Sunday, August 12, 2007
Very quietly this season, SPEED has presented the highest quality post-produced NASCAR show on TV. Since its debut, Survival of the Fastest has been the fans "reality TV" link to the sport. SPEED no longer carries any other NASCAR reality shows that are edited primarily from original footage mixed with raceday action.
In the past, this was a strong genre for SPEED, but recent changes at the network resulted in SPEED concentrating their efforts at the track. Even though the network does not televise any of the NEXTEL or Busch Series events, they originate many hours of live and short tape delay original programming at each race weekend from the SPEED Stage.
Luckily, SPEED teamed again with NASCAR Images to create a quick turn-a-round thirty minute show that is fast-paced and always interesting. Since several key executives at NASCAR Images are from NFL Films, its easy to see the influence of this group on Survival of the Fastest.
The series has an off-camera announcer, who blends into the background and basically serves to "bridge" the original footage segments together. With lots of behind-the-scenes action, including personality profiles and areas not normally seen by TV cameras, the series has been tremendously popular with NASCAR fans.
This week, the ABC television network will enter the NASCAR programming world. In support of the transition of NASCAR racing to ABC later this season, the network debuts a series called NASCAR in Primetime.
On Wednesday at 10PM Eastern, ABC will begin to air their first NASCAR reality series in history. It should be interesting. Created by the ABC News Division, this show does not use NASCAR Images or their expertise in any way. It is being produced independently, and that is a rarity in the world of NASCAR TV.
The press release says "ABC News spent six months following drivers, fans, and officials. Our cameras saw people and places that NASCAR has never before allowed to be filmed for TV." Some people might call this a bit of a stretch. Over the years, NASCAR has been one of the sports most user-friendly to TV. Drivers have opened their homes, their motorhomes at the track, taken viewers on vacation trips, and even shown their troubled times as teams collapsed. We have met their wives, kids, parents, and even high school teachers.
What new ground ABC News has chosen to break is a bit muddled, but it looks like the program is going to focus on driver profiles, NASCAR officials duties, and comments from fans about the sport's history. Simply the fact that a new NASCAR program is going to be on network TV in primetime is very important.
Certainly, NASCAR has cooperated fully on this effort, even though the sanctioning body itself owns fifty percent of NASCAR Images. Normally, any NASCAR-themed TV program comes through this company and is carefully controlled in both content and theme.
So, this Wednesday night should be interesting for the sport, the network, and NASCAR fans nationwide. The Daly Planet will be watching, and will post a review column on Thursday. Please tune-in, and then share your thoughts with us.
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NASCAR fans who sat through the Pocono race on ESPN were ready for action this week. With the remote in their hands, they were on the lookout for Rihanna, Aerosmith, or any other bizarre music video that somehow has become the standard for ESPN's NASCAR coverage. The mute button was at the ready. Well, what a difference one race makes.
The Watkins Glen coverage transitioned from NASCAR Countdown and resembled the ESPN of old. Straightforward and clean, Jerry Punch led an opening segment free of the non-racing clutter that has plagued ESPN's coverage. Basically, it was a wonderful change for viewers.
Punch, Andy Petree, and Rusty Wallace talked about things that mattered right off the bat, then finally led the network through an organized and respectful opening ceremony. No hip-hop beats were pounding, no guitar riffs were screaming, and the network even showed the fly-over.
During the entire pre-race, things were very different. No hype, no drama, and good information. The pit reporters were on their stories, talking about their drivers, and following the building tension as The Chase approached. Things were focused on racing, and it was great. Did I mention that?
From the drop of the flag, things were stripped-down, and it was all about the on-track action. The HD pictures and audio were again excellent, and that is always a challenge at a road course. Despite the bobble with Montoya on the radio, things were looking good after the network just rolled with the punches.
Since the beginning of the season, The Daly Planet has been complimentary to the ESPN on-track efforts of the booth and pit announcers. This race was no different, although it appears that there are some tired faces among the troops. Their Sunday efforts were even more impressive when you note that most of the crew worked over a twelve hour day on Saturday, including about seven straight hours on-the-air. That is truly a broadcast marathon.
NASCAR star and ESPN centerpiece Rusty Wallace seems to be working hard and paying attention to his early on-air issues. His vocabulary and mannerisms were mostly a thing of the past, and his comments were very candid. This is what fans want from Wallace. He does not need to know everything, just to speak up with his opinion.
Andy Petree continues to do his best Larry McReynolds imitation in terms of understanding and explaining race strategy. Is there anybody better than these two? Petree really helped viewers understand the road course mentality and how the race is actually run backwards by teams in terms of pitting for tires and fuel.
The Infield Studio and Suzy Kolber did not interfere with the racing, and only appeared to offer recaps and occasional commentary. This big change from the promotional heavy use of this group for frequent interruptions of green flag action was a welcome change. They have a place, and they may have finally found it.
