Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Daily TV News Shows Come Of Age

The sports spotlight might have been on the NCAA men's basketball championship game, but NASCAR held its own Monday thanks to two very important TV series that have finally come of age.

ESPN2 has been through all kinds of changes, but has now settled into a very nice rhythm with the daily NASCAR Now program. Allen Bestwick is the usual Monday host, with Mike Massaro and Nicole Briscoe alternating weeks in the studio. All three of these "talent" also travel and report from the field.

While Bestwick was clearly the right host for the one-hour Monday show, the network was slow to figure out just who to surround him with as panelists. These three slots have been filled by a variety of ESPN analysts, NASCAR personalities and one-hit wonders like Geoff Bodine over the last few seasons.

Emerging from the wreckage has been the singular presence of Ricky Craven. This season with Ray Evernham's surprise departure, Craven has been put front-and-center on the big Monday show and on the racing weekends. He has emerged as ESPN's top NASCAR studio analyst.

Monday, Craven joined two faces that were new to the show but familiar to many NASCAR TV viewers. The network went outside of the ESPN family to sign NASCAR veterans Kenny Schrader and Johnny Benson for frequent appearances this season. The results have been wonderful.

It's been many years since Schrader and Benson shared an hour of NASCAR TV on Monday nights, but the chemistry remains. Paired with Craven and Massaro filling-in for Bestwick, the Monday show had a completely different vibe with veteran observations about the weekend combined with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor long missing from this program.

Network personalities like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty have never fit-in on this show. They are too politically correct, conflicted by personal racing interests and unable to speak their mind. While reporters like Marty Smith and Ryan McGee are media professionals, the perspective they bring is that of a journalist.

It should be very interesting to watch the informal styles of Schrader and Benson influence the show as the season moves forward. Earlier on Monday, Schrader appeared on ESPN's flagship SportsCenter show. He was paired with a news anchor who had absolutely no idea about NASCAR.

Schrader's patience and sense of humor served him well once again as he made all the relevant points and analyzed the action. Perhaps, after five years of constantly struggling to get NASCAR content onto other ESPN programs, the secret all along was to use a 55 year-old veteran driver from Fenton, Missouri.

NASCAR Now has Schrader, Craven and McGee next Monday with Bestwick returning to host. Massaro hosts the weekday shows while Briscoe travels to Texas as a reporter. After some early stops and starts, this series is now a must see for NASCAR fans throughout the season.

It took SPEED several years of being challenged before the network stopped protesting and embraced the concept of a Monday through Thursday show to fill the gap left between programming from the race tracks. The resulting series is RaceHub.

After trying to rotate various on-air talent through the host position, it became rather clear that in order to validate the series there had to be a full time host. Steve Byrnes got the call and made a big professional and personal decision to head into the studio.

The next suggestions included increasing the programs to an hour in length and finding a reporter who could work the NASCAR shop beat full time. SPEED made the decision to do both this season, hiring relatively unknown local sports reporter Danielle Trotta and setting the show times at 7PM ET. Both moves had surprising results.

Trotta has been a natural at speaking to drivers, crew chiefs and owners. She has developed a friendly style that still gets plenty of information and opinion from her interview subjects. Using SPEED's Charlotte, NC location to full advantage, Trotta is usually the only national TV reporter in the shops on Mondays.

Byrnes has embraced the one-hour format, regularly bringing various SPEED and FOX analysts into the studio for updates on topics and issues. Chad Knaus is also a favorite of Byrnes and he appeared on the program Monday.

It's easy to overlook the decades of experience Byrnes has under his belt. He does not call attention to himself and his humor is self-effacing. His true gift is interviewing subjects who are not very polished on TV. From young drivers like 18 year-old Johanna Long to Hall of Famers like 79 year-old Junior Johnson, Byrnes listens first and then asks the right questions.

The executives at SPEED have continued to keep Jimmy Spencer on RaceHub, constantly tinkering with his act. Although not a very convincing leprechaun, Spencer is best when he is answering viewer feedback and interacting directly with the fan base. It should be interesting to see what the new management at SPEED ultimately does with Mr. Excitement.

