Monday, July 19, 2010

ESPN Hopes Fourth Time Is The Charm

It has been a long three years for ESPN where the Sprint Cup Series is concerned. The network stepped into the sport back in 2007 with tons of hype and Brent Musburger at the helm. "You are looking live" did not ring a bell with NASCAR fans and Musburger shuffled off quietly.

This year at Indy, ESPN is hoping the fourth time is the charm. Motorsports veteran Marty Reid has been tapped to lead the network through the final seventeen races of the season, including The Chase for the Championship. Dr. Jerry Punch has returned to pit road after three seasons in the play-by-play role.

Reid will be joined down the stretch by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the TV booth. These two analysts work quite well together and Reid might be the right person to make them click when the pressure is on. This season, the pressure is on in more ways than one.

Last year at this time, ESPN began to hit fans over the head with the Jimmie Johnson stick. By the time the final Chase races rolled around, it was an adoration society complete with slow-motion replays of Johnson's pit stops and stats on each lug nut.

The fan backlash against Johnson was amazing and due in no small part to ESPN's decision to make the world revolve around his every move. At the same time, the network had a real problem. NASCAR was asking one TV telecast to cover three separate agendas.

Click here to read "TV's Rock and a Hard Place" from November of last year. Here is an excerpt:

First, NASCAR fans across the nation are sitting in front of the TV and waiting to see their favorite driver. It does not matter where he is running, how he is running or if he made the Chase. Fans of a certain driver want to see that driver on TV, period.

Secondly, the actual race is underway and the dynamic of the fastest car is being played-out at the front of the pack. There is a story unfolding about who can win the race and who hopes to challenge before the day is over. That has to be followed.

Finally, NASCAR created a playoff points system that demands that 12 cars be treated differently by ESPN for one simple reason. Those cars are now the only 12 that can possibly win the season championship. NASCAR has added a third storyline that trumps the first two and skews the final ten races for many fans.

In many ways, it's a no win. Our suggestion since 2007 has been to simply cover the races as usual and let the points get tallied up at the end. How else can ESPN hope to serve three very different masters?

Reid has shown himself to be independent of the "happy talk" that NASCAR encouraged this season. He has called out the start-and-park cars in each Nationwide Series race and often puts his analysts and pit reporters on the spot where controversial issues are concerned. This is exactly what the sport needs right now.

There is little doubt that ESPN was shaken-up after another tough Sprint Cup Series run last season. This year, fans are coming off a tech-friendly TNT that offered live online video for every race and had reporters Tweeting with fans during the races. ESPN has no online applications other than a scoreboard. Social media plans are still sketchy.

The final TNT race was so loaded with commercials it was almost impossible to watch. Reporter Jeff Gluck's experience of watching this race at home was chronicled in his now infamous "Writer Discovers Unwatchable TV Broadcast" column. Click here to read it.

The good news is that this ESPN crew has been working together on the Nationwide Series races since February. The telecasts have been looking and sounding good. Reid is a feisty leader and the rest of the team feeds off his energy. There is, however, another key element to ESPN turning things around. His name is Allen Bestwick.

This season, Bestwick will not have to deal with the unfortunate circumstance of Punch being in the booth. Bestwick's anchoring from the Infield Pit Studio will be part of an overall exciting telecast. That has never happened in three years.

Bestwick and Reid are going to be the best one-two punch ESPN has ever put on the Sprint Cup Series races. To his credit, Punch landed on his feet and has been working hard on pit road. It might be that the pieces of this puzzle are finally in the right places.

ESPN is in the NASCAR game until 2014. So far, it's been a mixed blessing of exposure for the sport tempered by some very different approaches to televising the actual racing. This season's economic woes and low television ratings promise to bring even more pressure to bear on this very expensive sports property.

Where are you on this issue? Optimistic that new blood will bring positive change or resigned to being hit over the head by the Chase for seventeen weeks?

To add your comments on this topic, just click the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

NASCAR's Online Dilemma

The numbers this summer told the tale. Use of the RaceBuddy online application offered by Turner Sports through the website was off the charts. What started out as four camera angles and some team scanners has become a phenomenon.

Each of the six TNT summer telecasts offered fans an opportunity to expand their view of the actual races. One in-car camera, a fulltime view of pit road, a dedicated camera following the best battles on the track and a final stream switching between aerial views, speed shots and pit reporter updates comprised the RaceBuddy offering.

Then, the Turner guys added a new twist. In the past, RaceBuddy was something you watched online in addition to the race on TV. It was something extra. This year, the actual call of the race from the TNT announcers was added. This meant that for the first time in the history of NASCAR, fans could turn off the TV and watch the entire race with commentary online.

As the six races began to slide by, fans using RaceBuddy alone to watch the race discovered another huge bonus. No commercial breaks. While short sponsor messages popped-up when fans changed video streams, the TV ads did not travel to the online world. It was now easy to watch an entire race from a brand new perspective.

