Sunday, November 16, 2014

ESPN Implodes at Daytona

Update: Originally published on 2/18/07

It had all the essential ingredients. Brent Musburger was at the host position, Chris Fowler was on the set, and Brad Daugherty was on-hand to provide the commentary. There was only one problem. This was not Chapel Hill, Providence, or Georgetown. This was Daytona, and no one was playing college basketball. Apparently, this was not a problem for ESPN.

The network decided to move its successful Gameday franchise to Daytona, instead of investing in an original NASCAR-based concept like Raceday on SPEED or the Hollywood Hotel on Fox Sports. ESPN was clearly declaring that the story of Daytona this year was that ESPN had arrived, and then there might be some racing, some cheating, and a whole lot of "good old boys."

Brent Musburger in the NASCAR Fan Zone looked like Rush Limbaugh at a ACLU Meeting. There were no fans in sight, just Brent in his big hat looking as uncomfortable and out-of-place as it is possible for a human being to be. His unfamiliarity with NASCAR was obvious, and his inability to speak in racing terms made his interaction with others on the program embarrassing.

For some reason, good guy Chris Fowler found himself at Daytona surrounded by the likes of Rusty Wallace, Alan Bestwick, Jerry Punch, and Andy Petree. Fowler is a professional, but eventually couldn't stop grinning and chuckling at the antics of both the drivers being interviewed, and his temporary co-host Boris Said. One had the feeling Fowler was going to call his wife later and say "I went to the NASCAR race at Daytona!"

Seeing Alan Bestwick in a firesuit as a pit reporter for ESPN can turn the stomach of any veteran NASCAR fan. Bestwick has more NASCAR knowledge than Musburger, Fowler, Daugherty, and Punch combined. Unfortunately, he has not been on College Gameday, so he is apparently unable to be featured by the network. Only Bestwick could handle a live interview with the volatile Bobby Hamilton Jr. after an incredibly weak taped tribute piece aired by the network about his father.

While strong in her host role at SPEED, Shannon Spake was over-matched in her debut at a live reporter for ESPN. Perhaps, she will gain the technical knowledge and on-air presence associated with live network television over the course of the season. Unfortunately, ESPN did not choose to use her skills in reporting stories, but limited her to brief interviews and introducing pre-produced features.

Finally, the Brad Daugherty issue has to be addressed. While certainly a pleasant and well-spoken television presence, he has little NASCAR experience. That showed in his mis-placed comments about the "danger" of the Daytona Busch Race, and the prediction of ten caution flag periods. Daugherty has never raced a car, never been a crew chief, never been a team member, and never worked as a reporter for any type of NASCAR media. So, what is his role, and why is he there? By the end of the pre-race show, his contributions were limited to thirty second comments prior to commercial. He was not used in any pre-produced features, interviewed no one, and never interacted with any fans or drivers throughout the telecast. If ESPN is going to commit to this classy gentleman as a fulltime Busch telecast regular, they need to step up to the plate and challenge him with feature assignments and interview duties.
Rusty Wallace had a year to cut his teeth on the ESPN/ABC coverage of the little watched IndyCar Series. Other than the Indy 500, Rusty was below the radar trying to analyze the action between Dario, Helio, Marco, and Kosuke. Wallace is so relieved to be back in NASCAR that nothing phases him. He was clearly annoyed with Fowler and Daugherty's amateurish comments in the pre-race show, but corrected them and finally dashed off to the place he longed to be, the broadcast booth. Wallace, with his credibility and outspoken manner, will be ESPN's saving grace during their first season back in the NASCAR world.
ESPN enjoys "feature presentations" like the over-hyped deubut of the Busch Series at Daytona. But, reality has a way of sneaking in when the season is only halfway over, its one hundred degrees, and you are in Memphis, TN. Hopefully, by then ESPN will have realized that NASCAR fans would tune in if the race was on the Lifetime Network between weepy chick flicks. The network needs to bring the content and focus that viewers have become accustomed to, and understand that NASCAR did just fine without them for the past six years.

ESPN Faces Season Six Challenge

Update: Originally published on 7/28/12

It's that time of the year once again. FOX and TNT are done with the Sprint Cup Series and now ESPN adds that coverage to the network's ongoing Nationwide Series effort. In other words, it's crunch time.

