Tuesday, February 8, 2011

ESPN2 And SPEED Face-Off In Studio (Updated)

Update: Did you watch the two shows? What did you think? Leaving this post up for one more day for your comments on NASCAR Now and Race Hub.

It's been a long time coming, but NASCAR finally has two healthy and credible studio news shows comitted to a full ten months of TV coverage. This season, NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and Race Hub on SPEED may play a key role in helping the sport regain its footing.

The story is a classic. ESPN was lost in the woods with its NASCAR studio show until Allen Bestwick stopped by one day and the rest is history. Click here for that story from a while back. NASCAR Now got itself sorted out and was the first to become a valuable TV conduit for the fan base.

All along ESPN had good reporters and contributors in the field. The problem was the personalities in the studio. Hype, incompetence and ego made the early shows laughable. Now, a tight trio of Mike Massaro, Nicole Briscoe and Bestwick offer familiar faces and a straightforward approach to NASCAR topics.

Last season, Shannon Spake was among the pinch-hitters in the host role and showed her versatility. Veteran fans may remember her from earlier hosting roles with SPEED. Even Marty Smith was pressed into service for vacation relief and managed to depart the mothership with no damage done.

This year Bestwick's influence is greater than ever on this series. Last week ESPN announced that Johnny Benson and Kenny Schrader would be frequent panelists on Bestwick's flagship one-hour Monday roundtable version of the show. Combined with outstanding studio analyst Ricky Craven, Bestwick may now have the top studio team on TV.

Monday nights with Bestwick, Schrader, Benson and Michael Waltrip were mandatory viewing for many fans as SpeedVision and then SPEED carried a NASCAR talk show under several titles for years. With Waltrip off doing Inside NASCAR for Showtime, Craven is about to have a very interesting season of Mondays.

There are two fundamental drawbacks to NASCAR Now that ESPN is unable or unwilling to solve. First, the show is on at 5PM Eastern Time and then re-airs at various times for West Coast viewers. We often refer to this timeslot as "DVR Theater" because most East Coast workers are not yet home and the overnight re-air is too late for both the Eastern and Central Time Zones. Bottom line, it's tough to catch sometimes.

Secondly, the show is preempted for everything from Little League baseball to ladies tennis. Fans joked that ESPN stood for Ever Seeking to Preempt NASCAR. Click here for the ultimate insult that happened last season. It was jaw-dropping for fans and brushed off by the network.

In order for ESPN to save its own NASCAR efforts, the move for NASCAR Now when preempted has to be to ESPNEWS. At 5PM, ESPNEWS is mostly bored announcers who have shown last night's stick-and-ball highlights endlessly and are now just waiting for the 7:30PM scheduled games to begin.

This move is done by ESPN for in-house branded shows when there is a conflict, but has never been done for NASCAR in the four seasons of ESPN's participation in the sport. Now is the time for ESPN's Julie Sobieski to make her case to the senior programmers and get NASCAR Now on the schedule on the weekdays throughout the season.

Things are shaking at SPEED as new management is changing the programming and production sides of the network once again. This has to be at least the fifth or sixth major overhaul of this network in the last ten years. This time, FOX's David Hill and veteran TV executive Patti Wheeler are calling the shots.

Race Hub was one of the first to feel the effects. Steve Byrnes was brought off the road and installed as the fulltime host of this Monday through Thursday program. Byrnes kept his FOX pit reporting gig, so the first several months of the season are going to be quite busy while Byrnes works on both assignments.

Byrnes has been just what the doctor ordered for Race Hub. The show is now one-hour long and that means good opportunities for longer-form interviews, analysis and conversations. It had paid off in a huge way for SPEED.

Leveraging the North Charlotte location of the SPEED studios, Race Hub has become a destination for drivers, owners and personalities seeking to update information, make announcements or simply respond to an interview request. It takes someone with the lengthy and diverse experience of Byrnes to handle the challenge.

SPEED hired reporter Danielle Trotta full time and assigned her to the show. She clicked from the start and has been the surprise of the new format. Moving between the NASCAR shops and facilities in the greater Mooresville area, Trotta has fit right in with the good-natured but frank approach to discussing topics in the news.

While it is clear that Race Hub is being used to reinforce the NASCAR on FOX brand, viewers need a break from Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds on the weekdays. As the producers continue to tinker with the format, perhaps making area journalists a regular part of the show would lessen the feel that this is an in-house effort.

Jimmy Spencer continues to struggle on this program, now fully immersed in the cartoon image of himself he has created. Spencer deserves to be on the main set, interviewed as an analyst and taken out of his demeaning attire. If he is being paid to play, let him play with the big boys or go home.

Both Race Hub and NASCAR Now have embraced social media with active Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. The shows often take fan questions for guests in advance of show tapings and fan feedback has resulted in change. This ability for any fan to speak directly with Bestwick, Massaro, Byrnes or Trotta makes both shows score high on the interactivity meter.

