Sunday, July 15, 2007

TNT Sports Goes Out Like A Lamb

Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, TNT Sports wrapped-up what is arguably the most troubled television coverage of NASCAR's top series that viewers have seen in a long time. This small six race "summer package" put NASCAR's NEXTEL Cup Series back on cable TV and got NASCAR a lot of money. The question is, did it do more harm than good to the sport?

The TNT package kicked-off in the rain at Pocono, and from the start was quite different than the NASCAR on Fox coverage that viewers had enjoyed since the Daytona 500. Key to the TNT problems was the placement of former reporter and journalist Bill Weber in the play-by-play booth. TNT then brought-in one of their own "in-house" announcers, Marc Fein, to anchor the pre-race and infield coverage. The resulting friction threw a wet blanket over these telecasts.

In the new TNT pre-race show called NASCAR on TNT Live, Fein actually had to deal with Weber on the infield set acting as both an analyst and a second host. Weber took every opportunity to remind viewers, and Fein, that he had more experience and knowledge than everyone else. By the time this show reached Chicago, Weber had been cleaned from the set after the first segment, never to be seen again in the hour.

The TNT Live program was off-key mostly because of the short number of races. The features in this show were thrown together, and often very disjointed. For example, this Sunday Wally Dallenbach visited Bud Moore to detail his World War II experiences and hear some NASCAR stories from this famous car owner.

What most NASCAR fans know, and vividly remember, is that RaceDay reporter Wendy Venturini did a "Real Deal" segment on Mr. Moore for the Memorial Day weekend show. Venturini's report was head-and-shoulders above the piece filed by Dallenbach. Perhaps, if the TNT production staff had selected another retired NASCAR veteran to speak with, it would have been more appropriate.

The saving grace of this pre-race show was the knowledge of Larry McReynolds, and the comments of Kyle Petty. With McReynolds coming directly off the Fox Sports package, and Kyle appearing weekly as a panelist on SPEED's Tradin' Paint, these two veterans came in and walked all over both Weber and Dallenbach.

Kyle is both polite and political in many ways, but he had just exited a NEXTEL Cup car after a third place finish in Charlotte and his credibility was great. He knew what was going on with the current crop of drivers and crew members. McReynolds was supposed to be "positioned" on the TNT infield "Lazy Susan" set, but he refused to accept his confinement. Larry McReynolds could not be contained.

He constantly interrupted Weber to contribute key elements to the race broadcast concerning strategy and on-going stories. Several times, like Pocono, McReynolds was the one who interpreted the winning move in the pits and explained why it was done. By the time the TNT package reached Chicago, Weber was so mad he would just stop in mid-sentence and sneer.."go ahead, Larry."

In the TNT package, when the first pre-race show ended, Weber began "the other one" and pretended that the first one, which he did not host...never existed. It was just another strange kink in this strange coverage. The Countdown to Green show was Weber alone with his analysts and in full "passive-aggressive" control.

Aside from the normal pit road interviews, TNT also kept "Wally's World" in this show. This fun lap with a celebrity used to be Dallenbach explaining the track and its details while scaring the holy heck out of an innocent victim. Back then, it was great to get some information and entertainment at the same time.

Now, TNT has changed it into Dallenbach literally reading a TNT promo while driving with the "star" of the show being promoted. By the time Chicago had come, Dallenbach got Bill Engvall as a passenger. The Big Kahuna of TNT was all strapped-in and ready to ride.

Fans had been bombarded by promos for Engvall's show, and as usual Bill yelled a lot and made funny faces while Dallenbach read the promo material about his TNT show. This is possibly TNT's most shameless moment in these shows, and it used to be one of the best. If Wally had blown a tire while purposefully rubbing the wall with TNT's biggest star, it also could have been one of the worst.

When TNT transitions to the race itself, things get a little weird. Weber has one type of relationship with Dallenbach, Marty Snider, and Matt Yocum. These guys have basically been razzing each other for a long time, and it gets tiring. Snider, Dallenbach, and Weber are the worst. Its almost as if they don't care that the viewers can hear this stuff. Many emailers tell me that listening to the TNT chatter on a scanner at the track reveals a whole lot more going-on between these three.

