Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Shifting Gears" Continues To Upstage The NASCAR TV Partners

There are going to be some interesting meetings over the next several weeks at the network headquarters of the NASCAR TV partners. There is one reason why. His name is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In ground-breaking style, Junior's Hammerhead Entertainment production company has pushed the envelope of what should be expected from NASCAR TV programs to a new height. The first three episodes of Shifting Gears have been nothing short of spectacular.

Originally thought to be catering to Junior Nation, nothing could have been further from the truth. This dynamic combination of a reality show and a scripted documentary has hit a nerve with the broad base of NASCAR fans. At times, these three episodes have made the racing world seem insignificant. Real life always trumps racing.

This show is about someone who is lost wanting desperately to be found. It is about a young man finally stepping-out from the shadow of his late father and growing up. It is about seeking acceptance from people you do not know, but who know you.

This third episode combined the recent events at Daytona with pre-produced segments to address both topical and timeless issues in the same program. Whether winning the Bud Shootout or continuing to address the legacy of his father, Junior seems to be determined to live life on his own terms at last.

Skeptics tend to fall away when the personal struggles of this young man are detailed. Many of us did not experience the pain of a parent's divorce. Many of us did not get sent to military school. Many of us have not yet had to deal with the death of a father. None of us have the pressure of being Dale Earnhardt Senior's son.

With award-winning editing and sound, the program has the feel of a high-end glossy entertainment show. Once viewers get comfortable with the multiple locations and the key personalities in the programs, it takes on the feel of an exciting documentary.

The reason is simple. He may fail. That is the harsh reality that stares this man in the face each and every day. He may fail. If that happened, the same NASCAR media now catering to his every wish would be the first to attack. The media frenzy that happened when Junior announced he was leaving DEI would pale in comparison.

This program series will continue to film Junior as he goes through the next four months. Then, a new series of two more shows will be produced to air during the week prior to the Brickyard 400. This unorthodox approach to both TV and scheduling is typical of JR Motorsports media wing. This show was independently produced, and has no ESPN identification of any kind.

As Junior mentioned in his Saturday post-race interview, the only downside of this entire series is watching the same commercials featuring him over-and-over again. "Even I get tired of watching myself. But, that is what you have to do to get a show on ESPN," said Junior. Truer words may have never been spoken.

This series has shaken-up the NASCAR TV companies and networks who should be putting out this type of programming, but are not. Junior remarked on Saturday that he hoped more stories would be told about the personalities in the sport. That message was just as clear as Brian France asking for new and original NASCAR programming to be created by "his" TV partners.

In a season of NASCAR transition from "racertainment" to "letting men be men" it should be interesting to see what other NASCAR series of this type can make it to network TV without having the Earnhardt name as the Executive Producer. Right now, the picking is mighty slim.

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Bittersweet Ending For Nationwide Series on ESPN2

The new network TV partner last season for NASCAR was ESPN. This company has a long and proud tradition of pioneering sports on TV for over twenty-five years.

Names of programs like SportsCenter and Gameday have become part of our culture. Celebrities have been made out of on-air personalities from Chris Berman to Dick Vitale. The mix of sports and twenty-four hour coverage changed the sports television landscape in America.

This rich TV history is what made the problems with NASCAR coverage in 2007 especially difficult for ESPN to swallow. No matter what the network tried last season, it failed. Technical problems, ABC station issues, credibility problems and even issues with the fundamentals of TV sports production plagued the season.

This February, ESPN came out of the box ready for action. The company had made wholesale changes across the board, and rolled-out those changes at Daytona. Their daily NASCAR Now show had new hosts, a re-vamped format and a commitment to on-location reporting.

The Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series team boasted the addition of Dale Jarrett and Ray Evernham. Allen Bestwick would host an experienced crew in the infield, while Jerry Punch would have his high school friend DJ alongside in the booth.

As the first Nationwide telecast began with the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show, it was clear that ESPN has finally found a leader. Allen Bestwick set a relaxed and professional tone that carried all the way through the race broadcast and post-race coverage.

Jerry Punch seemed to finally be able to express himself and not have to worry about carrying the load when it came to commentary. Jarrett is always polite, but he is quick to step-in and voice his views as the action on the track is in-progress. That is exactly what Andy Petree needed to re-define his own role on these telecasts.

Last year, the ESPN pit reporters were pushed by their superiors to ask the extra question and explore the topics that drivers did not wish to discuss. Needless to say, memories of that treatment still linger in the Cup garage. This is not a baseball locker room or an NFL coaches news conference.

The faces that the ESPN reporters deal with in NASCAR will be staring back at them until November. As we all know, and Jimmy Spencer will confirm, race car drivers have very good memories for who has treated them right and who has treated them wrong.

