Sunday, May 11, 2008

Fox Watches As The TV Plot Thickens

Things are certainly taking an interesting turn where the TV network coverage of the Sprint Cup Series is concerned. Despite the track, the location and the weather it seems that Kyle Busch is the story on a very regular basis.

As the NASCAR on Fox crew walked into Darlington, the idea was that this time the track itself would serve as the plot for the racing story. Once again, that was not to be as Busch single-handedly determined the TV coverage would be on him. The veteran TV crew knew just how to handle it.

Chris Myers casual attitude sometimes does not mesh with the intensity that surrounds the sport at various tracks. Darlington was hanging onto its lone race date by the skin of its teeth. The little South Carolina town is deep in racing history, but not deep enough in hotels or grandstand seats for the NASCAR brass.

The track had been repaved, and speeds were excessive while the racing line was even more narrow. The installation of the SAFER Barrier was well-timed. Myers quizzed Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond in the pre-race show on a variety of important subjects. Unfortunately, Myers attention just seems to be elsewhere.

This was an intense race weekend after a big incident in Richmond and a very big mess in practice. Somehow, that intensity translated well to RaceDay's John Roberts and NASCAR Now's Ryan Burr. It never penetrated to Myers. Of the pre-race shows on Saturday, Myers was the host that really needed focus.

Luckily, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds never need to be reminded of racing reality. Those two have seen it all, and kept the pre-race show on track. Once Waltrip joined them in the booth, DW got his focus back and kept himself involved during the entire race.

Jeff Hammond worked hard from the Hollywood Hotel with technical information updates. Hammond had worked in the booth for SPEED earlier in the week, and sometimes one gets the feeling he would rather be upstairs calling the action than downstairs dealing with Myers antics for several hours.

Great pictures and sound were made even better by the limited use of the "Gopher Cam." The in-car cameras were also not over-used, and the racing action was certainly a challenge to cover. The upper screen graphic "ticker" updated instantly again, and the transition of cars as they changed positions was outstanding.

The tough pit road made the use of the four video "boxes" tough on caution flag stops and quite often left viewers confused. Luckily, the "race off pit road" graphic ended the chaos with a good overview of who was where when the smoke cleared.

As usual at Darlington, this race was tough on everyone including the TV crew. During the entire broadcast nothing was broken, out-of-place or "technically challenged." If the worst TV problem was trying to wipe-off the hand-held camera lens in Victory Lane, that means it was a great night for the production and technical teams.

Once again Major League Baseball blocked some viewers from seeing the entire pre-race show. This time it was the Brewers and the Cardinals. Luckily, the delay was minor and no NASCAR fans missed the start of the race.

Once underway, it was clear that the challenge for Waltrip was going to be how to deal with Kyle Busch. Normally accused of just about everything under the sun, DW faced a tough problem. Busch was the story and he was going to be the story for four hours. Try as he might, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could not get Kyle off the TV screen. Waltrip worked hard to stay objective even though it is clear Busch is "his boy."

The normally mild-manner Larry McReynolds showed his temper when he decided that Kyle Busch had done enough complaining over the team radio. On-the-money as usual, McReynolds used both Waltrip and Hammond to reinforce that Busch's continual whining on the radio might not be a problem for the crew chief, but certainly was having an effect on his pit crew.

The NASCAR on Fox gang did a good job of tracking down the lugnut problems in the Gibbs camp and documenting the issues for Greg Biffle that ultimately put him out of the race. The ebb-and-flow of the race was highlighted by Kyle Busch coming back from a pit road problem to win the event.

At the finish, Busch had enough of a lead to allow the Fox Director to use his regular zoom into the flagman as the winner crosses the line without a problem. A nice wideshot showed the rest of the lead laps cars cross the line in style. Fox has a great pop-up graphic for the race off pit road. This would be a perfect compliment to use as the cars cross the finish line to show unofficial final positions.

Good racing often makes for good TV. Darlington was long, grinding and sometimes surprising. The NASCAR on Fox race telecast was solid and the new elements of the coverage like the "ticker" continue to be a welcome addition. The Kyle Busch story going into the Coke 600 should keep things very interesting in "TV land."

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Monday Turns Into A NASCAR TV Battleground

Aside from watching the changes in the racing coverage this season, nothing has been more fun than seeing what Monday's NASCAR TV shows will bring.

