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.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email editor@thedalyplanet.tv if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

"this Texas event may be one the most highly scrutinized live sports telecasts in ESPN history."

JD, Why would you say this right after implying everyone would be watching the NFL over NASCAR.

Daly Planet Editor said...

I don't think I implied that about the NFL. What I said was that NASCAR fans are at a point where if this race is a mess, they will walk.

We have seen that with the TV ratings that were supposed to be up when ESPN came to town, but have proven to be consistently lower.

The fact that this week there is a very high-profile NFL game that has the attention of the east and central time zone fans will be tough.

If any race can put on a show that will keep the fans, it is TX. Now, it is up to the network to get out of the way..and show it to us.

JD

Anonymous said...

Nice article John.

My personal opinion chooses not to place weight with the possibility of ESPN/ABC being able to make it happen in Fort Worth.

It takes more than trucks filled with cameras that never seem to catch the action on track -- and when they do its a shot from one half mile away.

I doubt one could suggest ABC isnt making money, thats evident in round after round of commercials blasted at viewers who are slowly giving up on this goat and pony show.

Ratings peaked in 1999-2001 and this year marks the biggest drop in NASCAR ratings to be calculated.

I'm really sad the TV package has come to this.

Joseph Foster

Anonymous said...

Today in the Busch race they had great action on the track all day. ESPN chose to cover the non story of Carl Edwards. No one thought he was not going to be the champ today. It was a given. No suspense in that at all yet that was their main topic all race long.

wickedj said...

todays Busch race is why the ratings are in the crapper...i got up to go to the kitchen and they were talkin about Carl Edwards...i get the chips.. i get a bowl and put some dip in the bowl..even pour myself a drink. i return to the tv sit down and what is on my tv? CARL FREAKING EDWARDS

theres people in Europe who HATE NASCAR but knew Carl would win the title this year

i spent 5 minutes in the kitchen tryin to ignore ESPN's blathering and i couldnt

so i turned the TV off and followed with NASCAR.com's live leaderboard and TheHotLap.com's lapbylap

btw? why even BOTHER comparing the two JD..i dont like football (GO OHIO STATE!!) and i sadly know the answer to the NASCAR v NFL question (uh..go browns?)

you wanna solve the problems? Allen Bestwick, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. let Rusty take his cliches down to the 66's pit box and teach his kid how to NOT wreck

and one final comment..i disagree Texas isnt usually a good race...Atlanta is better racing.

TD said...

Been reading your column for quite a while. Although I agree with just about everything you post I must admit as the racing season comes to an end....ESPN just doesn't get it.Your post's are accurate in my opinion and I'm sure someone at the network is reading them but they just don't give a ****. They have their advertizing money, They have NASCAR...what else matters to them. The reason I decided to post a comment today is...as I was watching ESPN News this morning I had seen something interesting. They posted the top five finishers in the Busch race, Carl Edwards finishing 11th AND THE FINAL POINT STANDINGS!!! Did I miss something? Are the last two races being run without points? It's amazing...the network that covers (I use this term loosly)the Busch Series does not know there are two races left? Incredable!!!! I only wish I had MRN in my area.

Anonymous said...

Hey John, another nice, accurate article. You know many times NASCAR is compared to professional wrestling and with the way things seem to be manipulated, that is true. But the other aspect folks seem to miss is the similarity between the old fans / classic wrestling and the new fans / current wrestling changes which have changed the landscape in both wrestling & racing. I started listeing to NASCAR races when I was around 11 yrs. old on an old floor model Philco radio. Started watching wrestling about the same time. Somewhere along the way, the major "sactioning" bodies of both decided to "improve" the product and were only successful in making the product less appealing to the entrenched fan base, while attempting to grow the respective sport. The new ESPN doesn't match up with the old ESPN at all. For years, I'd never miss a race, but now, it's no big deal because the product is no longer interesting. And one final comment on Rusty. Let him go announce with Paul Page and team up the Hickory Mafia ( Punch, Petree & Jarrett )and see if they can re-capture some of the old ESPN magic of Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett..........

Anonymous said...

"The Moment Of Truth For ESPN..." was at hand when those HACKS signed the contract to broadcast the races. THEY HAVE FAILED MISERABLY! The collection of idiots they have is irritating to say the least. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, Brad Dougherty, Suzy kolber and Brent Musberger need to go away...IMMEDIATELY! The moment Kolber or Dougherty open their useless mouths, I immediately mute the sound or change teh channel to Football.

Kathy said...

