Saturday, January 12, 2008
As we began to address the TV issues that the networks will face in the 2008 season, one of the first topics on the agenda was the NASCAR on Fox coverage of the Daytona 500.
The Daly Planet column about Chris Myers having to deal with the frustrated and disenfranchised NASCAR fans next February drew a lot of great comments and generated a lot of email. You can read it by clicking here.
It also apparently resulted in a column on FoxSports.com by a gentleman who sits next to Mr. Myers in the Hollywood Hotel. His name is Darrell Waltrip, and he was "giving us the business."
In his Friday column, DW addressed the comments fans had left on The Daly Planet that were sometimes critical of Myers NASCAR knowledge. Fans had also pointed out that Myers seems to be constantly "ill at ease" in a racing surrounding, and really does not "fit-in" with the sport.
DW responded that Myers role on the Fox telecasts was specifically to bring that "different perspective." On Myers Hollywood Hotel conversations, DW said "he asks questions and puts things into perspective that we don't consider because he's covered other sports and we haven't. So when we are talking about rules, rule infractions, officiating or any of those things that other sports have in common with ours, Chris can always ask different questions and always have a different perspective."
The focus of The Daly Planet column was that when critical eyes turn to the stellar line-up of TV personalities involved in the NASCAR on Fox coverage, Myers is the "odd man out" by default. The point was made that after the Fox gang leaves the air, NASCAR programming continues on the Fox-owned cable network SPEED.
On that network, veterans like Steve Byrnes and John Roberts continue to work all the races for the entire season. In fact, both Roberts and Byrnes have already been on the air hosting SPEED's pre-season Daytona testing programs. The bottom line is, fans know and trust Byrnes and Roberts.
When SPEED rolls-out the Craftsman Truck Series, fans see the hard-working Krista Voda, who also handles pit reporting duties for the Sprint Cup races on Fox. She is another solid NASCAR host who will work from February through November on this sport that demands so much from so many.
When things are going well, TV issues don't appear. When things are not going so well, the conversations invariably begin. Waltrip says "some of the things he (Myers) does is part of his act, that's who he is and that's part of his act when he gets ready to do these shows." Waltrip continues that Myers "is very good at what he does and we are lucky to have him." Waltrip's points are well-taken.
Unfortunately, they are also naive. What viewers were treated to after Myers part of the NASCAR season was over were one Turner-employed Major League Baseball announcer and one ESPN-employed Monday Night Football sideline reporter.
That made three-out-of-three for the number of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup "infield TV hosts" who were not involved in the sport regularly.
The fundamental problem with that situation is very simple. NASCAR fans are.
The same fans who watched The SPEED Report in the off-season for NASCAR tidbits, checked Jayski.com every day for news, and watched the first pre-season testing show on SPEED are the very ones the NASCAR TV networks desperately need to please.
As we said in our original column, no matter how funny the jokes and how wacky the antics, one truth persists. There is nothing a network can do when a fan turns-off the TV and walks away from the sport. In 2007, one out of every ten fans did just that.
It might be that those fans were just a little bit tired...of the same old act.
The countdown clock at Jayski shows thirty-six days to the Daytona 500 on Fox Sports.
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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.
Back in April of 2007, Dale Jarrett officially joined the NASCAR on ESPN announce team as a "part-timer." The network press release said that Jarrett would appear on ten Busch Series race broadcasts for ESPN2. As we all know, things changed drastically from that original plan.
As both Rusty Wallace and Dr. Jerry Punch struggled with their new roles, DJ was often a frequent guest on the ESPN and ABC races. Alongside Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty, Jarrett used his personality and his Dale Carnegie training to quietly cement himself a place in each telecast.
Often, as the race progressed, the members of the broadcast team would begin asking questions directly to Jarrett, even though he was sitting in the Infield Studio as a "guest." The entire direction of the telecast shifted when Jarrett was present.
Unfortunately, this left the flaws of the TV crew exposed for all to see when suddenly they were left without Jarrett's presence. Momentum in TV usually goes in only one direction, and it was very clear by season's end that the wheels had come off the ESPN NASCAR train.
Now, we turn our attention to the 2008 ESPN2 line-up of Nationwide races that begin in February. Several weeks ago ESPN put out a press release about their plans for the upcoming season. It was the subject of a Daly Planet column, which can be read by clicking here.
It was well written, clear and very concise. It contained the story of their continuing commitment to the series, and that once again each race would be live and in High Definition. What it did not say is who would be announcing...any of it.
Over at DaleJarrett.com the news stories talk about new crew chiefs and testing schedules as if 2008 will be a full season of racing. There is not a word about Jarrett's potential break-out year as a TV commentator for ESPN and ABC.