At this time last season, Erik Kuselias was leading ESPN2's NASCAR Now through an entire Monday show of hype and innuendo. By the end of the racing year, this column summed-up the frustrations of the fans with The Worldwide Leader In Sports.

Now, Mr. Kuselias is alone on Saturday mornings from 7 to 10AM talking stick-and-ball sports on ESPN Radio. In his place, NASCAR TV veteran Allen Bestwick has installed a brand new format on Mondays and brought-in a brand new audience.

Fully recovered from his professional struggles, Bestwick has quickly changed Monday at 5:30PM Eastern from "the place to avoid" to "the place to be" for NASCAR fans. The bad studio set and the hype are long gone, replaced by four chairs and a simple weekly conversation about racing.

If you squint just a little bit, Monday's NASCAR Now looks a lot like another successful NASCAR show that was on TV for a while. Three panelists, one host, sometimes a guest and lots of conversation while watching the highlights. Memories of Bestwick and Inside Winston Cup Racing on SPEED are easy to conjure up for veteran fans.

This Monday is going to be a very interesting show. Bestwick is going to welcome former Darlington winner Ricky Craven, who has not been seen in a car or on TV by most fans in a long time. Joining Craven will be Ray Evernham and Mike Massaro. It is this ever-changing cast of characters that keeps bringing viewers back week-after-week.

Craven should be able to speak to a lot of racing issues. Evernham will be vital in talking about the technical controversy raised by Jeff Gordon and Massaro should be able to describe the feelings in the garage about Kyle Busch because Massaro was there. Yet another new combination of human ingredients on this show that just require Bestwick to stir.

Inheriting the Inside NEXTEL Cup franchise was Steve Byrnes. Regardless of the name change to This Week in NASCAR, viewers know SPEED and the NASCAR Media Group are just trying to freshen-up this 8PM Monday night franchise. Unfortunately, SPEED has left this series all alone on the schedule surrounded by TV programs that have nothing to do with racing.

Since the change, the TWIN production team has bravely been trying to put ten pounds of content into a five pound bag. The result is a program that is just as likely to be playing-back pre-produced features as it is talking to the two person panel.

Innovation only works if it is tried, and SPEED certainly has tried. They have moved the preview of the next race up into the first thirty minutes of the show, and kept the fresh memories of the weekend race for the second half of the hour. They have added feature after feature, including interviews and slickly edited race recaps that only NMG could produce.

Unfortunately, re-inventing the wheel is a very tough task. Fortunately, SPEED and NMG have all the ingredients to make this show outstanding on a weekly basis. The program misses a third panelist and clearly misses the veteran perspective of Kenny Schrader.

This Monday, as SPEED begins a week of All-Star race festivities, the network and NMG are going to make a change. The normally studio-based show will be taped at the Speedway Club at Lowe's Motor Speedway just north of Charlotte, NC.

Steve Byrnes will be hosting an expanded panel that will bring Schrader back to the program. Joining those two will be longtime panelist Michael Waltrip, Darlington headliner Greg Biffle and rather frustrated crew chief Chad Knaus. That is an All-Star line-up if there ever was one.

The format of the program will remain the same, with the panelists both previewing and reviewing the Sprint Cup Series races. Along the way, they will briefly touch on both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series as well. The review of both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races from Darlington should be interesting to say the least.

On this particular Monday, SPEED has indicated that the panel will also be taking questions from the invitation-only audience. It is somewhat ironic that the original This Week In NASCAR with Eli Gold was famous for exactly that. Including the fans was a top priority of the show and something sorely missing from today's NASCAR TV programming.

The ability of a fan to ask Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Bill Elliott a question on TV had a lot of power. It is one thing for Steve Byrnes to read a pre-selected question at the end of the show. It is quite another to allow fans to interact directly with NASCAR personalities. Hopefully, this element will be a positive one for the show.

TV viewers should be able to see two very different approaches to "talking NASCAR" on Monday. ESPN2's carefully controlled HD studio with four "guys in ties" should be a fascinating contrast to the open collars and khakis of the TWIN gang amid the live audience in the Speedway Club.

There will be columns up for both programs once they have concluded. Please feel free to leave your comments about the season-to-date for both TV series on this post.

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