Wherever a laptop computer could travel, RaceBuddy traveled with it. Fans wrote that their world changed due to the fact they no longer had to be positioned in front of the TV set for four hours. Suddenly, laptops were open on Sunday in the workplace, at the pool and on the road.

One hilarious email was from a police officer who said most of his guys were watching NASCAR on the laptops in the patrol cars. People kept walking up and asking them how they were doing that. NASCAR content was now able to travel away from the TV set and out into the world.

In less than two weeks, ESPN begins coverage of the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races of the season. Currently, there are no plans to offer any online support for these telecasts. Despite the fact that the technology exists, neither Turner, NASCAR or ESPN is making RaceBuddy a priority down the stretch.

The only option that exists is to make the actual feed of the ESPN races available online. ESPN3 is an online service recently launched to provide additional opportunities for sports fans to see content when they are away from the TV. Even as a simple first step, streaming the ESPN races online with commercials would allow fans to choose to watch online or on TV.

The bottom line is that NASCAR has three Sprint Cup Series TV partners that each have their own network agenda. FOX's David Hill said there would be no streaming of races to protect the local FOX TV stations. That makes little sense, as those who watch online are mostly physically away from a TV. They simply want an alternative.

As most TDP readers know, NASCAR sold the online rights to the sport to Turner Interactive years ago in a contract that has a long time to run. Nothing can happen without Turner's blessing and that normally involves money changing hands. The results have been no online video applications other than RaceBuddy for the past four years.

In less than two weeks, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series will begin the stretch run. These final seventeen races will be less of a valuable product, especially to younger fans, without any online streaming. Simply turning off the online availability after giving it to fans for the past six races is not going to have a good result.

Should anything change on this issue before Indy, we will pass the information along. In the meantime, we welcome your opinion about the online issues confronting the sport and your use of RaceBuddy over the last six races.

To add your comments, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

Big Monday For NASCAR TV Shows

It was supposed to be a quiet Monday in NASCAR TV land. After an off-week for the Sprint Cup Series, both ESPN2's NASCAR Now and SPEED's Race Hub were planning a brief review of the Nationwide and Truck Series races before zooming-in on the big weekend approaching in Indianapolis. Saturday night changed those plans.

The final lap of the Nationwide Series race opened a debate that started in Daytona and has grown in volume with every racing weekend. NASCAR opened the door to aggressive driving and now they may have created a monster.

Up first is the anchor show for ESPN at 5PM ET with no re-air. The one-hour Monday version of NASCAR Now has grown in popularity over the last two years. This is in no small part due to the hard work of Allen Bestwick. He took this show over and gave it the credibility it had been lacking.

This week, the versatile Mike Massaro is hosting. Massaro was actually at Gateway on Saturday night working as a pit reporter. He has some first-hand observations about the aftermath of the Nationwide Series race.

This is a reporter roundtable edition of NASCAR Now. Nate Ryan from USA Today, Bob Pockrass from Scene Daily and David Newton from ESPN will be on the panel.

Click here to read the Pockrass story suggesting Edwards should get fined for his actions. Click here to read Ryan's story about the same incident in which he offers no opinion but his readers certainly do.

Newton has been an interesting presence on the NASCAR scene. His Twitter comments after the Saturday night race offered two good points. One, Edwards should remember that Keselowski has nothing to lose in the Sprint Cup Series this season in terms of paybacks. Two, that NASCAR continuing to let this build could have serious consequences once The Chase is underway.

This promises to be a fast-paced hour full of good conversation. ESPN continues to be very formal on the air, with no viewer feedback except for a contrived poll with sometimes hilarious questions. No social media contingent to this program at all.

SPEED has been trying to get up and rolling with a one-hour 7PM version of Race Hub. Things have been uneven to say the least. From "More than a mouthful Mondays' to Miss Sprint Cup reading driver tweets on the air, this show needs a lot more real content and a lot less fluff.

Thankfully, one of SPEED's top studio hosts Krista Voda is back on Monday. Reporter Danielle Trotta returns with a JGR visit and fresh off his Legends Million experience driver David Ragan stops by the studio.

Voda needs some support in terms of dealing with the clash on Saturday night and the larger issue of letting violence in NASCAR escalate. This is one of those days where NASCAR should provide an executive to answer fan questions in the studio and deal with the issues head-on. So far, the sanctioning body has failed to answer this call.

Fans have seen the race highlights many times by Monday night and the new Race Hub has been slowly falling back into the old trap of repeating them again. The content of this show needs to come from fresh interviews, fan feedback and in-studio experts.

The challenge for SPEED is to step-away from their reputation in-studio as NASCAR's unofficial marketing and public relations arm and develop an identity for the network and this series. This show is not produced by The NASCAR Media Group and is an opportunity for the network to create it's own brand.

It should be interesting to watch two TV networks cover much of the same ground in very different ways. The suits and ties of ESPN vs. the casual look and feel of SPEED always makes for an interesting comparison.

We will use this post to offer comments before, during and after the two Monday TV shows. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.