Last May, former ESPN broadcaster Ned Jarrett joined his son as an analyst in the ESPN2 booth for the Busch Series race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. From the start, the senior Jarrett did not miss a beat. It was clear he was prepared and had done his homework for this one single Busch Series assignment.
He did not mispronounce a driver name and remained excited about the racing action from the green flag through the last lap. Ned Jarrett is 75 years old.
This season, there is growing pressure to heighten the presence of the younger Jarrett on the ESPN and ABC races. No one is questioning Rusty Wallace's dedication, but often success or failure on TV is a direct result of a color analyst's own personality. It either works, or it does not. Rusty's intensity sometimes got him in hot water with the teams and the fans.
Wallace also suffered from being the "face" of the ESPN technology like Draft Track. Forced into races and into situations where it did not fit, Rusty was on the hook for information that sometimes seemed to be slightly less than credible.
We expect ESPN to announce their on-air line-ups this week for the Nationwide Series races. Since they do not return to the Sprint Cup events until months down the road, the choice of who will participate in the final seventeen high-profile events might be delayed. For right now, fans only want to know what personnel the network will roll-out at Daytona to greet the new Nationwide season.
These choices will either go a long way toward re-establishing ESPN's credibility, or continue their apparent problems in dealing with NASCAR as a major professional sport. Thursday, February 14th at 9:30AM Eastern Time the Nationwide Series takes to the track for Daytona practice on ESPN2.
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The Daly Planet has never received such an outpouring of emotion and frustration.
Never have so many NASCAR fans from so many different states, countries, and continents come together to speak on one topic. After two days of possibly the best "fan journalism" in the country, all we have to say is...wow.
What started as one little column about next season generated a "reader comments" section the likes of which many journalists and TV personalities told me they have never seen before. It snowballed into what some folks are calling a "fan manifesto" for the NASCAR TV networks and the sanctioning body executives.
You can read the original column by clicking here, and please make sure to open the COMMENTS section at the bottom of the article by clicking on the word "comments." Never in the history of this website has that word had more meaning.
After reading your comments, veteran Charlotte Observer NASCAR writer David Poole said, "What NASCAR needs to understand most is that it's that kind of passion they they are incredibly lucky to have, that people care that much about what's shown and how it's shown." He then added, "fans amaze me." I second that emotion.
Now that the COMMENTS section has reached well over two hundred, it is time to find out what we learned from the generous outpouring of opinions from fans for a sport they love. Here are some of the key points that were the most popular.
Fans were offended that only one car could be seen finishing the race. They took it personally, even if their favorite was the winner. They asked, what did that prove? What fan goes to the race track and on the final lap watches the winner finish, and then puts their hands over their eyes? The easy answer...is none.
Why then, should a TV network be allowed to put its "electronic hands" over the eyes of millions of fans? In 2007, all cars on the lead lap need to be seen finishing the races.
Fans want to hear about NASCAR from professional announcers who know the sport. They want to be treated as though they understand "the game," and want to get more knowledge from the TV experts. Being reminded over-and-over again of the basic fundamentals of the sport is not only ridiculous, it is insulting.
What NFL fan gets the forward pass explained in every week's game? What baseball fan gets "how many strikes make an out" reviewed during the seventh inning stretch?
Fans want to see all the "players" on the field treated equally. The fan base of a driver does not "go away" just because on this particular day, on this particular lap, he is running in twentieth place. The entire field makes up the race, not just the top five combined with the "stories" the TV networks decided to follow from their own pre-race telecasts.
Fans want to feel NASCAR on TV is not "scripted," but live and in-progress with every team being treated equally.
Fans wanted to see the best racing on the track, even if it was not in the top five. The basic desire of the TV viewers is to see the same racing action that the fans at the track are watching. This was fundamentally not the case in 2007 for many races.
TV networks simply did not dare to "leave" the top five for fear that something would happen and they would miss it. Show the racing, and take the risk.
Over-and-over again, fans said that the radio version of what was going-on did not match the TV pictures. One fan who worked at the tracks said the TV pictures did not match the battles and the racing that the actual fans at the track were watching. How does this "separation" of reality happen?
What is happening for the fans in the stands should be what is happening for the fans watching on TV.
Fans want to remind the TV networks they have viewing options. Next season, four channels of DirecTV's Hot Pass are waiting along with the InternetTV feed and updated live leaderboards from the NASCAR.com gang. Once again, radio will allow all the races to be heard in an exciting and professional manner as they happen. As one fan said, "the TV mute button is the first option."
Why make fans seek other sources of information by forcing a TV-driven agenda into a live sporting event?
Many fans have confessed that for 2008 they will simply record the live races and either join them in-progress or view them later and fast-forward through the commercials. Isn't it somewhat ironic that fans are fast-forwarding by the sponsor's commercials to see the exact same sponsor's race team...race?