ESPN has a suit and tie dresscode that is not going to change. The formal on-air look is now part of the Bristol, CT culture despite the fact it does not fall in line with the NASCAR fan base in any way. Polo shirts or long-sleeve oxfords would be a simple change for NASCAR Now that might make a big difference for some TV viewers.

Byrnes and friends are casual on the air, but Race Hub has come a very long way from the early days when a bunch of tired middle-aged men in acid washed jeans stood around a workbench in the studio to offer race analysis. SPEED has always had issues with building working sets, but Race Hub seems to have settled right in to the current design.

Monday on ESPN2 it will be Mike Massaro leading NASCAR Now back on the air with a 5PM show for thirty minutes. The one-hour roundtables with Bestwick do not start until the following week. Race Hub has been on the air for several weeks now and on Thursday at 7PM will feature a look at NASCAR's media day from Daytona.

It's certainly nice to have a slice of the NASCAR TV pie all squared away. Now fans have a daily choice for news, highlights and interviews between two of NASCAR's official media partners. The schedules, including any guest information provided, are on the left side of the main page.

Thanks for stopping by, we welcome your opinion on this topic. To add your comments, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting.


Chadderbox said...

Thanks for the great updates! I will have to DVR ESPN's Nascar Now again show this season. 5pm is too early for this show.

Anonymous said...

As usual. JD is right on the money. The quality of Nascar Now and Race Hub should improve as we go through the season. I agree about the staleness of Larry Mac,DW, Hammond, Rusty and others where they are like an old couple who can finish each others sentances. Often, I know what they're going to say before they say to include the little quips about how the minnow pond influenced the shape of an old track. I was skeptical when Danielle Trotta came onto the scene given her background. What a pleasant surprise. She just gets better with each show and has done an outstanding job. As an aside, I was really impressed last night with the quality of the camera work and the self discipline of the guys in the booth calling the football game. Nascar could learn a lot from the coverage of the Super Bowl.

GinaV24 said...

As you pointed out, the biggest issue I have with Nascar Now is the timeslot AND the seemingly constant pre-emptions. I don't get home in time to see it live and last year I gave up "chasing" it around when more often than not, I'd come home to find I had recorded something I wasn't interested in.

I really like AB and the addition of Schrader & Benson make me want to watch, but I'm not going to go crazy - ESPN has to decide if they really want NASCAR fans to tune in during the week or not.

With Steve on RaceHub, I have thoroughly enjoyed the show and its on the same time on the schedule every day! What a concept!
Plus, on RaceHub, I like what Hammond in particular has to offer with regard to the technical issues about the race car. there's time for that on the program rather than on race day.
I do agree that it would be nice to have some different perspectives, than just the usual Fox crew, on the show.

Danielle has done a nice job. I didn't expect to like her - figured she was just going to be there for looks, but she's done some really nice interviews.

51 yr. fan said...

I was disappointed reading the
ESPN press release on Jayski.
Schrader and Benson were listed
at the end as almost an after
thought. ESPN is still hyping
Rusty and Brad although most
fans are tired of their hand-waving

Speed is trying make a Mikey clown
clone of Spencer. Hopefully he
will take his show on the road also. Way, way down the road.

LVI56 said...

Great move for ESPN to get Benson and Schrader in studio. I still hope they change it up through the season doing a "writers show" where the Nascar writers come in to offer their thoughts. I like the sort of professionalism that ESPN wants to maintain, nice difference from the Fox bunch, and Allen Bestwick is just outstanding in every way.

For me, the choice is easy, I can't afford Speed, so I can't watch the Hub.

glenc1 said...

I will now hopefully mostly be home by 5, looking foward to that. Glad they're not on against each other.

And just to say thanks to JD for keeping the TV schedule on the front page--it makes it easy to check there and know what's going to be on without looking a hundred places.

Vicky D said...

Good column as always, JD. As long as we know when the show is going to air, it'll be ok but moving the broadcast times around confuses me too much and our DVR can't keep up. I still wish ESPN would add Randy on the panel, he's probably one of the few who don't mind flying up to Connecticut to do the show. I also like Byrnes on Hub think that was a great addition and I like Danielle a lot too. Well we'll see this week, I guess!

Ken-Michigan said...

Looks like I am one of the very few, possibly the only one, who is surprised at the addition of Johnny Benson on ESPN.

Never thought he added much personality or insight when he was on IWC.

His addition to NASCAR NOW does not make it a "must see" on my racing menu.

Anonymous said...

Amen to JD and all the comments. I stand corrected that RH is not all fluff, but I can not say they give a "frank approach to discussing topics in the news." MC

Sophia said...

Um,what's the deal with an ALL BLACK background set. Looks creepy like they are in a dungeon.
All that's missing is a black light. Very distracting the set on this. ...(What's new right? Who gets paid to design these sets)

Was prepping dinner so only half paid attention. Still, it was nice to see MM hosting the show again & getting some updates I'd missed :)

Now if they could just LIGHTEN up the background. Mama Mia !

Gary said...

Rusty is going to need some PR help, I feel. Today in the news, one of his drivers was arrested this past weekend for DUI @ 4x legal limit, and Consumer Reports
(or a similar non-profit) skewered the claims and cost of 5-hour energy stuff.

