Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jeff Gordon's Video Game Leads "NASCAR Now"

Host Ryan Burr had just returned from his first NASCAR trip to the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Now back in the studio, Burr started the Wednesday version of NASCAR Now with Jeff Gordon on a satellite interview. The only question was...why?

Burr did a good job asking all the politically correct questions, and got the politically correct answers. Gordon did speak-out a bit in support of Goodyear after the blunder in Atlanta, and referenced his recent tire test at Darlington as a success.

During that test, NASCAR Now had Lead Reporter Marty Smith standing alongside of several other journalists who were kept on a very short leash by Goodyear. No company spokesman appeared on-camera, but the company made the drivers participating in the test available for interviews. That is the type of good reporting and solid information fans want from this TV series.

Gordon said Bristol this weekend will ease the pain of the fans and he looked forward to getting back to good hard racing. Behind Gordon was the EA Sports logo, and viewers found out the reason why. Gordon was actually on an EA Sports "junket" in his driving suit where interviews are provided to media outlets like ESPN2. Once again this season, NASCAR Now took the bait. The question is...why?

Andy Petree was brought-in from Martinsville to get things back on-track. Petree was quick to acknowledge that Goodyear had a problem, but felt that the next race in Atlanta would be different. Burr tried to pin Petree down, and referenced Gordon's earlier conciliatory words.

Petree said, "Gordon is a nice guy and he said the right things." Burr is still working to figure Petree out, and hopefully this relationship will grow as they both continue on this show. Without Stacy Compton, NASCAR Now needs a lot more of Andy Petree on a regular basis.

In sports TV, things have to be flexible. But, one simple rule is that single-camera satellite interview subjects do not wear sunglasses. Enter Chrissy Wallace on what may have been her first NASCAR Now featured interview. Aside from the noise of the cars behind her, Wallace presented a "mask" with large dark sunglasses on throughout the entire segment. All someone at ESPN had to do was ask her to take them off.

Much like the current TV commercial where the stain on the job applicant's shirt causes his potential employer to miss everything he says, Chrissy Wallace will be remembered for her big sunglasses and the fact that TV viewers really do not know what she looks like up-close. Sunglasses hide the emotions, they hide the eyes, and they distract from the content of the interview. Hopefully, as she prepares for the upcoming Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville, she will use the Kasey Kahne approach and lose the shades.

Jamie McMurray was up next as an interview subject, and once again the question was...why? He immediately scoffed at Burr's Top 35 question, summed-up Bristol as repaved but exciting, and said he was going to "stay out of that" on the Goodyear tire issue.

Just like Gordon, the real reason for a bored McMurray appearing was to promote his sponsor's Irwin Tools Industrial Challenge. He gave the website address for the promotion's sign-up, and mentioned that this was his second year of sitting on-camera totally bored while satisfying part of his NASCAR contract. Actually, he said it was his second time being involved in the promotion. The other part was obvious.

The NASCAR Media Group provided a nice feature reviewing last season's race at Bristol. This was another glossy and highly-edited product that uses all kinds of TV and radio announcers voices along with soundbites from drivers and natural sound of the race. This is the real "ultimate highlight" package, and more of them would make this show even better.

Burr "tagged" the show with the breaking news of Carl Edwards not appealing his Las Vegas penalty. Then, Andy Petree helped him with the racing reality that no one expected he would. Perhaps, the picture of Carl "flipping with his lid-off" seen all over the Internet might have helped with that decision.

One quick note to consider. Burr said that Andy Petree was at Martinsville to "observe" the Truck Series testing. Over at ESPN-owned, a blurb on the main page said Petree himself was testing and would drive in the March 29th race.

Perhaps, between the Irwin Tools Industrial Challenge of Jamie McMurray and the new EA Sports video game release featuring Jeff Gordon, there just wasn't time to slip-in some actual NASCAR news involving one of ESPN's own announcers.

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New Truck Series Coming To SPEED

The racing world continues to clash with an element of SPEED Channel's own programming group.

Rather than invest in promoting and exposing "real racing" and the stories behind the on-track action, the network continues to focus on non-racing "lifestyle" programming.

The lastest project is about people who drive tow trucks. Below is the media release from TV Week. Here is the direct link.

Fueled on the weekends by NASCAR programming, Speed is changing gears on weeknights.
Rather than featuring racing, the cable network’s newest show focuses on the sometimes risky life at a family-owned tow truck company in Chicago.

The network’s strategy is to air what it calls automotive lifestyle programming in prime time.
The Fox-owned cable network is betting “Wrecked” will do for it what “Deadliest Catch” does for Discovery.

Speed plans to air 10 one-hour episodes of “Wrecked,” shot in high definition, beginning in July.
When Fox acquired control of Speed in 2002, the network took on part of the company’s NASCAR package and showed racing seven nights a week, said Robert Ecker, VP of programming for Speed.

The NASCAR connection helped the network add distribution; it’s now available in more than 78 million homes. But Speed’s racing programming on weeknights stalled.

“It didn’t work. It didn’t resonate,” Mr. Ecker said.

Viewership for Speed was down slightly last year in prime time and over the entire programming day. In prime time, the network was mostly flat in key demographics. That led Speed executives to start to develop automotive lifestyle programming.

“We have discovered over the course of time that while there are race fans, there are also people that have a love affair with the automobiles but are not necessarily interested in racing,” he said.

Shows about automotive culture are all over the dial, from “Pimp My Ride” on MTV to “Monster Garage” on Discovery. In addition to the allure of motoring content for American viewers, automotive is television’s largest advertising category. So shows about cars stand a good chance of finding sponsors.

