Sunday, June 10, 2007

Weber And Dallenbach Struggle To Fit In On TNT

As the rain delay at Pocono continued, it seemed somehow appropriate that Bill Weber was perched high, alone, and slightly damp in the new TNT infield set. Looking like something out of "Thunderdome," the infield anchor's desk was suspended in the air with no one visible except Weber. He was the odd man out.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the booth two drivers stood side-by-side, looked at each other, and tried to figure out how this was going to work. Kyle Petty was the new kid on the block, and alongside him was Wally Dallenbach...rudely chewing his gum while on camera. They both filled the same role, and represented the same viewpoint on the telecast. There were two...where there needed to be only one.

Kyle was a veteran who had just stepped-out of his NEXTEL Cup ride to work for TNT. Dallenbach had a short and un-impressive stint "playing" in NASCAR after a mediocre career in both open-wheel and sports car series. He is not the most popular former driver among the NASCAR gang.

At the same time, down in the infield and standing by the cut-a-way car was the man who should have been in the broadcast booth. Larry McReynolds is tremendous in his NASCAR knowledge and perhaps has no equal in his intensity. Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds in the booth would have been a home run for TNT.

As it worked out, McReynolds informed the booth of the winning strategy being tried by Jeff Gordon's team. McReynolds acted as the crew chief "analyst" on this show and traded fast-paced quips with Kyle Petty like they had been working together for years. And, he did it all from the infield.

With the NASCAR on Fox gang wrapping-up their coverage, it was tough to transition from the professional play-by-play skills of Mike Joy to the converted feature reporter Bill Weber. There was a mean-spirited nature to the NASCAR coverage on NBC Sports and now TNT with Weber at the helm.

He and Dallenbach trade insults, the pit reporters "dig" at the booth announcers, and Weber always sees the glass as half empty. Rather than the professional demeanor of Barney Hall, Rick Allen, Mike Joy, or Marty Reid, Weber takes everything very personally and seems to be upset in some way a lot of the time.

Dr. Jerry Punch is involved in the same type of struggle on the ESPN Busch Series races. Neither Punch nor Weber started out to be who they now are. Punch was a great pit reporter, and relished that role. Weber started out on Inside Winston Cup Racing with Ned Jarrett as the feature reporter. Weber has outstanding writing skills and thinks of himself as a journalist. This is his strong point, but play-by-play on live NASCAR races is not.

Marc Fein was the wildcard on the TNT telecast. Brought in as the new preview show host and the infield studio anchor during the telecast, Fein got solid reviews. A TV sports veteran, he brings the enthusiasm of a veteran without being caught-up in trying to show his personal knowledge of the sport. Fein was the bright spot of this telecast, and may get to expand his role after the production problems that arose during the first rain delay. TNT had some issues, and they revolved around Bill Weber.

Rain at a NASCAR race always demands flexibility and good humor. These are not the strong points for Weber. Even so, the TNT producer left Weber alone as the anchor on the infield set for more than an hour. Weber tried to direct traffic, but Petty and Dallenbach needed him in the booth, and Marc Fein should have been given the assignment of filling time from the infield set with Larry McReynolds and the pit reporters. Fein has the sense of fun that would allow Marty Snider to "spin" the new set and show off its flexibility. Weber just sat there mortified, and without a smile on his face. Wrong guy to have fun with on national TV.

Once the race started, the telecast took on a strange dynamic. Weber and Dallenbach have one type of relationship with each other, and Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds have their own working style. The "NBC style" of insulting each other and making inside jokes did not fly with Petty and McReynolds. They provided the commentary during the race, and often would wind up speaking directly with each other because they actually knew what was going on. Weber and Dallenbach looked, and sounded, like two guys who had been away from the sport for a while.

Through a boring race, Petty and McReynolds kept the intensity high, even as Dallenbach and Weber returned to their inside jokes and insults. Pit reporter Marty Snider is often caught up in this locker room humor, and it makes his credibility fall by the wayside. Matt Yocum, Ralph Sheheen, and newcomer Lindsay Czarniak refused to "join the NBC club" and instead concentrated on their pit reporting activities.

Czarniak was solid during the event, and just needs more actual race reporting to get herself up-to-speed. Like Wendy Venturini on SPEED and Krista Voda on Fox Sports, she is fearless and aggressive. Just what TNT needed for this short season.