Tracy D said...

I lost all respect for Larry Mac when he decided he didn't tell Dustin Long what he said, and then got all indignant at Long when it was clear he (LM) was going to get in trouble for being honest. Stand by what you said, man, or keep your mouth shut. Tired of him on TV, that's for sure. And this is from someone who respected him greatly.

Liking the way Hub is getting the tough interviews: Mayfield, Scott Speed, even the King discussing last season's financial debacle.

Dot said...

JD or Planeteers, I need some help. Did they cut the show off early today? When they came back from the final comml, Mike Massaro seemed kind of lost.

I had other things on my mind today while watching. Mike M told DJ to stick around. I can't remember if they showed him again or not.

Another question. Is NN a live show? My DVR asks me if I want to extend the time for "this live event"? I didn't think anything on BSPN was live unless it's a race.

Thanks guys. xoxo

racingfool said...

Tracy D about you comment on LM...
Crew Chiefs have always had to be a little slippery to go up the Team's ladders and then back down. Half of their game is the gift of gab. The other 50% is both team management, and knowledge of a race car.
You know what they say:
"What do you call a Crew Chief looking for a job?"
Answer- an announcer!

NorCalFan said...

With the addition of Schrader and Benson to NASCAR Now Monday nights, I will DVR and give it a test run. I like Danielle Trotta's no-fluff interviews on the Hub. She's not afraid to ask tough questions. Interesting that last week the Hub announced Scott Speed's interview would be Monday and today it was pushed to Tuesday. Maybe with Speed's pending litigation against Red Bull, scrutiny played a role in the delay.

Slightly off topic, I had to laugh at the Super Bowl's National Anthem debacle yesterday. At least Nascar isn't the only sport that has singers who flub the lyrics and/or try to make the song "their own" but with a viewing audience of 111 million people, the NFL should have made a better choice. IMO, Christine Aguilera's embellished "version" was both painful and embarassing to listen to.

Anonymous said...

I still can't believe anyone cares what they're wearing. Honestly, isn't it supposed to be about the quality of what they discuss, not the cosmetics of it all? I see nothing wrong with people dressing like professionals.

Vicky D said...

NorCalFan, I agree completely with you about the Super Bowl National Anthem. If the NFL can't find someone to sing the song without messing up the lyrics or doing their own swing on it, what is Nascar going to do? I was disappointed with NN I forgot to dvr, I came home and put it on, and it was off the air before I realized it. Sad about Rusty's driver, but it has happened before to other drivers and nothing has happened to them. I liked Hub maybe next week, they'll get the kinks out of the broadcasts!

GinaV24 said...

I caught RaceHub but I forgot the set the DVR for Nascar Now so I can't compare the 2 show.

Anonymous said...


I have a friend over at Fox. He says the prerace show is going to have a new producer after the Daytona 500. Have you heard any of this?

Newracefan said...

Watched both, like both but.... First off I just started to laugh at NN because the first 10 minutes or what ever were all about the 48. When comparing that with the opening for the first Hub too funny. Don't get me wrong I missed Chad and JJ and wanted some explanation about the whole pit crew set up for this season but it still made me laugh. NN also seemed behind because we already got this info some time back from Speed and RH. Like getting the different crew chiefs and drivers right in the studio; Johanna Long anybody, this won't happen in Bristol because they sure aren't flying her up there. She can drive herself to the RH set.
I can not wait for the Round table with AB, JB, and Schrader; can't remember if I've ever seen Schrader in a tie so that alone will be fun to watch. NN annoyed me with no end of season round table, basically after the light went out in Homestead that was it Nascar didn't exist and then they start too late and seem behind. Will continue to watch but it will be DVR roulette again I suppose if it gets bumped or delayed I'll miss it because I'm not putting a 2-3 hour window on it just in case it got shifted except maybe that first round table. Right now Speed is winning but won't guarantee it stays that way.

AncientRacer said...


I forgot too, but was embarrassed to say. Thanks.

In other TMZ Racing news: on the Hub last night Danielle was in-studio and though she is cute and doing a good job high heels just do not love her s much as they love Krista Voda. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the comments and JD was spot on as usual. However, if you think NN is pushed around, you should see what ESPN does to the NHRA telecasts - they just about get pre-empted by infomercials!

Anonymous said...

anybody else notice chad's additional hair plugs? he seems to get a little more each off season. Maybe planing for his tv career?

Anonymous said...

I started watching NN, but it is not for me. I want more of a news show. Will still try to watch Monday with AB. MC

rich said...

Really thought that Dr. Jerry did a great job with the 4 wide feature. Rest of the show was somewhat dated. Playing catch up

Anonymous said...

I figured this would be an appropriate question on the ESPN/Speed post ... It says on NASCAR.com that SPEED is televising one Nationwide race this year, in April. Does that mean it's with the FOX/Speed announce team and production crew, or does the deal allow ESPN to just televise their broadcast on SPEED, like they've done in the past?