Sunday, September 16, 2007

ABC Uses A Calm Race To Get Back On Track

Nothing works better to get a sports TV crew back on track than a nice orderly event. It could be a baseball game, a tennis match, or in this case...a NASCAR race.

The ESPN production crew that produces the races on ABC deserved a break, and they got one. A beautiful day in New Hampshire let everyone calm down and focus on providing a low-key and solid race telecast.

The only real excitement came in the pre-race show, called NASCAR Countdown. Brad Daugherty has walked a fine line this season. Sometimes, he is called "the voice of the fans" and is promoted as the common man. On other days, and on other ESPN shows, he is referred to as an "expert analyst."

On this Sunday, Daugherty was placed alongside both Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett in the beautiful ESPN Infield Studio. In talking about The Chase, Daugherty put forth his views as though he was an expert. Wallace and Jarrett ate him for lunch. Its rare to see this type of emotion from these two, and it was certainly interesting to see it on-the-air live.

This Infield Studio dynamic was made a bit stranger by Brent Musburger posed like an emperor behind a podium all alone on a hill. Musburger was relaxed this time, and did not hype the race as he did earlier in the season. Once the race began, Musburger was rarely seen again. The ESPN production team did a good job to balance his presence with the action on the track.

The pre-race show continued with the pit reporters towing the load and previewing both the race and The Chase. This group has been important to the ESPN and ABC telecasts since both Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty are limited in the racing experience they bring to the table. It is still a bit weird to see Kolber walk out to the starting grid for a final "feature" interview, while Daugherty sits all alone in the dark.

It was a strange time for a Jeff Gordon feature, but his 500th race brought a fun and interesting piece. It finally gave new fans a perspective on who Jeff was when he broke into the sport, and how far he has come. Once again, Shannon Spake flew under the radar, and simply asked the questions viewers want to know. She has a good working relationship with NASCAR's elite, and it shows on-the-air.

Once underway, the single file racing of Loudon was exactly what ABC needed. As the race began to become a semi-orderly parade, the network used the toys available to them in a conservative manner. The Tech Center, the side-by-side video effects, and even the FedEx race recap worked well all race long.

ESPN's graphic package looked great once again in this race, although the sound effects when graphics are inserted should be reserved for the studio. The fact that ABC does not continually keep a lower third sports ticker on the screen is a blessing. The backgrounds for the Tech Center and race recaps are fantastic.

There is no way to get around the ESPN cross-promotion or the SportsCenter Minute. At least ESPN limited the promos in-race and the SportsCenter cut-ins very well for the most part. Musburger could not help but use his college football references several times, but he should be reminded he is talking to the wrong bunch.

In "stripping down" the amount of replay material that surrounds the commercials, the ESPN crew finally solved their big problem of missed restarts. They used the pit stops and the on-track action to place the commercial load in the right spots, and what a difference it made in this telecast.

An added bonus for viewers was the continued presence of Dale Jarrett. Staying in the Infield Studio and actively involved, Jarrett really added another element to the broadcast. Credit is due to the Producer for allowing Wallace and Jarrett to speak freely with each other throughout the race, where they often played off each other's comments and brought their years of experience to the action.

The best part of today's race was that someone got ESPN to put their Dale Earnhardt Jr. hysteria behind them. What a relief it was getting to watch a well-produced race without having a "Junior update" every couple of laps. Even when he spun, the announcers handled it as they would any other car, and that was a great sign for the remainder of the season.

One awkward note was the Victory Lane interview by Jamie Little. She has been working very hard to transition from the IndyCar series to NASCAR, but has no place in Victory Lane asking questions whispered in her ear. There are several more experienced reporters on pit road, and they would have asked deeper questions involving Bowyer. Not yet knowing all the players has been her drawback in these type of spontaneous situations, and it showed again in New Hampshire.

On the positive side, the network stayed on-the-air and worked hard to fill over thirty minutes with interviews of the participants. As the time wore on, the reporters had to follow the exiting drivers all the way to the helipad as they left the speedway.

This might be somewhat ironic to veteran ESPN viewers, who remember the days when ESPN was locked out of the tracks. For many years, the lone figure of Mike Massaro would stand next to the helicopters trying to get interviews before the drivers flew back to Charlotte. Now, the company has come full-circle, as the ESPN crew produces the ABC telecasts nationwide and holds the exclusive TV rights to The Chase.