As the race reached its key moment, Larry McReynolds and Kyle Petty were clearly the knowledgeable parties on the telecast with regard to race strategy. McReynolds hit the nail on the head with Gordon's team, and it proved to be the winning formula. Without the late Benny Pasons, Weber and Dallenbach were exposed as part-time NASCAR announcers who were just along for the ride. It was Petty, McReynolds, and the pit road announcers who carried this long broadcast through the two rain delays and all the way to the finish.

Give TNT credit, the new set is fun, the pictures were great, and the directing was first class. The entire telecast was solid from a technical and engineering standpoint. When they can have some fun with the infield set, it will be a great new show element that may top the Hollywood Hotel. In the meantime, they have some attitude adjustment to do with the gum-chewing analyst and the angry host.

With five races to go, TNT is going to find itself working alongside ESPN and staring at the network that will take-over when they are done. ESPN will be doing the Busch races during the TNT run, and then step into the big time. No doubt ESPN will be looking at both the good and bad aspects of the TNT experience and trying to put those lessons to good use.

After this first race for TNT, there are a lot of notes to take and a lot of things to do differently. This broadcast missed the good nature of the late Benny Parsons, but showed the determination of both Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds to keep the information flowing, despite the obstacles. Petty was a standout, and his time working previous races and on SPEED's Tradin' Paint has made him at ease on TV.

Before we know it, these six races will be over, and TNT will return to its bread-and-butter of entertainment programming. Perhaps, before that happens, this group of TV professionals will re-organize themselves into a cohesive unit that can allow TNT to put its best foot forward for both the sport...and the fans.

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Sunday TV Face-Off: "NASCAR Now" vs. "RaceDay"

As the TV networks involved with NASCAR begin to formulate their "stretch runs," we are beginning to see the marked difference in the approaches to NASCAR racing by ESPN and SPEED. Normally, the racing programs on these networks do not overlap. However, now that the NEXTEL Cup races are back on Sunday afternoons, there is a head-to-head match-up that makes TV viewing very interesting.

ESPN2's Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now is a one hour show that focuses on previewing the upcoming NEXTEL Cup race, and reports on the news of the weekend. This Sunday, the network had Erik Kuselias hosting the program from the High Definition ESPN studio in Bristol, CT. Alongside Kuselias on the set were occasional NASCAR racer Boris Said and Dallas Morning New columnist Tim Cowlishaw.

With the full ESPN Busch Series crew producing a race Saturday night in Nashville, TN it was left to ESPN field reporter Wendy Nix to represent the network on-site in Pocono. Nix replaces David Amber, a Toronto-based ESPN reporter who had never been to a NASCAR race before being assigned the task of covering an entire NEXTEL Cup event by himself. Nix, who is married to a Boston Red Sox executive, appeared to be new to the racing world as well.

Supporting Nix at the track is NASCAR Now's "Insider" Marty Smith. This season, Smith has kept a smile on his face and the fans up-to-date on the news despite dealing with incredible obstacles presented by ESPN. The now departed show host Doug Banks would nod his head while Smith delivered the scoop, while both fans and Smith knew that Banks had absolutely no idea what Smith was talking about. Banks was let go of his high-profile job without as much as a word in the media. Meanwhile, Smith just kept on smiling.

Now, Smith is left on Sundays to contend with the high-volume and only slightly more informed show host Erik Kuselias. A Virginia native with a pleasant personality, Smith is often over-shadowed by the verbose former sports radio talker Kuselias. This contrast is the most interesting, because Smith has the information and credibility that Kuselias will never achieve.

Earlier this season, Kuselias tried to host the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show for the network and was horrible. He was yanked, and ESPN is now trying Suzy Kolber at the helm. So, on Sundays, Kuselias has his hour of power to be the ESPN program previewing the big race. Unfortunately, there is only one problem with that scenario. Its called RaceDay and is on SPEED Channel.

While Kuselias is in a suit and tie on a set in Bristol, John Roberts is in casual attire right in the middle of a sea of fans at the track. This is how the SPEED production team has managed to make RaceDay mandatory viewing for NASCAR fans. Roberts hosts two hours of everything from hardcore news to absolute mayhem. The fans love it.

Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace sit alongside Roberts, and voice their opinions on everything under the sun. Because race fans know both these characters quite well, there is a whole lot of commentary that is regularly taken with a whole lot of salt. These two serve to launch discussions, talk to drivers, and offer stories from their own racing experiences. Between Spencer's hair and Wallace's laughter, its impossible to ignore.

