Saturday, November 3, 2007
The Moment Of Truth For ESPN Is At Hand
The end of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season always has an interesting dynamic. Only three races remain in a very long season of transition for both NASCAR itself and the TV networks who cover it.
The final race at Homestead is cloaked in championship hype, and the Phoenix race leading up to it is an easy venue to cover. The key racetrack in this closing sequence for the TV networks is the The Texas Motor Speedway. High banks, big speeds, and hot tempers make this event a pressure-packed affair from the pre-race show through the post-race interviews. This season, the ESPN on ABC production team is on the Texas hotseat for the first time.
Memories of goofy Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel have long since faded. Strong TV production skills once again this season allowed the NASCAR on Fox gang to set-up their commentary team of Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip to dominate the sport. With Jeff Hammond and a group of veteran pit reporters, Fox put in a strong performance and then handed the NEXTEL Cup Series off to TNT for a six race summertime package. That's when the wheels fell off.
TNT's spinning infield stage, their personal on-air rivalries, and their "holier than thou" attitude just didn't wash. NASCAR fans did not mesh with Wally Dallenbach or Bill Weber, and only the strong work of Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds kept this TV package afloat. Can anyone forget TNT leaving a race fifteen minutes early to show a vampire movie?
What fans had in the back of their minds was the fact that ESPN's return to NASCAR was right on the horizon. After the highs of Fox Sports and the lows of TNT, this big time player in "sports TV land" was going to bring the sport to a whole new level. After almost a decade, an old friend was coming back to NASCAR.
Everyone was familiar with the incredible job ESPN had done on big events like Sunday Night Football and The X Games. The network seemed to love a challenge, and they promoted the fact they were jumping into NASCAR neck-deep. As the network's NEXTEL Cup debut approached, there was a feeling of optimism and anticipation.
The headline on The Daly Planet read "ESPN Changes The NASCAR Dynamic" after the Brickyard 400 from Indy. ESPN's first race back had shown a network that had changed completely from focusing on hardcore event coverage to one that promoted itself and its own personalities before almost everything else.
Suddenly, the races were chocked-full of "show hosts," Tech Centers, Draft Trackers, and music videos. At that time, The Daly Planet wrote, "the actual sporting activity becomes almost secondary to the many announcers, technical TV "tricks" and multiple TV studio sets." ESPN had definitely arrived back in NASCAR, and the sport would never be the same.
Today, there have been fourteen races already produced in the ESPN/ABC portion of the NEXTEL Cup TV package. Things have certainly not gone the way that ESPN believed they would. From the last minute addition of Suzy Kolber as the high-profile infield host to the TV struggles of Rusty Wallace, the chemistry of the "on-air talent" has never gelled.
Kyle Petty calls this NASCAR season "both pediatric and geriatric." As the older and established stars begin their transition out of the sport, younger and younger faces begin to appear in the professional ranks. Petty's words also hold true for ESPN.
A network whose young producers have been firmly entrenched in stick-and-ball sports has suddenly been thrust into a strange new environment. The hip-hop and rock music pound away on ESPN's NASCAR coverage...only to transition to the fifty-something duo of Dr. Jerry Punch and Rusty Wallace on-camera.
At Pocono, Rihanna's "Shut-up and Drive" was ESPN's music video theme of the race. The sweaty teen bodies dancing, the hot and fast "imports" racing, and the sexually charged lyrics made for a bit of a tough transition to Tim Brewer in the Tech Center who gave us an update on springs. The sounds and the faces of ESPN's NASCAR coverage do not match.
The struggles of ESPN to deal with the most fundamental aspects of NASCAR this season have been detailed across the Internet on chat boards and forums. It was apparent that fans could not understand how they could enjoy other sports on ESPN, but continue to be angered by the network's seeming lack of knowledge and attention in presenting NASCAR this season.
Like the tired mountain climber who looks up only to see another peak, ESPN will wake up Sunday morning with the realization that their biggest challenge of the season is upon them. Burdened by declining TV ratings and fan frustration, the network will try to use one of the fastest and most exciting races of the year to get things back on-track. Unfortunately, there is one little complication.
The NASCAR Countdown show takes to the ABC airwaves at 3PM Eastern Time, with event coverage beginning at 3:30PM. This would suggest that the green flag for the Texas race would be waved at about 3:45PM. That would be about fifteen minutes before the biggest NFL game of the season.
On this Sunday, the ESPN production team will be facing both the challenge of getting their own ship in order while simultaneously competing head-to-head with NASCAR's biggest enemy...the NFL. Brady and Manning vs. Gordon and Johnson.
From the first moments of Brent Musburger opening the show through the race commentary and the post-race interviews, this Texas event may be one the most highly scrutinized live sports telecasts in ESPN history.
Make no mistake, ESPN has brought this on themselves with missed restarts, lack of racing information, endless talking heads, and themed hype that sometimes is almost beyond belief. The network's credibility with NASCAR fans is at an all-time low.
The ESPN on ABC gang needs a hardcore racing telecast of the highest order with the focus on the action on the track. If they make it the Gordon and Johnson show, it will be over. If they continually update the NFL score and show highlights to NASCAR fans, it will be over. Finally, if they chop-off the post-race and leave fans without any interviews other than the winning driver, it will absolutely be over for this year.
With "The Chase" generating little excitement, ESPN must focus aggressively on the action throughout the field, and let the Texas Motor Speedway do what it does best. Create great racing. A poor telecast will allow NASCAR fans to shake their heads, walk away to the NFL, and talk about next season.
For every single member of the ESPN on ABC TV crew, the pressure is on, the time is now, and the challenge is Texas.
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