I don't have a problem with an occasional sports update...maybe at the top and bottom of the hour. NASCAR fans don't live in a bubble...we enjoy other sports as well and are interested in football scores, but don't choose that over action on the track. I tune in to watch the race and get some "expert" commentary, not to hear about Rusty's fantastic career and how everyone drives their "brains out".

If they are interested in growing the sport, talking about the guys who are fighting for the top 35, the effects of team mergers, and introducing the audience to new drivers will carry over interest and enthusiasm for next year.

I hadn't thought of the juxtaposition of the "young" music with the "old" fellas in the booth, but it is a good point...well done!

Busch Series Fan! said...

JD, that comment about the music vidoes during the broadcasts then ESPN going to the Tech Center and Tim Brewer talking about springs was a riot! I would rate ESPN's Nascar coverage poor this year. For next year they will need a lot of revamping to get even some of the viewers back. I was only able to watch Nascar's #2 series on tivo it was a Carl Edwards show (again) but it's a great achievement for him. Maybe for the final 2 races we'll be able to see some of the full time Busch regulars?

Anonymous said...

Great article as usual. Quick comments from the Busch race on Saturday- When Jerry Punch "informed" us that "It's been a looong climb to the top for Carl Edwards, and he's waited forever to get a Busch Series Championship." What the ****? ARE YOU SERIOUS? I didn't know that three years is "forever". That's the same as last year when the network guru's at Fox said that "finally, after ALL THESE YEARS, Jimmie Johnson has won a championship." Again ,six years is nothing compared to Mark Martin's struggles. My point is, the networks don't have to give us this endless and scripted hype about something that is rather anti-climactic. A poster earlier had said that NASCAR Fans don't live in a bubble.On your fear that ESPN will turn the race into the Jeff Gordon- Jimmie Johnson show--They already have. In Happy Hour Friday, and Happy Hour Saturday, they super imposed over the screen a total of EIGHT times, the graphic that neither driver has won at Texas. You can already sense that they will continue to blast us with a non-stop barrage of Jimmie Johnson Jeff Gordon drivel, of how they have waited "all these years to have finally won at Texas."As we will be watching the Hendric Show, does anyone care to wager how many times we will hear, "Let's show you what you missed..."? BTW JD, have you noticed that in all of ESPN's coverage the last several weeks, they don't refer to the upcoming race by it's name? As in the Auto Club 500, or the Ford 400,etc.? It's "NASCAR Nextel cup Race to the Chase at Texas on ABC."In fact on Friday for qualifying, the graphics package used at the beginning , and as well as right after a commercial break, they had "NASCAR Nextel Cup Race To The Chase qualifying, brought to you by....."Ther is no way they will show 31 other cars on the track, let alone the other ten in the chase. A last footnote- When you wonder why certain cars are shown in a wreck, and others are not- Look at the possiblities. Last week when JJ Yeley had damage to his rear deck lid, they did not have ONE camera replay of what happened. But when David Stremme spun , they had three replays. Hint: David Stremme will drive for Rusty Wallace next year. Kurt Busch drives the Miller Lite car that Rusty drove. Ryan Newman drives for Penske, a former boss of Rusty's. Jamie Mcmurray dates Rusty's daughter. Take note of how many times you see cars that have "Six Degrees of Rusty Wallace." I don't know how that ever happened at ESPN, but they did the same thing on Monday Night Football. I seen Brett Farves wife more that I seen the Denver Broncos on their coverage of the game. Thanks, John for this website.

bevo said...

Good points John.
The ratings for this race will be very interesting to look at. Texas races are usually among the top every season for NASCAR. I'm expecting it to drop dramatically today because of the late start and the Patriots/Colts game. Give it a noon central time start and it would have a fighting chance.

The good news is perfect weather here for the race.

Anonymous said...

What has done it for me was during the pre-race show, Allen Bestwick had to "ask" Brad Daughtery about the racing. Are you kidding me? Allen Bestwick knows more about racing, the drivers, and the fans more than Brad Daughtery ever will. Yeah, when Bestwick had to be "schooled" on Nascar from Brad, that was enough for me........puke.

w17scott said...

Mr. Editor - Again your insightful comments have put the onus on ESPN to 'make good' on its potential and move race coverage to the next level ...the personnel is already on the team, they just need to do a better job of managing that talent - Bestwick, Jenkins, Kiernan, etc ...even Joe Torre couldn't survive with the Yankees mega-bankroll ...is it time to fire the ESPN management ...face it ESPN, the hard core race fan is your base audience and because the miscues keep coming, the 'base' will keep eroding - Walter

Newracefan said...