At Daytona, all four of ESPN's pit reporters opened the season with a new and friendly approach which seemed to go over quite well with the drivers. In addition, the network made sure to track the drivers who were admitted to the Infield Care Center, and provide updates as they left the facility.

Dave Burns post-race interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved once again that Junior's patience has grown a lot since his DEI days. Burns pushed Junior into commenting on his very personal Shifting Gears TV series, and it was ironic that Junior chose to apologize for so many commercials featuring him in the programs.

Action on the track was once again well-represented as the technical staff made outstanding pictures and sound. Even the Draft Track worked well with Jarrett explaining the issues associated with Nationwide Series drafting as opposed to the Sprint Cup Series. Another strong technical performance to start the season for ESPN.

In every sport, the TV crew knows there will be a "crunch time." It may be a late and desperate pass by Eli Manning or a critical drive off the tee on 18 by Tiger Woods. It is a moment in the telecast that requires only one thing. That is to be seen by the viewers.

This fundamental issue is a key building block of effective TV sports coverage. Three hours of a football game can be forgotten quickly if the winning pass is not captured by the TV crew. Losing sight of the ball on Tiger's drive that sets-up the Eagle to win the tournament immediately becomes the focus of an otherwise outstanding telecast.

Saturday afternoon, ESPN fumbled the ball at "crunch time." Tony Stewart had the strongest car and was leading the field as they approached the finish line. The only real issue on the track was how would the rest of the field finish? They were in a tight pack of nervous cars and the veterans were mixed-in with the rookies.

Moments after the all the cars finished, that question still remained in the minds of viewers nationwide. The reason was simple. NASCAR fans had been watching ESPN2 for three hours only to have the Director decide to show just Tony Stewart and the NASCAR flagman at the end of the race.

All the stories Jerry Punch and his analysts had built-up over the course of the race were swept away. All of the young drivers who had finally gotten themselves in the hunt on the final lap were never to be seen finishing by their sponsors and fans. The most unfortunate thing is that a great start to the NASCAR season had been ruined by a miscue at "crunch time."

Every TV network has the right to show sports in whatever way they choose. ESPN certainly has the right to decide in advance at a production meeting that the final lap will conclude with a tight shot of the leader and a zoom into the NASCAR flagman. That is what the ESPN executives decided, and that is what we all saw.

The problem with that approach is, why would fans come back for the next race?

My driver was in about fourth and I had been rooting for him all race long. I kept up with the stats, used my computer for additional info and was absolutely happy with the ESPN produced coverage. Things were shaping up for a thrilling finish.

On the final lap, as the camera took the infield shot, I could not believe it. As ESPN2 showed Stewart cross the line and then zoomed into the flagman, I began to yell. There was no drama here for Stewart, the Nationwide Series is just fun for him. There was no story to tell, as his car had the field covered since the green flag dropped. He confirmed that in a post-race interview.

ESPN VP of Motorsports Rich Feinberg told reporters at Daytona on Wednesday that the new group of on-air talent and the new line-up would allow the network to cover this series better and tell viewers the stories they needed to know.

What NASCAR fans needed to know on Saturday was pretty simple to understand. Who finished the race behind the winner?

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In-Progress At Daytona: "NASCAR Countdown" And Nationwide Race on ESPN2

ESPN begins a long season of NASCAR TV with the first Nationwide Series race on Saturday afternoon.

Again this year, NASCAR Countdown will precede the race. Saturday's version begins at Noon Eastern Time and will transition directly into the race coverage at 1:15PM. The race telecast is scheduled until 4PM, at which time the third and final pre-season episode of the outstanding Shifting Gears TV series will air. If you have not seen this series, you are missing excellent NASCAR TV.

Allen Bestwick will be hosting the telecast from the ESPN Pit Center, along with Ray Evernham and Brad Daugherty. Rusty Wallace is on-hand for the Sprint Cup coverage, and may also join the team for this telecast. In the announce booth will be Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Jarrett was a part-time ESPN announcer last season, and his performance basically moved him into this key position.

On pit road will be veteran Mike Massaro, Jamie Little, Shannon Spake and Dave Burns. With Bestwick moving to the infield studio full-time, Spake will become a regular pit reporter for the network. Fans may have noticed her absence on NASCAR Now this season.

So, here we go again. Kudos to ESPN for making well-meaning changes to key on-air positions. Hopefully, the result will be a return to the type of coverage and the level of commentary that put ESPN on the map originally with NASCAR.

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This is the second season of The Daly Planet working to allow the fans to speak directly to both NASCAR and the TV networks about the coverage. As the season begins, it is wonderful to see many of the issues discussed over the past season have been addressed. Thanks again for stopping by.