Sunday, March 16, 2008
Monday Night TV Showdown Looms
While NASCAR fans always have fun watching racing on Sundays, those of us who like to talk about TV are looking forward to another exciting Monday.
This season has seen the balance of power shift from SPEED to ESPN2 on Monday nights, and it has not been pretty. The much anticipated transition from Inside NEXTEL Cup to the new This Week In NASCAR on SPEED has not quite gone the way the network intended. There is only one reason why.
His name is Allen Bestwick, and he was the longtime host of Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on SPEED. Bestwick has since migrated to ESPN. Now, after a first season of slogging through the trenches once again on pit road, he has emerged as the key piece of the ESPN NASCAR puzzle.
ESPN2 expanded the Monday edition of NASCAR Now to one hour in length early in 2007. This was a great idea. It promised to offer fans extended highlights of all three series and interviews with the drivers and personalities involved in the big stories of the weekend. Unfortunately, it turned into a one hour train wreck.
Eliminating both the Busch and Truck Series completely, the Monday hour instead turned into an exercise in pushing hype and sensationalism onto stories that simply contained racing action and the human dynamics that go with it. Sometimes, it was downright embarrassing.
This season, in continuing with ESPN's pledge of across-the-board support for NASCAR racing, things are heading in a decidedly different direction. Allen Bestwick now hosts a program with three panelists who talk about a wide variety of topics from the racing weekend. ESPN calls it the "roundtable" version of NASCAR Now.
This week, Bestwick will be joined by Rusty Wallace, Mike Massaro and Ray Evernham. Bestwick leads the panel through an informal session of watching highlights or interviews and then adding comments from their own perspective. In a very strange way, it is the ESPN version of the original Inside Winston Cup Racing that Bestwick hosted for SpeedVision.
Over at SPEED, it is Steve Byrnes who has been asked to come in and try to change one established program into another while fighting off the expectations of loyal viewers who yearn for Bestwick and the "old days." Byrnes has hosted all kinds of programs on SPEED, but nothing prepared him for the feedback from fans once This Week In NASCAR hit the air.
SPEED has re-focused this program using extensive pre-produced "features" that serve to de-emphasize the live conversation from the downsized panel of two. This week, Byrnes will be joined by Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle.
Veteran fans know that this program was formerly driven by the personalities of the panelists. It is now driven by the pre-produced portions of the show and the extensive SPEED promotions featured throughout the program.
It clearly does not have the same dynamic, and the downsized panel of two puts Byrnes in the position of often adding his opinion as the "third voice."
SPEED is laying low as to why Kenny Schrader is not being featured on this series every week, and continues to rotate a group of panelists through the program. Chad Knaus has been the new member of the crew, but viewers have only seen him once.
This week should be interesting, as Waltrip and Biffle have personalities that have often relied on the veteran Schrader to mute any brewing conflict. Schrader was literally positioned between them, and viewers have seen Waltrip snap at Biffle as though he was a mis-guided teenager who happened to race.
While Byrnes has his hands full trying to build a new program from the ground up, Bestwick has taken what he used to do for SPEED and turned it into an exciting program that fans are still discovering. What Bestwick added to NASCAR Now was quite simply an element of fun.
ESPN still makes the cast wear suits and ties, but even though they look like Digger Phelps or Mike Wilbon, the NASCAR guys are not taking themselves too seriously. This is exactly the type of on-air style that fans enjoy.
One key element has been the contributions of the often overlooked Mike Massaro. His ability to contribute on any NASCAR topic as a veteran reporter has been outstanding, and Bestwick has stepped aside and let him have the spotlight.
As both programs prepare for a key Monday show before an "off week," it should be interesting to see what they decide to bring to the table as this Monday Night TV Match-up kicks into high gear.
NASCAR Now is up first on ESPN2 at 5:30PM Eastern Time, and This Week In NASCAR follows at 8PM on SPEED.
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