Tuesday, January 6, 2009

ESPN Announces 2009 NASCAR On-Air Line-Up

The news from ESPN for 2009 is a mixture of positive changes and some lack of change that may surprise fans.

Topping the news is the fact that Mike Massaro will replace Ryan Burr as one of the three co-hosts of NASCAR Now. Nicole Manske will return and both Manske and Massaro will travel to the racing weekends and report from the field. Ryan Burr was a solid interviewer and news anchor, but Massaro is a much more experienced NASCAR journalist.

Allen Bestwick will continue to host the Monday NASCAR Now roundtable that has become the flagship for ESPN2's coverage of the sport. Bestwick will apparently continue to have a constantly rotating panel of reporters, analysts and NASCAR personalities.

With Massaro moving to NASCAR Now, it will be Vince Welch who steps-up and joins the NASCAR on ESPN crew of pit reporters. Returning will be Dave Burns, Shannon Spake and Jamie Little. Welch filled-in last season and with the reduced IRL schedule on ESPN in 2009 was available. Welch will continue to work the IRL events as well.

Bestwick will also continue to host the NASCAR Countdown pre-race shows and have his trusty sidekicks with him. Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty will return as regulars and will be joined by Ray Evernham on selected races. Evernham is ESPN's utility player and will appear on NASCAR Now, selected races as an analyst and also on other ESPN programs like First Take and the ESPNEWS Network.

Several weeks ago, TDP hinted that Marty Reid was going to be actively involved in ESPN's 2009 NASCAR coverage and we were correct. Jerry Punch will handle the play-by-play for the Nationwide Series races until the ESPN Sprint Cup coverage begins. At that time, Reid will step-in and handle the Nationwide events.

That will free Punch to focus his efforts on the final 17 Sprint Cup Series race for ESPN and ABC. Reid is an ESPN veteran who had been a fill-in for Punch in the past. Just like Welch, Reid will continue his IRL duties including the Indy 500.

Punch will once again be joined by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the announce booth. The NASCAR on ESPN team will be rounded-out by Tim Brewer.

This information answers a lot of questions about ESPN's 2009 NASCAR coverage. The Tech Center will be back on the road for the entire season with Brewer and his auto parts showcase. ESPN has also returned the Infield Pit Studio with Bestwick and company. This muti-purpose facility served to host a wide variety of programs for ESPN in 2008.

This new line-up gives Punch a breather when the Sprint Cup Series come around to ESPN and frees him from "double duty." While it does not address some of the play-by-play issues Punch struggled with over the last two years, perhaps it will be the break he needs to really bring home the Sprint Cup season with a strong finish.

Thanks to ESPN for all the information and the snazzy new picture of Mike Massaro. Good luck to the entire on-air and production crew during the 2009 season.

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TLC Brings A New NASCAR Wives Show To TV

As they say in reality TV land, this could be interesting. Below is the story from Reuters and The Hollywood Reporter about a new NASCAR TV show on TLC:

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - TLC is gearing up a new reality show tracking the spouses of NASCAR drivers.

The cable network has ordered a docusoap series titled "NASCAR Wives," starring women with surnames familiar to racing fans.

TLC will air an hour of the series as a stand-alone special January 24 with a lead-in from the network's most-watched annual event, the Miss America pageant. A full season, including an undisclosed number of episodes, will follow in the spring.

The concept mixes racing with the "wives genre" peppering cable primetime, from Lifetime's drama "Army Wives" to Bravo's reality show "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

Lest it seem too male-skewing for a female-skewing genre, TLC president Eileen O'Neill said 40% of NASCAR fans are women.

Participants include Delana Harvick (wife of Kevin, who has 11 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins), Shana Mayfield (wife of Jeremy, a 15-year Sprint Cup veteran), Kelley Earnhardt (sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver) and Angie Skinner (wife of Mike, who competes in NASCAR's top three national series).

Well, of all the years to create a series like this, 2009 is a curious choice. Also interesting is the "docusoap" label put on the project by TLC. The series will be produced by The NASCAR Media Group.

"Throughout a 10-month season, the drivers' wives are the glue holding together each racing family," NASCAR Media Group COO Jay Abraham said. "This show provides an honest and emotional peek into their experience with our sport."

Several features and TV series over the years have tried to go behind the scenes in terms of both racing families and the wives of the NASCAR drivers. Most of them were short-lived.

