Monday, November 19, 2007

Homestead Hangover Has No Easy Cure

The simple reason that we started The Daly Planet this February is because it was the first year of the new NASCAR TV contract.

It was a time of great excitement and anticipation for all parties involved in the big announcement. Back on February 8th, it was an ESPN press release that reminded us "the network's (previous) award-winning, flag-to-flag NASCAR coverage was honored with seventeen Sports Emmy Awards and credited with helping to popularize the sport nationwide."

The head of TV production for ESPN's NASCAR events is Rich Feinberg, and he said "We're not here to re-invent the way NASCAR is covered because we have tremendous respect for what has been accomplished. We are proud of our history, (and will be) pushing the limit up, and upgrading the experience. We're here to serve the NASCAR fans, but also to bring on new viewers."

Dick Glover, NASCAR's VP of Broadcasting said "The huge thing is ESPN and ABC will expose NASCAR to the casual fan, and that's a sweet spot of growth for us."

Taking a moment to remember what ESPN laid-out as their agenda for NASCAR in 2007 can be important in making a judgement about the success or failure of their participation in the sport now that the season is over.

In December of 2006, Feinberg said the ESPN production team had three goals in broadcasting each race. Here they are in the order he presented them:

1 - Documentation of the race from start to finish.

2 - Storytelling, or creating emotion.

3 - Entertainment through technology, graphics, music and directorial approach.

Feinberg said "If we keep that approach, we have a chance to be successful and pick-up where we left off."

In closing, Feinberg added two points. "If the ratings from today (2006) do not improve, I for one will not be very satisfied," he said. He also added that he will read "the blogs" on Mondays to find out how his telecasts were received by the fans.

While that was Mr. Feinberg back then, this is Mr. Feinberg on November 18th of this year while answering reporter Mike Mulhern about why the ESPN produced NEXTEL Cup telecasts failed to increase viewership or TV ratings for the sport.

"I wish I knew (the reason)," said Feinberg. "Our marketing groups are working closely with NASCAR and we're all looking in the mirror and and asking...what's going on?"

"The product, in terms of television, we're proud of the job we've done this first year. Mulhern asked if there were too many TV announcers and too many TV gizmos in the ABC and ESPN coverage. "No, I don't think so," said Feinberg. "We do have a lot of voices and a good mixture of voices and we are proud of that."

"We are in the storytelling business," he continued. "And it's not Team A vs. Team B...we've got 43 teams. So, we've got to find those stories."

To that end, Feinberg talked about his most recent NASCAR announcer. "Just like we want to broaden our audience and bring new viewers in, we've been using a broader perspective in our (on-air) talent," he said. "Like Suzy Kolber, who is a highly respected journalist and very successful on Monday Night Football. I am so proud of what she has done on the air as our host these last seventeen weeks. She works as hard as anyone or harder, and I believe she is being accepted (by NASCAR fans)."

Feinberg has a theory about why TV ratings have been down this season. "I wonder if it's just a time of change," he said. "We've got a lot of the greatest drivers, cult figures if you will, who have retired. Rusty Wallace has hung it up, Mark Martin has cut way back, Dale Jarrett hasn't been competitive lately. Ricky Rudd is hanging it up after some unproductive years."

"The research shows we have done a good job of bringing in new viewers," he continued. "And we're doing well in the coveted younger demographics, but in the 55 plus...(demographic numbers are down)."

Finally, he offered some other suggestions for what might be wrong. "Well, are there too many races, have we lost too many of the great stars, is there too much international now, or is it that (Earnhardt) Junior isn't winning?" he asked.

Mulhern's story was offered on the Winston-Salem Journal's website. Below it were the comments offered by NASCAR fans. They did not seem to agree with Mr. Feinberg about ESPN's coverage of the sport.