RaceDay's success is owed to the fact that Wendy Venturini fills the same role that Wendy Nix tried to fill for ESPN on Sunday. There is only one difference. Venturini has a lifetime of racing experience through her family's NASCAR and ARCA racing. Her years of hard work in the NASCAR TV industry have given her the right to ask anyone anything and go anywhere. The best part is, she usually does.

Her serious infield counterpoint to the hilarious Spencer/Wallace act really serves to strike the kind of balance that a preview program needs. Venturini's tribute to Bill France Jr. on Sunday in her "Real Deal" segment may have been the best video piece on the impact of France on the sport...and the people who live it everyday. This weekly feature has made an impact on the fans and the NASCAR community, and should wind-up making an impact on Venturini's career.

For two hours, RaceDay is just a part of the on-going race preparations. Drivers, team owners, broadcasters, and special guests come and go like the program is just a normal part of their lives. That feeling that RaceDay "just belongs" at the track is the key to why this series has become a franchise for SPEED.

Watching both NASCAR Now and RaceDay on Sunday really told the tale of two networks traveling different roads while serving the same sport. The billion dollar media company ESPN is telecasting all the Busch Series races, and the final seventeen NEXTEL Cup events. They will broadcast the entire "Chase for the Cup" on ABC Sports. Yet, they have one inexperienced host standing in Bristol, Connecticut with a part-time driver and a news columnist as their NASCAR studio presence. They have one reporter at the track who is clearly out of her element, and one news veteran who has learned to smile through the ESPN pain. NASCAR Now on Sunday mornings is a mess.

Meanwhile, RaceDay is a joyous celebration of racing, and everything that goes along with it. They don't judge, they just experience. John Roberts directs traffic, and lets the NASCAR community take to the airwaves for two hours of fresh and direct information. And this from the network that does not have one actual NEXTEL Cup points race, and not one Busch Series event. The bottom line is, SPEED knows how to have fun, and ESPN does not.

Sundays may still have two NASCAR preview shows for a while, but it is clear that ESPN is fighting a losing battle with no manpower or resources allocated to cover one of the biggest sports events every weekend. Right now, ESPN is on the ropes and the referee is counting. Without some big changes quickly, this Sunday morning fight is as good as over.

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Randy Pemberton and Kyle Petty Make "Tradin' Paint" A Blast

A while back, NASCAR TV veteran Randy Pemberton joined Kyle Petty and host John Roberts on Tradin' Paint. This thirty minute show is taped live on location at the NASCAR NEXTEL venues and features Kyle and one rotating media member offering opinion and commentary on NASCAR issues. It is currently the only NASCAR program on TV anywhere that focuses on opinion and debate.

This week, it was fitting that SPEED chose to invite Pemberton back for another appearance with Kyle. NASCAR executive Bill France Jr. has passed away, and it was going to take some real veterans to discuss what his passing means for the future of the sport. Host Roberts introduced this topic right off the top of the show, and both panelists responded accordingly.

Seeming to hit his stride since his finishing third at Charlotte, Petty is convincing and upfront in his comments on NASCAR, and the issues of the day. His words about Bill France used family history and events in the past to wrap-up a fantastic perspective about the tremendous contributions of France Jr. to the sport. It is going to be interesting to watch Petty continue to transition from a driver and owner to a journalist and media member. One only has to think about the disaster that Michael Waltrip had when he tried to keep everything on his plate.

Pemberton has returned from his personal challenges to be a star for DirecTV and their Hot Pass package. Randy is versatile, and if he shows himself to be totally committed to continuing down the right path in his personal life, his professional success is going to follow. Certainly, ESPN has to be keeping an eye on him as they continue to struggle with the host role on both NASCAR Countdown and NASCAR Now. ESPN is about to step into the very big time when their NEXTEL Cup coverage begins, and the fans and media are far less forgiving when the top series in the sport is concerned. Randy is a great "designated hitter" just waiting for a team in need to call.

When DEI and Martin Truex Jr. is the issue, the fans pay attention. Petty and Pemberton put the Truex victory in the COT in perspective, spoke directly about Junior's issues with DEI, and then addressed the COT and Hendrick issue. Changing over to Kurt Busch, both panelists made their strongest statements about NASCAR and the state of the sport. Petty firmly believes that Busch should have been suspended for the Pocono race, and he was happy to say it on national TV. This is the type of program content that needs to be put out to fans each and every week. Honest and refreshing, it invites the discussion to be continued on Internet sites across the nation.