Most of Speed’s original programming still has an element of racing, even if it doesn’t deal directly with NASCAR or other motor events.

In “Pinks,” competitors race each other for registration slips, while on the network’s nightly game show “Pass Time,” contestants try to guess how fast a car will do the quarter-mile.

But the network is trying to show a broader range of programming.

Mr. Ecker said “Drag Race High,” which challenges shop classes at rival Tennessee high schools to build a dragster, is as much about racing as “Friday Night Lights” is about football.
And “Living the Low Life,” hosted by model Vida Guerra, is a show about low-rider auto culture. Another show, “Super Cars Exposed,” takes expensive cars and exposes them to the elements to see what they will do.

“Wrecked,” however, is the network’s most ambitious and expensive programming effort to date, Mr. Ecker said.

Rising programming costs have kept Speed’s cash flow flat at about $60 million since 2004, which is very low for a network of its size, said Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan Research. Kagan estimates Speed’s gross ad revenues will rise to $106 million in 2008 from $95 million last year.

Mr. Ecker said Speed is betting “Wrecked” has varied appealing aspects that should attract viewers and generate return on investment.

For one thing, people have an interest in big rigs, and Chicago O’Hare Towing & Recovery uses huge, expensive pieces of machinery. And like the high-rated “Deadliest Catch,” which follows crab fisherman in the Bering Sea, it’s a show about an occupation that’s more dangerous than most people realize, particularly during a Chicago winter.

“I’m told the incidence of mortality is higher than [for] policemen and firemen,” Mr. Ecker said. The network said about 100 tow-truck drivers lose their lives on the job every year.

The show plays up the human element, showing drivers waiting in a firehouse-like environment for emergency calls. The family that owns the towing company, headed by Bill Gratzianna and his wife, adds another personal dimension. Their parents are in the business and Bill’s brother is married to Bill’s wife’s sister. The relatives own a competing firm, so sparks should fly.

Speed said it generally seeks between $6,000 and $10,000 for a 30-second spot in high-profile prime-time shows.

Beyond the interest automotive advertisers may have in the content, other sponsors may take note, Mr. Ecker said.

Since the drivers may be on call 24 hours a day during stormy weather, beer and liquor probably won’t be a part of the show. But the crew drinks a lot of coffee and eats a lot of doughnuts, Mr. Ecker said.

NASCAR fans continue to fondly recall the Monday night line-up of quality programming on SPEED that used to be required viewing. ESPN2 has invested in a daily NASCAR news series with success.

Other than one night of Wind Tunnel, there is absolutely no interactive programming where fans can voice their views or interact with NASCAR guests on SPEED.

None of the quality programming created by the NASCAR Media Group from the track for SPEED over the weekend is repeated during the week in primetime. NASCAR Performance, Tradin' Paint, Victory Lane and clips of other programs are not seen once the weekend is over. This quality content is lost each and every week of the season.

NASCAR programming is soaring on Sirius Satellite radio. NASCAR content is popular in both text and video forms at sites all over the Internet, just like this one.

Rather then open the doors to new and innovative programming ideas like The Humpy Show, SPEED continues to believe that they are going to attract the MTV and Discovery Channel crowd by investing in "clones" of existing programming series. Did you happen to see the original episode of "Living the Low Life?"

The bi-polar nature of SPEED serves to alienate both crowds. The racing folks love the weekends, and then are cast aside during the week other than the one hour of This Week in NASCAR.

The lifestyle crowd that enjoys entertainment programming comes along for the PINKS-style ride on weeknights, but SPEED then becomes "NASCAR TV" on Friday and through the weekend. Off they go to MTV, VH-1 and Spike TV. Flavor of Love anyone?

It should be interesting to tune-into a Wrecked, Living the Low Life, Super Bikes and PINKS primetime line-up as the best SPEED has to offer after more than ten years on-the-air as America's motorsports TV network.

The one fundamental problem facing SPEED is that racing fans have somewhere to go when SPEED is deep in the middle of their "lifestyle" commitment. The Internet offers a wide array of entertainment and information options about real racing, including several series denied TV access who now stream their own live programming.

Other than considering spinning the lifestyle programming off onto its own digital channel, SPEED needs to take a long, hard look at who is turning off the TV every time the "lifestyle" programming is coming on.

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SPEED Channel About To Expand Facility

This story is from the Charlotte Business Journal. The full story can be read by clicking on this link.

Speed Channel Inc. will expand its Charlotte headquarters, creating 34 jobs and investing $37.8 million over the next three years.

The motorsports and multimedia company employs 73 workers in Charlotte.

Wages for the additional 34 jobs will vary by job function, but the average pay is expected to be $61,765 per year, not including benefits. The average annual salary in Mecklenburg County is $48,724.

Speed Channel, a wholly owned subsidiary of News Corp. and Fox Networks Group, produces and broadcasts automotive and motorsport-related programs primarily on cable and satellite networks. Speed Channel recently launched a high-definition version of its network and is also active across broadband, mobile and other emerging media.

According to the office of N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, the expansion was made possible in part by a $34,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund, a program that encourages business expansions and relocations to the state.

"The motorsports industry is one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying in our state, with an economic impact of about $6 billion a year," Easley says. "We welcome this expansion, which will strengthen our reputation as a motorsports powerhouse."

Speed Channel, formerly known as Speedvision, moved to Charlotte from Connecticut in 2001. Since then, the network has taken on a much more pronounced NASCAR flavor.

This story is just out today, when we get some additional information about what this expansion means for NASCAR fans, we will pass it along.