Friday, January 23, 2009

Three TV Topics For The Weekend

This certainly has been an interesting week of NASCAR TV from SPEED. This weekend provides the first live racing that fans will see as several high-profile NASCAR stars join the sports car gang for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Coverage begins on Fox and then transitions over to SPEED while the race itself has a much later start time in the afternoon. The TV listing information is located on the right side of the TDP main page.

Although this is the first big North American race of the season, it did not apparently deserve even a blurb on ESPN's SportsCenter or ESPNEWS. The stick-and-ball frenzy continues with plenty of time for endless talking heads, but once again ESPN swings-and-whiffs where motorsports in North America is concerned.

Hermie Sadler appeared on the final Preseason Thunder show of the week on SPEED. Sadler has come a very long way in a relatively short period of time with his TV skills. He covered a pretty wide variety of topics with good credibility, but once again SPEED ducked the issue of what the Truck Series would look like after Daytona.

This has been a strange phenomenon all week long, as the Camping World Truck Series is carried exclusively by SPEED and Fox. For some reason, the network has turned almost all the attention and effort toward the Sprint Cup Series alone. Sooner or later, the real story about the trucks will come out.

This week's Trackside shows, also on SPEED, were taped on Sunday at the Daytona Fan Fest. Friday's program featured an interesting interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Since Keselowski lives in one of Junior's rental properties close by, Junior tagged Keselowski on-the-air as the friend who never calls and just comes over. Keselowski responded by admitting that he is, in fact, Junior's "Kramer."

A relaxed and happy Junior shared several family stories and had fun with the Trackside gang. After a long winter, it was refreshing to see the biggest star in the sport speaking about his family and friends openly and with pride. He also spoke candidly about the struggles for sponsorship on the Nationwide side of the sport.

While John Roberts on Preseason Thunder tried to preach to the viewers that NASCAR does not have its collective head in the sand about the real world struggles of the economy, that was never the issue that TDP raised. Roberts took a shot at "the websites" that were complaining about the smiley-faced approach of the pre-season TV.

The reality of life is best understood when those involved in the struggles are openly and honestly talking about them. This week on SPEED has been a parade of "fluff" with moments of candor. It should have been the other way around.

If NASCAR and SPEED were trying to keep the veteran fans and win new ones, the approach of having endless conversations about winter vacations, children and the fact that there has been no testing at Daytona did not do the trick.

After the Rolex 24 and the Toyota Shootout are over, SPEED has another week of Preseason Thunder at 7PM Monday through Friday. The Charlotte media tour is done, the drivers have all been interviewed and the rust has been knocked-off the brains of the NASCAR fans.

Next week will be the final opportunity for SPEED to be center stage, as NASCAR Now on ESPN2 returns on Monday, February 2nd. Now that new pets, scraggly beards and winter vacations have all been discussed, SPEED has the opportunity to step-up and do some real reporting on the issues in the sport including the Nationwide, Camping World Truck and regional series.

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Darrell Waltrip Finally Gets Honest With The Fans

The Thursday edition of Preseason Thunder on SPEED promised to be a good show. John Roberts hosted with Darrell Waltrip as his co-host via satellite from his home in Tennessee.

Waltrip's commentary was mixed with soundbites from various drivers and personalities from the Charlotte media tour. The faces of Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and others flashed by, but it was the comments from Waltrip that made it worth the wait.

In this setting, where he is alone and allowed to speak his mind, fans finally got a glimpse of the frank and honest opinions that used to be a hallmark of SPEED. The network has wasted almost two weeks on "fluff" programs that have painfully avoided all the issues dominating the sport on a daily basis.

Trackside and Preseason Thunder have been off-base from day one as an endless parade of smiling drivers have fielded softball questions from both the SPEED and Fox on-air personalities. It has not been pretty.

Watching SPEED, one would not believe that two of the three NASCAR touring series are rumored to be in dire trouble after Daytona. It was Darrell Waltrip who remarked that the second race in California might resemble a "ghost town." That one comment was aired earlier in the week by accident and was actually replaced in the program's re-air with more happy faces and polite chit-chat.

Even reporters Wendy Venturini and Randy Pemberton have been following the SPEED script as they both cover the media tour. The smiling faces of freshly scrubbed drivers at beautiful shops are about as far away from the reality of what this sport is actually going through as humanly possible.

How can the "other side" of this equation not be reported by SPEED? Where are the DEI and Gillett comments about downsizing to two teams? Where is Max Siegel on his departure from DEI after all his bold predictions of growth for the company?

