Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NASCAR About To Lose The ESPN "Overflow" Channel

Once and a while The Sports Business Journal turns an eye to TV and this week it reported on some news from ESPN. It may well impact NASCAR in a couple of months.

Here are some excerpts from a story by SBJ's John Ourand:

Executives in Bristol, CT are set to allow cable and satellite distributors to swap the ESPN Classic sports channel for its college network, ESPNU, which they hope presents a newer, hipper alternative to Classic’s staid and often dated programming

ESPN Classic is in more than 63 million homes, typically on analog and digital basic tiers. By contrast, ESPNU is in about 25 million homes, mainly on digital basic tiers

A deal clearly would mostly help ESPNU, which is battling another collegiate sports channel, CBS College Sports Network, for carriage deals on the nation’s cable and satellite systems. The channel, which launched in the spring of 2005, has been at the center of ESPN’s most recent media deals.

ESPNU will pick up a significant part of ESPN’s SEC schedule and is expected to run shoulder programming that supports ESPN’s BCS package.

Click here to read Ourand's full article.

In a nutshell, ESPN is looking to encourage cable operators to carry the ESPNU Network. For those cable systems who already have ESPN Classic, there is now an easy solution to this problem. Just replace Classic with the ESPNU college channel and call it a day. All of this can now be done with ESPN's official blessing.

This move is crucial to ESPN, a company who has been on a buying spree where college television rights are concerned. Billions of dollars have been spent and just like the NASCAR situation, there are simply not enough ESPN TV networks to carry the product.

Back in early 2007, we suggested that ESPN use the Classic Network to carry NASCAR when there was a live event conflict. We were laughed off the Internet. Click here for a review of that story.

Now, two years later, ESPN Classic has become a crucial link to NASCAR TV during the college football season. This is especially true for the Nationwide Series, the only NASCAR racing series that ESPN carries from start to finish.

In this newly proposed scenario, ESPN Classic could effectively be reduced in size from over 60 million to as few as 25 million homes nationwide. Adding "the U" and dumping Classic is a no brainer to the cable systems at this point in time. The college product is hot and ESPN Classic's main fare is dated program re-airs.

Here in March, this might be a topic easily forgotten. But come September when the Nationwide Series has been racing for seven months and suddenly a college football game blocks the action on ESPN2, there may be 40 million less NASCAR fans that have any kind of solution to that problem.

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Camping World Truck Series Can't Catch A TV Break

After losing Saturday to rain, the Camping World Truck Series took to the track Monday in front of a small crowd on a chilly day in Martinsville, VA. The good news is that the live SPEED telecast of the race was solid and the trucks put on a great show. The bad news is that almost no one saw it.

A silver lining did exist, however, because both NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and This Week in NASCAR on SPEED would be on the air later Monday to review the action.

As luck would have it, Kyle Busch was once again in the mix and the finish of the truck race would be memorable. After the race, the SPEED cameras captured Busch running down pit road, jumping the railing and leaving the premises without talking to anyone.

What a great tie-in to his struggles in the Sunday Sprint Cup Series race as those highlights would be the centerpiece of the two NASCAR TV shows on Monday. Since there was no Nationwide Series race, the Sprint Cup Series and the Camping World Trucks were the only game in town. This would be great TV exposure for the truck teams.

Mike Massaro was in for Allen Bestwick and it was clear from the start that a lot of the Monday NASCAR Now program was going to be focused on the Sprint Cup Series. Ray Evernham, Ricky Craven and Mike Wallace offered good comments about the drivers, the action and the results.

Since there was no live guest scheduled, there would also be plenty of time to talk about the only other race of the weekend, the trucks. Including this series in the NASCAR Now program used to be a battle. Apparently, that battle is not over.

Massaro introduced an embarrassing highlight package that included him naming the wrong driver, not knowing Todd Bodine's truck and finally getting lost in his commentary during the final pass for the lead.

The package ended with Kyle Busch slamming down his HANS Device and helmet. In this one hour show, the trucks got 55 seconds of coverage. Instead of turning to the "expert panel" for follow-up, Massaro led directly to commercial. His words were ironic.

"And we'll talk a little bit more about Jimmie Johnson...coming up," said Massaro. It was time for the ESPN.com poll results on whether Johnson can win another championship. The blue states and the red states were battling it out. One thing was for sure, the trucks were done on NASCAR Now in more ways than one.

Later on Monday, Steve Byrnes led a rowdy Greg Biffle and Michael Waltrip through the same Sprint Cup Series highlights and explanations on This Week in NASCAR. This crew has a very different style and the first-hand accounts of the Sunday race were outstanding from both panelists.

The good story here is that Waltrip called the truck race for SPEED, so he had the inside scoop. Byrnes introduced the highlights and SPEED gave their only major NASCAR series 75 seconds of highlights. That's right, less than 90 seconds of highlights from a Monday race which most fans had not seen.