On Tuesday, RaceHub has Martinsville truck series winner Johnny Sauter and his crew chief Joe Shear in studio. Matt Kenseth will also be interviewed. There will be a recap of the K&N East Series race from Greenville-Pickens Speedway and Ray Dunlap will update the issues surrounding Rick Ware Racing, including the strange dust-up with driver Jeffrey Earnhardt.

We invite your opinions on these two television programs. To add your comment, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.


Anonymous said...

Still NOT liking Danielle Trotta ... If I know she's hosting, I won't watch "The Hub" ... If I hear her being introduced for a segment, I change the channel ... She softballs the questions and her lack of true knowledge is obvious ...

JD - You've got Cup Happy Hour practice on your tv schedule for Friday, but SPEED has Barrett-Jackson on THEIR tv schedule ...

Why isn't Disney using ESPN to air the Nationwide practices on Friday morning ??? FOUR practices and NONE are going to be on tv ?!?!?!?

Time for NASCAR to give some of Disney's contract to Versus ...

GinaV24 said...

These programs took a while for both ESPN and Speed to get right, but they certainly have done it now.

I really enjoy AB as always and with Craven, Schrader & Benson, it is just a great mix. I have always admired Schrader. I bought his book, Gotta Race, and it is an absolutely fabulous read.

As you said, Steve Byrnes is really really good at his job. RaceHub has become my go to program to keep up with the news about the sports. Steve's ability to do the human interest stories that give those of us who are fans a glimpse into who the people he's talking to really are is awesome.

I wasn't sure about Danielle - I really thought she was going to be the token "pretty girl" (my bad), but she has impressed me and I enjoy the interviews and segments that she does as well.

Spencer can sometimes rub me the wrong way, but then he'll surprise me with some really pithy comment and well, that's OK.

Stick with the Biff said...

Gina, I agree, I think Danielle has abeen a pleasant surprise. Everyone has to start somewhere, and finding a person who already has racing knowledge plus on air experience is probably a rarity (Wendy Venturini, for example.) So you find someone good on air and let them learn. I don't expect 'hardball' questions on a feature show like Racehub. Racers have shown that if they are treated like that they simply stop cooperating.

I'm still lukewarm on Jimmy Spencer, but I'll admit I'm hoping JJ gets the crying towel over his speeding penalty.

Anonymous said...

I feel that JD made some excellent points. AB is the only host on NN that I enjoy. Schrader has done a good job on NN so far this year. I don't go way back with Ken as an analyst as many Planeteers do. I wasn't the least bit impressed with Ken the last two years he was on Twin where he would just joke around with Mikey and add absolutely nothing to the topic being discussed. When Danielle joined the Hub, my expectations were very low. Since then, I've watched her grow and mature. She's got a really nice touch in dealing with some prickly personalities and egos much like Wendy does. Danielle is all I was hoping Nicole would become, but hasn't in my opinion. Since joining the Hub, I think Steve Byrnes is much more focused then he was on Twin. On Twin, Mikey would suck Steve into a bunch of side topics that the viewer was completely oblivious to. I've come to really enjoy Spencer's 'pearls of wisdom'. He tells it like it is which is refreshing in this world of PC.

w17scott said...

Mr Editor -
Always a treat to have Schrader and Benson together - a good fit with ringmaster Allen Bestwick...Craven adds knowledgeable comments to mesh well with the group ...Steve Byrnes makes RaceHub a worthy watch ...both programs benefitting from 'chemistry' that works ...kudos to ESPN and SPEED (FOX) for taking steps to keep current fans and bring new ones on board

Rowdy123 said...

I have to admit, Jimmy Spencer is starting to grow on me. His spots are personable and interesting. I guess we'll see how it continues to evolve though.

GinaV24 said...

@stickwiththebiff -- LOL, re: Johnson, yeah, me too. For a 5X 10 trophy champion, he always has an excuse when things don't go his way.

Obviously being gracious isn't part of his ego trip.

Jack in DC said...

This is a good time to be a race fan. Like when Totally NASCAR an RPM2Night were both on. My fave combo so far on NASCAR Now Mondays is Bestwick, Craven, Schrader, McGee. I like the joutnalist's take. JD, totally agree that Ricky has become the best. Spencer is a stooge. Love the blog.

