Wednesday, November 7, 2007
ESPN Begins To Make NASCAR Changes
This time of the year is called the "silly season" in the world of NASCAR. Fans certainly remember this "season" for putting Jayski firmly on the NASCAR map.
Rumors of change bubble to the surface, are denied by all parties, and then things change in usually a bigger way than had been suggested in the first place.
For ESPN, the "silly season" is certainly here. After an entire year of struggling with NASCAR Now, their daily news show, change has come to ESPN2.
IndyCar play-by-play announcer Marty Reid has suddenly surfaced as one of the hosts of NASCAR Now. Not only did Reid once handle the drag racing and open wheel duties for the company, but he also found time to serve as the "relief host" this year for ESPN's NASCAR coverage on both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series. That is the ultimate in TV multi-tasking.
Reid is a veteran motorsports talent with ironclad credentials. Over the last several seasons, he worked very hard to integrate himself into the tough NHRA circuit. Fans celebrated the fact that Reid immersed himself in the sport, and worked hard to learn the people, the culture, and seemingly almost all the technical aspects of this series. Now, he has crossed-over to IndyCar fulltime.
Sometimes, it takes change to make things right in "TV land." Announcer Doug Banks was let go early this season from NASCAR Now, and ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr was brought-in to work alongside of primary show host Erik Kuselias. While Burr had a strong news presence and a fast-paced delivery, neither of these men had a background in racing.
ESPN NASCAR pit reporters Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro both hosted episodes of NASCAR Now this season, but never returned for any additional anchor duties. Several weeks ago, veteran NASCAR driver Bill Lester suddenly appeared on the NASCAR Now set for an entire weekend of shows as an analyst. ESPN said it was a one-time experiment. We called it an audition.
This week Marty Reid returned on Tuesday night and immediately shook things-up on the program. Abandoning the format, Reid hosted an interesting conversation that featured a NASCAR writer, a driver, and a TV reporter. The entire show was devoted to talking about the sport.
Wednesday, Reid hosted again and while returning to a news format, he unveiled some additional changes that have not been seen this year. For ESPN2, the NASCAR "silly season" was in full swing.
Reid bypassed the Gordon vs. Johnson story that has dominated this show, and put Denny Hamlin first on the docket. Hamlin was interviewed by satellite, and Reid asked some hard questions, and then let Denny promote his charity. Exactly the type of balance that this show has lacked.
Reid followed-up with Brad Daugherty, who was treated with respect and not put on the spot as he has been all season. Daugherty provided his opinion, which is his role, and was allowed to make his points without being forced to "pick" or "choose" on issues provided by the host. What a refreshing change.
Reporter Shannon Spake interviewed Carl Edwards and Reid just played the host role, and gave Spake the spotlight. Then, for the first time this season, ESPN used footage from another one of its own shows in NASCAR Now. The program Rome is Burning features high-energy talk show host Jim Rome, and a portion of his interview with Clint Bowyer was integrated into NASCAR Now.
This lack of cooperation between ESPN departments and networks has hampered this show all season long. Often, ESPN News would interview various NASCAR personalities, and the footage would never be used again on NASCAR Now. Even SportsCenter's treatment of NASCAR should have been fair game for this show. Finally, seeing some integration of resources between programs and networks was nice.
Reid's news portion of the show consisted of speaking with Terry Blount, one of NASCAR Now's Insiders. Reid is a TV pro, and makes these potentially awkward scripted questions look and feel like just a conversation. Blount responded with a focused and informative news update, and really came alive when Reid asked unscripted follow-up questions.
ESPN Fantasy Writer Christopher Harris has been called a lot of things this season. Many fans are upset that ESPN's Fantasy Racing League gets substantial time on the program each week. One interesting aspect of NASCAR Now is that Harris has never been held responsible for his own picks, basically he picks and runs. Well, that is until now.
Right from the start, Reid gently poked fun at the fact that Harris had a very bad Texas weekend. This man randomly "matches up" drivers and then "picks" them. For those of us not involved in fantasy racing, it makes absolutely no sense. Many fantasy players have written the Daly Planet to say it makes no sense to them either. Perhaps, this aspect of the show will see some sort of change for next season that reflects the standings and shows how Harris himself is doing.
Under Reid's direction, the show had taken on an easy-going tone and allowed the fan to feel a part of the program. This element has been sorely lacking all season. Several times, NASCAR Now has put-up an email address at the end of the show, only to rescind it over-and-over again. Originally, comments were being posted at ESPN.com, but that changed when many of them were directed at the poor quality of the program.
Reid, however, stepped right into the email world and then took everyone by surprise. He actually began reading fan email back on the program with graphics of the text on the screen. Interactivity had finally arrived at NASCAR Now.
After the first two comments were read, Reid showed an email complaining about too many ads on ESPN. The viewer questioned why the "side-by-side" effect for commercials that ESPN uses in the IndyCar Series was not done for NASCAR?
After reading the question, Reid again broke new ground on NASCAR Now...by answering it. There was the host of the show, an IndyCar, NHRA, and NASCAR veteran answering viewer mail. This simple moment should have been done from "day one," but it was better late than never.
Reid encouraged viewers to send more email, commended them for their passion for the sport, and then closed the show with a music video that did not include Aerosmith.
ESPN had shown positive change that probably was hard to do this late in the season. NASCAR Now, done effectively, could be just as big a franchise as Baseball Tonight or College Gameday. Given the resources to shine, there is no doubt that the right team could build this show into a fan-interactive success.
A big thanks to Marty Reid for stepping-in and trying to help ESPN sort out this program series. His style and class comes through on the screen, and it will be interesting to see where he lands next season.
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