Meanwhile, Kyle Petty, Larry McReynolds, Ralph Shaheen, and newcomer Lyndsay Czarniak are on a separate team. They are focused on the race, and never waiver. It makes for a weird counterpoint to have Larry McReynolds running around and working his calculator while Weber and Snider give each other grief about personal issues on the air like teenagers.

During the race, Czarniak has proven to be a straight-forward and effective reporter who demonstrates a solid ability to deal with the personalities and issues in the sport. Hopefully, she will be able to continue in NASCAR in some television capacity after the TNT package is over. Daly Planet readers could certainly suggest some positions that she could fill over at another NASCAR TV network.

Chicagoland turned out to be exactly what many had imagined. This track lacked grip, the aero factor was high, and long green flag runs made the race less than exciting. This allowed Petty and McReynolds to work hard in talking about a wide variety of issues relating to this type of racing, what the COT would bring to these races next season, and how some cars were managing to find speed on this slippery oval.

TNT returned to their normal graphics package and commercial break format, which featured less in-program promos than other races earlier in the series. Throughout this coverage, TNT has been solid in general on the production side, even when the announcers are totally confused, as was the case in Sonoma. At Chicago, TNT's audio from the track was outstanding all race long.

Even with solid work from Petty and Czarniak, the star of TNT's coverage was the absolutely intense Larry McReynolds. He might not be conjugating them verbs too well, but he knows his stuff. Time and time again, McReynolds was the one talking directly with Petty from the infield as if he was the "crew chief" in the booth.

During the final three races of this package, the booth announcers would literally ask McReynolds for his opinion on issues, or even to answer questions about things happening on the race track. Without his hard work, TNT's package would have been missing a very vital piece of the puzzle.

So, TNT exits and ESPN comes on board to begin a long run of NEXTEL Cup coverage until the end of the season. This six race package has been memorable, and had its ups and downs like all TV series. TNT promoted their network, used the Daytona race as a "special event" to generate publicity, and had a tough time with some on-air decision making during the Michigan and Sonoma events.

This "mini-package" makes one wonder if the best interests of the sport were served, and what the other options for coverage could have been. We all know that ESPN will take The Brickyard 400 as "the beginning" of their season, and never reference the TNT or Fox Sports coverage. Weber, Dallenbach, and company will just slip quietly into the night with paychecks in hand, and a smile on their face.

Meanwhile, NASCAR fans are about to face yet another completely new cast of characters on the NEXTEL Cup broadcasts, complete with a new agenda and network marketing and promotion campaigns. In essence, fans just traded Bill Engvall for Mike and Mike in the Morning and SportsCenter. Welcome to NASCAR.

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"RaceDay On SPEED" Is The Super Wal-Mart Of NASCAR TV

People have varied reactions the first time they step foot in a Super Wal-Mart. Some find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer size of the store. Others just can't wrap their mind around the fact that they can get frozen food, buy a TV, and then get their tires rotated under the same roof. Some people just find themselves drawn to the place over-and-over again for no reason. They just wander around and "discover" stuff.

Then, there are the people with the smile on their face who understand very clearly what this one Super Wal-Mart means to them. They have found nirvana. It does not matter in their life what the problem is, the solution is "go to the Wal-Mart." Anything from diapers to prescriptions to a new battery for the truck...Wal-Mart.

Slowly, this neighborhood store becomes a part of their life, which is the goal of the company. "Lean on me" they say, and we will take care of your family. When you have a need, we will fill it. If we don't have it, we will get it. Over-and-over again they slowly build the thought that "Wal-Mart is all you need...period."

Over in "NASCAR land," the networks telecasting the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series races have a brief pre-race show from the track. They talk about themselves, ignore everyone else, and generally self-serve for thirty minutes or so. When it comes to TNT, Fox Sports, and ESPN...its all about them. This approach left a big void in what NASCAR fans wanted on a racing weekend.

Enter SPEED Channel and RaceDay. Slowly, the network has built a TV show that is almost as long as a Busch or Truck race. This weekly show provides a two hour uninterrupted platform for SPEED to put out a wide variety of all things NASCAR. It truly is the Wal-Mart of NASCAR TV. This season, RaceDay has finally hit the big time and finds itself on a par with SportsCenter.

