Sunday, May 11, 2008
Monday Turns Into A NASCAR TV Battleground
Aside from watching the changes in the racing coverage this season, nothing has been more fun than seeing what Monday's NASCAR TV shows will bring.
At this time last season, Erik Kuselias was leading ESPN2's NASCAR Now through an entire Monday show of hype and innuendo. By the end of the racing year, this column summed-up the frustrations of the fans with The Worldwide Leader In Sports.
Now, Mr. Kuselias is alone on Saturday mornings from 7 to 10AM talking stick-and-ball sports on ESPN Radio. In his place, NASCAR TV veteran Allen Bestwick has installed a brand new format on Mondays and brought-in a brand new audience.
Fully recovered from his professional struggles, Bestwick has quickly changed Monday at 5:30PM Eastern from "the place to avoid" to "the place to be" for NASCAR fans. The bad studio set and the hype are long gone, replaced by four chairs and a simple weekly conversation about racing.
If you squint just a little bit, Monday's NASCAR Now looks a lot like another successful NASCAR show that was on TV for a while. Three panelists, one host, sometimes a guest and lots of conversation while watching the highlights. Memories of Bestwick and Inside Winston Cup Racing on SPEED are easy to conjure up for veteran fans.
This Monday is going to be a very interesting show. Bestwick is going to welcome former Darlington winner Ricky Craven, who has not been seen in a car or on TV by most fans in a long time. Joining Craven will be Ray Evernham and Mike Massaro. It is this ever-changing cast of characters that keeps bringing viewers back week-after-week.
Craven should be able to speak to a lot of racing issues. Evernham will be vital in talking about the technical controversy raised by Jeff Gordon and Massaro should be able to describe the feelings in the garage about Kyle Busch because Massaro was there. Yet another new combination of human ingredients on this show that just require Bestwick to stir.
Inheriting the Inside NEXTEL Cup franchise was Steve Byrnes. Regardless of the name change to This Week in NASCAR, viewers know SPEED and the NASCAR Media Group are just trying to freshen-up this 8PM Monday night franchise. Unfortunately, SPEED has left this series all alone on the schedule surrounded by TV programs that have nothing to do with racing.
Since the change, the TWIN production team has bravely been trying to put ten pounds of content into a five pound bag. The result is a program that is just as likely to be playing-back pre-produced features as it is talking to the two person panel.
Innovation only works if it is tried, and SPEED certainly has tried. They have moved the preview of the next race up into the first thirty minutes of the show, and kept the fresh memories of the weekend race for the second half of the hour. They have added feature after feature, including interviews and slickly edited race recaps that only NMG could produce.
Unfortunately, re-inventing the wheel is a very tough task. Fortunately, SPEED and NMG have all the ingredients to make this show outstanding on a weekly basis. The program misses a third panelist and clearly misses the veteran perspective of Kenny Schrader.
This Monday, as SPEED begins a week of All-Star race festivities, the network and NMG are going to make a change. The normally studio-based show will be taped at the Speedway Club at Lowe's Motor Speedway just north of Charlotte, NC.
Steve Byrnes will be hosting an expanded panel that will bring Schrader back to the program. Joining those two will be longtime panelist Michael Waltrip, Darlington headliner Greg Biffle and rather frustrated crew chief Chad Knaus. That is an All-Star line-up if there ever was one.
The format of the program will remain the same, with the panelists both previewing and reviewing the Sprint Cup Series races. Along the way, they will briefly touch on both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series as well. The review of both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races from Darlington should be interesting to say the least.
On this particular Monday, SPEED has indicated that the panel will also be taking questions from the invitation-only audience. It is somewhat ironic that the original This Week In NASCAR with Eli Gold was famous for exactly that. Including the fans was a top priority of the show and something sorely missing from today's NASCAR TV programming.
The ability of a fan to ask Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Bill Elliott a question on TV had a lot of power. It is one thing for Steve Byrnes to read a pre-selected question at the end of the show. It is quite another to allow fans to interact directly with NASCAR personalities. Hopefully, this element will be a positive one for the show.
TV viewers should be able to see two very different approaches to "talking NASCAR" on Monday. ESPN2's carefully controlled HD studio with four "guys in ties" should be a fascinating contrast to the open collars and khakis of the TWIN gang amid the live audience in the Speedway Club.
There will be columns up for both programs once they have concluded. Please feel free to leave your comments about the season-to-date for both TV series on this post.
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