Saturday, April 28, 2007
It was January 5th when ESPN President George Bodenheimer spoke about the network's commitment to the NASCAR Busch Series. Bodenheimer said that the Busch Series was "one of the jewels in the rough" in the ESPN NASCAR agreement. He followed it up by saying that "fans will notice a new shine on the gem with ESPN's elevation of the series."
John Skipper, who is the Executive VP of "content" for anything ESPN, said that "having the NASCAR Busch Series on entirely one network is really going to serve the NASCAR fan and allow us to tell a story all year long."
Well, here we are in late April. ESPN has yet to follow one single Busch Series story, integrate the Busch Series into NASCAR Now, or offer the Busch Series the type of exposure it promised. What went wrong?
The answer, of course, is NEXTEL Cup. The same identity problem plaguing the Busch Series is plaguing ESPN's coverage of it. After opening the pre-race show with generic NASCAR crash footage and endlessly promoting "the big one," the show switched gears and totally abandoned the Busch Series as it so often does. Tony Stewart and his NEXTEL Cup comments were at the top of the show, including a replay of his Sirius Satellite Radio interview.
ESPN then brought to the infield studio Jeff Burton, who drives regularly in the Busch Series. Burton is a great representative for the Busch gang, and this high-profile TV time could really focus on both the series and the race today. Unfortunately, Burton was immediately asked to address the NEXTEL Cup issues raised by Tony Stewart, and then he was done. Jeff Burton never spoke about anything connected with the Busch Series in this segment. Nothing.
ESPN then returned from commercial with a thirty second video montage of violent NASCAR wrecks at Talladega. When one was especially violent, they put it in slow motion and played music while the footage ran. The "new" ESPN loves violence. Host Brent Musburger then turned to Jeff Burton, and asked "how do the big ones get started?" As Burton answered this non-Busch Series question, ESPN played again the same violent accident footage. The Busch Series race...never mentioned.
Brad Daugherty, another mis-cast soul, then spoke very earnestly about Jimmie Johnson telling him that Jimmie's heart rate gets really high at Talladega, and that makes it hard on the driver. Daugherty closed with "at the end of this (long) race...if you are not in great shape...your decision-making becomes questionable." Daugherty was speaking, of course, about the much longer NEXTEL Cup race the next day. Jimmie Johnson was not in the Busch Series race. Never once was the Busch Series mentioned. Not the weather, the track temp, the race length... nothing.
Then, the "booth team" of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree then came along to comment on this race. Jerry asked DJ "generically" about drafting, the big wreck, and how to win at Talladega. He then asked Andy "generically" about deal-making on pit road, who the driver runs with, and how to win. Punch then threw to Tim Brewer for a profile about restrictor plates. Between Punch, Jarrett, Petree, and Brewer, the Busch Series was never mentioned. Not one story, comment, or phrase by the booth announcers described anything about the Busch Series race they were about to call. Musburger then led to commercial by teasing Dale Junior's DEI issues and an upcoming interview. Never mentioned the Busch Series.
The following video feature on Dale Junior visiting a Navy ship was a wonderful metaphor for the topic of this column. Along with Junior, Busch Series regular Shane Huffman came along on this US Navy sponsor visit. Just like the Busch Series itself, Shane quickly became completely and totally invisible. The story was the NEXTEL Cup driver, his presence, and his public relations duties to his sponsor. Huffman was the wooden Indian standing by the door. Everyone walked past, no one cared. Just like the Busch Series.
Following up the DEI feature, Mike Massaro asked Junior about DEI contract issues and the NEXTEL Cup race. Junior actually took it upon himself to switch the focus to the Busch Series. His comments were the only moments of Busch Series "specific" information up to this point in the show. Then, Clint Bowyer added a moment of additional information, and the only real preview of what today's race might bring. It was the two drivers being interviewed that offered viewers direct information about what was going on at the Busch Series race at Talladega...the drivers.
Jeff Burton was allowed to answer one question before Musburger made his usual college sports "inside joke" with Brad Daugherty, and the pre-race show was over. Just like that, the opportunity to focus on the actual Busch Series race, personalities in the series, and news stories was squandered again by a network obsessed with NEXTEL Cup racing. This was the NEXTEL Cup pre-race show done one day early.
It is understood that ESPN and ABC are preparing for NEXTEL Cup telecasts later this season. It is also understood that many of these same on-air personalities are trying very hard to make sure they are part of those telecasts. ESPN executives have stated that changes are coming, and that has not helped the "team spirit" of the ESPN gang.
Unfortunately, it is the Busch Series that is taking it right in the teeth from ESPN. The Daly Planet has documented time and time again the reluctance of NASCAR Now to even show Busch Series highlights, or prepare feature stories on Busch teams. Now, even in the Busch Series pre-race show on ABC, the focus of the entire show is NEXTEL Cup, and the high-profile personalities in that series.
Perhaps, if ESPN tuned into RaceDay on SPEED on Sunday mornings, they would understand that this same information will be repeated completely in a two-hour live broadcast that is tremendously popular with fans and viewers. It might make a little more sense for the ESPN gang to focus on the stories surrounding the race at hand, the Busch Series series itself, and the upcoming race strategy.
Just imagine being 19-year-old Busch Series pole sitter Brad Coleman. After setting the world on fire in your "Carino's Italian Grill Chevrolet," ESPN and ABC decide that your accomplishment is worthy of a ten second mention, and no interview in the pre-race show. No interview of the 19-year-old on the Busch pole at Talladega. Who could even imagine that the Busch "regulars" would be treated like this? Something is just fundamentally wrong with this decision, this pre-race show, and the ESPN Busch Series coverage. Maybe Mr. Bodenheimer and Mr. Skipper might want to revise their memo.
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SPEED Channel continues to quietly offer some of the best on-track NASCAR TV coverage of the 2007 season. The NASCAR on Fox crew stepped-over to SPEED to telecast the Talladega NEXTEL Cup qualifying on Saturday afternoon. It turned-out to be an interesting and emotional session. It was also great TV.
The stories going into the weekend were well-documented. Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip proved to be well-informed enough to address all of them. As the session progressed, the Fox Sports veterans were savvy enough to document the action on a car-by-car basis, and used the down time between laps to address the top news stories of the week. Mike Joy continues to be the best play-by-play announcer currently on the NASCAR TV trail. But, during this telecast, another story was also unfolding.
Very quietly, TV veteran Steve Byrnes has been asserting himself as a presence on high-profile NASCAR broadcasts. In this Talladega qualifying session, Byrnes joined Jeff Hammond in the Hollywood Hotel. No one has ever looked more at home. The upbeat personality of Byrnes mixes so well with the entire NASCAR on Fox gang that it really puts the spotlight on the "outsider" Chris Myers.
The Daly Planet has spoken several times about the struggles in the Hollywood Hotel this season, both with production issues and Myers quirky and eccentric behavior. Myers is almost the David Letterman of NASCAR, his style is either understood or completely mystifying. This season, his act is getting old.
Byrnes brings to the Hollywood Hotel a level of knowledge and TV professionalism that allow him to relate to both the hardcore NASCAR fan and the casual viewer. His personality has long made him a SPEED TV favorite, but his role has always been as a pit reporter or talk show host. In this new role, Bynes really helped to give the infield commentary position new relevance. He and Jeff Hammond really work well together, and the best part is...it showed.
Perhaps, after this high-profile spin in the infield driver's seat, the NASCAR on Fox executives might recognize that Byrnes could play a role in returning the innovative TV concept of the Hollywood Hotel to a level of credibility it has been sorely lacking this season.
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