Friday, May 25, 2007

ESPN Enters The Danger Zone

ESPN2's daily program called NASCAR Now returned to the air Friday with Erik Kuselias at the helm as host. This was the key preview show leading into the big Memorial Day racing weekend. In the past, ESPN has carried many different types of racing over this four day period.

For NASCAR Now, the weekend held the Busch Series race on ESPN2, and both The Craftsman Trucks Series and NEXTEL Cup races on Fox Sports. While the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series race at Lowes Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, the Trucks are at Mansfield Motorsports Park in Ohio.

As is customary on this weekend, The Indy 500 telecast begins Sunday at noon on ABC Sports. As we know, many other racing series also take to the track over this holiday weekend. Luckily, NASCAR Now is focused on the NASCAR side of the sport, and can offer a preview of the three NASCAR series racing this weekend. Well, that sounds good in theory. Wait until you hear the reality.

NASCAR Now has secured one microphone and one camera at the Lowes Motor Speedway. The "drop" is behind the pit wall about halfway down pit road. They have used this one position over-and-over again as the single camera shot for every story and interview. After a while, its hilarious.

Someone stands in "the spot" and is interviewed, then when the interview is over the Bristol studio host comes on for a minute and then throws back to a new person who is standing in the same spot with the same mic. Same exact spot.

Then, after a commercial, yet another feature reporter comes on to introduce a videotape report. You guessed it, "the spot." In this show alone we had Reed Sorenson, Marty Smith, Shannon Spake, David Green, DJ Copp, and Casey Mears. All from the exact same spot, and all using the same mic. The poor drivers actually had a Stage Manager's headset that was "placed" on their heads so they could hear over the roar of the Legends Cars racing in the background. What they were hearing was Erik Kuselias asking scripted questions. This re-defined bad television.

The NASCAR Now location production from Charlotte was amateurish and embarrassing. With all the TV equipment on the ground for an entire weekend of racing, the only thing NASCAR Now can come up with is one place for everyone to stand? If that track can accommodate more than one hundred thousand people on race day, perhaps it can provide more than one location for the entire NASCAR Now show. What happened to the brand new NASCAR Countdown million dollar studio trailer? I almost felt like suggesting that the NASCAR Now crew walk over to SPEED and use any of the multiple sets that they bring to the track each week.

What we were hearing from NASCAR Now was called "cross-promotion." This allows ESPN to use this "NASCAR" show to focus attention and promotion on the Indy 500 on ABC Sports. Yesterday, Janet Guthrie came on the show to talk about "Women in NASCAR," but she could not remember the name of even one. She was there to promo the Indy 500, the three women in the race, and did so for several minutes...on NASCAR Now.

Today, Chip Ganassi was promoted in the opening segment as having a "big weekend" with a clear reference to Indy. His driver Reed Sorenson and former driver Casey Mears both appeared from "the spot," but would not comment on Ganassi's IndyCar program. Leave it to the drivers to keep the focus where it should belong.

Next, in the NASCAR "News and Notes" the first item was that Richard Petty was going to the Indy 500 in person. That's right, Petty at Indy. Talk about grasping at straws. Moving along, the Craftsman Truck Series got a fifteen second "reader" by Kuselias about the Mansfield race because Craftsman bought a commercial, and NASCAR Now was "forced" to include it. That led directly into a promo for...not the Truck Race, but the Indy 500!

One of the reasons we talked earlier in the year about moving NASCAR Now to Charlotte was the political pressures faced by the Bristol, Connecticut production staff. If your boss tells you to promote the Indy 500 in a NASCAR show, you do it. ESPN is in a tizzy over Indy, and its getting very weird.

This is a big NASCAR weekend. All three national series are running, the Whelen Modifieds are at Stafford, and the high-profile NASCAR Canadian Series kicks off the season at Cayuga Speedway in Hamilton, Ontario. This new NASCAR venture has never even been mentioned by NASCAR Now. But, the Indy 500 certainly was.

The ESPN Busch Series race was promoted, but not the NEXTEL Cup or Craftsman Truck Series races. No networks, no start times, and no features on either race. As we know, that is a pretty clear sign these races are not on ESPN. They must be ignored, and they were.

ESPN is stepping into the danger zone. NASCAR Now will either be about NASCAR and what is "actually" going on in the sport, or it will be about what "ESPN says" is going on. As we know, these two things are remarkably different. If this show continues to cater to ESPN-only programming interests, and continues to drift off-course, it faces continued low ratings and poor performance.

With the Internet, Sirius Satellite Radio, and sites like, who needs NASCAR Now? If you alienate the NASCAR audience with continued ignorance of the sport, and obvious twisting of fact and reality to ESPN's needs, who winds-up watching?

Its unclear what audience ESPN is trying to reach, but inserting other ESPN programming interests into a NASCAR show while ignoring NASCAR's own interests is going to be a problem sooner or later. As we move through May, and head toward June, I believe the later is turning quickly to sooner.

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