Wednesday, June 13, 2007

TV Networks Cover Junior Like A Blanket

Fans had a very easy time finding out all the information available on the big Dale Earnhardt Junior announcement. On the Internet, on Sirius Satellite Radio, and all over the television world, the media played a big game of follow-the-leader all day long. Two of NASCAR's TV partners, SPEED Channel and ESPN, pre-empted regular programming to cover this breaking news.

For a wide variety of reasons, SPEED decided not to originate a daily motorsports news program this year. The network concentrated on building its presence at the NASCAR races, and has met with great success. SPEED originates multiple programs from the "SPEED stage" usually located just outside the track.

While this has been very popular with the fans, it sometimes leaves the network a bit short when a big motorsports story breaks during the week. With the Junior story, the network turned to the dependable John Roberts to anchor from the Charlotte studio and Bob Dilner to report from the field. The network carried the news conference live, and then did a thirty minute recap show in the evening.

One of the best voices on this subject was Jeff Hammond. Speaking on the SPEED set with John Roberts, Hammond offered a great overview of the entire Junior situation, and used his personal perspective to put all the pieces of this puzzle in place. Away from the Hollywood Hotel and Chris Myers, Hammond sounded every bit like a veteran spokesman for the sport. His honesty, and well-spoken commentary on this situation really capped-off SPEED's efforts.

ESPN also opted to cover the press conference live, and put together a special one hour version of NASCAR Now for Wednesday evening. The show called-in almost everyone from the NASCAR Now cast, and allowed a wide variety of personalities to chime-in on the Junior move. Reporter Marty Smith started with a recap of the days events and what is known, and not known, so far about the issues.

Rusty Wallace stepped-up and stated that it was Earnhardt Junior who was getting the better part of this deal. Wallace flat-out said Earnhardt could not win where he was, and Hendrick Motorsports was the place to be. Even with the recent success of Martin Truex Jr. on the track, Brad Daugherty agreed with Wallace and said that Junior's fans "expect him to be a champion."

As the new kid on the block, field reporter Shannon Spake drew the short straw and had to report on the Kyle Busch story. Standing alongside Smith and Wallace outside JR Motorsports, Spake relayed the official party line about Busch moving on with no hard feelings. As to the big question about Busch leaving his ride early, she made good sense in reminding everyone that Kyle might make "The Chase." Leaving early would only ruin the sponsor's ties to Hendrick and end the season on a bad note.

Leave it to the plain-spoken Boris Said to tell host Erik Kuselias that Kyle Busch will "drive the five car like he stole it" for the rest of the season. In hilarious fashion, Said suggested that Rick Hendrick should list Jeff Gordon as Junior's new car owner. He said it would be hard for the fans to throw beer cans at Junior's boss. Unfortunately, Kuselias did not understand the owner reference and went right back to the script, and the next question. Another host might still be laughing.

Reporter Angelique Chengelis stated that the DEI company itself is "moving on." With Kyle Busch now open for offers, it would be interesting if he winds-up swapping places with Junior. Chengelis was never given an opportunity to speak about Greg Biffle possibly filling the Junior seat at DEI, and what that would mean to the fans. That was a shame, as it is the hottest topic following the Junior news.

Halfway through the show, to "reset" the scene for viewers who tuned-in at the normal time of 6:30 PM, NASCAR Now broke out their "heavyweight piece." Everything else up to that point proved to be fluff when veteran reporter Mike Massaro delivered an exclusive interview with Rick Hendrick taped immediately after the announcement. Massaro "speaks NASCAR," and delivered the questions to Hendrick that fans wanted answered. When Hendrick told Massaro that Junior "fit with him, and that this was not a new relationship" it was the best statement about this deal from any reporter or network.

Massaro continued to allow Hendrick to speak slowly and carefully about how Junior would mesh with his other superstars. It was clear that Hendrick was comfortable with Massaro, and Hendrick's explanations gave a great perspective on how things had transpired, and what was expected in the future. It was amazing that the NASCAR Now producer did not "tease" this interview earlier in the show. Just one small soundbite or two would have kept any viewer waiting for the full conversation.

