Sunday, August 5, 2007
ESPN play-by-play analyst Dr. Jerry Punch choked the words out of his mouth. "Shut-up and drive" he said. Three little words that may have a pretty broad-reaching effect on ESPN's coverage of NASCAR for the rest of the season.
Instead of offering information for fans, the Disney entertainment influence in ESPN programming continued to come to the forefront as pop star Rihanna's new music video featuring scantily-clad women played on ESPN's coverage of the NEXTEL Cup Series.
Shut-up and drive they said. Although the original music video has absolutely nothing to do with NASCAR, that just does not matter in the new ESPN/Disney world.
Fans may notice that ESPN's pre-race show, NASCAR Countdown, also closed their first segment with a full length music video. Disney is an entertainment corporation, and the changes that they want to make to the fundamental way in which we all watch NASCAR on TV is going to be very interesting.
The Rihanna music kept pumping coming back from commercial while the network ran "mini-videos" to keep this music theme going. In addition, Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty were featured regularly from the ESPN Infield Studio with commentary while the race was under green. As we talked about last week, the actual on-track racing action has been quietly de-emphasized to make room for selected ESPN "content."
This "content" could include the Tech Center, Infield Studio, Music Video, Celebrity interview, or anything else that gets the viewer away from the "mindset" that they are supposed to be watching every lap of the race.
It seems that to ESPN, the actual racing is just "background noise" to be joined and then left whenever they see fit. This is a big change in the NASCAR on TV philosophy.
One of the special effects from ESPN is called "full throttle" and lets the audio from all the team scanners be played on-the-air during a restart. Originally a good idea, this concept needs to be limited to the top ten cars. The "thrill" of this audio is now gone for fans, and the confusing voices now do not relay any kind of useful information.
Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace continue to be enthusiastic and informative in the announce booth. Often, they would lead to Tim Brewer in the Tech Center for more information. Thankfully, this week ESPN used a split-screen effect and allowed viewers to continue watching the race during Brewer's reports.
One of the biggest issues for the fans in ESPN's coverage is their lack of "full field" rundowns. As we have seen with other networks in the past, taking the time to use the pit reporters and "rundown" the fates and fortunes of the entire field is worth its weight in gold to the fans. With ESPN, if a car is not involved in an incident, or in the front pack, it is just not mentioned.
ESPN has chosen to insert "feature content" in the races instead of going back and talking about the non-top ten drivers. The network has so many toys, and so many video features available and waiting to be used, that it must almost be overwhelming for the Producer. The focus on the actual events unfolding on the track has lessened.
Without the commitment to recap the field, it is difficult to understand where the players in "The Chase" are running, where the "non-top 35" drivers are racing, and finally where the drivers involved in the on-going race stories have gone. This is a big hole in the ESPN coverage. Just ask Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, or Juan Montoya.
While Kolber and Daugherty offer a "McDonalds mid-race recap," this feature is basically a SportsCenter highlight package. It only contains the obvious, and does not help fans get any information other than exactly the same video clips they have already seen several times. For fans of the drivers running outside of the top ten, this coverage has really gotten hard to take.
Unfortunately, the big crash with less than twenty laps to go told the story of ESPN's approach to NASCAR this season. The network was following the single file "non-racing" when the mad scramble in the middle of the field resulted in a melee. That pack was where the racing action was for several laps, but ESPN did not care. They have the replays, and that is good enough for them. Just follow the leader.
Still undecided on how to handle a NEXTEL Cup finish, ESPN showed the winning pit crew jumping around just long enough to miss the top six cars finishing behind Kurt Busch. Then, the camera wideshot and the scoring graphics came...just a little too late.
Even as Busch did his burnout, the Aerosmith music began to play as if to remind viewers that this was the new ESPN, and things were going to be very different. One thing is very clear after Pocono, the one group that is clearly not "back in the saddle again" is ESPN.
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RaceDay continues to be the best NASCAR pre-race show on TV. As the NASCAR TV partners covering the NEXTEL Cup Series have come and gone, viewers have seen all kinds of pre-race activity. All along, SPEED has left RaceDay alone to develop into a mandatory weekly pit-stop for fans.