BVinsight said...

As being a NASCAR fan for almost two decades now, I like what see right now on-track.

But that means that the off-track coverages needs to be just as good.

I really still don't care for NASCAR now on ESPN simply because they haven't set a real slot yet and I think they make too much out of all the stories. Case in point, the way they handled Jennifer Jo Cobbs "Start and Park" deal. It was an insult to her, she deserved better.

But I do DVR every night (mon-thurs) SPEED's RaceHub. The 7pm timeslot works, its the same everynight, the on-air people work well together and they worked in Jimmy Spencer. I might not see eye to eye with him all the time, but he at least tells it like it is.

And I really like Danielle Trotta. She is able to the information out of the interviews with drivers, crew chiefs, owners and more and it works. She keeps the fans well informed.

Hopefully SPEED continues with what they have RaceHub on week days and the SPEED center on weekends, I really enjoy the SPEED centers a few times on the weekend.

Maybe ESPN should get a clue and change to RPM2nite type show and include NASCAR, IRL, ALMS, Grand-am, NHRA and more, because speed is beating them hands-down, but keep the NASCAR round-table show. It would be better overall too.

Allison J said...

Ricky Craven has definitely worked his way into my brain and now I find him the best of the NN bunch. Seeing Kenny Schrader on last night? OUTSTANDING.

Now tonight's NN with Mike M ... not so good. Thought that the Steve L. interview was awkward, beyond the insane signal delay between the two of them.

As far as Jimmy Spencer goes, I'll follow him anywhere.

Vicky D said...

I love Spencer's crying towel we laugh and laugh at his antics! I miss Randy LaJoie on ESPN but hopefully Speed will have Randy on more often.

Justin said...

Jimmy Spencer's crying towel antics actually make me laugh out loud while watching TV!

Both shows are quite interesting with differing approaches to coverage of NASCAR.

NASCAR Now stays true to ESPN's professionalism which suits a thirty minute time slot for news and analysis. The show would benfit from a consistent time slot, preferably pushed back to 6 pm or 6:30 pm. A consistent host would also be quite beneficial for the show as well. ESPN puts quality people in the host chair, with Allen Bestwick being the best, but a consistent face would strengthen the show.

RaceHub takes a more informal approach to its NASCAR coverage which suits an hour-long program that takes time for in-depth interviews and personal stories.

I imagine most typical NASCAR fans prefer the RaceHub informal approach, allowing one to feel more connected to the sport than simply being a spectator. In this regard, I would encourage NASCAR Now to really embrace its approach as a divergent path from RaceHub.

NASCAR Now should concentrate on hard news with more journalistic analysis. Furthermore, the show should pursue hard-hitting interviews that will challenge its guests and not be afraid to critically analyze the sport.

Dannyboy said...

John I absolutely agree with your sentiments about the two shows. Whereas a few yrs ago Speed's "Inside" show was far and away the better show, ESPN has finally hit on a formula and cast for NASCAR Now that really works. Ricky Craven was the ONLY reason I used to watch NN, or maybe if Randy LaJoie was on too. Even though wearing a suit and tie might be choking some of Schrader's wry humor that I grew so fond of on the "Mikey" show (Schrader's words), he and Johnny make a huge difference to NN. This week Mike Massaro did such a good job of filling in, I almost didn't miss Bestwick. Almost ;-)

Dannyboy said...

As for The Hub, Monday's show gave me some insights on Martinsville that NN didn't, so kudos to them. I don't usually feel this way about Hub, and it is not "must-see" TV for me - unless Mongo a/k/a Mr E is on. Love Spence's schtick.

One critique: Byrnes teased an appearance by Chad Knaus to talk about the speeding ticket Jimmie whined about. Big FAIL as far as I'm concerned: Chad sloughed it off with, "As long as NASCAR won't publish the times, we can't really say what happened." In other words, "I know JJ is full of it so I'll make up any excuse so as not to show him up."

Hotdogger said...

So glad to hear Schrader and Benson are coming onboard. Just needs Mikey to complete the fun. Inside Winston Cup with those 3 guys and Allen Bestwick was some of the best TV possible.