Incredibly, the interview was cut-off rudely with no closing statement or "wrap" from Massaro. Erik Kuselias in the studio never even mentioned Massaro's name at the end of the interview. With the news that Massaro will be hosting the qualifying show and also NASCAR Countdown this weekend from Kentucky, perhaps Kuselias is not the happiest camper. Kuselias was tried, and removed, from that position earlier this season. Good luck to Mike Massaro this weekend, after all the hard work he has put in at ESPN over the years, he deserves a chance to "step-up."

This season, reporter Terry Blount has been delivering good content and mixing it with veteran perspective. His analysis that Ginn Racing might be in the mix for Kyle Busch was interesting. When he coupled it by saying that Ginn believes Mark Martin might be a great mentor for Kyle, and help him with the issues he is dealing with, it made even more sense. What a curious "father-son" dynamic that would be.

Its been interesting that an ABC-owned company would allow an NBC personality on the air, but CNBC financial reporter Darren Rovell has been a regular on NASCAR Now. In this show, he referenced the fact that Budweiser needs Junior. The other professional sports leagues do not allow their athletes to represent alcohol brands. He also answered the question of why Bud would not want to leave Junior for another driver, because the "Red Army" backlash would only result in a decrease in beer sales. His point, which was well made, was that Budweiser would be crazy not to follow Junior wherever he goes.

It was at this point in the one hour show that NASCAR Now unleashed the bombshell. Since the beginning of the show, it had never been mentioned. It had never been "teased" or shown. The host had never said the magic words that fans wanted to hear until he introduced it. Fans that had grown tired of recaps of the same information from different perspectives had left.

It seems incredible that NASCAR Now, the only daily NASCAR TV show, had an exclusive interview with Junior and did not mention it once in forty five minutes of show time.

Right out of commercial, Kuselias read the script and there was Mike Massaro talking with Junior. "I'm thirty-two years old" were the first words from Junior in this heartfelt interview. "I would not dodge the pressure...because of fear of failure" said Junior. Massaro let him talk about Jeff Gordon, and Junior started the process of letting fans understand how things would work between them. When Junior told Massaro he was looking forward to "the risk" of this new deal, it was great.

Then, as with many things this season on NASCAR Now, disaster struck again. After Massaro asked Junior how close he came to going to RCR and driving the three car, the tape abruptly stopped. Erik Kuselias appeared on-camera and started talking without ever saying why the interview was ended early. Technical problems? Short on time? At least tell the viewers why the one interview with the man the entire show was about was suddenly cut short in mid-sentence.

Kuselias went on to read "viewer mail." But, the posts were not about NASCAR Now, they were about Junior. They were just comment posts from ESPN Sports Nation, their forum. We missed the end of the Junior interview for email from fans about Junior? After all the effort and manpower that went into this show, it was a bittersweet closing segment.

The journalists, reporters, anchors, analysts, and interviews in this special one hour show created a large amount of sold content for the network. They all delivered very well done pieces, and reported carefully on a news story that was still a moving target. They showed exactly what NASCAR Now can be when the resources and manpower of ESPN are harnessed for one purpose. No doubt we will see many segments of this show posted on the ESPN and Jayski websites for the next several days.

Perhaps, one of those segments will be Junior's great interview with Mike Massaro, which was interrupted. Many long time fans of NASCAR with close ties to Earnhardt Sr. would like to know just how close Junior came to a deal with RCR. Seeing Junior in a black number three car, even if it was Budweiser sponsored, would have stood the sport on its ear. Hopefully, that question will be answered sometime.

ESPN put on an impressive display of what they can do when focused. With the NEXTEL Cup races only a couple of weeks away from migrating to ABC Sports, this cast of reporters and journalists might find that today was a good rehearsal for the kind of effort the network will have to put together on a daily basis when "The Chase" is in full swing.

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