripped-down INC format is anyone's guess. Its time to throw some curve-balls at the panelists, time to ask some questions that haven't been rehearsed. Its time to take charge and make this program his own.
Its time for the Sunday Dave Despain to show-up on the Monday edition of Inside NEXTEL Cup and remind us of why he was originally chosen from the national racing media to be the Larry King of SPEED.
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