Saturday, March 15, 2008
Another Long Day's Journey Into Night For ABC/ESPN
The opportunity for the Nationwide Series to be featured on the ABC broadcast network is exactly what this series needs to help raise its profile.
Unfortunately, once again a combination of Mother Nature and the dynamics of broadcast network TV served to spoil the Nationwide Series day in the spotlight.
The new NASCAR on ESPN crew led by Allen Bestwick made the commitment to stay live until the rain stopped from the moment they came on the air. Bestwick's enthusiasm for racing sets the tone for the remainder of the ESPN personalities involved in the telecasts.
After a rain delay, the Nationwide race got underway and the ESPN crew made it clear that the drivers were racing for the halfway point. The weather radar showed a line of rain heading toward the speedway, and the racing got fast and furious.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have combined in the booth to present an entirely new spirit to the broadcasts. Even Rusty Wallace, who has shifted to the Infield Studio, has found new life and excitement after these changes. In terms of analysts, this new configuration has certainly paid-off for ESPN.
What has not paid-off for ESPN or NASCAR is the distribution pathway of the local ABC television stations. Originally, the idea of using the "bigger" availability of broadcast TV was a positive. Now, ESPN has finished one year of significant problems where ABC is concerned and they seem to be heading into another.
Many things have changed in NASCAR, including the fact that most of the tracks that host national events now have lights. Racing at night is not an issue for the drivers or the fans, but it certainly is for the broadcast television networks.
Even before the Saturday race started, several local ABC stations had already decided not to carry the coverage. Storms in Atlanta and Charlotte motivated affiliates to prioritize news instead of sports, and basketball coverage on local stations in the Midwest pre-empted the live race in several other markets.
The scenario of local ABC stations making independent decisions is not new to NASCAR. In 2007, the friction between ESPN and ABC was first revealed when stations covered the pre-race show of the night races with local news, and then left immediately after the green flag to begin their late news. There were many columns on The Daly Planet which can be found in the archives about these incidents.
ESPN told us they were only responsible for the production of the races, and the ABC representative told us that the ABC stations were independent business that make decisions based on their own priorities. So, even "must carry" NASCAR races can be tape delayed for several types of reasons.
On this Saturday, the 6PM Eastern Time "window" had arrived where the live NASCAR coverage had now gone thirty minutes over the scheduled "off time." The March Madness college basketball show scheduled for 5:30PM had already been pre-empted on the East Coast. Many local TV station anchors were sitting in their studios waiting to do the news. It was decision time.
As the ABC/ESPN executives looked to ESPN, they found live college basketball. When they looked at ESPN2, they found the same thing. Suddenly, the huge ESPN media company found itself in the same situation it first experienced in 2007. The only place to move the live NASCAR telecast was the much smaller ESPN Classic cable TV network.
Even as the promos called the Nationwide Series on ESPN "classic racing," the series once again found itself moving to the real "Classic Network." NASCAR interrupted a trick shot billiards show that had probably aired hundreds of times. The original programming budget for ESPN Classic had been cancelled years ago, so the network only replays "free" programs from the ESPN Library.
The exception to this rule is when ESPN Classic has to act as an overflow network for college sports. As luck may have it, when the Bristol Nationwide race was moved to ESPN Classic at 6PM, there was a live college basketball game scheduled for 8PM that night.
If the rain had stopped, and the race had re-started, both ABC and all the ESPN Networks would have been in contractually obligated programming. Live basketball for ESPN, and primetime programming for ABC. As Nationwide Series fans experienced last season with the race at Memphis, NASCAR would have been the odd man out.
As it happened, NASCAR called the event at 6:30PM and the ESPN crew had escaped the "danger zone" by ninety minutes. While only four of the Nationwide Series events are carried on ABC, the Sprint Cup portion of the ABC schedule begins in September. ABC will carry the final eleven races live.
What ESPN and ABC can do to minimize these issues and create a cohesive communications system for affiliate problems between now and September is going to be very important. Perhaps, if key local affiliates are forced or choose to pre-empt coverage then ESPN might consider offering an alternative pathway for viewing in that area.
The good news is that the NASCAR on ESPN crew was solid for the entire Saturday telecast. Even Brad Daugherty pitched-in on a fascinating conversation about Goodyear and their tires during the rain delay. With a production group that worked to solve the problems of 2007 and succeeded, perhaps the ABC and ESPN executives can work to solve the local station issues before September.
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