Thursday, November 29, 2007

This Banquet Will Be An ESPN "Instant Classic"

Last year, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Banquet aired live on TNT and had an edited replay on the NBC Broadcast Network. That was then...this is now.

The 2007 Banquet will be aired live as well, on what has become a network all too familiar to NASCAR fans...ESPN Classic.

The live Banquet program will be aired Friday from 9PM Eastern Time to Midnight on ESPN Classic, and then re-aired immediately on ESPN2. That would be 9PM Pacific Time.

The Banquet and the supposed "media hub-bub" around it in NYC were the subject of an earlier Daly Planet column which can be read by clicking here.

Prior to the Banquet telecast, ESPN Classic will air at 8:30PM highlights of the Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon. Held the day before the Banquet, this function presents the Rookie of the Year and many other NASCAR and sponsor awards.

Dr. Jerry Punch, a man with a very long personal history with NASCAR, will be the Master of Ceremonies for the Cup Banquet. Along with ESPN, this is Punch's first year back on the NASCAR scene after a long absence working on other assignments for ESPN and ABC. He has always been a good friend of the sport.

Singer Kelly Clarkson will be the musical performer. She was featured in a concert before the Daytona 500 this season, and also cut a promo seen frequently during the race telecasts.

One interesting note is that actor and comic David Spade will be performing as well. Spade is currently featured on a primetime CBS TV series. CBS does not air any NASCAR-related programming, but Spade is very open about the fact that he is a hardcore NASCAR fan and an avid viewer of the races. Over the past several seasons, this "comic" assignment at the Cup Banquet has been a tricky one.

The Banquet itself has been a hot topic, and for good reason. Bruton Smith is suggesting Las Vegas as a fun alternative to the "alien" environment of NYC for most folks. The NYC expenses are very high for both the teams and the media. Other than the locals, it is almost prohibitive for the fans. In the age of the Internet and other means of instant global media exposure, Las Vegas definitely has a good case to plead.

But, NASCAR remembers why it came to NYC in the first place, and seemingly wants to wait until the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex is built in Charlotte to "maybe" consider moving the Banquet. With lots of financial commitments on the line by several parties, having all three national series banquets in Charlotte would put a lot of money in the Greater Charlotte area's pockets.

On the TV side, earlier this season The Daly Planet wrote about ESPN Classic. The reason was simple. In January of this year, ESPN stopped creating original programming for this network. Essentially, ESPN Classic was banished to re-airing things ESPN already owned and nothing more.

The website Wikipedia documents June of 2007 as the final ending of all original shows on ESPN Classic. It calls the fate of the network itself...uncertain.

When we wrote about it a while back, there was little doubt in our minds that one big "NASCAR on ESPN" problem already existed. The scheduling commitments of both ESPN and ESPN2 were already huge, and we felt that live NASCAR programming was simply not going to fit on-the-air when it was supposed to be shown.

We suggested being proactive, changing the name of ESPN Classic to ESPN3 and making a commitment to NASCAR programming whenever it needed to be shown live. This would include pre-race shows and races scheduled to air when ESPN2 had live events running long.

It would also include post-race broadcasts that would allow live coverage and interviews when ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC had other programming commitments. In other words, when the "big boys" had to leave by contractual obligation, the NASCAR fans would still have a place to go for the stories of the race to be told. Well, it was an interesting idea.

After the laughter faded, ESPN had few problems early-on because they only carried the Busch Series races live. Then, all of a sudden, the final seventeen races of the NEXTEL Cup Series landed on ESPN and ABC at the same time the college football season began. Needless to say, all hell broke loose.

The chaos is documented in a Daly Planet column of October 28th entitled "ESPN Pushes NASCAR To The Back Burner." You can click on that title for a direct link to the column. Please make sure and view some of the reader comments for the true flavor of that special moment in time.

ESPN mutilated the final three months of both the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series like no TV network had ever done before. Practices for both series were routinely not televised. This included sessions of Cup practice for the "Chase" races. NEXTEL Cup "Happy Hour" was joined in progress for "Chase" races because of football.

The NASCAR Countdown show for the Busch Series races was usually either switched to ESPN Classic or lost entirely to college football. On ESPN2, Countdown was routinely scheduled three hours after a noon football game began. As we all know, a live game takes three and one half hours or more. It was often more.

ESPN will never live down the Memphis fiasco, where they actually pulled live NASCAR off the air during the Invocation before the race. While the people at the track might have been praying for a safe race, viewers nationwide were praying for someone in Bristol, Connecticut to get a clue.

The NASCAR fans prayers were actually answered, as one good tackle allowed the football game to suddenly end and the race to magically appear again just before the first lap. The Iowa Hawkeyes now have a special place in NASCAR folklore.

On the ABC side of things, fans flooded The Daly Planet with reports of ABC stations covering the pre-race show of "Chase" races with local news. Other stations simply left races that ran past 6PM and began their local news broadcast as if nothing had happened. It was, quite simply, a mess.

It was quickly apparent that the supposed "synergy" between ESPN and their over-the-air broadcast cousins at ABC was not exactly what it was cracked-up to be. Some local stations were even running news updates during caution flag periods.

The final straw for many was ABC being forced to leave the air at 6PM without any post-race interviews of the "Chase" drivers or the other drivers involved in the story of the race. Several times, Jerry Punch assured viewers that tuning to ESPN would get them the additional interviews he knew they wanted.

Instead, what fans got was more of an overwhelming feeling from the on-air announcers on ESPN shows from SportsCenter to PTI that NASCAR was "beneath" them. ESPN News did the absolute worst job of integrating regular NASCAR coverage into its news line-up.

That network was simply dominated by college and pro football during the critical Saturdays and Sundays of the "Chase." To ESPN News, NASCAR did not exist as a priority, even as the races played-out on ABC and the company spent tens of millions of dollars to produce the events.

Now, after all of the chaos of this first ESPN season, we have the NEXTEL Cup Banquet. Airing Friday on ESPN at 9PM we find live NBA Basketball. Over on ESPN2, believe it or not, we find live college football on a Friday night.

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Banquet is getting bumped to ESPN Classic because Fresno State is playing New Mexico State starting at 5PM Pacific Time on a Friday. Let's just repeat that one more time...5PM on a Friday night out West.

Of all the strange scenarios we could have scripted in this wild year of NASCAR TV, is there any one stranger than this?

The Banquet is bumped to a network that ESPN said would not be involved in any NASCAR telecasts because of a sport that ESPN said would not be a problem to any live NASCAR programming.

What a way to close-out the first season of a billion dollar TV contract.

Note: There will be a live page for in-progress comments during the NEXTEL Cup Banquet. The page is now open for your comments.

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