TDP applauds The NASCAR Media Group for getting NASCAR-related programming outside of the SPEED and ESPN box. Both of those networks have essentially stopped ordering any original series and Wednesday will see the only new NMG series debut on SPEED...at noon. It does not re-air.

TLC was originally The Learning Channel, but has long since left those days and become a solid destination for all kinds of family programming. This may be the best destination for a series like this.

As the press release mentions, there will be a special stand-alone episode on January 24th and the regular series will begin airing later in the spring. TDP will keep you posted on the dates and times of the series this season.

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Sirius XM Plummeting To Earth

One reason TDP has been pushing hard for increased TV news coverage of NASCAR-related issues is because the economy has been forcibly restructuring the sport during these last three months.

ESPN.com's Ed Hinton (click here) just called the economic impact of this recession his top NASCAR story of 2008.

Aside from the obvious news about drivers and sponsorships, there are a myriad of NASCAR issues that seem to be escaping the mainstream media. One of them is the struggle of NASCAR's satellite radio partner Sirius XM.

Sirius and XM started individually with a lot of promise and exclusive sports programming, including NASCAR. Sirius XM currently has the satellite radio contract to carry the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races live.

Unfortunately, the recently merged company also has about one billion dollars of debt and Sirius XM stock has plummeted (click here) to less than fifteen cents a share.

Recently, (click here) the New York Times painted a less than optimistic picture of the struggles of the Sirius XM corporation. Here is an excerpt:

Its balance sheet is larded with nearly $1 billion of debt that matures in 2009 and must be refinanced, but try finding a sympathetic banker in our current hard-luck environment.

Sirius XM has nearly 20 million paying customers, many of them evangelists for the service, but what does that matter if you can’t pay your debts?The company has never turned a profit and cannot predict when it ever will.

These are not good words for NASCAR fans who are used to enjoying the Sirius 24-hour line-up of NASCAR content that includes both original shows and live races.

Since the final 2008 racing weekend in Homestead, it has been Sirius that has carried the load in terms of providing updated news, interviews and conversation as the sport goes through this painful off-season experience. Both SPEED and ESPN have failed miserably on the TV side.

While syndicated MRN and PRN shows are helpful and the NASCAR news on the Internet is regularly updated, there has been no comparison to the parade of NASCAR personalities and journalists who have appeared live on Sirius since the 2008 season ended. For hardcore fans, Sirius is a valuable tool for keeping up with the sport.

It was 2005 when NASCAR announced (click here) that it was switching satellite radio partners from XM to Sirius beginning with the 2007 season. The price tag for the entire deal was $107.5 million.

NASCAR likes to slice the pie into many pieces to generate as much revenue as possible. Among other things, Sirius is the satellite radio alternative to the commentary from the three NASCAR Sprint Cup TV broadcasters.

It allows fans to either listen to the races strictly on Sirius or use the audio from the Sirius broadcast while watching the video from the TV partners. The TV mute button is very popular with NASCAR on Sirius listeners.

DirecTV recently announced (click here) that Hot Pass is cancelled for 2009 because of the rotten economy and the fact that the service relied directly on subscribers to foot the entire bill. It was not very clear if 250 thousand of DirecTV's 13 million subscribers would add Hot Pass for next season.

That move eliminated the only other TV option for fans who wanted to watch the races but avoid the Fox, TNT or ESPN announcers. Now, Sirius and the MRN and PRN radio broadcasts are the last resort. Unfortunately, the terrestrial radio is not carried in some areas while Sirius is available directly by satellite nationwide.

As fans know, the newly merged Sirius XM NASCAR group (click here) is still sorting things out. Gone are shows from several drivers and in limbo are pros like Claire B. Lang (click here) and other content formerly carried by XM. January should truly be a month of transition for the Sirius team.

The word bankruptcy is being tossed around (click here) should Sirius XM be unable to refinance the billion dollar debt. Financial experts have lots of opinions, but one big problem is the lack (click here) of new car sales. Sirius was originally an automotive-based service and still relies on that slice of the pie as the foundation of the business.

One popular opinion is for Sirius to drop the monthly fees and allow anyone to buy a portable receiver and enjoy the service. This would bring more advertising to the channels, but it is clear the alternative is not working. With HD radio and Internet audio streaming in full swing, one thing is for sure. Sirius XM must act now to avoid the end of satellite radio as we know it.

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Anyone Seen Elliott Sadler on TV?

If a starting NFL quarterback was suddenly fired, TV crews would be camped-out in front of his house in a matter of hours.