The on-track action led to many moments for the production team, who often had to choose between battles for the lead, and great action back in the pack. They worked hard, and while they missed some action live, it was always replayed without delay.
Road course races offer some unique moments, like Harvick and Montoya hand-slapping like twelve year old girls on national TV. ESPN kept it together, followed-up on the story, and then stood-by while things calmed down. Showing the replay quickly to the Harvick camp helped to calm down any suggestion that Montoya dive-bombed the corner.
ESPN was intimately involved in this race just like they used to be back in the old days of their former TV contract. I mean that only as high praise. There was a focus on each lap of green flag racing as being special and telling a story that fans want to see, and understand. This week, racing was not just background for the talking heads.
Good humor was a trademark of ESPN back then, and when a fan decided to approach Matt Kenseth for an autograph in his car under the red flag, they had some good fun with it. I think this moment, in many ways, broke the tension of the race broadcast and put things back in perspective for the crew and the viewers.
The network will be criticized for missing Jeff Gordon's spin live, but he was solo and is such a veteran driver, the Director just guessed who to follow, and missed. The replay was quick, and told the story right away. They did catch Carl Edwards on the last lap, and then did the best thing ESPN has done all year long.
The camera went nice and wide, the live scoring graphic was inserted, and viewers got to watch the top twenty cars race to the finish. ESPN let viewers watch the field finish in a NEXTEL Cup race live. That was a very nice moment, and clearly let fans see their driver cross the line, and read the result.
After a tough Pocono, ESPN put in a marathon on-air effort Saturday and then followed it up with a much improved broadcast on Sunday at The Glen. Anyone who watched the efforts of this crew on both days has to have a good feeling about what the rest of the season will bring on the track. How about that for a comeback?
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It had to happen sooner or later, and this weekend it finally did. Sunday, the troubled ESPN studio program NASCAR Now finally hit rock bottom.
All season long, the ESPN on-air announcers have slowly divided themselves into two very different groups. As one might expect, the tension in this family feud has been slowly rising since February.
Now, it has exploded on the screen with the most dysfunctional TV show of the year. Sunday's one hour version of NASCAR Now was horrible, and ESPN knows it.
In the twenty five plus years of building ESPN, there was an over-riding culture that dominated the company. It came from the regional baseball and football fans that worked in SportsCenter back when it was really the headliner of the network.
That huge group of employees was referred to as the stick-and-ball guys. They lived for Red Sox vs. Yankees and Giants vs. the dreaded Cowboys. In the winter, they tolerated the NBA and wondered when the Celtics vs. Lakers game was coming up. They enjoyed ESPN because you could literally see all the sports going-on in the country at one location.
While they loved one group of sports, they barely tolerated another. This included auto racing, track and field, soccer, and everything else under the sun. Even today, if you look at the stories on ESPN.com or try to watch the un-watchable SportsCenter, you find the same theme...stick-and-ball.
ESPN tolerated NASCAR because the RPM2Night show was produced in Carolina, was sent in by satellite, and did not take time away from summer baseball or autumn football. The ESPN NASCAR crew did not use Bristol facilities, lived mostly in Mooresville, and rarely interacted with the Connecticut stick-and-ball guys.
This season, ESPN committed to a studio-based NASCAR show and was forced to put it in Bristol for only one reason. High Definition. ESPN in Bristol needs a NASCAR show like a Rolls Royce needs a trailer hitch.
The logistics of this problem required the NASCAR Now studio hosts to be based in Connecticut. ESPN convinced driver Stacy Compton to commute north several days a week from Carolina, but finally decided to use their own in-house announcers as hosts for the show.
This allowed both Erik Kuselias and Ryan Burr to perform other duties for the company as well as host the NASCAR show. It also allows Tim Cowlishaw to add content to the show as the type of ESPN commentator who somehow knows all sports.
This group of ESPN in-house employees knows only one way to be on-the-air. It is the way of Mike and Mike, SportsCenter, and Around The Horn. Many refer to it as the "New England way" meaning slightly pushy, not very friendly, and constantly challenging others to pick-a-winner. This is the on-air persona of ESPN in 2007.
When this approach is mixed with over fifty years of NASCAR, it is akin to oil and water. Fundamentally, the hardcore pushy approach of ESPN and the laid-back, polite, user-friendly approach of NASCAR just do not mesh.
Early on this season, it was funny. Later, it was draining. Now, it is beginning to deeply affect the on-air product and is obvious to viewers. Never was this more apparent then on Sunday when host Erik Kuselias tried once again to hold a live conversation with Rusty Wallace, who was trackside in Watkins Glen.
"We just heard the comments from Dale Junior, how much trouble is he really in right now?" asked Kuselias dramatically. The show had just played back some Saturday practice comments where Junior was frustrated with his car. Wallace took a very deep breath and said Junior was not in trouble. He would like his car to be faster, don't count him out, and strategy is key at a road course. The NASCAR translation of this is: What kind of a ridiculous and stupid question is that?
