Saturday, April 26, 2008

Punch In Need Of A Good TV Doctor

Few current NASCAR personalities have as much admiration from the fans as ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch. Throughout the early years of ESPN's coverage, Punch was a crusading pit reporter. His professionalism and good humor lent itself to the type of coverage the sport needed in the 1980's and 90's.

This is Punch's second season as the play-by-play voice of the largest NASCAR TV package. He leads the charge across ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. The ESPN TV package delivers all of the Nationwide Series races, seventeen Sprint Cup races and lots of qualifying and practice. Unlike some other NASCAR TV partners who come and go, the ESPN bunch is on-the-air from February through November.

Before this season's Daytona 500, ESPN held a press conference to announce a host of changes in their NASCAR television commitment. The network would change the studio show hosts for NASCAR Now. They would incorporate ESPNEWS and SportsCenter into the NASCAR coverage. They introduced Ray Evernham as a new member of the ESPN announcing team.

Finally, they got ready to talk about who would handle the race telecasts for 2008. Dale Jarrett was going the be the new lead analyst, and Rusty Wallace was moving to the Infield Studio. Suzy Kolber was also out, and the network then had to decide who would be the new infield host for all the races. They chose Allen Bestwick.

This put Jerry Punch, the veteran reporter, back in the broadcast booth as the play-by-play announcer for the entire year. When Punch needed a break, it was going to be Marty Reid who stepped-in as a substitute.

Returning Punch to the broadcast booth may have been well intended, but it has not yielded the desired results so far this season. Saturday at Talladega, it was painfully obvious that Punch is still struggling in this role.

Last year, this column spoke about the tough times in the broadcast booth for Punch. There was lots of opinion that laid the blame squarely at the feet of Rusty Wallace for ESPN's problems. Now, with Rusty "downstairs" and Dale Jarrett in the booth, it is quite clear that perhaps something else is off-kilter.

This season, ESPN has not been involved in many of the Nationwide Series practice or qualifying sessions. At Talladega, it was SPEED that carried qualifying on Friday, while the Thursday practices went without TV. Essentially, the NASCAR on ESPN gang showed-up for the race and then went home. That did not help gain experience for the new on-air team.

The good news is that Dale Jarrett has given Andy Petree the kind of freedom and respect that has taken Petree to the top of his game. Whether on NASCAR Now, ESPNEWS or a race telecast, Petree has become one of the top analysts on TV. This partnership has yielded outstanding results in only a short time.

Now, as ESPN takes to the air they have an outstanding team in place. Bestwick, Wallace and Brad Daugherty have fun in the Infield Pit Center. Tim Brewer has finally gotten comfortable in the Tech Center. Jamie Little has toned-down her act, and the pit reporters now present substance and not hype.

The only member of the on-air crew still looking for an identity is Punch. At Talladega, Dario Franchitti getting hit in the driver's door at full speed elicited no emotion from Punch. It was only the replay that told the story to viewers and Punch never stepped-in and took control. It is almost like he is stuck in low gear.

That was never more obvious than when Kevin Lepage chose to drive his Nationwide car directly in front of the Talladega field moving at full speed. The resulting violent accident involving many cars was met with nothing more than confusing phrases and awkward silence from Punch. Jarrett and Petree stepped-in and took control once again, as they often do when Punch is out-of-sync.

Even during the replays, Punch never raised his voice, changed his inflection, or exhibited the least bit of emotion. As Jarrett, Petree and the pit reporters followed-up on the incident during the resulting red flag, Punch's monotone continued. His total lack of energy was more than curious, it was downright strange.

Several times, Allen Bestwick appeared during the race to provide a break for the announcers during the red flag and offer race recaps. It was during this time that viewers were reminded once again of the excitement and energy that Bestwick seems to bring to each telecast. Since Bestwick has prior play-by-play experience, the thought has to cross the minds of the ESPN executives that maybe viewers would be better served with the roles reversed.