The placement, presentation, and number of TV commercials in NASCAR events is a crucial issue. Millions of DVR's and TiVo's can hardly wait for February.
Fans want NASCAR to be the priority of the network broadcasting the race. Sports information is available everywhere, it does not need to be on a "ticker" running at the bottom of the screen covering up the racing. There do not need to be updates and cut-ins and Infield discussions of baseball, basketball and football during a NASCAR race.
The priority during a live race should be on the forty-three stories unfolding on the track. Viewers who need information on other sports should be directed to the TV network's Internet site.
The later start times and the resulting lack of post-race interviews was a common thread. What used to be a Sunday afternoon passion has become an evening affair that forces many people to step away from the TV and back into the responsibilities of real life.
Fans want to be able to watch a race and then have some time before dinner. Now, they can often come back after dinner with the family and catch the last fifty laps...live. Returning to traditional start times will bring additional viewership.
Finally, the common theme among all the opinions was that racing was a great sport, and that NASCAR held its destiny in its own hands. 2008 is going to be a pivotal year for both the sanctioning body and the TV networks working in support of a multi-billion dollar contract.
Thank you fans for taking the time to share your open and honest opinions about NASCAR on TV, and using your personal experiences to enlighten the networks, the media and the NASCAR executives about the reality they created. Now, it is time for the NASCAR TV partners to step-up and show us that they listened.
The countdown clock at Jayski.com is now under 45 days to the Daytona 500. Plenty of time to take the views of the fans and incorporate them into the 2008 coverage of the sport we love. It should be interesting to see what changes. Stay tuned!
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish not to be published. Thanks once again for stopping by and leaving your opinion.
Update 1/2/08 - Due to the incredible reaction to this column, we are leaving the COMMENTS section open. After you review the column, please take a moment to read the thoughts of the other NASCAR fans on this issue. As usual, please feel free to add your own. Thank you for the encouragement to return for next season, we will keep you posted on our decision.
There are a lot more important things to ponder on this New Year's holiday than NASCAR. After we reflect on our personal and professional lives, we create a list of things that we would like to improve in 2008. That is the priority.
But, sooner or later the big question of this off-season rears its ugly head. It is the question that is sent to me every day by email. It is the question asked in The Daly Planet comments, and on websites and blogs all around the Internet.
Many of us have been NASCAR fans for decades. I watched Ned Jarrett and Inside Winston Cup Racing from my VCU dorm with my friends every weekend during the season. I had the chance to work on the NASCAR races with ESPN. I had the chance to put together This Week In NASCAR with Eli Gold for Prime Network. I even had the chance to work at Sunbelt Video and coordinate the production of NASCAR TV programs.
While all of that created the foundation for my enjoyment of the sport, these are very different times. This past season on TV for the NEXTEL Cup Series started with so much promise and ended in complete chaos. There is just no other way to put it.
The way that I "consume" NASCAR racing is television. The fact that 2007 was the first year of a new TV contract with a new line-up of TV partners is the reason we started this blog. We wanted to find out how Fox Sports, TNT, and ESPN/ABC would do producing our favorite sport.
Put aside the Truck and Nationwide Series for the moment. Put aside the support programs like RaceDay and NASCAR Now and Trackside. The question on the mind of many veteran NASCAR fans only has to do with the 2008 Sprint Cup Series. It is a simple question that has been phrased many ways by fans across the Internet. Here it is:
"Considering the way I felt after this season, should I come back and watch the races next year?"
While some fans on other websites complained about the switch to the COT and the quality of the racing, they usually included something else. That was the TV coverage. Other fans pointed specifically to the TV issues as the reason they might not return.
Since we deal with TV on this site, I would just join those fans in saying that I never thought it would be a tough decision whether or not to return. But...it is.
Not returning and spending ten months of my life watching races on TV for thirty-nine weeks now seems like a realistic option. That is the fall-out from the lousy job the NASCAR TV networks did this season. Check the Internet, this refrain is everywhere from NASCAR.com to SceneDaily to SPEEDtv. I am certainly not alone.
The memory of the Daytona 500 finish is great. It is blunted by the fact that Fox only showed the winner finish in the rest of the races. Unforgivable, and yet never changed by Fox's David Hill or Ed Goren who profess to be "NASCAR friendly" TV executives. A great TV crew, great pictures, and then no one finished but the winner. Frankly, I do not want to see that again.
TNT's promotional announcements were only interrupted by advertising and occasional glimpses of a NASCAR race that was running in the background. Bill Weber and Marc Fein looked like they were going to duke-it-out during the pre-race show, and Weber's condescending and arrogant on-air attitude made him impossible to watch. Only the hard work of Larry McReynolds, Kyle Petty and the pit reporters gave the TNT broadcasts some credibility.