"Stop trying to copy Fox...Eliminate announcers with no connection to the sport like Suzy Kolber...ESPN throws too much talk and too many gimmicks into the coverage...The ESPN primary focus should be on covering what is happening on the track...I went to an ESPN marketing seminar and a race broke out...At the end of a race, ESPN does not interview the top five drivers, last Sunday at Homestead they did not interview The Chase drivers...Brent Musburger knows nothing about NASCAR...ESPN has the worst coverage of NASCAR I have ever seen after ten years of watching every race."

This is just a brief sampling of some of the over one hundred comments on this one story on this one website alone. As readers of The Daly Planet know, there has been a wholesale outcry from the fans about some of the things that they believe ESPN was able to "get away with" this season.

So, now it is done. Before we go back and look at the TNT and Fox Sports portions of the Cup races, there is time now to consider Mr. Feinberg's remarks and then ask for your opinion. This time, we will look back at only the final seventeen Cup races of 2007.

This is the big money part of the ESPN and ABC TV deal that cost the network hundreds of millions of dollars in rights fees. The network's Programming Department bought these races, and then gave them to Mr. Feinberg and his group to produce.

Before we ask for your comments, let's take a moment and consider what Mr. Feinberg did not talk about. That would be the performance of his own TV production team. Mr. Feinberg carefully navigated around his own inability to deal with the mounting problems that ultimately resulted in one of the worst produced NASCAR TV telecasts in history. Unfortunately, that would be the 2007 NEXTEL Cup final race in Homestead.

This season, ESPN has left crashed cars on the track with drivers inside and never mentioned them again. I know, because my driver, Dale Jarrett, was one of them. They refuse to update the drivers condition, or speak with them when they leave the Infield Care Center. At Homestead, it happened again many times.

This season, ESPN has refused to tell viewers which car gets a lap back during a caution, the Lucky Dog. They have also steadfastly refused to reset the field after a commercial and before the green flag. Instead, they insert a production element like a recorded team radio blurb or a Draft Track demo. At Homestead, it happened again many times.

This season, ESPN has decided before the race what "story" they are going to tell, and they stick with that theme despite the reality of a major live sporting event unfolding right in front of them. Often, their chosen "story" is so ridiculous to NASCAR fans that it borders on the laughable. At Homestead, as Jeff and Jimmie know all too well, it happened again.

This season, ESPN has refused to do regular "full field" rundowns with the pit reporters who are assigned to the teams. Instead, the silent ticker at the top of the screen is the only way for fans to understand every fifty laps or so where their favorite driver is on the track. There is no way to understand how he got there. At Homestead, this happened again.

Finally, this season it was possible for ESPN to go through an entire four hour NEXTEL Cup race and never mention the name of a driver after reading it one time when announcing his position on the starting grid. No matter what actually transpired in the race, unless certain drivers got into one of the top five positions on the track, they would never be heard from all race long. At Homestead, in the final race of the season, this happened again.

When a network builds coverage of a major event series, they build it from the bottom. They establish a fundamental credibility through their announcers and their TV production team that lets the viewers know that what they are seeing and hearing is the best choice of pictures and commentary available.

When a network uses "TV toys" on a live broadcast, these gizmos are used to embellish, not interfere with the live action. They appear at a time when they make sense, and not at a time when they can be inserted to show-off new technology or pad an announcer's ego.

When a network deals with athletes from any sport, they use a level of restraint and fairness that does not exploit the emotional or difficult moments that professional athletes will always encounter in their careers. The TV network shows both the viewers and the athletes that it knows where to draw the line.

In the last seventeen NEXTEL Cup races of the season, what did you think of ESPN's TV production team? Did some of Mr. Feinberg's points hit home, or did some of the gaps in the coverage get your attention? Think about it, summarize it, and then add it to our end of season comments so we can read and discuss it.

To add your opinion, simply click on the COMMENTS button below, and follow the instructions. There is nothing to join, and we do not want your email address. Please read the rules for posting on the right side of the main page, and we thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

"Inside NEXTEL Cup" Quietly Walks Away

The big boys were on the studio set at the NASCAR Images building in Charlotte, NC. It was the Monday after the season had ended, and Kenny Schrader, Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle were ready to get this show done and get on vacation. Only one thing stood in their way...Dave Despain.