If a Major League Baseball starting pitcher was let go right after signing a multi-year contract extension, the media would want answers from the owner, manager and player.

When ESPN's NASCAR Now Lead Reporter Marty Smith first broke the story of Elliott Sadler suddenly being replaced at GEM by AJ Allmendinger he gave us the facts. Allmendinger was in and Sadler was out even after just signing a contract extension.

Smith added that this was a shock to both the team members and even the sponsors. What he was unable to add was any words with either Sadler himself or team owner George Gillett. Smith's story is located here on the ESPN.com website.

TDP has been scanning ESPN, ESPNEWS and SPEED since this story first broke for any sightings of the principals involved in the story. We have been looking for follow-up or reporters digging for exactly why this situation occurred.

Sadler is a well-known spokesperson and a current SPEED on-air talent. He is a panelist on Trackside during the final seventeen Sprint Cup race weekends of the season. He is a media darling and a well-spoken sponsor representative with a history of successful product endorsements.

Checking the NASCAR sections of the SPEEDtv and ESPN websites, we find no video of Sadler being interviewed and no follow-up on this story. At Jayski, we find two updates with lots of information hinting at possible financial issues for Gillett.

Over at ElliottSadler.com, that website sits in stunned silence. The news stories are about Homestead in 2008 and Sadler's most recent Barn Party for charity. Meanwhile, the NASCAR blogs are buzzing and they all want to know the exact same thing. Why release a proven commodity with a valid contract and a good sponsor? What really happened?

When Petty Enterprises closed its doors, TV viewers could have searched all day long for video or interviews surrounding the end of that franchise. They would have found none. Now, combing the cable channels once again for an interview with or a report about Sadler will result in exactly the same frustration.

The NASCAR TV partners are either in this for the long haul or they are not. ESPN is on-air 24-hours a day with multiple networks, including one dedicated solely to sports news. SPEED chose once again to end all the motorsports news shows during the off-season, despite the fan backlash from last year.

As NASCAR enters perhaps the most critical January in the modern history of the sport, it will be up to the NASCAR TV partners to go above and beyond any efforts of the past to bring fans the news about one of the top professional sports in North America as it struggles to survive.

After being treated like Arena Football or Major Indoor Lacrosse for the last two months, no one can blame the NASCAR teams if they are a little bitter when the first TV reporter comes strolling in asking the same old questions about Daytona.

SPEED will break the ice first with The SPEED Report. There are timeslots allocated on January 4th and 11th for motorsports news at 7PM, but the SPEED website is notorious for the lack of updated information. Perhaps, since the Grand-Am cars are testing the network might turn the lights on in the studio once again. TDP will keep you posted.

It looks like February 2nd at 5PM Eastern Time will be the first edition of NASCAR Now on ESPN2 for the new season. No word yet on any possible changes in the on-air line-up or format.

This is the second year where SPEED and ESPN have dropped the NASCAR TV news ball during the off-season in sensational fashion. Website stories do not make-up for the lack of updated NASCAR news on TV. Especially, after a daily show on ESPN2 and extensive weekend programs on SPEED for ten months.

Things have become quite clear to the NASCAR fan base over the past six weeks where SPEED and ESPN are concerned. Either those two networks just don't get it or they just don't care when it comes to the off-season NASCAR stories that require time and effort to report on TV.

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MLB Network Leaves NASCAR Another Step Behind

It is already on-the-air in preview mode, but it will be January 1, 2009 when the Major League Baseball TV Network officially debuts in homes across America.

The MLB Network took over the old MSNBC studios located at 40 Hartz Way in Secaucus, NJ. One look at Google Maps tells the tale of just how close to New York City that location really is. Eventually, the network will move into NYC proper.

Everything on the MLB Network is going to be in true High Definition. The league is doing things in a first class manner, following in the footsteps of the NFL Network in terms of on-air technology.

The executives are experienced, the on-air announcers are familiar to baseball fans and the programming line-up is diverse. The content pieces of this TV puzzle are in place.

Rolling this project out in an orderly manner with cooperation from the major cable TV companies has enabled the MLB Network to sign-on with the largest first day viewership in cable TV history.

While the official number has not yet been announced, it is expected that this brand-new network will be available in over 50 million homes from day one.

Like many pro sports, MLB has quietly been extending the length of the overall season. Spring training games start the last week of February and many are now televised. The regular season begins the first week of April and in 2009 for the first time the World Series will end in November.