This week, Tony Stewart gathered his friends for a charity race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Twenty-six of the the biggest stars in NASCAR slung it sideways on a half mile dirt track and put on a great show. Roberts floated the idea of a NEXTEL Cup race on dirt, and both Petty and Pemberton slowly brought the idea back to reality. Not going to happen unless a dirt track is built in downtown Manhattan they say. On the big stage, its all about the market, not the surface.

"Pediatric and Geriatric" is how Kyle described the discrepancies in the Cup Series between the fifty plus racers like Dale Jarrett and the twenty somethings like Denny Hamlin. He reminded everyone that the Busch Series and the Truck Series were both developed to funnel up-and-coming drivers into the NEXTEL Cup Series. Now, things sometimes just don't work out that way. Disagreeing with journalist David Poole, both panelists squashed the notion of creating another series to head off a possible shortage of drivers.

Pemberton has been vocal in his thoughts that having only a few engine builders who deliver motors to the NEXTEL Cup teams is a big problem. In this show, he added that four car teams are also contributing to changes in the sport that are not necessarily for the better. Petty called the engine issue a "problem on the horizon" and agreed that it must be addressed. Pemberton's point is that when the championship is on the line, and it is between an engine builder's own team and another team he "services," who is going to get the best engine? Its a no-brainer.

John Roberts has been working hard to develop this series, and in his host role he has done a great job of putting out the issues, and then stepping aside. Its tough to find someone in the TV business who can live without adding their two cents. When Roberts is surrounded by Petty and Pemberton, this show comes alive. Maybe SPEED will add some more on-air promotion for this show, and offer selected segments on the SPEED website. Tradin' Paint is a show fans should add to their DVR, and promises to only get better as the season heats-up.

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"NASCAR On TNT Live" Welcomes Marc Fein

TNT's NEXTEL Cup schedule consists of the "summer races" that serve as the transition between the early season and the stretch run. This short season of racing on TNT seems strangely out-of-place on a network that has no real interest in NASCAR, and does not present any regular NASCAR TV programming during the year. Needless to say, that makes putting together a credible preview show for these six races even more of a challenge. Sunday morning, that certainly was the case.

TNT's press release of June 5th lays-out the NASCAR on TNT Live preview program. Marc Fein is listed as the host of this program, but he did not appear on-the-air until almost thirty minutes into this one hour show. Fein was never introduced by TNT anchor Bill Weber. It was just assumed that viewers would somehow know that Fein is a Turner "in-house" announcer who hosts pre-game shows for teams like the Atlanta Braves. It was a mistake by TNT not to take the time to introduce Fein to the NASCAR crowd, as well as new pit reporter Lindsay Czarniak. Fans should have been told who they were, and why there were here.

Kyle Petty wasted no time in showing us his ability to relate to the older retired NASCAR drivers who attracted many of us to the sport back in the 1960's and 70's. Petty spoke with David Pearson at his Carolina home and really introduced the current crop of NASCAR fans to the type of "southern gentleman" who wrestled the old style full-bodied cars around the classic tracks with no power steering or air conditioned helmets. Let's hope these interview features continue for the remaining five races.

With Weber gone from the set, Fein led a feisty discussion about topics in the sport ranging from Kurt Busch's penalty to Earnhardt Junior's potential suitors. This was a segment never seen before on a pre-race show. Dallenbach, Petty, and McReynolds all have strong opinions on issues in the sport, and this "round table" was a wonderful departure from the goofiness of Chris Myers and the Hollywood Hotel.

In the final segment, TNT at last used their pit road veterans Ralph Sheheen and Marty Snider to interview drivers. Both these men bring instant credibility and hopefully will be included much more in subsequent preview shows. Lindsay Czarniak is the unknown element in the reporter mix, and she debuted with mixed results.

Marc Fein was a welcome relief from the dour disposition of Bill Weber, and Fein's energy on this preview show was infectious. Perhaps, in the five remaining shows, Weber will be relegated to the Allstate Countdown to Green pre-race show and allow Fein to spread his wings with this live hour. It was clear that the other NASCAR on TNT personalities liked Fein, and meshed well with him in his first on-air NASCAR appearance. Where the NASCAR on TNT Live show is concerned, it just might be an interesting summer.

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