Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ESPN Returns To The Confusion Zone With Authority

Let me say one thing right at the top of the column today. Readers have been critical of my comments about NASCAR Now, the daily NASCAR-themed program launched by ESPN2 this February. Comments have been forwarded that ESPN needs time to get "back into" the sport, and that the new show hosts "don't really" have to know NASCAR. Many say I should not criticize the program, for fear that ESPN will cancel the only daily NASCAR show on TV.

Since the inception of The Daly Planet, there was never an intention to single-out for criticism one program series, one network, or one type of race coverage. This season of NASCAR on TV has simply proven to be an incredible mix of outstanding success, and mind-bending disappointment. Both of these elements have touched ESPN, SPEED, Fox Sports, ABC Sports, ESPN2, and NASCAR Images.

Now, we find this column addressing a thirty minute NASCAR Now program that aired on Tuesday. Only one day after perhaps the best NASCAR Now episode of the season, the network returned to its "bi-polar" existence. ESPN2 rolled-out a totally scripted program on national TV hosted by a person who is clearly unfamiliar with the sport. As so many readers ask me in email...how is this possible on ESPN? Would a non-NFL person host NFL GameDay? Would a non-baseball person host Baseball Tonight? Does everyone at ESPN just read a script now? The answer is no. For some reason, ESPN has decided that only NASCAR deserves this treatment. The real question is why?

When Doug Banks appears as host, NASCAR Now is a tightly scripted program read slowly with no errors. Its a bit like a fifth grader reading a book- report for a teacher. Banks has built himself an fantastic career, only it is not on TV and it certainly is not about NASCAR. In everything I have read, he is a caring and charity-oriented hip-hop urban DJ with a heart-of-gold. He has built a huge radio following, and is regarded as a stand-up guy. The only problem is, he is hosting a nationwide NASCAR show on ESPN2 that will help or hurt the sport at a very critical time. That, my friends, is a problem. Its not helping.

Compounding the host problems are the very strange decisions made by the production staff on a regular basis. NASCAR Now boasts as reporters Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Angelique Chengelis, David Newton, and Shannon Spake. ESPN also owns Jayski.com and ESPN.com, two sites associated with getting the scoop on the biggest NASCAR stories. Can you believe what happened to start this show?

As the first story, Doug Banks proudly said "The Associated Press is reporting that Junior is being offered 51% of DEI valued at 55 million dollars." The sound you heard next was the thud of the ESPN reporters hitting the floor. Leave it to the AP to get the NASCAR scoop on ESPN. I guess that begs the question of why we need all those pesky ESPN reporters? You know, the ones that the show is built around?

Official "ESPN.com NASCAR Insider" David Newton was actually brought on-camera to speak to the AP story. Think about that statement. Imagine asking your own senior reporter to comment on a story that lead a show where he is supposed to be providing the news? Why didn't Banks just ask Newton, "do you feel like a total failure now David?" What a memorable moment in NASCAR Now history. We get scooped...and report it.

From the beginning of this show, The Daly Planet has asked that the "experts" be brought-in to interview the NASCAR personalities. Tuesday, Kurt Busch was unfortunately interviewed by host Doug Banks in a poorly scripted exercise in bad television. After asking Kurt about his brother having Junior make some laps last week, Banks actually asked Kurt Busch if Dale Junior driving his car would be a problem. At that moment, I do believe the world might have stopped spinning just for a moment to watch his reaction. Give Kurt Busch a ton of credit for patiently telling the un-informed Banks that having the national spokesman and symbol of Budweiser in North America driving the Miller Lite car...might be a problem. Could anyone actually make this up?

Banks then led NASCAR veteran Tim Brewer through a painful interview about Jeff Gordon and Dale Sr., a story that is already old. Brewer made lots of references to things like Dale sending Jeff "the milk," and Earnhardt being "old school." Banks never comments on anything Brewer says, because it is clear he does not understand it. Brewer must be wondering just what his role is when he is quizzed one slow disjointed question at a time. No follow-up, no conversation, just answer and leave. This type of interview has defined this series since February.

Finally, ESPN rolled-out their new fantasy NASCAR league, which requires sign-up and registration on ESPN.com. It makes absolutely no sense, but that does not seem to matter. Users sign-up, and then pick one driver against another driver in the race. It makes no difference where they finish, just who finishes higher than the other. A very nice man was on with Doug Banks "picking" fantasy things that he had "made-up." Who he was, and why he was talking NASCAR was never explained. Another fantasy.

This thirty minutes of NASCAR Now brought back all the old memories of just what a struggle this series has been since it began in February. Hopefully, it also helped Daly Planet readers to understand that NASCAR deserves the same respect and knowledge that is given to the stick-and-ball sports by ESPN. This is a long-term commitment by the network to this sport. There are plenty of talented TV anchors available who can step-in and right this ship before the network enters the big time with NEXTEL Cup coverage. That will bring a whole new audience to NASCAR Now, and they will ultimately decide if this show will survive. Right now, its still a toss-up.

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