Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Now that the NASCAR Now changes have been formally announced by ESPN, it is no surprise that there is an opening in Charlotte at the SPEED Report.
What may be surprising to TV viewers is that there are actually...two openings.
In addition to Nicole Mankse moving on to ESPN, her former co-host Drew Johnson will also not be returning to The SPEED Report for this season. Instead, the network will use a variety of announcers from their diverse motor sports stable.
Among those will be NASCAR fan favorite Krista Voda. This is certainly a big circle for Voda, who departed SPEED under tough circumstances and is now returning to participate as one of the hosts of their one-hour primetime motor sports show.
Voda will be joined by Bob Varsha, Leigh Diffey and a group of other announcers who will basically rotate through on weeks that fit into their motor sports schedules.
I think this is an exciting and dynamic change for a program series that has been having a bit of a tough go recently. SPEED has the production staff to make this show a franchise in terms of multiple types of racing, and now they will have a wide group of racing-oriented personalities to make it run on-the-air.
Veteran fans have seen several different versions of this show, and still feel remorse for some earlier fan favorite announcers that were released to make room for the Nicole and Drew pairing.
SPEED has certainly had a lot of faces in the anchor chair, including former ESPN veteran Bob Jenkins, South Carolina TV anchor Connie LeGrand, and current AMA Supercross announcer Ralph Sheheen. This program used to be called SPEED News.
The series will remain a one-hour look at all forms of motor sports, with SPEED using the network's field resources to keep viewers updated on the race results. The Sunday night series will also add a full one-hour Daytona preview program on Monday, February 11th at 8PM Eastern Time.
It certainly is proving to be a season of change in "TV land."
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Stepping into the daunting task of translating the print-oriented Charlotte Media Tour into a thirty minute TV program resulted in some very interesting moments for SPEED.
Steve Byrnes handled the host duties from the studio with Wendy Venturini and Randy Pemberton reporting from the field. Larry McReynolds and Bootie Barker appeared to discuss various racing topics raised during the Tour activities.
It was nice of SPEED to have Brian France, Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton and John Darby speaking to several hot topics in the first segment. France again appears to be sticking to his plan of focusing on keeping the veteran fans happy while phasing-in the COT.
Robin Pemberton's qualifying update and Darby's follow-up on the tire testing rules were a great example of hearing it directly from the men who will be dealing with those issues all season long.
It was interesting for fans to see how the reporters get their information, and the manner in which the top NASCAR executives "broke off" to provide one-on-one interviews after their presentations to the entire group.
Perhaps, there will be an opportunity to provide some on-camera shots of the reporters as well as the executives, drivers and owners in the future.
Venturini followed-up with some sound from the Richard Childress shops, and the 2007 Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick. Venturini seems refreshed, and ready for a long season of RaceDay and other duties this year.
SPEED continued on with their field reporters following the tour, and asking a lot of the same questions the drivers had been answering all day. Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch and good old Juan Pablo Montoya were all featured.
When McReynolds joined the show, he gave his opinions about the rules changes for qualifying and pit stops. Barker then appeared from a different location and gave almost exactly the same report, which seemed a big redundant. Barker is a character, and you have to wonder what his TV future might hold when his crew chief days are over.
The program closed with a report from a new wind tunnel, and a recap from Steve Byrnes. Strangely, SPEED did not take a moment to allow any of the veteran journalists on the tour to voice their opinions on the NASCAR changes. It might have been nice to get a couple of different viewpoints, especially on the new qualifying rules.
With the multiple opportunities for journalists and media members to participate in TV, radio and Internet programs during the off-season, some of them are almost as well known these days as the drivers. It would be interesting to see who is on the Media Tour that fans see and hear on a regular basis.
SPEED continues to deliver the type of new programming that NASCAR fans were asking for by the close of last season. This partnership between SPEED and NASCAR, which Brian France said he wanted to grow, has resulted in some interesting coverage of the pre-season.
This series continues tomorrow at 7PM Eastern Time with the final day of the NASCAR Media Tour.
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There is no joy in making changes on a TV series that is on-going. People who are moved out of roles they once had will always have a feeling of not getting the job done.
This Wednesday article in USA Today by Michael Hiestand allowed ESPN to announce the first group of broad and sweeping changes in the network's TV coverage of NASCAR programs produced for ESPN2, ABC Sports, and ESPN.
Several months ago, emails started trickling in that the ESPN executives were thinking about moving Rusty Wallace out of the high-profile lead analyst position on the NASCAR events.
At that time, ESPN went a long way to deny this was an issue, including quotes from Norby Williamson assuring viewers that ESPN was committed to Rusty for the long run. Williamson is the head of ESPN's on-air production.
Now, Rusty will step aside and become a permanent fixture in the ESPN Infield Studio at races. He will be teamed in that location with Allen Bestwick, who will be replacing Suzy Kolber. Also eliminated from the telecasts will be the "show host" position that was filled on selected key events by Brent Musburger.
This season it will be Dale Jarrett who will move into the spotlight and assume the same role that his father made so famous. Jarrett will team with Jerry Punch and Andy Petree to form the new core of ESPN's NASCAR coverage.
With the movement of Bestwick into the Infield Studio host position, hard working Shannon Spake will join the group full time as a pit reporter. Spake contributed to NASCAR Now, pit reported on the Busch Series, and was basically the "utility reporter" as she seemed to be on ESPN almost every day covering NASCAR.
Both Brad Daugherty and Tim Brewer will be returning, to the Infield Studio and the Tech Center, respectively. Daugherty had some good debates with Wallace this past season, and that duo should be an interesting mix.
With the event coverage team set, ESPN then rolled-out another new piece of the NASCAR puzzle. SPEED's Nicole Manske, who hosted The SPEED Report, had been very vocal about the fact that while SPEED did lots of weekend programming from the SPEED Stage at NASCAR events, there was no daily show on the network.
Now, she steps into the primary host role of NASCAR Now, replacing Erik Kuselias. Manske is an interesting choice, and comes with lots of positive and negative issues that she must deal with in her new position. The official ESPN press release indicates that it will be Ryan Burr and Allen Bestwick who will be Manske's co-hosts for the season. It should be interesting to see which days of the week the network assigns Manske, and when the two co-hosts will fill-in.
It was mentioned that part of the new Rusty Wallace role will be to contribute to other ESPN programs. That makes sense, as former NASCAR Now studio analyst Stacy Compton confirmed in a news story on Tuesday that he is going Truck Series racing full time, and will not return to ESPN this season.
That leaves Manske with Boris Said as the current in-studio analyst. Tim Cowlishaw, DJ Copp and the previous cast of NASCAR Now "Insiders" will also return intact. Maybe, we will shortly be seeing ESPN announce the hire of a new studio analyst for NASCAR Now who can serve to provide the additional content and the key analysis that will really round-out the program.
This broad series of moves by ESPN is going to be welcomed by viewers and immediately impact the credibility of the network in a positive manner. Jarrett will hopefully be the partner that can provide enough support for Jerry Punch to recapture his enthusiasm and vigor for the sport, and keep it high all season long.
This team faces a big challenge, as they will telecast the entire ten month Nationwide Series, including the practices and qualifying. Then, in late July, they will add the final seventeen Sprint Cup races and the entire Chase for the Championship. That is a lot of TV for one team to handle.
So, there we are. Lots of the issues that were raised at The Daly Planet and other NASCAR Internet sites have been directly addressed by the biggest sports TV company in the world. Hopefully, this positive step will result in a "new on-air vibe" for ESPN in their first event at Daytona, and carry-on throughout the season.
For more reading, here is the Jayski link and here is the Yahoo! Sports link.
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