Punch has great credibility, a super personality and handles interviews with anyone and everyone with no problem. His days on pit road and then as an ESPN college football sideline reporter will never be forgotten. Perhaps, giving Punch an Infield Studio weekend and moving Bestwick to the booth for one race would give ESPN a baseline on which to fairly evaluate the network's late summer Sprint Cup on-air line-ups.

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Fox And SPEED Force Viewers To Choose

Last season, it was interesting when SPEED changed the schedule of RaceDay so that it aired during the TNT pre-race shows. This practice continued during the ESPN/ABC portion of the Sprint Cup schedule, putting RaceDay head-to-head against NASCAR Countdown.

This Sunday, NASCAR fans will have another interesting TV experience when the final thirty minutes of the two hour RaceDay show overlaps with the first thirty minutes of the NASCAR on Fox pre-race show from the Hollywood Hotel. Fox is on-the-air at 1PM, and RaceDay runs until 1:30PM Eastern Time.

As most TV veterans know, the SPEED network is actually owned by the Fox Cable Networks group. On many weekends, including this one from Talladega, the NASCAR on Fox announcers appear on SPEED to host the Sprint Cup practice and qualifying sessions.

Now, for whatever reason, the broadcast side of the Fox TV Programming Department has extended the Hollywood Hotel pre-race show to almost ninety minutes. Even though Fox is on at 1PM, the race does not start until 2:20PM. One hour and twenty mintes of pre-race programming on Fox and two hours of exactly the same thing on SPEED.

This forces NASCAR fans to either continue to watch Fox's own cable TV motorsports network, or change channels to the Fox broadcast network and the Hollywood Hotel. It also puts RaceDay's news reporter Wendy Venturini and the NASCAR on Fox pit reporters on-the-air at the same time from the same location.

The Raceday line-up includes guests Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle. Venturini's popular Real Deal feature is an interview with Ken Schrader. That should be interesting. Of course, there is the one-and-only Rutledge Wood who this week goes fishing with the guys from Hendrick Motorsports.

John Roberts, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer will also be doing something very interesting in the final hour of the show. They will be leaving the SPEED Stage and heading trackside to "soak up" the festive atmosphere of Talladega.

This means that almost the entire RaceDay cast will be on-the-air live only feet from the Hollywood Hotel while the Fox Network broadcast is also live. I am not quite so sure what this situation accomplishes for either NASCAR or the two Fox TV networks involved.

Viewers will have to make the choice at 1PM, and it should be interesting to see how this affects the total program rating for the NASCAR on Fox telecast. From time to time, things do get interesting in "TV land."

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In-Progress At Kansas: Craftsman Trucks On SPEED

The big NASCAR triple-header continues on Saturday as the Craftsman Trucks run at the Kansas Speedway. SPEED comes on-the-air at 5:30PM with live coverage.

This weekend Krista Voda is in Talladega, so veteran announcer Rick Allen will step-in and pull double-duty. He will host the pre-race show, called The Set-Up, that has been a cornerstone of this solid coverage.

Down on pit road will be the very effective team of Adam Alexander and Ray Dunlap. These two have combined with outstanding focus and energy to bring viewers a solid overview of this series all season long.

Allen will be joined by Phil Parsons to call the race. Parsons has become the "face" of the Truck Series and is perhaps the most under-rated NASCAR TV analyst ever. His low-key approach and endless knowledge about the series works well with the excitement of Allen.

SPEED's Truck Series coverage has been noted for good overall production, including good decision-making on the final lap. This is the SPEED production crew, and perhaps the NASCAR on Fox folks may want to take note of this telecast.

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In-Progress At Talladega: Nationwide Series On ABC Sports

The Nationwide Series makes the move over to ABC for the Saturday race from Talladega. Network coverage starts at 2:30PM Eastern Time.