John Roberts is your RaceDay "greeter," and he is the gateway to such an incredible amount of NASCAR News, features, and total chaos that some fans can't handle it. Just like Wal-Mart, some fans try to watch RaceDay and are simply overwhelmed. Others just can't wrap their minds around the fact that one minute Wendy Venturini is interviewing the pole sitter, and the next minute Rutledge Wood is asking fans about his impending jury duty.

In fact, SPEED has worked very hard to create an environment where any kind of fan can stop by, and be tempted to stay. They have assembled a cast of characters that runs from the credible to the incredible, and cover topics from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous. The strange thing is, most of the time it works.

On the set, Roberts rides herd over Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace. Both Wallace and Spencer have become media savvy by attending the "School of Hard Knocks." After defining their role on the program, both of these "driver types" have become flexible performers. One minute, they are addressing a critical NASCAR issue and talking in no uncertain terms about their strong feelings. Then, on go the white wigs and black robes and "SPEED Court" is in session to dole out justice to the whiny "NASCAR problem children."

Like the stern manager who is always true to the company line, Wendy Venturini has refused to join in the hi-jinks of the on-set crew, and instead continues to build herself a nice little reputation as a true journalist. She contributes one of the cornerstones of the show, entitled "The Real Deal," which features Wendy in an interview with a person of interest to the show or NASCAR.

Venturini's fearless patrolling of the garage area is in sharp contrast to the chaos of former MTV DJ Ricky Rachtman. Originally added to this show as a guest, the tattooed and obnoxious Rachtman has served as a total counterpoint for Venturini. Rachtman plays to the crowd with pre-planned "outrage," and has been responsible for influencing fans to vote RaceDay's Kenny Wallace into the All-Star race.

Now, Rachtman is leading a "free the 8" campaign supposedly created to urge Theresa Earnhardt to allow Dale Junior to take "his number" with him to Hendrick Motorsports next season. What Rachtman really wants to do is build his television career, and continue his designation as the "alternative" fan. On RaceDay, Rachtman has taken over the "clown" role originally assigned to Rutledge Wood.

Complicating Rachtman's recent antics is the return of Wood, who was off hosting SPEED's Road Tour Challenge. That show apparently had some big problems, and eventually faded away. Now, the RaceDay producers face the challenge of trying to fit two "clowns" into the same show. As the season progresses, the NASCAR issues on the table become more and more serious. Eventually, SPEED will have to decide who stays and who goes in the Rutledge vs. Ricky situation.

One of the best parts of this show is that John Roberts can deal with anyone at anytime doing anything...and has. From the cast of Fox shows "stopping by" to promote themselves, to the NASCAR drivers and owners putting on a headset and talking about their issues, Roberts is the star of this show. His calm demeanor allows a level of control that is critical to the success of this weekly "SPEED-a-palooza" festival.

As NASCAR makes the halfway turn for home, ESPN takes over the NEXTEL Cup coverage and also telecasts the remaining Busch Series races for the rest of the season. In a critical error, the network decided to base NASCAR Now, its daily racing show, from its Bristol, CT headquarters. Up to this point, the network has actually been flying in a General Assignment Reporter like David Amber or Wendy Nix to cover the NEXTEL Cup race. How incredible is that?

This puts RaceDay in its best position ever to assume total control of Sunday pre-race content relating to anything NASCAR. Their competition is an ESPN anchor standing in a High Definition Studio in Connecticut. Hopefully, SPEED will understand that this is an opportunity to emphasize the strong news and feature aspects of RaceDay, and tone down the pre-planned hype of Rachtman and company.

Without paying a dime for rights fees, RaceDay can bring SPEED front and center in the NASCAR world for the rest of the season without a Hollywood Hotel or TNT's "lazy Susan" infield set interfering. Beginning July 29th, RaceDay will be the center of pre-race attention for NASCAR fans all the way to the championship.

After all the hard work and dedication of the RaceDay production team over the last several years, these next four months will finally place them front-and-center as the source of NASCAR information every single...RaceDay.

