Wednesday, March 21, 2007

NASCAR Now: The Worst Studio Show in ESPN History

When I started these columns in February, it was understood that the entry of ESPN into the NASCAR scene was brand new. After being dropped by NASCAR in a clash of egos six years ago, ESPN then responded by cancelling RPM2Night and virtually eliminating NASCAR from SportsCenter and all other news shows. But, that was then, and this is now. There was new management at ESPN, and hope was on the horizon.

ESPN jumped into the deep end of the pool right away by mixing Rusty Wallace with Andy Petree and Dr. Jerry Punch in the booth. The results have been fabulous. Add in the strong pit reporters, and the ESPN race telecasts have taken-off with the fans. Even with the out-of-place Brent Musburger and the clearly bemused Chris Fowler, ESPN's trackside studio presence was nicely done.

Then, the network rolled-out its flagship program, NASCAR Now. This thirty minute daily show is key to the success of ESPN's racing efforts. It allows for the only tie to the NEXTEL Cup Series before ESPN itself picks-up coverage toward the end of the season. Up in Bristol, CT they refer to it as a "NASCAR programming platform." That basically means...they own it.

Since the first show, I have tracked the highs and lows of the very strange happenings with NASCAR Now. In the beginning, we got Rusty Wallace, Tim Brewer, Stacy Compton, and Boris Said as analysts. We met Angelique Chengelis, Terry Blount, and Marty Smith as reporters for the new and notes. Even old Tim Cowlishaw stopped by for his take on things racing. But slowly, throughout the last two months, the wheels have come off this series completely.

This was never more obvious than the Wednesday, March 21st edition of NASCAR Now. It was, quite simply, the worst studio show ever produced by ESPN in history. If it gets posted to, download it while you can, its going to be a collectors item.

Series host Doug Banks is new to NASCAR. To help him with today's racing news, ESPN brought in baseball's Tim Kurkjian, football's Mark Schlereth, and basketball's Brad Daugherty. From the top of the show, these four began a ten minute conversation that covered a lot of topics. They included graphite tennis rackets, the problems with hand-checking in the NBA, and the evolution of the forward pass in football. What they did not include, at any time in the entire conversation, was anything to do with NASCAR racing. The reason is simple... none of these four people know anything about it.

Banks later stumbled through two embarrassing interviews with Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray. Banks should never interview drivers alone, and his lack of knowledge and preparation caused both interviews to be legendary. Even as ESPN put the graphic "frustration mounting" under McMurray, Jamie explained he had been caught-up in two crashes and finished great in the two other races. Then, ESPN brought out the time honored "when are you going to win again" question. McMurray handled it like a pro, plugged his sponsor, and departed. No mention of why Jamie had a Vegas-style sportsbook behind him on the liveshot, and no graphic as to his location.

Casey Mears decided to be interviewed on the telephone, which perhaps was a great decision. Banks obviously had absolutely no idea who Mears was, what background his family had in racing, or what Casey had done so far this season. Banks read slowly from his script, again focusing on Mears failure to win as some sort of purposeful conspiracy. Then, he hit Mears with his apparent "scuffle" with Robbie Gordon as a major issue. Its unclear if Banks even knew that Gordon had made a now classic bonehead move and taken out three cars. Nothing about the reality of racing is even mentioned in the ridiculous questions that the production staff creates for these helpless anchors. It all focuses on losing, fighting, and the inability of athletes and teams to "win again." Sound familiar? MLB, NFL, or NBA anyone? SportsCenter, Gameday, Cold Pizza?

At the end of the worst show in ESPN history was a video highlight of the evolution of NASCAR vehicles over the years. This was the worst possible piece in which to insert a new show host who clearly had no previous NASCAR experience. Doug Banks trying to read a script about the evolution and technology of NASCAR racing was absolutely painful on so many levels.

Apparently, there is no end in sight to the chaos behind-the-scenes on this series. One call to an experienced host like John Kernan, Alan Bestwick, or even Eli Gold could put someone at the helm of this ship who had traveled this way before. Earlier this month, I would only have suggested that NASCAR Now is drifting slowly downstream without direction. Now, I would look you in the eye and say it is taking on water...lifejackets, gentlemen.

NASCAR Now: Dougie In The House!

Doug Banks seems like a very nice guy, and he has a ton of potential for hosting NASCAR Now. Its clear that he is comfortable on-the-air, and his enthusiasm is a welcome change from the high volume and cold mannerisms of Erik Kuselias.

The one thing that Doug does not know, is NASCAR. With the top story being Mark Martin not going to Bristol, the Producer of NASCAR Now made the decision not to bring in help for Mr. Banks. It was unfair to put Banks on the spot while trying to interview Regan Smith live. His questions were amateurish at best, and he left the meat of the issues about Bristol laying on the table untouched. He said bad things, like the COT has "never been driven." Of course, SPEED Channel actually covered the COT testing at Bristol in-depth. With the huge staff of experts on-hand at ESPN, how can the show host continue to be put in this awkward position?

Marty Smith should have been the first interview out-of-the blocks when the show started. Smith is the ultimate "Insider," and he needs to be included on the show regularly. If Marty Smith had been allowed to interview Regan Smith, we would have gotten a lot of scoop, and some good solid race talk. Maybe Marty needs to be given a studio presence more often.

Doug Banks next interview, again alone, was Matt Kenseth. Banks read his questions, Kenseth gave his political sponsor-driven answers, and things moved along. ESPN's Stacy Compton then appeared to talk about Chevy having a good year so far, but Compton should have done the Kenseth interview. Who is not getting the concept that the show host does not interview? Even in the 1980's, Brent Musburger threw to Irv Cross for the NFL interviews on CBS. This is not a new concept in sports television...walk down the hall and ask Brent.

Banks is photogenic, well-mannered, and the type of face the sport needs. But, as I mentioned in my post of March 7th, there is a big difference in what people really know, and what ESPN "says" they know. Simply by providing Mr. Banks the experts to handle the interviews and analysis, NASCAR Now could begin to right its ship and become the flagship NASCAR TV program that ESPN intended it to be.

If things continue at this pace, John Kernan should expect his phone to be ringing pretty soon. As the NASCAR season hits full-stride, the Connecticut-based production team will be hard pressed to get their arms around the stories and news that the entire NASCAR community generates. They have already shunned the regional series, the off-track activities, and the special family stories that this sport shows-off so well. With no email, no live phone calls, no on-camera questions, and no webcam videos, the other thing that NASCAR Now has the fans. But, we can wait until they get this first mess straightened out.