It was during this six race stretch that many fans discovered their local MRN or PRN radio outlet, or decided it might be a good time to pay for that Sirius contract. Even the public relations stunt of moving commercials around at Daytona could not save this mess. The anger of the fans still smarting about the Fox problems grew a notch. But, the hope of ESPN returning to the NASCAR trail was on the horizon.
The first race back for ESPN was the Brickyard 400 from Indy. This is a portion of the column from The Daly Planet that ran after the race broadcast:
The email started pouring in minutes after Tony Stewart crossed the finish line of The Brickyard 400. It came from many different locations around the country, and represented fans of many teams in the sport, except one. Not one email was from a Tony Stewart fan, and that was for one reason. He was the only driver who fans saw cross the finish line at Indy.
In what may be the most colossal sports blunder since the Heidi Bowl, ESPN welcomed themselves back to NASCAR by failing to show anyone other than the winner of The Brickyard 400 finish the race. ESPN had asked fans to join them for a one hour pre-race show, and then a three hour race. Unless you were a Tony Stewart fan, the reward for your efforts was...nothing.
If your driver was fighting it out for a top ten, or struggling for a top twenty finish, it did not matter to ESPN. All the stories they had been following for three hours suddenly did not matter. The fundamental fact that race fans want to see the battle to the line by the field did not matter. Even basic knowledge that people get passed in the final straightaway could not change ESPN's idea that what fans wanted was drama and not racing.
This was the start of perhaps ESPN's biggest struggle for credibility in a professional sport in the 25 plus years of the network's existence. Hip-hop blaring, Brent Musburger talking and Draft Lock "smoking" will always be in the minds of the fans.
Then, strange things started to happen. ESPN refused to reset the field before a restart. They refused to talk to the drivers coming out of the Infield Medical Center. Once, they left my driver Dale Jarrett sitting in the middle of the track in a crashed car...and never mentioned him again. I wasn't upset, I was livid.
What ESPN failed to understand was that we were not watching who was leading. We all had our favorites, and we were trying to watch...the race. I have been following Dale Jarrett for his entire career. It was only Kyle Petty's later apology that informed ESPN viewers of what had happened. We never were told if Jarrett was injured.
The last straw for many viewers was Mike Massaro being forced to continue to pound Dale Earnhardt Junior with questions after he fell out of a race, and missed The Chase. Remember that? In a scenario that is still tough to watch, ESPN threw aside the kind of dignity and respect that is the hallmark of the sport, and shot themselves in the foot on national TV with the most popular driver in NASCAR.
What part of this makes us want to return? Where are the NASCAR executives who are going to step-up and say this is not going to happen again? In a November column, we mentioned Brian France as saying ESPN was in the middle of a "learning curve." He then went on to say the following:
"The production and fan expectation they (ESPN) have to be at is much higher than before," said France. "They are finding that out."
So, here we sit pondering our return to NASCAR. Everyone will be in the COT, Gibbs will be Toyota powered, Junior will be at Hendrick and Kyle Busch will have something to prove. On one hand, it should be interesting. On the other hand, will we be able to see it?
Since we are on the fence, it would really help if you told us your thought process as you make or break the commitment to NASCAR for 2008. Ten months of your life and over one hundred hours of live TV is what is on the table.
The countdown clock over at Jayski.com is now under 49 days to the Daytona 500. Are you planning on the TV networks learning from their mistakes and making sweeping changes for 2008, or are you going to step-away from the sport because of this season's problems?
Take a moment to tell us your New Year's NASCAR TV resolution.
The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, and follow the simple instructions. We do not want your email address, and there is nothing to join. We just want to know if you will be coming back to NASCAR in 2008?
Here we go with another TV first. The 2008 version of the Chili Bowl from lovely Tulsa, OK will be live on Pay-Per-View tonight beginning at 7:30PM Eastern Time.
This will be the page to add your comments about the TV aspects of the telecast. It should be fun, as PPV events have much less structure...and much more racing!
Our friend Matt Yocum will be covering the pits, and Ken Stout, Dave Argabright and Dr. Pat Sullivan will be providing commentary from the booth. A special treat for me is that former Thursday Night Thunder reporter Larry Rice will also be part of the telecast.
Update: What an interesting start. The PPV show was opened by miscellaneous videotape interviews and soundbites that made absolutely no sense. It was as if the TV truck was still editing. Then, more than a minute later, the preview show began.
As the show progresses, please feel free to stop by and leave your comments about the telecast and what you thought of this first PPV Chili Bowl effort.
To add your comment, just click on the COMMENT button below and follow the instructions.