All three drivers were fresh-faced and wide awake, a situation questioned by Despain about the level of partying that followed the Homestead race. Greg Biffle answered the question by saying "I only finished thirteenth."

Off to the races for one last time the trio followed Despain's prompting and lent a good focus to the events as they unfolded on the Cup side. Despain was not impressed with the race, and headed into the highlight segment with a rather deep breath.

In this program, Despain added some impromptu questions for the panel about incidents on pit road and Cup Series rookies. This non-scripted conversation was always a hallmark of the "old" INC and often led things into hilarious territory.

For whatever reason, this "new" version of INC, now several years old, has some feeling that viewers are seeing race highlights for the first time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most fans are here for the fun, having seen The SPEED Report, Victory Lane, NASCAR Now, or even SportsCenter.

The entire point of the "old" show was that having fun was the priority, and if the highlights got shown before Allen Bestwick had a coronary...that was OK too. While there are some occasional smiles, that spirit is gone and has never returned.

Schrader tries to move things in a fun direction now and again, but Despain reels the panel in quickly and gets back to the script. In Monday's program, several brief "mini-discussions" popped-up and showed the depth of experience and knowledge of the panel. This aspect is sorely missed on a regular basis.

After the highlights finished, the Toyota subject came up and Waltrip was staunch in his defense of this company's foray into the Cup side. Once again, Schrader was the voice of experience in saying that it was not where Toyota "was" in Cup at present, it was where they are going.

The rest of the show continued as normal, with some inside jokes flying between Waltrip and Schrader. Greg Biffle has become a solid member of this panel, and his serious personality fits well with the hyperactive Waltrip and the laid-back Schrader.

Throughout the season, this show has experienced highs and lows that seemed to be determined by tension among the cast and lack of innovation from the production team. The "hot seat" guest is gone, the viewer questions are boring, and there are no fun features anywhere to be seen.

It has come down to a re-hash of highlights already seen by fans in a TV show all alone on Monday nights with no other NASCAR programming support. It kind of makes it seem even more ironic that the show is from NASCAR Images, where the panel sits surrounded by thousands of hours of NASCAR footage.

In this season-ending program, there were no "out-takes or bloopers" shown going to commercial. There were no memorable moments played back or remembered by the cast. As we have so often seen from NASCAR Images this season, there was only random NASCAR footage edited into a music video. What a complete waste of time.

On that set were two drivers who have participated in this program for the last decade. In this show, they were asked about races, manufacturers and even rookies. What they were never asked about was this show...this series...the last ten years of their lives spent Mondays in the same studio.

It was great that Despain casually made the statement that the show would return next season. It would have been nice if just like the other "final" programs on SPEED, INC would have spent some time and given viewers some retrospective of what had transpired over the last ten months on the set.

Remember, there is no longer running show on SPEED than INC. In this final hour of what had been a very memorable year for a lot of reasons, fans deserved more than just Despain offering each driver thirty seconds to say what he "is doing in the off-season."

When INC returns, let us hope for several things. First, that SPEED places some additional NASCAR programming like Tradin' Paint, NASCAR Performance, Survival of the Fastest, and maybe even a live edition of WindTunnel on Monday nights. The hodge-podge of lifestyle shows likes PINKS and Payback make INC a lonely NASCAR island.

Secondly, that more resources are used to allow some additional show elements. This stripped-down version of INC that was created by an executive no longer at the network should be scrapped. Shoot a feature at the track, bring in a guest, and allow the fans to submit their questions through Internet video. Do something to dust-off this old war horse and make it young again.

The original SpeedVision Executive Producer Bob Scanlon had a simple idea. Get one driver from each NASCAR manufacturer, add a host that could get them talking, and do it on the Monday after each race.

While that idea has changed slightly over the years, the fundamental premise has been proven to stand the test of time. It will be nice to see INC return for another season, and even nicer to see it grow back into the franchise program it was for this network for so many years.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by and leave your opinion.