AMEN JD. I only wish ESPN was listening. Every week I watch the race with the hope that there would be some improvement unfortunately it has been so slight (only 1 missed restart last week) that I leave dissapointed. JJ and JG are 2 of my favorite drivers (I have more)but even I do not want to watch the Jeff and Jimmie show so if I don't like it others must be really screaming. Race coverage is sad and practice coverage is a joke, in case you missed it yesterday at HH they pulled out the old draft tracker changed the smoke to green and called it downforce OMG you have got to be kidding me. Don't they understand fans watching HH already know this? I want to see the cars on the track or hear about what type of changes, finished early, who scraped the wall not green smoke and talking heads. I am watching Nascar Now right now they are discussing the Busch race, 3 seconds of Harvick and no wait it's Carl's mom again just in case we missed her yesterday, no recap of the race and it was on ESPN it was all Carl. Granted he clinched the championship so cover the race and Carl there were more than 2 cars on the track. I'm already getting agitated and the race hasn't even started yet. Thank goodness for Race Day at least I start watching the race in a good mood. Keep up the good work at knowing I am not alone in my frustration makes a little easier to take.

Anonymous said...

I might listen to Suzy K get stoked on the half pipe all day. Brent can clue me into the NFL. Dusty Rusty is better being a Busch owner for Kid Wreck. Tim the Gold Dripper knows springs but who cares? Brad D is the tallest guy in racing. His head is in the clouds. Doc Punch has none. His voice and inflection is better suited for the pits. Give me Bob Jenkins, Kyle Petty, and (fill in the blank).

GinaV24 said...

Good article, John. I probably won't be watching the ABC broadcast of the race. They've already lost my interest with the way they've presented things so far since they took over. I want to watch the race and SEE the race which is why there are TV broadcasts in the first place. If I were watching, I'm sure I'd hear lots of hype about Gordon and Johnson (and Rusty also needs to put his jealousy of Jeff into a can somewhere and store it on the shelf -- he can take it out and look at it during the off-season, but I have expectations of professional attitudes during the race broadcast, NOT Rusty's personal opinions). BTW, I feel the same way about DW when he goes on about Junebug. Broadcasters are entitled to their personal likes and dislikes, but they do NOT need to air them for the rest of us to hear. I'll follow the race via MRN/NASCAR trackpass and the occasional channel flip to see if they are out of commercial when I do. Otherwise, yep, I'll be watching the football game. At least on the football games, they have people who know what they are talking about and (gasp), follow the action. I know some of you have said you don't mind the updates, well, the damn ticker runs at the bottom with the sports updates, that's enough for me. I don't need Suzy and Brent or Brad whichever no-nothing about NASCAR talking head they choose to show me tell me about another sport, while I'm trying to watch mine. I've been so disappointed with all of the ESPN coverage of the races. I didn't expect TNT to do a good job, so they didn't disappoint me, but they sure did begin the confirmation that NASCAR doesn't care about how it's product is being presented to the public. Maybe I'll only be able to watch a 1/2 season of each NASCAR season and that will be when Fox does the broadcasts and I'll just not waste my time the rest of the year.

Anonymous said...

ESPN/ABC have proven consistently they are the lousiest broadcasters of Nascar events in 2007. My money says they will maintain their record perfectly for the balance of the season and, unfotunately, well beyond.

John Park
Chillicothe, Ohio

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree in that I belive ESPN is competing with TNT for 3rd place. Rusty Wallace is astrocious as a commentator, I cringe every time I hear "driving their brains/guts out." Sorry Rusty but you have only yourself to blame for this broken "Hot Rod." Stop being PC, and be yourself on-air for once. Tim Brewer is just plain agrivating, another cringe and another piece of usless tech trivia. How many teams did he crew chief for? I beleive it's in a double digits and I see why. Brent Musberger and Suzy Kolber need to stick with Football, as they are clearly out of thier comfort zone with NASCAR. Jerry Punch always seems to be announcing about a half of lap from behind. I do not think I need to even write anymore about ESPN/ABC missed re-starts because of their every other self promoting commercial going way too long. I was excited when it was announced ESPN was replacing NBC this year, but that has turned to disappointment. I now prefer to listen to the race on PRN or MRN with Mike Rice, Eli Gold and Dave Mooney. I take a peak at the TV when one of drivers has a problem or when they are in for pit stops. I keep the TV on in the garage with sound off. I miss DW and Larry Mac and "Lets crank it up."