Immediately, Kuselias turned his passive-aggressive eyes to Tim Cowlishaw, who would agree with the devil if he signed his paycheck. "He is in a little bit of trouble" said Tim. "For him to say the car is not handling puts him in jeopardy." This is the root of today's ESPN. They must be right, they must be the experts, and there must be controversy. Its all about control.
Stacy Compton then took a turn at Junior's reality. "Think about last weekend at Pocono...they said their car was junk...they changed a shock...he came home with a second place finish." The NASCAR translation: Do you guys have any short term memory? Do you ever watch these races?
Now, Kuselias was mad. He got Rusty back on-camera and hammered him. ESPN's own Boris Said has missed qualifying because of a rain-out, and Kuselias knew this was absolutely wrong and something had to be done. "Do you agree with the way that NASCAR handles cancellations and qualifying due to weather?" he asked. Court was now in session, and attorney Kuselias was going to get his way.
Wallace took another deep breath. "They have been doing things this way for a long, long time and that's just the way it is" he said. NASCAR translation: I am pretty tired of being asked these lame questions, and you're kind of rude.
Then, Rusty actually had the audacity to change the subject. He said that Bill Elliott, a good road course racer who gave his Wood Brothers ride to Boris for Sunday is the real story. "To give-up his ride is something drivers just don't do, so that was the real surprise." Wallace had deviated from the script. This is not allowed in the tight ESPN "perfect" world.
Rusty was summarily dismissed and Kuselias was now confused. So, he sought comfort from Cowlishaw once again. "Tim, would you change the qualifying?" he asked. The glazed look told the story. Cowlishaw had no idea what Kuselias was talking about. He blamed the rain. As fans who watched ESPN on Saturday already knew, NASCAR had done European-style qualifying with the Busch Series, sending cars out in groups to run fast laps.
When Compton tried to address this, once again the pushy Kuselias moved-on without even acknowledging this reality. NASCAR fans by now were just shaking their heads. This was two disjointed groups of announcers who were trying to put forward two very different agendas.
Reporter Shannon Spake came along and provided a feature on the fact that this was the first COT race at The Glen. Her information was first rate, important, and really set the tone for why the race was wide-open. Nothing from the past except personal experience carried over to Sunday because of the COT. Unfortunately, there was nothing controversial it it. Kuselias dismissed her coldly and move back to search for controversy. None of this "tech talk" made any sense to him.
After a nice feature on Robby Gordon, Kuselias tried to pin down his fellow panelists about their feelings on Gordon. Compton called him the Terrell Owens of NASCAR, controversial and always making a statement. Cowlishaw said he was "out of control" and had to be reigned-in. Once again, that was not good enough for the former attorney. Kuselias continued his line of questioning.
"Based upon the picture you painted, is Robby Gordon good for NASCAR?" he said. Cowlishaw said "sometimes." Apparently, that was not on the list. "Its a yes or no" stated the counselor/host. Cowlishaw continued retreating on the issue. "I need a yes or a no" bellowed Kuselias. This was the passive aggressive lawyer at his finest.
Unfortunately, for both ESPN and NASCAR, this was a national on-air TV talent at his lowest. It was very clear this man has personal issues, and they do not mesh well with the plain-spoken and well-mannered personalities of NASCAR. On ESPN Radio he might shine, but he has never handled the transition to TV with success. It is a wholly different style of communicating, and requires a level of patience and flexibility that Mr. Kuselias does not possess.
One of Kuselias problems is NASCAR cannot be evaluated like baseball. You cannot used HR and RBI and ERA to handicap a race. All season long, the ESPN desire to somehow know what was going to happen has resulted in nothing more than time wasted on TV. And, it has been a whole lot of time.
Sunday, ESPN decided to manipulate "stats" to produce a ridiculous feature report that somehow suggested the network could predict the winner. They just refused to believe that racing is so random and dominated by sheer luck. In the entire report, they never mentioned the COT, gas mileage, or pit stop strategy. That would be reality. That does not matter. NASCAR Now has "the eliminator."
With this high-profile show preceding both RaceDay on SPEED and NASCAR Countdown on ESPN, Sunday's NASCAR Now is the first destination for fans gearing-up for a day of racing action. Unfortunately, what they find is a program mired in confusion and on-air tension.
ESPN has had six months to fix the Sunday morning NASCAR Now program. This is the result. Today was truly the "rock bottom" of the season. Two on-air realities continue to clash with NASCAR fans again the loser, and no answer in sight.
As a part of this column, I would ask that you add your suggestions about how ESPN can specifically improve their Sunday preview show. No one solves problems better or has stronger feelings about this sport than NASCAR fans.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click-on the COMMENTS button below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your comments.