With the very tough grind of Dover looming as one of the most challenging tracks for TV coverage, this nice and orderly event in New Hampshire was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Next week the network will battle bad camera angles, a huge bridge over the track, and lots of accidents that happen so fast, its hard to even find the cars involved. Hopefully, they can capitalize on this positive telecast and continue to keep TV momentum on their side.

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The Sunday "NASCAR Now" Hour Of Pain

Brad Daugherty looked into the camera and said "sources close to ESPN have told me that there is some bargaining going on to take this race and move it to Las Vegas next year." This is the way ESPN chose to greet the New Hampshire NASCAR fans on the Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now.

Since February, the spin on the NASCAR Now stories has been negative. Brad Daugherty, who can either be "the voice of the fans" or an ESPN "expert analyst," was reporting right at the start of the show that today's race would probably be dumped for next season. Nice.

Show host Erik Kuselias then asked Daugherty two questions as if he were NASCAR's VP of Communication, Jim Hunter. "Where does NASCAR stand?" and "is NASCAR happy?" were the phrases used to ask about Loudon and then The Chase.

Perhaps, Kuselias could have asked "where do you stand, Brad? or "are you happy?" instead. If Daugherty indeed now speaks for NASCAR, that would add a third role to his already confusing presence. The naive Daugherty stepped right in and answered both questions as if he was the NASCAR spokesman. Can this get any stranger?

Newspaper columnist Tim Cowlishaw joined Kuselias and Stacy Compton on the set in Bristol, CT. Throughout the season, Cowlishaw has just been reprising his role on Around the Horn, and talking off the top of his head about NASCAR. In this show, he made-up some mind-bending content about who were the favorites in The Chase and why.

Stacy Compton must need his blood pressure taken right after this show is over. Between Daugherty, Cowlishaw, and Kuselias, Compton's voice of experience is almost always overwhelmed by hype and controversy. This week, Compton looked at Cowlishaw and just put him squarely in his place.

Compton's simple point was that for ESPN to try and pick favorites and eliminate others before the first Chase race began was ridiculous. The bottom line for this baseball and football obsessed network is that NASCAR is different. You can't look at RBI's and Batting Average, do the math and pick the Red Sox.

Nothing will appease ESPN and their ego driven agenda. Kuselias then interviewed Clint Bowyer and said "what do you think your chances are to win the championship?" What is Bowyer supposed to say? I stink and we have a second class team? ESPN2 has been doing this show for seven months and these are the questions viewers get on a national TV series about racing.

Marty Smith stopped-by and updated the Jimmie Johnson story with some good background on both Johnson and Chad Knaus. Smith continues to have the inside scoop on Junior's new number and sponsors, partly due to their personal friendship. Smith also updated the Jeremy Mayfield story and his fall from the top tier teams in the sport.

Since Kuselias does not know racing, he read the script when asking about the possible change of car models in the Busch Series for next season. It was great to hear Kuselias say "pony cars" without having a clue to the meaning. Smith really made this show, as he often does in just one appearance.

Boris Said has been a breath of fresh air on this program all season. He handled the rude question from Kuselias about Boris making the race due to the Andretti DNQ in his usual calm manner. Said is just happy to be on the track, and he helped to put into perspective how the "racers" are going to handle the "Chasers." With a big smile, Said just quietly speaks his mind and reminds viewers of the positive side of the sport.

There is only one rule in a garage. Men in suits should not be there. NASCAR Now has added sponsorship from Home Depot, and in the mix they created a fake garage in the Bristol studio. Now, they make Kuselias stand in "the garage" and read his script. Its priceless TV.

The Sunday show played a feature on Jeff Gordon that was later played again in the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show. After Shannon Spake's report, Stacy Compton spoke kindly of the way in which Jeff Gordon helped him in the sport. Kuselias dismissed Comptons comments rudely and then unveiled his most brutal question of the year.

Turning to Cowlishaw, Kuselias demanded to know how far down the list of all-time great drivers in NASCAR is Gordon? Are you kidding me? Here is a man still in his prime and contending for yet another championship and he is being "categorized" and "put in his place" by Tim Cowlishaw?

What else can Erik Kuselias do to help viewers understand just how much he detests NASCAR? He consistently made fun of the sport during his days on Sports Bash, and then during his various duties on ESPN Radio. This is a hardcore stick-and-ball guy who got "assigned" a duty that he clearly cannot stand.

Instead of presenting a show that talks about the reality of what is about to take place on the track, Kuselias always changes the agenda to "who is better than who." His only other question is, "who do you pick to win?" This allows him to hold someone responsible for that later. This one hour Sunday preview show has been a crushing disappointment with the exception of the news reporters.

