Saturday, October 25, 2008
ESPN Refuses To Promote Memphis Simulcast
Update: ESPN has corrected the graphics during the qualifying session from Memphis to reflect the SPEED simulast. While this cannot fix the tremendous damage that was done during the week, it is a statement that ESPN is trying to get its NASCAR act together.
Friday's NASCAR Now program wrapped-up a long and wet day of NASCAR on ESPN2. Host Ryan Burr reviewed the soggy conditions in Atlanta. Then, he let ESPN veteran Marty Reid preview the Saturday Nationwide Series race in Memphis, TN. Burr ended his program by sending viewers back to Atlanta for scheduled Sprint Cup Series qualifying.
The Memphis race is very important to that area as well as to the teams and sponsors in the Nationwide Series. In this event, eight cars will be racing with paint schemes designed by the children from St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital as a part of the "design a dream" contest. What a great story for TV as the picture above so clearly shows.
That race is also going to give a lot of new young drivers and some good old Nationwide Series "regulars" a chance to shine on live national TV. Unfortunately, where the Memphis race is concerned, TV really is the issue.
ESPN will have two football games, one horse race and one Nationwide Series race at the same time on Saturday. That makes four live events. The ESPN family of TV networks available to distribute those four events consists of ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. That makes three TV networks. Fundamentally, that's a problem.
The original ESPN solution was to put the Nationwide Series race on the ESPN Classic Network. This channel is completely "empty." What that means is that there is no original programming on it at any time.
Several years ago, ESPN Classic began re-airing only TV shows that ESPN already owned. Classic is like a huge video player with the SHUFFLE button permanently engaged.
Sometimes, ESPN Classic is used for live events when the ESPN networks are full. In most cases, these events are college sports-related. With a smaller number of households and limited availability, ESPN Classic cannot serve as a primary TV network for distributing a NASCAR race.
To solve the Memphis problem, ESPN and NASCAR enlisted the help of one of NASCAR's most important TV partners. SPEED stepped-up and agreed to carry ESPN's broadcast of the Memphis race. Here are some comments from last week when this arrangement was announced.
"ESPN is here to serve sports fans, and we appreciate the cooperation from NASCAR and SPEED to make this simulcast possible," said Julie Sobieski, ESPN Vice President, Programming and Acquisitions. "This effort ensures an opportunity for the greatest number of fans to be able to watch the Memphis race."
"This is a busy time of year for live sports and we really appreciate ESPN and SPEED working together to come up with a plan that takes care of our fans," said Robbie Weiss, NASCAR's Vice President of Broadcasting. "ESPN and SPEED will work aggressively to promote this simulcast."
Let's take a moment to rewind that last comment from Weiss. "ESPN and SPEED will work aggressively to promote this simulcast." Apparently, someone at ESPN did not get that memo.
From the moment this past Sunday when Allen Bestwick signed ABC off-the-air from Martinsville Speedway, there has been a deliberate and purposeful effort to do just the opposite of what Mr. Weiss stated. SPEED's simulcast of this event has never been mentioned on-the-air by ESPN.
First by the TV veteran Bestwick at Martinsville, then by NASCAR Now host Ryan Burr all week long it was just ESPN Classic for Memphis. Finally, ESPN's own IRL and NASCAR veteran Marty Reid joined-in the effort. He totally and absolutely avoided any mention of SPEED simulcasting the race while he was on the air Friday afternoon.
The program that Reid was hosting was live Nationwide Series practice...from Memphis.
Several times in the telecast, Reid ran-down the line-up of networks for Saturday's NASCAR action. SPEED was never on the graphics promoting the race. SPEED was not in the promo copy that he read. SPEED was never even mentioned by his partners in the booth Randy LaJoie and Rusty Wallace.
When this happens in network television across multiple networks and on many different programs, there is only one answer. ESPN's Vice President of Motorsports, Rich Feinberg, made the decision that despite the words from Ms. Sobieski and Mr. Weiss, the ESPN brand would come before the NASCAR fan once again.
TV viewers watching all of ESPN's "branded" NASCAR programming for the past week have never seen a promo for Memphis that included SPEED simulcasting the event. What that means is that NASCAR fans are being told by ESPN that they must use ESPN Classic to see the race on TV.
Pardon me, but isn't ESPN Classic how this entire problem got started in the first place?
Perhaps, Mr. Weiss was busy this entire week and no one from his staff took the time to point-out the fact that SPEED was missing from every ESPN mention and promo of the Memphis race. So much for promoting aggressively.
It is only through the good-faith efforts of SPEED that both NASCAR and ESPN will not suffer a huge public relations disaster. Imagine putting a stand-alone NASCAR race on an obtuse TV network after showing the entire Nationwide Series all season-long on ESPN2 and ABC.
There are only four Nationwide Series races left of the thirty-five on the 2008 schedule. ESPN has spent millions of production dollars to chase this series across the nation since February. It is the only NASCAR series seen exclusively on the ESPN family of TV networks. ESPN uses the high-profile team of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree to call almost all of the races.
It seemed ironic that closing-out the Friday NASCAR TV on ESPN2 was that same trio talking racing from the ESPN Infield Pit Center while the rain continued to fall in Atlanta. With qualifying cancelled, it gave Punch and company plenty of time to cover all kinds of topics. When it came time for the Memphis race, Punch again followed the company line and told fans it was only on ESPN Classic.
Just when ESPN had finally regained its footing with many NASCAR fans, the company deliberately pulls one of the cruelest stunts of the season. Using the "us vs. them" mentality that has invaded the new ESPN culture, SPEED's simulcast was pushed aside as perhaps something that Weiss and NASCAR forced upon ESPN.
Let's set the record straight. I was asked to be patient and wait for all three parties to resolve this issue before writing about the problem. I cooperated fully. Now, that issue has been resolved but ESPN will not mention on-the-air that NASCAR fans without ESPN Classic have another TV option.
So, here is my Memphis race promo:
"TV viewers with ESPN Classic can tune directly into the Memphis Nationwide Series coverage at 3PM for NASCAR Countdown and the race will follow. For those NASCAR fans without Classic, the race will be simulcast on SPEED."
You know, that just did not seem all that hard to say.
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