Steve from Ball Bround, GA

pogeyboat said...

maybe nascar should stand up,put the fans first,admit that espn just isn't right for us anymore and buy back the contract. offer it next year,even as a loss to speed and build a package around that.
they are taking (nascar) things for granted.they need to pay more attention to bruton and humpy who still get the picture that they are promoters. nascar seems to think they've got a captive audience and they really don't. they didn't want bill elliott to ruin the show,what do they think espn has done to them?

Ann_Ominous said...

For anonymous at 8:35 AM, FYI, Jamie and Rusty's daughter split up at the beginning of 2006. She dumped him.

Could anyone believe it during NN this morning when not only did they talk for a while about the truck race, but Klueless even said that the only people who don't like the truck races are the people who aren't watching them ??? Did he finally watch one or did somebody script that for him?

Anonymous said...

#!)After reading your column, my brain started clanking like an old Chevy with a busted rear-end to come up with this thought: What if the people at ESPN WANT the NFL to "beat" NASCAR (in tv land) and whether it is actually premeditated or a mistake isn't the point.
I am NOT a conspiracy theorist by any measure (rather I'm usually an anti-conspiracy-theorist) and this is shocking to me to think it. But most of the jocks I know would stoop this low and be proud of themselves, too.

#2)(You go wickedj!)
One other point:

#3)Old racers(me) vs new racers.
I've been trying to find the difference but mostly I come back to marketing hype. The younger guys like racing as they know it. Us 'old guys' know racing as it really exists (or existed?). The younger set is "discovering" 'dirt racing at Lowes' for heavens sake.
My point is this:the younger group is being spoon fed racing like it gets spoon fed sports and news. Somewhere in tv land someone dicided to break up every minute into blocks and they try to cram each little block full like an expanded block on an excel spread sheet. They NEED TO STOP THAT!

News shows should quit trying to cram every news item into a ten second headline! The morning news shows all do it, and it is what is messing up NASCAR on ESPN.
SPEED is the only channel that doesn't do it as much...they have expanded their time blocks or something making it easier to watch my NASCAR. That "teaser" crap may very well be what I DON'T like about Pinks, and all that other crap that SPEED shows in between races, hehe.
If the show takes out HALF of the two second "teaser" spots, they'd have an actual 3 minutes they could ask an "INTELLIGENT" question of someone in the garage area, maybe more than one.
(Oh, sorry...I'll get down off my soap box now.)

Erik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Erik said...

TV rating were dropping for the past couple of seasons. Last year, the excuse was that NBC was on the way out, and they weren't doing enough to promote the broadcasts. Though, the ratings were down for the races in the Fox portion of the schedule as well, which has MUCH less competition than does the fall part of the schedule.

This tells me ESPN isn't the problem for the lower ratings, but just an overall trend of declining viewership. That probably should have been expected, as NASCAR reached a peak after a huge runup. Its next to impossible to sustain that momentum. That is no different than the stock market when it reaches all time highs. There will be a pullback, its a guarantee.

Anonymous said...

Here's why we the fans will never win this battle: Yesterday Brian France's statement about Bruton Smith buying New hampshire Speedway, said, in part, "This is proof that NASCAR continues to thrive and grow." What kind of crack cocaine is he smoking??If he thinks that everything is rosy, there is no way he "watches "the coverage.

indybigjohn said...

876+Just how important ESPN considers NASCAR and just how much attention they pay to what they are doing with it, was pointed out Saturday evening on all their networks. I skipped from drag racing to football to more football, and on all of them, the "bottom line" crawl said Kevin Harvick won the Busch race at Texas and Carl Edwards won the championship. Then they proceeded to show the first five point positions and say it was the "final" season points. If I'm wrong, tell me, but aren't their two more races with points to be earned? What this told me is that the people doing this know less about NASCAR than the average race fan, and it makes me wonder how smart they are about other sports.

Illpolo said...

Erik, do you really believe the things you actually type? Do you not realize how bad ESPN is getting knocked around about the coverage of all sports and not just Nascar. I realize you are probably delusional and like to hear yourself talk, read whatever you type, etc. but you can't really be serious about the things you say.

Almost everything about ESPN's coverage of Nascar this year has been crap and the ratings will continue to reflect that as more and more viewers find alternatives to watching their awful coverage.

Anonymous said...

With the exception of the last 15 laps todays race was boring ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

Suzie, Rusty, Brad & Dr Punch need to get into draft lock and get off the broadcast.