Kudos to Stacy Compton, Marty Smith, and Boris Said for hanging-in there on this Sunday. Despite the continual attempts at hype and controversy, these three continue to push the real agenda of a unique sport that was doing just fine before ESPN returned, and will probably do just fine once they are gone. If ESPN continues to put out this level of NASCAR programming, the clock may have already started.

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ABC at New Hampshire: In-Progress Comments

ABC is presenting a one hour NASCAR Countdown show and then the NEXTEL Cup race from New Hampshire.

Brent Musburger is hosting, Suzy Kolber, Dale Jarrett, and Brad Daugherty are in the Infield Studio. Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree are in the announce booth. On pit road, its Allen Bestwick, Mike Massaro, Shannon Spake, and Dave Burns. Tim Brewer is in the Tech Center.

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"RaceDay" On SPEED Hosts A New Hampshire Party

As the two hour live program called RaceDay continues its tour of NEXTEL Cup weekends, there has been a very strong fan reaction to what the network offers. Over the course of this season, The Daly Planet has referred to this show as both "the Super Wal-Mart" of NASCAR and the "SPEED-a-palooza Festival."

Both of these terms refer to the fact that SPEED has finally hit on a winning combination for a program they schedule head-to-head with ABC's NASCAR Countdown pre-race show.

This week at NHIS, the network was surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic fans as John Roberts, Jimmy Spencer, and Kenny Wallace anchored the program from the SPEED Stage. On a beautiful day, Wallace was once again driving in the race, and was replaced for several segments by Hermie Sadler on the panel.

Sadler has done a great job of working hard on his TV skills, and focusing his comments on the issue at hand. His SPEED-1 reports about the track and the race specifics have become a valuable feature on this program.

NEXTEL Cup drivers have been happy to appear on this show, knowing they will be welcomed as professional athletes, and not stabbed in the back by tabloid style reporting. Even the determined Wendy Venturini can get to the bottom of news and personnel issues without stepping on toes or embarrassing the individuals involved.

One of the hallmarks of RaceDay has been the fact they go to the track already loaded for bear. The production team puts a lot of effort into "pre-production." That is the week leading up to the event, where lots of features are edited, lots of footage is screened, and lots of interviews are done. The key to RaceDay is that only a part of it is actually done at the track.

This week was no exception, with lots of things seemingly "in the can" before the show. From in-depth glossy recaps of the previous race to the key footage used as B-roll for the live interviews, this type of preparation is the signature of a veteran TV crew.

Even the small "in-bumps," those footage and music segments that are rolled coming back from commercial break, set a tone for this show with great music and a welcoming feeling. Watch for this element as the show counts down The Chase.

Every show features a Real Deal segment reported by Wendy Venturini, who carried the title of "news woman" on this series. She has quietly used her hard work and tenacity to raise her TV profile on SPEED. It will be interesting to see what she winds-up doing next season, as both SPEED and big brother Fox Sports looks to shake-up some parts of their line-ups.

Somehow, Jimmy Spencer has found his "center" at a very good time for the network. Spencer has still been having fun, but he is seeming to finally understand that his words carry some big meaning with both the fans and the NASCAR community. This week, he directly addressed the IndyCar owners as having "ego problems" and contributing to the reason several open-wheel stars are moving to NASCAR.

In a strange way, Spencer has been put front and center as the expert and analyst on this show. Kenny Wallace continues to routinely drive in most NEXTEL Cup races, and his presence on this show has diminished. This singular focus on Spencer may have actually helped him with his on-camera presence.

Spencer is still a tough sell to some race fans, but his continued work on this series and the Victory Lane show is working well for him. Maybe some additional exposure on Inside NEXTEL Cup or even an episode of Tradin' Paint might be good for him before the season is over.

RaceDay is still struggling to connect with the fans at the track. Maybe, in a two hour live show, there might be an opening to do something with the fans other than zoom the camera past their heads twenty times in a row. Let them read the billboards, let them tape an in-bump, or find the fan that came the longest distance. In the era of interactive programming, this is still a letdown.

This week, with The Chase underway, RaceDay limited some of the extraneous hi jinks that had been throwing the show a bit off-balance. No Rutledge, one quick Ricky Rachtman sighting, and no "role playing" from the panel. This is exactly the way SPEED needs this show to remain down the stretch.

Once SPEED committed this show to going head-to-head with ABC, there was no going back. RaceDay is now the highest profile show on SPEED, and it should be interesting to watch them respond to this challenge over the next nine races.

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