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The Curious Case Of Michael Waltrip In Kentucky

Saturday night, the Craftsman Truck Series put on a great show at the Kentucky Speedway in front of a good crowd. As usual, the top-notch SPEED Channel production team was on hand to telecast the event. SPEED is the exclusive provider of Craftsman Truck racing, and has been a tremendous help for the series as a whole

Krista Voda anchors the pre-race show, and this week she was on the small set on pit road forced to hold a hand-held microphone. She did her best to keep things flowing until she was joined on the set by NEXTEL Cup owner Michael Waltrip. Then, things got a bit off-balance and remained that way. This often seems to happen when Waltrip is given free reign to take-over a telecast.

SPEED has a love and hate relationship with Waltrip, who has been a staple on the network for more than ten years. In many ways, the exposure that Waltrip gained from his participation in the original Inside Winston Cup Racing show helped to raise his profile and make his career. For a long while, Waltrip was an after-thought who was strong in the Busch Series, but struggled in the longer Cup events.

Since that time, Waltrip has been on a ton of SPEED programs that are no longer on the air. He is a favorite son of the network, despite shake-ups in senior management that resulted in other drivers losing their television jobs. For some reason, Waltrip is allowed to be a free spirit even when his antics are out of place.

This season, The Daly Planet wrote a column entitled "Michael Waltrip's Free Ride" that spoke about the way in which TV networks ignored a lot of Waltrip's issues while he continued to do work for them and also generated millions of dollars in TV advertising with his NAPA and Aaron's sponsors. His "free pass" has been true for both ESPN and SPEED.

Saturday in Kentucky, SPEED had a broadcast crew together that is fully capable of putting on a solid TV telecast. The former driver in the booth is Phil Parsons, who is the voice of the Truck Series and has been for many years. His extensive personal knowledge of the behind-the-scenes activity in this series shows on the air.

After appearing in the pre-race show to "hype" the event in his own over-the-top way, Waltrip assumed the role of the "second driver" in the booth, and proceeded to talk a whole lot about what was going on during the race. The problem was, when Michael talked, no one else could.

Sometimes, Waltrip would call the action and describe what was going on in great and excited detail. That is called play-by-play, and is done by Rick Allen, who was also in the booth. Other times, Waltrip would offer his analysis of events and describe what was being replayed on the telecast. That is called being the color announcer, and that has been done for years by Parsons. When Waltrip talks, they are forced to listen.

Both Parsons and Allen treat Waltrip with kid gloves, and for good reason. Like it or not, Michael Waltrip has a great deal of clout at SPEED. He is deeply involved with the network's Programming and Production teams, and continues to be the "king" of Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing, which still airs on Monday nights.

The big issue for fans is that Waltrip made a conscious decision to take a new path in his life that most would consider to be full time. That path was as an owner of a multi-car team racing in both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series. Waltrip was, for many months this season, the public face of Toyota in NASCAR.

How is it then that an owner, fully invested in one brand, several sponsors, and several drivers, is allowed to comment as both a journalist and a reporter on a national network? Waltrip suddenly removes the hat that most owners work full time just to keep on their head, and immediately fans should understand that he is offering commentary and insight now as a TV announcer?

Earlier this season, SPEED quietly replaced Waltrip on their Tradin' Paint program with Kyle Petty. Waltrip had been the "designated driver" on that show for a long time, and it had been a good platform for his views. But, like the other shows that he continues to participate in, it was hard to understand that viewers should be able to just "flip a switch" and grasp that now....he was a journalist.

Waltrip is a smart man who is enamoured with TV. But, he made a decision to become an owner, and should have separated himself from the media when he took that role. The story of his up-and-down season is a nightmare, but regardless of his personal success in the owner's role, this TV issue is real. He routinely forces conversations back to his sponsors, and then plugs things in a joking manner when it serves him. Joyce Julius must have a crew that is assigned only to him.

The sponsor mentions that Waltrip does on the air are worth thousands of dollars every time. In the Saturday truck race, they were plentiful and obvious. He often assumed the play-by-play role to make these plugs, taking "the air" away from Allen until he was done, and then giving it back so the regular telecast could continue.

If SPEED can deal with the Toyota, NAPA, Aaron's, Goodyear, and other baggage that Waltrip brings with him to these telecasts, then we will continue to see him on the Truck Series shows. The network will let the fans decide if they are hearing information from the owner, the pitchman, the driver, or the TV announcer. Then the fans themselves will decide what to true.

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