Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Nothing is more painful for me to write about than the slow death of a show that used to be a staple of my TV viewing habits. Series can climb the popularity hill one season, only to be led directly into the depths the next. This is the case with the former all-star NASCAR performer Inside NEXTEL Cup on SPEED Channel.
The Daly Planet has documented the changes in management and on-air talent that affected this program series, but this past week's edition of the show elicited nothing but sadness about what is, and anger about what could have been.
The first chair on this show has been occupied by only one man. But, once again, Kenny Schrader did not make the field for this week's Cup race. His pain was evident and palpable to veteran viewers of the show. Someone who at the height of his career was mentioned with the likes of Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. now finds himself pushing inferior equipment in a sport filled with Jeff Gordon clones and young "hot shoes" with big attitudes. He is a vanishing breed, that will not come again. His wit and wisdom will be missed when he steps aside.
In the second chair sits "the disaster." The problems that have befallen Michael Waltrip this year are only made more "real" by his Monday presence on Inside NEXTEL Cup. Its easy to see him in a thirty second "sound bite" on the news talking about next week, or the future. Its easy to forget about him when the race starts and the action on the track heats up. Unfortunately, its impossible to deny reality when he is forced to comment for a solid hour on the very sport that has forsaken him with absolutely no mercy. The memories of Daytona victory and the DEI glory days pale in comparison with his current life. It is all made even worse by the many SPEED TV programs in which he is featured...or used to be.
In the third chair sits the ghost of Johnny Benson. No one has ever come close to replacing the "person" that viewers came to know and love. The "replacements" may have been driving in Cup, they may have been on big teams, and they may have even won some races. But, they have never erased the personality that meshed so well with the dry wit of Schrader and the over-the-top lifestyle of Waltrip. This season, Greg Biffle sits in the third chair and answers scripted questions from the host without emotion or laughter. The ghost of Johnny Benson continues to haunt this set.
In the host chair sits the loneliest man in North America. Dave Despain has been universally blamed for "ruining" this show, hating NASCAR, and almost anything else that fans can think of. A veteran announcer in a true no-win situation, Despain once had WindTunnel on live every night and was the "Larry King" of SPEED. Then, management left racing and skewed to the hip-hop "NOPI" culture, the "reality" entertainment genre, and an endless string of poorly conceived NASCAR "theme" shows. WindTunnel was traded for Pinks, Unique Whips, and NASCAR Nation. Former all-star Despain was traded to Inside NEXTEL Cup. Roger Clemens had been sent to The Toledo Mud Hens.
The entire dynamic of a straight-laced Alan Bestwick trying to control three rowdy NASCAR drivers and one guest made this show a "can't miss" for fans. Once, Michael Waltrip was water-cooler gossip for all the right reasons. Fans held out hope that Schrader might win one more before his career was over. Benson held his head high despite losing his Cup ride and sliding to the Truck Series. Then, SPEED released Bestwick and Benson in mid-season.
There were no goodbyes, no video tributes for the years of hard work, and no explanation other than Bestwick saying thank you and so long. The brutal reality of the television business had been placed front-and-center for SPEED viewers, and they did not like it. Now, several years later, Despain carries on like a man with no where else to go, and the show has become meaningless. Race highlights that have already been seen, comments that have already been made, and drivers who were not even in the race. No guests, no fun, and no chemistry.
As the 2007 season hits May, there are no changes on the horizon for Inside NEXTEL Cup. Despain and company will carry-on with a formula created by a senior executive who is no longer even with the network. SPEED is seemingly unable to acknowledge that things are in a total tailspin, and a new pilot and a new course are needed before a very big accident. With the recent changes in senior management at SPEED, perhaps there will be some pro-active work done to try and restore this former "franchise" program series to its original standing. It can't get any worse.
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Emails have been pouring in to The Daly Planet about local Fox TV affiliates leaving the NASCAR NEXTEL race from Richmond on Sunday. Some people have mentioned baseball, while others have talked about local programming and even some infomercials.
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