The Worldwide Leader returned to NASCAR in 2007 and quickly found that times had changed. The on-air product was just not clicking with the fan base. As a result, there have been many changes in key on-air personalities over the years. This season, former crew chief Tim Brewer has been quietly phased out and his Tech Garage has been parked.

Starting with the Brickyard 400, it will be Allen Bestwick calling the Sprint Cup Series races with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside in the TV booth. Marty Reid will step-in to call the Nationwide Series races. Once again this season Jarrett and Petree will do double-duty on both series.

Nicole Briscoe will anchor the telecasts from the infield with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. The versatile Briscoe has been co-anchoring the "NASCAR Now" news program and also working as a field reporter for ESPN since coming to the network from SPEED in 2008.

Moving Dr. Jerry Punch back to pit road from the announce booth was a solid move. It let him return to his best role as a reporter. This season Punch will be joined once again by veterans Vince Welch, Dave Burns and Jamie Little. Also working on pit road assignments will be Mike Massaro and Shannon Spake.

A welcome addition to the Brickyard 400 coverage will be Ray Evernham. Located in the infield, Evernham will provide a unique perspective that Wallace and Daugherty simply cannot. Evernham is long since removed from controversy and now can speak to a wide variety of topics as a major figure in the sport's history.

In terms of technology, ESPN's Sprint Cup Series coverage will once again use ESPN Non-Stop. That is the network's name for the split-screen commercial format shown above. During the second half of each Chase for the Championship race, the national commercials will be shown this way. That means the first seven races, starting with this weekend's coverage, will be presented in the traditional full-screen fashion.

14 of the final 17 Sprint Cup Series races will be on ESPN with the other three on ABC Saturday nights. The ESPN races will be available online through WatchESPN, but only to select ESPN cable TV subscribers. The WatchESPN service basically allows the cable network's feeds to appear on laptops, tablets and smart phones. The good news is that it makes ESPN's family of networks portable. The bad news is that not all cable companies offer it.

While ESPN did not update this information, all 14 of the ESPN Sprint Cup Series races as well as the Nationwide Series events will have the online RaceBuddy located at the website. This property is managed by Turner Sports, so ESPN chooses not to include it in any media materials about NASCAR.

Just like last season, the transition between the tech-heavy TNT and the traditional ESPN coverage should be a tad rough. Hopefully, this weekend RaceBuddy will be aided by the fact that both MRN and PRN radio networks stream every Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series race online for free. Unfortunately, those things cannot help with the biggest TV issue of the season.

The amount of TV commercials shown in Sprint Cup Series races has not changed, but the expectations of the fan base certainly have. Now informed by social media, fans are acutely aware of just how much race content and information is being swept aside during commercial breaks. The tipping point was the TNT race from Kentucky, where one-third of the racing was covered by what seemed to be the same three or four commercials.

In the ultimate irony, TNT then presented the Daytona race without any full-screen commercials and used the "Wide Open" coverage to show the real potential of modern TV production techniques. The final TNT race from Loudon quickly restored the grim reality of what ESPN will face at Indy. That is trying to integrate commercials into a race where passing is done on pit road and long green flag runs are the order of the day.

In the past, ESPN has over-hyped the Brickyard 400 by trying to make it NASCAR's version of the Indy 500. This year, instead of the Infield Pit Studio, Briscoe and her three analysts will be sitting outside on a terrace of the famed infield Pagoda for the pre-race show.

One of the Saturday pre-race features will be reported by Katie Couric, now an ABC journalist. She will speak to part-time Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick. The topics Patrick will discuss are listed as "her transition to NASCAR, how people perceive her as a person and possible sexism she might face on a daily basis at the racetrack."

The hype of 74 cameras, a Super Slo-Mo cam for pitstops and the return of the 80 mph frontstretch "bat cam" will be over after the Brickyard. What comes next is something so familiar to fans it has become a running joke. The focus on the Chase for the Championship begins right after Indy.

For the past six years, ESPN has taken out the Chase hype stick and beat fans over the head with it for the better part of four months. We have repeatedly answered that loyal fans of one driver do not make a change if their driver is not in Chase contention. Eliminating TV coverage of these drivers simply eliminates the fans of that driver as TV viewers.