As ESPN stepped into the mix, SPEED chose to put RaceDay in a timeslot that matched it up head-to-head with ESPN's pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown. This was a move that ESPN was absolutely unprepared to counter. Now, for one hour, both ESPN and SPEED have their live shows on the air from the same location, and their garage area reporters chasing the same stories. All the action is now not only on the track.
Sunday, Wendy Venturini continued her solid performance as the fan's choice for credibility and personality as she got Robby Gordon to agree to a live interview. Gordon was both apologetic and defiant, and Venturini handled him well. She allowed him to offer his side of the story, and drew out his feelings about his own mistake in ignoring NASCAR's black flag. Once again, RaceDay had scooped the big boys.
Host John Roberts also welcomed Tony Stewart for a live interview with the panel, making another statement to ESPN. Stewart answered all the questions, gave another friendly poke to ESPN, and recapped his excitement about winning Indy. Its clear that like most drivers, Stewart likes the welcoming atmosphere on the RaceDay set, and the antics of both Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace.
This season, Venturini has also been preparing a weekly feature called The Real Deal. It has been a success for the show because Venturini uses her background in racing to make the interview subjects feel comfortable. This week, Reed Sorenson discussed his rise into NEXTEL Cup and the challenges facing him this season.
Venturini got this very young man to talk about himself, which he rarely does. She finally brought out some comments that show more of Sorenson than the public has seen so far in his brief career. She then "tagged" the story live with Sorenson's crew chief, and allowed him to fill-in the gaps about their performance this season.
Spencer and Wallace have their act down pat, and this time brought Mark Martin into the mix and immediately asked him a ton of good questions that really brought out his feelings on DEI, his Army sponsorship, and the rumors of his return to full-time racing. Martin really gave viewers the low-down on the Ginn lay-offs, and explained his personal role in saving jobs at the now "shuttered" racing operation.
Each week John Roberts gives Spencer and Wallace a little more leash for one segment and allows them to talk about one topic. This week, it was single car teams and the guys were interesting in their opinions and predictions that the NEXTEL Cup garage would soon consist of eleven owners who all owned four car teams.
The balance of this show is best when Venturini is providing the infield details, and the panel is playing to the crowd and handling the group interviews. Over the last several weeks, SPEED has tried to integrate a comic element with two "characters." NASCAR.com's Ricky Rachtmann and SPEED's own "clown" Rutledge used to have a role on this show, but now the race-related content has pushed almost the entire two hours absolutely full. Viewers are better off without them.
SPEED can keep things light, and both Spencer and Wallace love to poke fun at themselves just as much as others. This mix of the serious and the hilarious has proven to be a winning formula for SPEED. As the season rolls-on, and the mood turns even more serious, the challenge for RaceDay is to continue to provide for fans the most NASCAR information of any show on TV today.
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It is certainly apparent that both NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias and commentator Tim Cowlishaw have never been to a Saturday night short track race.
The events at Montreal in the Busch Series race seemed to be something alien to them. Hot tempers on feisty drivers on a bad track after a long race with lots of caution periods is about as surprising as ice cream melting in the sunshine.
How ironic is it that Tony Stewart's favorite ESPN reporter David Amber was the one interviewing NASCAR's VP of Competition Robin Pemberton for NASCAR Now? Amber knows absolutely nothing about NASCAR, and no one understands why Andy Petree, Mike Massaro, or anyone else on the ESPN Pocono broadcast crew did not handle this key interview.
Unfortunately, Jamie Little's interview of Robby Gordon's replacement PJ Jones was not much better. Little had nothing to work with, as PJ was just "filling in" and certainly was not going to be dragged into the Gordon vs. NASCAR problem. She kept probing for "personal" feelings, and PJ was having none of it.
Finally, Rusty Wallace was brought-in to speak about this situation. Rusty was a little muddy on his details, and spoke about the situation in general terms. Cowlishaw added absolutely nothing to the situation, and once again looked like he was having some personal issues in the health department.
Once again, as he has done all season long, Stacy Compton took a deep breath and slowly laid-out the racing reality to the "hype boys." The best part about Stacy's comments were they related directly to the ESPN production crew and their coverage of the incident. Compton is a cool head in the middle of the madness.
