Monday, August 20, 2007

SPEED's "RaceDay" Hangs-In At Michigan

Despite the continuing bad weather, SPEED offered a one hour edition of RaceDay on Monday in Michigan. The network has worked very hard to cement their reputation as the first channel to turn-on for NASCAR information.

SPEED has been trying to make some hay while the sun was shining, no pun intended. The network has been covering qualifying and practice for both the Busch and Cup Series during this three race stretch due to some programming conflicts in the ESPN schedule. This is the SPEED version of the full-court press.

Once "The Chase" begins, ESPN returns to their exclusive coverage of everything on the track for those two series. The NEXTEL Cup races move over to ABC Sports for the higher profile of a broadcast TV network.

SPEED returns to their "support programming" role with the shows they originate from the tracks, including RaceDay. The network does continue with its Craftsman Truck Series coverage, which has been consistently solid this season.

Host John Roberts is an endless source of energy for the network, and he has worked hard to manage his cohorts Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace. On this rainy Monday, a tired Roberts hung-in there after a very long weekend of hosting live shows.

Spencer and Wallace had some time in this show to talk, minus the hype of the big RaceDay show. It proved to be very interesting, and even retrospective. They addressed the retirement of Ricky Rudd, the potential switch to Toyota of Gibbs, and the future of Kyle Busch. Spencer was strong in his criticism of what was done to David Ragan, who Spencer contends was brought-up to the Cup level much too early.

Roberts led several free-flowing conversations about topics ranging from young drivers to potential sponsorship issues and team expansion. In this type of informal setting, it was interesting to see what each panelist could offer on these topics.

Wendy Venturini continues to be the heart-and-soul of the telecast, and she kept things in perspective on this Monday. Luckily, Wendy knows the cast of characters in the garage, and moves seamlessly though the maze of personalities and egos. She did just that in Michigan, talking to everyone from Jamie McMurray to the pizza delivery man.

The production team on RaceDay has been on a roll this season, and has quietly achieved the one thing that ESPN is still struggling for with its pre-race show...credibility. Like them or not, Spencer and Wallace are always entertaining. Roberts is always professional, and Venturini is always right in the middle of everything.

When you add-in the intelligent decision-making behind the scenes, RaceDay has finally been able to put the failed NASCAR programming efforts of SPEED in the past.

The Daly Planet thanks you for taking the time to stop-by.

NASCAR Loses To Little League World Series

When we decided to start this media project called The Daly Planet back in January of this year, we did so for one reason. ESPN was coming back into NASCAR, and we knew things would get interesting.

As a former ten year ESPN employee, I understand just how hard it is to take a huge sport like NASCAR, and fold it into an existing TV network. To help with this logistical problem, ESPN decided to use ESPN2, ESPN, and ABC Sports as the three TV outlets for NASCAR in 2007. What we are rapidly finding out is...that is not enough.

Earlier this season, ESPN2's daily motorsports show called NASCAR Now ran into some Friday problems. Live tennis matches had gone long, and NASCAR Now was either started late or completely cancelled. ESPN had the option of switching NASCAR Now to either their ESPN Classic or ESPN News Network, but chose not to make that move.

That was then, and this is now. Saturday, live tennis ran long again on ESPN2 and the company scrambled to air the pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown and then the following live Busch Series race. The Keystone Cops act that followed was priceless.

The NASCAR programming was started on ESPN Classic, switched to ESPN, and then finally switched back to ESPN2 for the remainder of the race. This is not the ESPN we know and love, the professional and prepared organization. The problem holding everyone up was a national tournament on the main ESPN network. The National School Scrabble Tournament. Say it with me, scrabble.

So, rather than just start the NASCAR programming on ESPN and continue there until tennis was over on ESPN2, the network made a strong statement about how much they value NASCAR and live Busch Series racing. They moved it to ESPN Classic, a limited distribution network that re-runs old tapes from the ESPN Library. ESPN chose scrabble over NASCAR.

Sunday, ESPN continued to be in trouble when the entire NEXTEL Cup race from Michigan was rained-out. While the Busch Series races have aired on mostly ESPN2, the seventeen NEXTEL Cup races are the prized jewels in the ESPN crown, and the reason they went back in and got the NASCAR TV contract. This rain out left the network to air the Monday afternoon NEXTEL Cup race live from noon through about 3PM Eastern Time.

Unfortunately, NASCAR was about to get another lesson in ESPN's priorities. Because of a single rain out, NASCAR was actually moved to ESPN2 in order to protect the programming on ESPN. That would be the a live Little League World Series game between Japan and Canada. This is game number fifteen out of thirty-two that make up the tournament that runs through next week.

The decision boils down to moving one Little League game over to ESPN2, or moving NASCAR off ESPN and back down to little sister network ESPN2. Needless to say, in the global world of ESPN, NASCAR will be seen on ESPN2.

While the network absolutely has the right to show any program anywhere it wants, that is not the point of this column. The issue is what does NASCAR really mean to ESPN, and when will we see that commitment?

ESPN already gave away practice and qualifying live to SPEED for the next several weeks because of existing programming conflicts. Now, a huge race at Michigan that is key to the point contenders and may deeply affect the upcoming "Chase" on ABC Sports is playing second fiddle to Japan vs. Canada.

In just a short while, the sports world will welcome both college and NFL football back into regular season. This, along with golf, tennis, and other previously scheduled live events should lead ESPN down a road they have not traveled for several years.

Golf, tennis, and NASCAR are the events that do not have a shot clock, timed quarters, or any formal time limit at all. In TV land, they are "nightmare sports" because nothing can make them end in any kind of time frame.

The official ESPN release about Monday does not specify if there will be a one hour pre-race show, but I have a hunch there will not. SPEED has already made the commitment to stay, and telecast a one hour RaceDay show on Monday live at noon. This is the kind of commitment fans would like to see from ESPN, as they make their way toward "The Chase."

The final ten NEXTEL Cup races will be on ABC Sports, which means both ESPN and ESPN2 will have a full programming schedule for those days. The ABC Broadcast Network may find itself in a quite a pickle as rain-delayed "Chase" races last into the night under the lights. You know NASCAR, if they can get it in, they will.

This should bring a whole new level of chaos to both ESPN and ABC in just a couple of weeks. Broadcast networks have "windows" of time for sports, and then either the News or Entertainment Divisions have their programming shown. There is little mercy for sports issues when World News Tonight, Extreme Home Makeover, or Desperate Housewives is ready to air.

Hopefully, Mother Nature will cooperate, and the remainder of the NASCAR season will be smooth sailing for ESPN and ABC. If, however, the same situations occur, it will be interesting to watch the multi-network company deal with the tricky logistics and flexible schedules of NASCAR. It might be a good idea to memorize the location of ESPN Classic on your cable dial...just in case.

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