Where are the voices of the drivers and owners who are not happy and have comments about this season that might not be all rainbows and sunshine? The answer is they are not on SPEED.

Waltrip talked about topics from Stewart's new team to the outlook for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. Viewers at home could have used a full hour of Roberts asking Waltrip questions and then letting him speak. Waltrip's time in this show was far too short and left a lot of great content on the table.

His final comments that closed the show were the most compelling.

"Look folks, it's not all gloom and doom," said Waltrip. "Yeah, we got problems with the economy, we got sponsors and all kinds of things that we have to work on (like) attendance and ratings, but this is the most resilient sport with the best people in the world. We know how to get it done. We will work hard and we will survive."

This is the kind of straight talk NASCAR fans have been waiting for from Waltrip and rest of the SPEED experts and analysts. Hopefully, speaking directly to the fans and offering honest opinions about the NASCAR journey for 2009 will be allowed to continue.

The final Preseason Thunder of this week is at 7:30PM on Friday, but the series continues on Monday through Friday of next week at 7PM ET. This should give SPEED one final opportunity to open up the coverage and let the reality of the challenges facing the sport become a topic that is open for discussion.

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France Talks Everything But TV In Thursday Remarks

Thursday afternoon at 1pm ET brought the annual "state of the sport" address from NASCAR Chairman Brian France. The location of the press conference was the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, NC.

This media opportunity usually provides France an outlet to address topics of his choice and those that are important for the new season. After a recorded introduction that featured TV veteran Ken Squier, NASCAR VP Jim Hunter started the festivities.

Diversity was on the agenda, but once again this topic is one that has not translated very well to the TV side of the sport. Max Siegel did not speak, but his future participation where the diversity agenda is concerned was mentioned prominently.

MRN Radio veteran Winston Kelly was up next to talk about the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He mentioned that the NASCAR Media Group is moving into HD TV studios in downtown Charlotte that include a brand new newsroom. This media area also includes a radio studio. It should be interesting to find out what use the newsroom and TV studios will be filling.

"It's been an interesting and challenging off-season," said France as he began his remarks. His prepared statement talked about the points that NASCAR wanted to emphasize. While he addressed the "tough times" affecting the sport and the nation, he mentioned that working with NASCAR's media partners was a high priority.

During the open comments section, France talked about the manufacturers continued participation in the sport. He said the sport is zeroed-in on helping the manufacturers, but said the larger issue was the jobs of the employees in the automotive industry.

It was Robin Pemberton who addressed the Camping World Truck Series issues by saying he was still discussing potential changes in the rules for this season. That certainly seemed strange with the first race only weeks away. Nothing was mentioned that directly referenced SPEED and the issues that network may experience should the series decline dramatically in the number of teams after Daytona.

Jay Abraham was on-hand to represent The NASCAR Media Group as VP Robbie Weiss had experienced medical problems and NMG President Paul Brooks was with him. We will update the condition of Weiss when it becomes available. Abraham reinforced the NMG mandate that connecting directly with the fans through TV was his primary mission.

There was a lot of talk about a new business model for the sport, but ultimately both the tracks and the teams are independent operators and have to fend for themselves. Speakers like NASCAR President Mike Helton were consistently assuring the assembled media that NASCAR had the best interests of the teams at heart.

As the media asked questions, it was clear that TV was going to take a backseat to the economy and the potential issues with team counts in each of the three national series. Ticket prices, fan attendance and even the satellite teams were topics on the agenda, but TV was not.

Also not mentioned was the new design of the website, which is the official online location of the sport. Radio was also not in the mix, despite the fact that the press conference was carried live on Sirius. That radio network has been the linchpin for the fans during the off-season.

The voice of reason as usual was Mike Helton. He spoke clearly about the challenges for the upcoming season and gave the media lots of good content. Look for his remarks to be all over the Internet by Thursday evening.

While this event was disappointing from a TV perspective, it was clear that NASCAR was in the same unsteady boat as many American sports and the focus was actually on survival. There is currently only one new NASCAR-themed TV show that has been announced for 2009 and that show is on TLC.

Darrell Waltrip will be co-hosting Preseason Thunder on SPEED Thursday night at 7:30PM ET. Perhaps, it will be up to DW to finally step-out of the politically correct TV bubble and tell fans how NASCAR will look in 2009 and where he thinks it will be going.

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