NASCAR is racing in February and continues to do so until the third week of November. With the post-season reviews and the three banquets, the season spills-over into December. Even with official testing eliminated for 2009, January is a frenzy at the race shops as teams prepare for the season.

Where NASCAR is concerned, the entire year is packed full of some kind of activity either on the track or behind the scenes.

As the MLB Network takes to the air, eyes turn to NASCAR with the same question TDP has been asking for the past two years.

Where is the NASCAR TV Network?

The original NASCAR deal with the Fox Cable Networks group was for Speedvision to become a full-time NASCAR channel. Fox and NASCAR partnered-up to buy a TV production company they called NASCAR Images to produce programs for the new network.

Fox then moved the entire Speedvision network from Stamford, CT to Charlotte, NC and changed the name to SPEED. Everything was in place. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

Now, several years later, the story is radically different. SPEED continues to be the TV network for NASCAR's on-location weekend "support" programming and the Camping World Truck Series. The last remaining snippet of regular weekday programming is This Week In NASCAR on Monday nights.

Fox agreed to surrender the company's interest in NASCAR Images and was bought-out by NASCAR. The new company is now called The NASCAR Media Group. SPEED then changed leadership and moved in an entirely different direction where weekday programming was concerned.

Pinks, Unique Whips, Living the Low Life, Wrecked and many other "lifestyle reality" series sprang to life under the leadership of SPEED's VP of Programming Bob Ecker.

SPEED was interested in creating and then owning original TV shows. That was not possible where NASCAR was concerned. Like most pro sports, NASCAR retains the rights to the actual event footage. So, SPEED morphed into the current two-headed monster viewers see today.

During the NASCAR season on Friday, Saturday and Sunday SPEED is all about racing. On Monday through Thursday with one small exception, SPEED's primetime line-up is battling it out with A&E, truTV and Discovery for reality programming success.

Once united by shared ownership and strategic TV goals, SPEED and the NASCAR Media Group are now just two rival fraternities sharing NASCAR content in an uneasy truce.

SPEED is busy allocating significant financial resources to original lifestyle programming to build the network's library of content for a wide variety of purposes. SPEED wants "their" programs to be available on your cell phone, PDA and laptop.

Meanwhile, The NASCAR Media Group has no direct on-air capability to expand the NASCAR presence on TV. Think of this TV production company as a fantastic stereo system loaded with great tunes but without any speakers. You can turn it on and crank it up but there is no way to hear the music.

The solution to this problem might have been to simply put The NASCAR Media Group's vast collection of programs on an Internet site and then build-up an iTV network like Hulu. Bypass cable TV entirely and go right to the Internet with the video.

Unfortunately, NASCAR gave the online rights to all NASCAR content to the Turner Interactive Group in Atlanta, GA. That company pays NASCAR a hefty sum to run the NASCAR.com website as a "third party."

The Turner Interactive Group alone controls the sport's online image, official information and even fan interaction. NASCAR itself does not even have a public email address. In January of 2008, NASCAR executives extended the Turner deal through the year 2014.

In reality, there is truly only one solution to solving many of the current problems plaguing the sport. That is the creation of a cable television network to grow the NASCAR brand and present the sport as much more than a weekend pastime.

Having this media platform would open the door to an endless diversity of programming from original series to daily news. Groups like the Nationwide and Camping World Truck teams would finally get some TV exposure other than actual racing.

A NASCAR TV network would also allow the regional racing series a home where fans could begin to understand the different levels of NASCAR racing nationwide and interact with local and regional drivers and teams. Imagine that, finding out that NASCAR races in your area on a regular basis.

Both ISC and SMI tracks would be big beneficiaries of a full-time TV network. Just like the regional sports TV networks feature local college and pro teams, TV programs featuring the ISC and SMI tracks would offer a tremendous variety of regional subject matter.

These facilities host all kinds of racing series. Events like car shows and many other unique activities could also be exposed to motorsports fans through a NASCAR TV network. Needless to say, ticket sales for the NASCAR events could also be directly influenced.

Once again in 2009, NASCAR is poised to be represented on TV by third parties. ESPN, SPEED, TNT and Fox all have their own slant on presenting NASCAR news and approach the sport in general from completely different angles.

The NASCAR "financial pie" has been sliced-and-diced into profitable pieces with the single-minded goal of deriving the most potential revenue for the sport.

Left behind in the "money frenzy" has been the strategic partnership between NASCAR and its fans.

With Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association now having full-time dedicated TV networks there is little doubt that NASCAR must make such an investment for the good of the sport.

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