Wednesday, February 14, 2007

ESPN: NASCAR Now with Chris Fowler

ESPN made the mistake of bringing in Chris Fowler to Daytona in the middle of the biggest breaking news story in some time. Regular host Erik Kuselias was nowhere in sight, and Fowler was clearly not a favorite of analyst Rusty Wallace. Barely hiding his disgust for Fowler's lack of racing knowledge, Rusty took it upon himself to correct and disagree with Fowler several times in the first segment of the program alone. Poor Boris Said, also on the set, was put in the position of peacemaker.

ESPN was clearly struggling with the on-going multiple suspension and fines stories, but Shannon Spake worked hard to relay as much information as possible when updating viewers on the Team Evernham problems. Kudos to Rusty Wallace for taking a critical view of NASCAR's penalties against Evernham. The death penalty for a speeding ticket, he remarked.
Fowler seemed amused by all this, chuckling openly about the "good old boys" and how they cheat. I felt at any moment he might update us on Ole Miss or the Crimson Tide, but he clearly had no clue about NASCAR. He also never explained his presence, or the absence of the regular host.
For some strange reason, ESPN's new field reporter Marty Smith was attired in a suit jacket and tie, even as he was summarily booted out of the #55 garage. Marty seems strangely confused about this live TV thing, and is going to face an interesting transition from internet reporter to high profile national TV personality. He is a smart and hard-working guy, so let's hope that the ESPN veterans help get him up to speed with the techniques he needs to perfect.
Somehow, Brad Daughtery, Bill Cowlishaw, and Chris Fowler in jackets and ties just do not represent NASCAR to me. ESPN needs to understand that NASCAR did just fine without them, and that the network needs to regain its credibility with viewers. NASCAR Now needs more hard news coverage, and less posing and preening from its Bristol, CT based announcers.

SPEED: Wednesday Practice, NASCAR Live, and the Waltrip announcement

Wednesday at Daytona Speedweek presents a complex challenge for a television network. NEXTEL Cup practice consists of two sessions, there is Truck practice in the late afternoon, then the Busch Series qualifies to round out the day. This year, added to the mix was the Michael Waltrip disaster, which was still a work-in-progress throughout the day. Luckily, this is the type of occasion that the combined resources of the SPEED and Fox Sports announcing teams can rise to with great success.

On the air live from 11:30 AM through 6 PM Eastern Time, SPEED showed the type of potential many believed was long overdue. With the entire stable of announcers on hand, the network stood-up at last and claimed its widely promoted former title as "The NASCAR Network."

Using the Craftsman Truck Series, Raceday, Fox Sports, Victory Lane, and Trackside announcers the network was smooth and top notch. Even Darrell Waltrip was circumspect in his comments on the pending actions by NASCAR against his brother Michael. The key to this blanket coverage was the efficient use of the mobile reporters covering all areas of the track. This included a gutsy Krista Voda standing in the Waltrip Racing garage even as the team's senior management was escorted from the track by NASCAR.

As the time of the MWR announcement drew close, credit goes to SPEED for approaching the issue as news, and not a media spectacle. There was even a tinge of sadness that once again the sport itself would have to endure a cheating scandal prior to the biggest race of the season. John Roberts deserves kudos for anchoring a flexible and spontaneous SPEED coverage throughout the day. Hermie Sadler is a pleasant surprise as an analyst, with his candid manner and up-to-date knowledge playing a strong role in the SPEED coverage.
At 4:30 PM, SPEED's coverage hit a major speed bump when the Craftsman Truck announcing team of Rick Allen and Phil Parsons took to the air. Allen has struggled in his transition to motorsports, and continues to be pleasantly professional, but unable to raise the excitement level of live racing. Phil Parsons has been solid since his original exposure on this series, and quietly controls the information flow between himself and the pit reporters. Parsons was over-shadowed by Michael Waltrip on last season's telecasts, and with Michael absent for this broadcast, Parsons was able to step-up and deliver the kind of quality information that has defined his TV career.
As the time crept past 5 PM, Allen did not update viewers about the Waltrip situation, despite SPEED earlier promising a press conference at 4:30 PM. Allen focused on the Trucks, and was unable to step back and take charge of the overall SPEED coverage. Luckily, the Truck portion of the coverage ended before the Michael Waltrip press conference.
As the Michael Waltrip press conference was covered live, SPEED did the right thing in allowing Jim Hunter and Robin Pemberton to announce the penalties and take questions. In a strange twist, SPEED decided not only to leave the press conference in progress, but then forced the Raceday crew to close out the show in order to join a Monster Truck repeat telecast. It will be interesting to determine if the ESPN live NASCAR Now show somehow forced SPEED off the air. I am unable to determine what rights issues might be at hand, but SPEED left the air and ESPN began its live program at virtually the same time. I think viewers deserved the right to see the entire press conference live, whatever network originated the coverage. Let's hope SPEED did not leave the biggest story of the racing season to show Monster Trucks because of advertising or financial issues. We will follow-up on this item in future posts.