Monday, April 23, 2007

ESPN's "NASCAR Now" Scores With New Format

ESPN2 debuted a re-vamped one hour NASCAR Now on Monday night. Somehow, the finality that NASCAR fans are tired of the "fluff" and ready for some "stuff" has reached the hallways of Bristol, CT. Changes in this program were top-to-bottom.

Host Erik Kuselias threw to video highlights of the NEXTEL Cup race right-off the top of the show. With a good script, Kuselias made it work, but perhaps a more veteran voice might "sell" the highlights with authority. Luckily, the best decision was to go directly to soundbites of Jeff Gordon post-race. This allowed the only outstanding issue, about the Earnhardt flag tribute, to be addressed right away.

Stacy Compton showed-up and put the Gordon victory, and his tribute, in perspective. Compton is a very good historian, and his plain language and calm demeanor really helped to finally end the NASCAR Now hype. Nicely done by all parties.

At long last, ESPN used the cell phone to call Steve Letarte and get him to explain how his #24 team stayed-on the lead lap, how Jeff did in the car, and what the tribute meant to the team. This was a feature that NASCAR Now has to commit firmly to each Monday, and expand. Kuselias was absolutely told to avoid the type of "hype" and "drama" that has defined this program series up to this point. Good idea.

NASCAR Now seems to have grasped the concept that raw footage from the events of the weekend works as "in-bumps" on the show when returning from commercial. It was so nice to hear ESPN using announcer sound from the NASCAR on Fox gang, as if they finally acknowledged we are all in this together. More footage in this hour, for any reason, would be welcomed. Fans miss a lot by only seeing the final on-air broadcast.

Shannon Spake hustled to get JD Gibbs on-camera to address the frustration of Tony Stewart. Gibbs did a great job explaining what we all knew, Tony wants to win. Eventually, Erik Kuselias might discover that intensity is exactly what Tony fans love. Spake also addressed the Gibbs COT issues, and actually got a friendly sign-off from Kuselias. That is the clincher that times have changed, Erik was nice.

Tim Cowlishaw continues to be out-of-place on this show. He is the only non-experienced commentator on the set. His "conversational" comments are used only to address the "take it or leave it" sports radio questions poised by Kuselias. As in this program, Stacy Compton laughed at Cowlishaw, and put him in his place about Tony Stewart's "antics." ESPN needs to move Cowlishaw back to an opinion-based position on or ESPN The Magazine. Places where the hype still lives.

Shannon Spake and her Producer are still continuing to crank-out quality features like the one in this show on Hendrick Motorsports. Her low-key and laid back style really fits well, and she seems to be able to stay in the background, and let the information and personalities speak for themselves. She is a nice surprise this season.

Kuselias brought out Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis for the regular news segment. For some reason, NASCAR Now will not allow the two reporters to speak to each other. This is a problem that the show must correct. Marty Smith could easily host the entire news segment, bring-in the other reporters, and then pass-the-ball back to the show host when the news is done. NASCAR Now continues to deny the problem that two of their three co-hosts cannot engage in free-form NASCAR conversation. The individual scripted questions are maddening.

SportsCenter regular Neil Everett lent his voice to a fantastic piece on the relationship between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. The core of this feature was the on-camera soundbites with Jeff after the Phoenix win, and Dale Junior speaking directly to Gordon's respect for Jr.'s father. The public does not get from NASCAR Now this type of "direct relationship" with the sport very often, and it was nice to see. This is the kind of understanding and preparation that will help fans to believe that ESPN knows NASCAR...once again.

Ryan Newman appeared live, but Kuselias conducted the scripted interview. This is the weakness of the show, and always has been. Newman has talked to non-racing journalists a lot, and he was calm and patient. Needless to say, the questions were horrible, bordering on the in-accurate. Even though this liveshot was a free promo for Newman's sponsor, it would have been a good time to ask some hard questions.

Closing with a promo for next week's Talladega race, the show left one big question on the table. What happened to Friday night's Busch race? Where were the highlights and winner interview? That is the only NASCAR series on ESPN2, it was a good race, and yet nothing made it to the "weekend recap" show? Did I mention the race was on ESPN2? Did I mention this show is now one hour long?

This new NASCAR Now format was a strong step by the network in turning a struggling program series into one with potential. The key will be if the thirty minute version of this show tomorrow can carry-on this new emphasis on hard news, facts, and footage. Time will tell, but this was a good start.

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