Saturday, December 6, 2008

Digger Makes It All The Way To The "New York Times"

Richard Sandomir is a veteran writer and handles the sports media beat for the New York Times. Click here to read his story about our friend Digger and the plans Fox Sports has to grow the Digger franchise.

Here are some brief excerpts:

Digger’s evolution took a grand leap after Fox’s NASCAR season as Chairman David Hill developed the gopher’s back story, as if this were a commonplace task for TV sports executives. Digger was one of the “woodland folk,” as Hill wrote, initially terrified by the sudden creation of NASCAR tracks, but who, with the badgers, prairie dogs, rabbits and beavers, came to love the spectacle.

Hill’s Life of Digger is now expanding beyond cameo spots in the corner of the Fox screen to six two-minute episodes during Fox’s prerace program in the 2009 season. Digger lives comfortably beneath the Talladega Superspeedway in an apartment filled with NASCAR mementoes and a widescreen TV.

Digger’s life is rounded out with, among others, a girlfriend, Annie, (named for Hill’s daughter) and an archenemy, Lumpy Wheels, a badger security officer (inspired by Humpy Wheeler, the former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, with a personality like Barney Fife’s).

The revelation that Hill is going to feature Digger as a stand-alone animated character during the NASCAR on Fox pre-race shows is perhaps the most interesting piece of information in that excerpt.

On one hand, it is easy to understand that Hill is trying to create something to appeal to the youngsters who watch the races. On the other hand, Digger has become the most invasive sports television presence in recent memory as the Fox Director uses him endlessly.

The insertion of Digger under yellow or once on a restart is bearable. Unfortunately, as fans can attest from the 2008 NASCAR on Fox season, Digger became the story and took attention away from the flow of the race and the action on the track. As we documented this season, Digger often got more airtime than teams running in the top ten.

If Hill can work to establish how and when Digger is used in the coverage the results can perhaps be tipped in the positive manner that he intended. If he lets the Fox Director use Digger without restrictions, the results with the adult NASCAR fans are going to continue to be negative. One thing is for sure, we will all be seeing quite a bit more of Digger in 2009. That is, if fans choose to tune-in.

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Sprint Cup Series Banquet Not Exactly Live On ESPN Classic

The bright red and white logo in the upper right-hand corner of the ESPN Classic TV Network screen said "live."

Yet, those NASCAR fans listening to the Sprint Cup Series banquet on Sirius Satellite Radio or MRN were hearing something different. For some strange reason, the TV and the radio broadcasts did not match.

On the radio, the speeches were already being made while the ESPN Classic TV viewers were just getting the start of the banquet TV show. While the "live" graphic remained in the entire broadcast, this ESPN program was actually not live at all.

It seems somewhat ironic that to close-out the season ESPN would simply choose to try and deceive the NASCAR fans once again. What else can be said about some of the management decisions of that company this season when it comes to NASCAR?

Dr. Jerry Punch presided over a dreary affair that never got a spark from the speeches, the comedian or the host. In a way, the 2008 Sprint Cup Series banquet reflected the economic reality of what is happening around the world.

As usual, the NASCAR Media Group did "glossy" very well. Features, footage and photographs combined for a clean presentation on-the-air. Unfortunately, the TV Director chose to cut-away endlessly during the driver speeches to all kinds of different shots.

Since each speech was scripted, the camera cuts reflected almost a soap opera feel where everything was cut right on the word and suddenly the person being mentioned was front-and-center. While it was accurate and made for good corporate TV, it did not provide a whole lot of entertainment. The Director also loved to zoom the camera from wide to tight while the drivers were actually in the middle of their speeches.

Punch handled the hosting duties without a problem, but was not released from his scripted cage and was a non-factor. That was a shame, because the real skill of Punch is his ability to ask the right questions and get good conversation rolling. Needless to say, that did not happen.

2007 was the first season of The Daly Planet and readers made themselves quite clear that the distinctive female voice who provided the live narration for the Cup banquet was perhaps not the best choice. Needless to say, she returned for 2008 with even more misplaced gusto and strange inflections.

Update-2: Click here for the video of Tia Texada, the actress who also does voice-over work and was the announcer for the banquet. Thanks to a TDP reader for the info.

Speaking of strange, Tom Cruise was seen on-camera several times during the evening but due to the scripted nature of the evening his presence was never explained. "Days of Thunder" was a long time ago.

On ESPN Classic, comedian John Pinette was in the middle of his second performance. It was 10:55PM on the East Coast. The big red logo in the corner of the ESPN Classic screen still said "live."

Meanwhile, in the real world Jimmie Johnson had already finished his victory speech and the live radio broadcast was getting ready to sign-off at 11PM.

How and why ESPN contrived to label this national TV broadcast as live when it was not is anyone's guess. In today's TV world, buzzwords like "time shifted" are all the rage for TV's ability to put content on a big hard-drive and play it back instantly in any order.

Unfortunately, ESPN also listed this telecast as live in the nationwide print and Internet publications. It must have been an interesting experience for the NASCAR and ESPN executives to retire to the Waldorf-Astoria bar only to find themselves "live" on ESPN Classic and just halfway through the evening. One quick phone call to Bristol, CT might have solved the problem.

Matchbox Twenty worked hard and came away much better than poor Kelly Clarkson, the 2007 musical guest. The group clearly enjoys the sport and seemed to really put their heart into some good music. For those of us familiar with the TV world, having them sing live was a nice bonus.

As the speeches went by, only Jeff Burton really stood-out for his ability to capture the attention of the TV viewers with his content and not simply his humor. Burton hit on the key points many Americans are very concerned about these days and his speech almost seemed to be that of an experienced politician.

While Rick Hendrick delivered the best one-liner of the night, Jimmie Johnson came away as a smooth and confident champion. Cale Yarborough was a nice surprise and one of only two non-Teleprompter moments of the evening.

Brian France was once again disjointed. Even in introducing his special guest, he began by saying his presence on stage signaled that the event was almost over. It certainly was inappropriate where Johnson, the new three-time champion, was concerned.

As we said last season, the banquet is primarily intended for the sponsors of the sport. It has been televised for many years but has really never found its "TV legs." Perhaps, in the future it may be post-produced and take on the talk show style that has been a success for both the Truck and Nationwide functions.

NASCAR walked away with a safe TV night that did not step out-of-bounds or feature any real memorable moments. With no January testing telecasts it will be more than two months before the Sprint Cup Series steps back into the TV spotlight. If you watched the telecast, please take a moment and share your thoughts with us.

Update-1: Yes, ESPN did carry the Nationwide Series banquet telecast. Click here to read that story about Allen Bestwick and Shannon Spake hosting the event.

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