Fans of Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya want to see coverage of these drivers. All three may miss the Chase. Should that change their TV coverage? If history repeats itself, all three may not be even mentioned in an entire race telecast during the Chase unless leading the race or crashing.

The fundamental problem with NASCAR's "playoff system" is that all the teams are still out there racing. While TV tries to show the race leaders and also constantly update the Chase, the sad reality is that entire teams fall off the radar. This year those teams may be from Hendrick, Ganassi and other powerhouse players in the sport.

As it has for the last several seasons, ESPN must ultimately decide to cover the race or feature the Chase. We certainly know what that choice has been in the past and welcome your comments about ESPN returning to Sprint Cup Series coverage for season six.

ESPN Closes Tech Garage

Update: Originally published on 7/17/12

Tim Brewer was the youngest crew chief ever at Bowman Gray Stadium in his native Winston-Salem, NC. He called the shots for local driver Ernie Shaw. Brewer was 14 years old. Four years later, he became one of the youngest crew chiefs in NASCAR history when he joined the Cup Series team of a popular driver named Richard Childress.

Since 2007, younger NASCAR fans know Brewer for a very different reason. He has been stationed inside the ESPN Tech Garage at both Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races carried by the network. ESPN made a larger commitment of resources to the Nationwide Series telecasts than any network before. That included Brewer's mobile garage and a full infield studio of three on-air personalities.

When coming back into the sport, then ESPN president George Bodenheimer called the Nationwide Series a diamond in the rough. Now, during season six, that diamond seems to have lost some of its luster. The network has confirmed that Brewer's recent hiatus from the Nationwide Series coverage will be permanent.

ESPN returns to Sprint Cup Series coverage in July with the Brickyard 400. The Tech Garage will also not be part of that coverage. This year the final seventeen Cup Series races will be without Brewer on TV.

"It has been a great feature of our NASCAR coverage," said a network spokesman. "We will continue to look for places to showcase the garage where appropriate."

That means that while ESPN did not sell the Tech Garage, the unit is parked. Unfortunately this also affects more ESPN team members than just Brewer. In addition to the camera crew inside the studio, the Tech Garage also had "runners" who grabbed damaged pieces of cars during the race and brought them back for Brewer to explain.

The upside of the Tech Garage was that Brewer presented information that was custom-tailored to each race. During the pre-race show, Brewer's role made a lot of sense and he could show-off the decades of knowledge he had about the sport. His timely reminders of what could go wrong often ultimately told the tale of the race.

It was once the green flag flew that Brewer's role became convoluted. At many tracks, the live action just did not lend itself to creating an opening that made time for Brewer's updates. Often, he became a presence on the air that seemed forced. There are only so many times that tight, loose and push can be explained to the same audience.

With the significant commercial load that NASCAR's TV partners carry, there was often just no natural break to insert Brewer into the coverage. Instead, forcing him in meant missing green flag racing while a technical explanation about a part failure or team change was done. It sometimes meant missing key pitstops while an update on a relatively simple topic was repeated once again.

Brewer's insertions into the live racing became a running joke, especially if there had been no accidents, engine failures or mechanical issues on the track. The producer was once again made to use Brewer who now had no choice but to once again repeat his keys to the race or a basic NASCAR topic.

Perhaps, Brewer's personality and knowledge were used best on the now defunct one-hour Monday NASCAR Now roundtable show. Brewer got feisty at the drop of a dime, never minced his words and kept the old school racing mentality that he developed in North Carolina on display. Host Allen Bestwick clearly loved it.

One truth about sports TV is that comfortable goodbyes rarely happen. Normally, parting is awkward and rarely done under circumstances chosen by the person leaving. This seems to be the case for Brewer, who quietly went on hiatus weeks ago and now will not return for ESPN's stretch run.

His on-air look was unique from his hair to his jewelry. He made no apologies for who he was and never got flustered under fire. It's too bad he never got a TV series that could show-off his knowledge about the sport to the fans and let his personality come out as well.

So, thanks to Tim Brewer. He kept a level head and sense of humor through it all and ultimately ESPN's NASCAR coverage was better off because of his presence. As they say in TV, see you down the road.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.