Robin Miller Rocks Kyle Petty And "Tradin' Paint"

Fans had hoped that SPEED would make a good choice for the final media guest of the outstanding series Tradin' Paint.

The network did not have to look far to find the perfect candidate. Robin Miller pried himself away from the open-wheel world to stop by Homestead and let his opinion be known.

Both John Roberts and regular panelist Kyle Petty appeared to be pleased to welcome a member of the SPEED Channel extended family. Miller was more "user friendly" than the many NASCAR journalists that had enraged Petty throughout the season.

SPEED added a special touch to this program by playing back thoughts offered by some of the more memorable guests of Tradin' Paint over the last ten months. This was a great feature.

There is no doubt that Miller views NASCAR with a certain level of disdain, but he managed to temper his words and participate in some good and lively discussions on this program. It was exactly what SPEED needed to send this show into the off-season on a high note.

The fireworks started with the discussion of the top 35 rule. Miller offered theory, and Petty offered reality. Petty continues to move this topic over to the business model of keeping some value in the teams, without any franchising system. Miller used the good comparison that the big value of the Indy 500 was that the fastest thirty-three cars started no matter who they were or who owned them.

Ray Dunlap stepped-up to offer thoughts on the past champions provisional and was very clear with his words on this issue. He suggested eliminating it for 2008. Miller offered the point that the owners are going to use anything at their disposal to assure that their teams make the race. Petty tried to agree, but could not resist taking a shot at Dunlap's credibility along the way.

Petty's point was that these rules were decades old, and it was simply time to modernize all the old rules when NASCAR decides to pay attention to this issue. Petty said that under the current system Dale Jarrett has every "freaking right" to use his past champions provisional even if he is several tenths off the pace. Kyle does have a way with words.

In this final program, host John Roberts set a sightly milder tone than some of the knock-down drag-out affairs from earlier in the season. AP Reporter Jenna Fryer and Petty could hardly find any common ground, and Petty basically accused her of fabricating stories. "Can I just leave now?" said Fryer only five minutes into the show.

Nothing, however, will top the Kyle Petty vs. Bob Pockrass from SceneDaily debacle this season. That one had viewers howling and The Daly Planet comments flying for a full week. Pockrass has a personality that, well, kind of gets under your skin a little bit. To Petty, Pockrass is just flat and simply a complete moron.

John Roberts put on his referee hat and waded into a discussion that featured Pockrass questioning everything under the NASCAR sun, often times without the respect or dignity that the Petty family finds very fundamental to the sport. The result was Petty blowing his top on national TV.

Just like Jenna Fryer, Petty accused Pockrass of deliberately making things up in his stories, and told him he was "full of BS." Petty went on to question the NASCAR Media in general, suggesting they manufactured false rumors to feed their publications and websites.

One final memorable moment was when Pockrass suggested Montoya could not win in his first season because of the steep NASCAR learning curve. Petty dismissed him with a wave and said Pockrass did not know the sport, and did not understand that anyone could win on any Sunday. Pockrass said "I guess that includes you too, right?"

On the way out the door, Petty said on SPEED that Pockrass and most of the NASCAR Media spend their time "blowing smoke up people's butts." The bottom line for Petty was, the media was always wrong and he was always right.

That is why a nice, middle-aged man like Robin Miller from the SPEED family was the right choice for this show. They talked about good subjects, each gave their opinions, and the season ended without the potential for post-show festivities. Although, I do think Fryer could take Petty on a good day.

Earlier this season, I called Tradin' Paint "the little TV show that could." Given one additional guest, this show could fill a quality hour on SPEED and re-air on Mondays behind Inside NEXTEL Cup, should that program series return. The key problem for Tradin' Paint is that viewers cannot find it among the multi-channel NASCAR mess of a TV schedule.

John Roberts and Kyle Petty have made this show worth watching all season long. Their guests have almost always made it memorable. With a little polish, a few more resources, and a steady timeslot, Tradin' Paint could finally give SPEED the NASCAR opinion and discussion-style show they have been lacking. This team put a solid TV season under their belts in 2007.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by and leave your opinion.