Not only did this highlight package not tell the story of the race, it contained no post-race interviews from SPEED's own live Monday telecast. SPEED approached this race as if it had taken place on Saturday and fans had already seen the highlights several times. With the race actually airing at noon on Monday, nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems like the Camping World Truck Series cannot catch a break where NASCAR TV is concerned. The series has no weekly TV show, no regularly scheduled features on either TWIN or NASCAR Now and only a thirty minute pre-race show for exposure. On this Monday, even that was cancelled.

One key goal of the NASCAR TV partners this season was to help the Nationwide and Truck Series survive these tough economic times. While this message resonated earlier in the season, Martinsville proved to be a complete failure where both SPEED and ESPN were concerned in terms of the truck series.

While the Nationwide Series continues to be populated by Sprint Cup regulars, the Camping World Truck Series teams are holding on by their fingernails right now and several are about to fall by the wayside.

What will it take for these two TV programs to wake-up to the fact that the NASCAR TV partners have to be actively involved in helping all three national series in the sport survive this crisis?

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A Little Less "Digger" And A Lot More Racing

There was not a lot to talk about for the NASCAR on Fox gang from the Hollywood Hotel in Martinsville. Practice and qualifying for the Sprint Cup Series had been rained out.

The conversation quickly turned from the serious to the ridiculous. Hot dogs, birthdays and inside jokes are subjects that turned the pre-race show into a combination of the useful and the useless. Jeff Hammond appears to be tired of Chris Myers and his inability to take racing seriously. For many teams, Martinsville was a critical race.

Just like NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and RaceDay on SPEED, Rick Hendrick made an appearance on the Fox pre-race show. His story about Martinsville fits right in with the roots of NASCAR. Darrell Waltrip handled the recorded interview.

"The biggest mistake you can make in life is pulling the trigger when you don't have a plan," said Hendrick. He was talking about the changes that might be needed to help Dale Earnhardt Jr. improve this season. Waltrip raises this point on a regular basis and Jeff Hammond has already called for Tony Eury Jr. to be replaced. Hendrick himself seems to have other ideas.

Chris Myers and his recent birthday was a theme that was drummed into the NASCAR fans who watched Fox's rainout coverage of the Camping World Truck Series on Saturday. By the time Sunday rolled around, it just wasn't funny anymore. Dick Berggren is a nice guy, but isn't it time to put the whole "kid because I care" thing away for good?

Mike Joy had a tough task ahead of him. Martinsville and the COT make for a different style of racing then we used to see with the old car. Early tire problems were not followed up in the pits and only the booth announcers told us that the bead was melting because of the brake heat. Goodyear was off the hook.

Three "start and park" cars ended the day early without follow-up. NASCAR had said these cars needed to show why they came off the track and it had better be a mechanical issue. Past issues for the "valet parking" set have included...no pit crew.

The Sprint Cup teams delivered a good set of stories that included two MWR drivers running in the top ten, but everyone knew the day would belong to Hendrick. It did not matter where his cars finished, because Hendrick is a favorite of the Fox booth. Once again, the racing actually followed the suggested TV script in dramatic fashion.

It was nice to hear an instrumental version of the National Anthem and even better to see a good crowd on-hand to hear it. The TV crew never had to explain empty seats or even deal with the fan issue. The pictures told the story.

Mostly absent from this telecast was the animation of Digger. While the Digger logo was stuck in the picture in each segment, both of the annoying animations were essentially gone. That is a picture from Fox Sports of the Martinsville Digger-cam above.

This simple change deeply affected the telecast. No more forced jokes or comments from Joy, he just kept calling the race with the Digger logo on the screen. No more homemade commercials from Waltrip advertising his website under green flag racing.

It may be that Fox has finally struck a good balance where this merchandising gimmick is concerned. As many emailers reminded us, there was also no Digger cartoon before the race.

Once underway, the positive aspects of the telecast began to emerge. Good camera work on the small track, good use of the in-car cameras and effective coverage of the entire field was the early order of the day. Unfortunately, that would change.

Two video angles of the Kenseth pit road violation were outstanding and the explanation from Larry McReynolds was even better. Also solid was the triple-split on the caution flag pit stops that allowed for a view of the entire pit road.

As we have said so many times before, the technical crew delivered another flawless race with every piece of equipment working well and the pictures and sound in HD delivering the intensity of this sport on a short-track.

Tougher to figure out were the AT&T Racebreaks. Presented as an update on the race, the video highlights showed spins and some lead changes. The problem was that this was not a rundown of who was where and how they got there. Once the racebreak was over, the silent ticker at the top of the screen was the only thing telling the whole story of the race.

Fans once again had to migrate to the radio broadcast to get a rundown of the field and the progress of the teams outside of the top ten. Just like Fox used to struggle with covering the final lap, this season rundowns of the field are just nonexistent.

With many top teams a lap down or more, the Fox production team kept the focus on the leaders and brought the telecast home with another good wideshot of the finish line. Luckily, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson provided some action in the final laps.

Post-race interviews told the story of the race and it appeared that all concerned were ready to get to Texas and get back up to speed. Two short track races are done and while Martinsville may reflect the past, it certainly did not deliver the kind of energy that NASCAR has created with the larger tracks that dominate the season.

TDP welcomes comments from readers. Just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting.

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