Allen Bestwick will host the NASCAR Countdown show from the Infield Pit Center. He will have Dale Jarrett and Brad Daugherty alongside. This program will run for thirty minutes and then hand-off to the race team.

Dr. Jerry Punch will call the action with Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. Down on pit road will be Dave Burns, Shannon Spake, Jamie Little and Mike Massaro. Tim Brewer will be at the track in the Tech Center.

It should be interesting to see how this race plays-out in terms of several stories. First, the Nationwide regulars vs. the Sprint Cup drivers participating in the event. Second, the tactics of the drivers as they decide whether to race for position or save their equipment for the end of the event.

Talladega has been repaved, and the resulting smooth surface of the track makes it easy to run almost anywhere. This track makes good pictures and great sound. The HD should really come into play on the big screens if the weather cooperates.

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In-Progress At Talladega: Sprint Cup Qualifying On SPEED

Mike Joy will host one of the most unique qualifying sessions that NASCAR fans will see this season.

Talladega is an impound race for the Cup Series, so the teams that are locked into the Top 35 will be qualifying in race trim.

This leaves those outside of the Top 35 to put all their effort into getting in complete qualifying trim. The results are two very different groups of cars on the racetrack. Viewers may well see many of the top speeds set by the "go-or-go home" bunch. One of them may well be on the pole.

Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip will be joining Joy in the booth. Jeff Hammond should also be along, perhaps in the area of the Hollywood Hotel. On pit road will be Hermie Sadler. The other NASCAR on Fox pit reporters are Krista Voda, Steve Byrnes, Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum.

This program will begin at 11AM and is scheduled to continue until 2PM Eastern Time.

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No Love For NASCAR In Seattle

Saturday is one of the rare appearances of the Nationwide Series on the ABC Television Network.

It is a great opportunity to use the bigger broadcast network to expose more viewers to the sport. The race from Talladega is a perfect choice to do just that. The telecast begins at 2:30PM Eastern Time and 11:30AM Pacific.

Last season, it was the ABC local stations that caused a mess when ESPN tried to use them to broadcast the final seventeen Sprint Cup races of the season. Each station is a little kingdom, run by a General Manager. While it truly is a small business in many ways, these "affiliates" carry sports provided by the ABC Network on a regular basis.

KOMO-tv is the Seattle-based local ABC affiliate. On this Saturday, they have chosen to present the final thirty minutes of their children's programming instead of the network's NASCAR telecast. The issue for them is that the live broadcast begins at 11:30AM Pacific. In their mind this thirty minutes "belongs" to them.

Ironically, it is the Disney show Suite Life with Zack and Cody that will be covering the pre-race program from the track. KOMO-tv will then just join the in-progress NASCAR telecast at the top of the hour. Area NASCAR fans may have vivid memories of Suite Life for one very good reason.

Last season, KOMO-tv did the exact same thing to the Watkins Glen race. Rather than simply alter the children's block to begin the network sports program on time, KOMO is holding fast to the "little kingdom" philosophy that disrupted the NASCAR programming so often last season.

While to some casual fans this might not seem like a big deal, nothing could be further from the truth. This is Talladega, and telling the story and setting the field for this event is going to be a key part of the overall telecast. In addition, there are some stories remaining from the Nationwide race in Mexico City that have to be addressed. Tops on that list is the Marcos Ambrose vs. Boris Said situation.

One interesting fact is that KOMO-tv has no problem changing the children's programming for other sporting events that they determine to be "worthy." This decision is apparently directly related to the fact that this is a Nationwide Series event.

The bottom line is that the entire NASCAR telecast is an ABC Network "must carry." How a local station in a major market like this can once again just arbitrarily join the telecast thirty minutes late is puzzling. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for the ESPN NASCAR package that will begin on the ABC stations in July.

Thank you to the Seattle area readers of The Daly Planet for pointing out this information. If any other West Coast ABC stations decide to join this telecast in-progress, insert local news, or leave before the post-race interviews, please take a moment to tell us about it in the comments section below.

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