Saturday, January 12, 2008
Chris Myers Steps Into Suzy Kolber's Glass Slippers
What a difference a year makes. Chris Myers and the Hollywood Hotel gang used to walk into town with the Daytona 500 as their first big show, and then "rock and roll" their way through the remaining races in the NASCAR on Fox TV package.
Normally, the memories of the previous NASCAR season on TV were not an issue. Myers, along with Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip, could have their goofy fun while warming-up the viewers for the race that was "coming up next." This year, things have changed.
Myers has always been the "odd man out" on this series, in much the same way that Marc Fein was on the TNT package last year. Myers is a journeyman, who just last week was seen as a sideline reporter on a playoff football game. But, many TV viewers remember Myers from somewhere else.
For ten years, Myers was a regular on ESPN hosting SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight and his award-winning Up Close interview program. Tennis fans know Myers from his Tennis Channel interview program called Center Court.
The one thing that Myers does not have on his resume, other than the Hollywood Hotel, is NASCAR. While on-air hosts like John Roberts, Steve Byrnes and Krista Voda slug-it-out in the NASCAR trenches each week, Myers is off to other sports once the Fox package ends. To Myers, NASCAR is a job and not a lifestyle.
Before the 2007 roll-out of the new NASCAR TV contract, this was not a problem. Myers was one of the "originals" on the Fox coverage, and basically created his own role. Now, after a disastrous season of declining ratings and fan unrest, there is no one more clearly in the spotlight than Mr. Myers. We all know the reason why.
ESPN had a devil of a time finding someone to take the Infield Studio anchor position during their first year back in NASCAR. This new high-tech studio is ESPN's equivalent of the Hollywood Hotel. During ESPN's Busch Series races, they tried Chris Fowler, Brent Musburger, Erik Kuselias, Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick as hosts.
By the time that the network's NEXTEL Cup races had rolled around, the ESPN brass had seen enough. What they wanted was someone who was a professional TV reporter, someone who already knew the ESPN system and someone who would be "safe" on-the-air no matter what was happening behind the scenes. Enter Monday Night Football sideline reporter Suzy Kolber.
Casual fans who only watch the NEXTEL Cup races, and not the practice or qualifying shows, tuned-in to find themselves confronted by Suzy Kolber, Brad Daugherty and Brent Musburger. It was quite an experience.
Kolber openly admitted her lack of any NASCAR experience, and instead used her considerable TV skills to "direct traffic" and ask a whole lot of questions that any fan might ask if they were new to the sport. There was only one fundamental problem. NASCAR fans had been watching since February. It was now the end of July.
ESPN failed to understand that no one was "new" to the sport at that time of the season. No one was now watching just because the sport was "on ESPN." They totally dismissed the Fox and TNT parts of the schedule, and instead treated fans as if the Brickyard 400 was the Daytona 500. In ESPN's mind, the season had just begun.
Unfortunately, the person caught right in the middle of all this was Kolber. Smiling all the way to the end, she subjected viewers to a recap of the most basic NASCAR issues during her pre-race shows. Then, she put a topper on the situation by moving the ESPN pit road reporters aside and doing live "feature interviews" from the starting grid. Her questions were often unintentionally hilarious.
As ESPN's NEXTEL Cup season progressed, the network forced Kolber into becoming the object of fan anger by inserting her on-camera even as green flag racing continued in the background. Kolber promoted non-racing sports, interviewed celebrities, and offered discussions and recaps of the race even as it was still in-progress right over her shoulder.
Nowhere was that situation more out-of-control than the Pocono race in August, where Kolber closed the pre-race show with a full-length music video. "Shut-up and Drive" has become a painful reminder of the Disney entertainment influence on ESPN's NASCAR coverage. After seven months of hard racing, and with only a handful of races before The Chase cut-off, a pop music video topped the hard news from the Cup Series.
ESPN relieved Kolber of the Busch Series pre-race duties, and gave that program to Allen Bestwick, but the damage was done. For many fans, Suzy Kolber and Rusty Wallace had come to define ESPN's NASCAR coverage. As the season ended in Homestead, it was almost a relief.
Now, after an off-season that seems to get more microscopic every year, the NASCAR on Fox gang walks into a very different fan base. Viewers know that the booth team of Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip will bring themselves to the table prepared. Fox's pit reporters are the best in the business, and Jeff Hammond's hard work from the infield has kept both his profile and his credibility high.
Suddenly, all eyes are on Chris Myers. This season, the goofy humor and the embarrassing moments will take on a new meaning. SPEED viewers have now had an entire season of watching John Roberts and Steve Byrnes host every kind of TV show possible from the Cup tracks.
These are the two men that took the "burden" of keeping NASCAR TV credible, put it on their backs, and carried the load in 2007. Roberts and Byrnes combined to give NASCAR fans the kind of "at the track" feel that ESPN and TNT never delivered.
Byrnes hosted countless practice and qualifying shows, along with his Trackside and NASCAR Live duties. Roberts anchored the RaceDay franchise for SPEED, along with Victory Lane, Tradin' Paint and almost anything else the network needed.
Ironically, many times during the Fox portion of the season, Byrnes anchored his practice and qualifying shows from the Hollywood Hotel. He was sitting in the chair normally occupied by Chris Myers, and he looked good in it.
This February at Daytona when Chris Myers looks around, there will be lots of NASCAR TV veterans looking right back at him. Several of them worked non-stop for the entire racing season and hosted hundreds of hours of live national TV programs. Like the fans, they have the memory of Suzy Kolber fresh in their minds, and the reaction to her by TV viewers.
Fox needs to come out of the gate with poise and dignity to begin a big repair job with the fans. They need to fix a credibility gap they did not create, but must address. If the goofy antics and the forced attempts at humor of the Hollywood Hotel from last February surface again, fans may simply continue the trend of deciding they have better things to do.
No matter how many funny antics, no matter how many inside jokes and no matter how many electronic TV "toys" they bring, no TV network can prevent a viewer from simply walking away.
The NASCAR on Fox gang needs to remember that after they left the sport last season, that is exactly what one in every ten NASCAR TV viewers did. Chris Myers has his work cut-out for him.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, and follow the simple instructions. There is nothing to join and we do not want your email address. We just want your opinion about the upcoming NASCAR season on TV.