Rusty Wallace once again showed-up to comment on Pocono. Daly Planet readers may remember our call to integrate the TV broadcast crew into this show. Wallace gave a great overview of Pocono, and this type of appearance on NASCAR Now is exactly what the network needs to lend some credibility to the "Bristol boys."
Poor David Amber was standing in a suit and tie among the crew uniforms in the garage area at Pocono. As field reporters do, Amber "threw" to a pre-produced package about Dale Junior and other drivers trying to focus on the Chase. The package made no sense, and Amber was eager to end his report and "throw" back to the studio.
Reporting from the NEXTEL Cup garage for NASCAR Now should be done by a member of the ESPN pit road crew, like Mike Massaro. Just like having Rusty on, it "ties" this studio program back to the track with credible people that viewers trust. Needless to say, neither Amber or Kuselias addressed the Stewart vs. ESPN story. Had this been another network, it would have been first on their "hype" list.
Reed Sorenson was brought-in for a live interview, but instead of letting Stacy Compton ask informed NASCAR questions, once again Erik Kuselias took the entire time asking questions of Sorenson one might expect of a first year fan. What a waste of time when the experts are not allowed to ask the questions of the drivers.
Then, all of a sudden, things on NASCAR Now got very strange. First, they reported on the Whelen Modified Tour winner in "news and notes." Both the Hartford Courant's Shawn Courchesne (courant.com) and I have been pushing NASCAR Now to feature the other NASCAR Regional Series from around the nation since this show began in February. The next step is highlights on Monday's show.
As the program discussed the pending merger of Evernham Motorsports, Kuselias awkwardly welcomed Claire B. Lang from XM Satellite Radio into the program live from the Pocono garage. With Sirius holding the NASCAR radio rights, and ESPN managing its own sports radio division, it certainly made a statement that neither David Amber or any of the ESPN staff reported this story to NASCAR Now.
Claire is a wonderful person, a veteran reporter, and her brief segment really served to show viewers just how lame David Amber's presence and level of knowledge is on the NASCAR trail. Surprisingly, Kuselias then went back to Lang and allowed her to continue to report on other stories like Ginn Racing problems and the latest on Jeff Gordon.
All season long on NASCAR Now, there has been a simmering tension between the NASCAR Now "Insiders" like Marty Smith, Terry Blount, and David Newton and the show host Erik Kuselias. The Daly Planet has written about it many times.
When Kuselias is absent, the reporters come on with big smiles on their faces and have fun. When Kuselias is present, and in full "hype" mode, things get ugly fast. Marty Smith especially is one to talk right over top of Kuselias and even ask him questions in return, which completely freaks him out. Mike Massaro got so mad earlier this season he asked Kuselias a live question, and the resulting failure to know Jimmie Johnson's crew chief exposed Kuselias as just a "talking head."
Now, we find that on a weekend when Marty Smith was in Montreal filling-in as a pit reporter, somehow NASCAR Now could not find Blount, Newton, Chengelis, Spake, or any of the pit reporters to provide the information reported by Lang. Seeing XM Radio's chief NASCAR reporter, and one of ESPN's biggest rivals for stories, reporting live on NASCAR Now just might make Marty's hair stand-up even straighter.
This program series has never shown any mercy when it comes to picking apart the weakest moments and biggest problems for any NASCAR drivers or team members. They have purposefully gone out of their way to feature the most embarrassing moments, and cash-in on the "tabloid" side of the sport.
Sunday, they do an entire hour without even a word on the "Stewart vs. ESPN" saga that is being reported all over the racing world. No footage of what Skip Bayless or Tony Kornheiser or whoever it was at ESPN that shot his mouth off said. No comment from management, no comment from Cowlishaw, nothing at all.
The ultimate irony for a bully is that when the tables are turned, they are the first to run. NASCAR Now has been a bully this season, and the results have been a mounting frustration about them. Now, Stewart turns the tables and the show simply runs away.
Tony Stewart asked "do we always have to leave with a dagger in our back from ESPN?" There is only one group that can answer that question, and on this Sunday they chose to ignore it completely. Perhaps, we will get a better answer after the Pocono race Sunday afternoon. Once again, it should be interesting.
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