Friday, June 15, 2007

ESPN2 Gets A Glimpse Of Their Future

The recent Dale Earnhardt Junior decision to change teams was driven by a lot of factors. What ultimately brought the parties together, however, was the understanding that one talented man can change an organization quickly when they offer him the right equipment and manpower. The impact of this change will be felt the day Junior turns a wheel at Daytona. Where it ends, no one can predict.

In TV land, the impact of one person is often impossible to document. There are so many TV production, operations, and engineering folks that changes occur frequently, and most of the time they are invisible. New camera person, new graphics operator, new production assistant. There is, however, one role that carries with it an immediate impact. For ESPN2's NASCAR Now, that role is show host.

In a tough sport built by tough men, the faces of the anchors and hosts on NASCAR news and interview programs must meet either one criteria or the other. One, they must already be known to the fans through their previous work in the media. These "old pros" have been around before, and already have our trust. Two, if they are newcomers, they must burst out of the gate with a strong presence and show that they know and respect the sport.

This season, on NASCAR Now, we have seen examples of both. Allen Bestwick has hosted episodes of the show and proved once again to both viewers and network executives that he is a veteran NASCAR talent just waiting for the right offer. More recently, former ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr has stepped onto the scene as a newcomer. In just a short time, his boundless energy, respect for the sport, and knowledge of the stock car racing world has made him a fan favorite.

Friday night, as the NASCAR TV partners geared-up for a triple header weekend, Burr hosted the thirty minute edition of NASCAR Now. As those who watched may confirm, he showed fans a glimpse of just how good ESPN can be if they continue to make a commitment to change.

Burr led a veteran cast through a fast-paced show that featured multiple liveshots from Michigan International Speedway, and great content. NASCAR Now's own reporters appeared to be happy and relieved to deal with Burr in the host position. David Newton did a great job recapping the Kyle Busch situation, and did not mince words when Kyle's recent comments about "not knowing changes were coming" were addressed.

Fans love to hear from drivers, and NASCAR Now had them lined-up and waiting. MIS polesitter JJ Yeley, veteran John Andretti back in a Petty Dodge, and Brian Vickers happily "in the show" in his Toyota all stopped by. Imagine, three drivers interviewed live by the host in a thirty minute show. The best part is, there was a whole lot more.

Fan favorite Marty Reid stopped by with Rusty Wallace to preview the Kentucky Busch Series race on Saturday night. This "preview package" delivered by the broadcast crew was thoroughly professional, and right on target. Reid keeps Rusty on a short leash, and that allows Rusty's enthusiasm to be focused and effective.

The "ironwoman" for ESPN this season has been Shannon Spake, and she added an interview with Busch driver Steven Leicht that finally showed a regular Busch Series competitor in a good light. Spake is seemingly everywhere on ESPN2, and has been the hardest working NASCAR reporter for the network since Daytona.

Reid and Wallace then wrapped-up this preview, and "tossed it back" to Ryan Burr by name. These are the simple professional TV network "touches" that NASCAR Now had been missing this season. With ESPN as the home of the entire Busch Series, it was wonderful to see their broadcast team take the air, preview the event, and then send it directly back to the studio. One finally had the feeling that things were coming together between the Studio Production and Remote Production Departments.

Even after being moved around to deal with live events running long, Burr led the NASCAR Now production gang through the kind of show viewers have been waiting to see. His ability to relate to drivers, reporters, and other ESPN announcers has already been practiced on the ESPN News Network. Now, Burr can put his skills to work in a very high profile environment, as NASCAR Now will soon be dealing with NEXTEL Cup and Busch races produced by ESPN.

This will demand an entirely new level of news gathering, professionalism, and accurate and honest information without any exaggeration or hype. While there was room for poor hosts and "hyped-up" information when Fox Sports was on the air, anything and everything that NASCAR Now says once ESPN is producing the races will be sifted through with a fine tooth comb.

Everything changes in the NASCAR TV world on July 28th. You may want to write that date down as we get closer. Just imagine, for the first time in a very long time, ESPN will be telecasting the Busch Series and NEXTEL Cup races for the rest of the season. They will also have the only daily NASCAR news show on television. Does that scenario sound familiar to anyone? I believe that someone once said, everything old is eventually new again. Somewhere, John Kernan is nodding.

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SPEED's "Survival Of The Fastest" Looks Familiar

One of the biggest viewer complaints this season has been the lack of "reality based" NASCAR program series. Several of the favorites, like NBS 24/7 and Beyond The Wheel have gone to greener pastures. This year, old favorite Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing sits all alone on Monday nights. The program used to be the anchor of a "can't miss" Monday night line-up on SPEED. Now, lots of SPEED viewers "still miss" what they used to have.

Stepping back into the reality world is the newest offering from SPEED. Survival of the Fastest is produced by the official TV arm of the sport, a company called NASCAR Images in Charlotte. This thirty minute show is one part documentary, and one part reality series. The result is a powerful mix of everyday life and the challenging demands of the NASCAR racing world.

The Wood Brothers team featuring Bill Elliott driving at Pocono was featured in the series this week. Clearly, this struggling team is a great example of fighting an uphill battle against the "cash rich" superteams in the sport.

While the central reality "theme" of this episode was the prep, practice, and racing at Pocono, it was the documentary parts that proved fascinating. While hard to follow at first, it was eventually easy to get used to the program "cutting away" from the Pocono activities and showing "sidebars" of the cast.

Bill Elliott and his family at their home in Colorado were simply riding four-wheelers around the rural area. But, in today's NASCAR TV environment, fans never get to see the "other side" of their drivers. Elliott is as laid-back at home as he is at the track, and watching him ride a dirt bike across the scenic landscape with his son really gave fans a quick peek at "who" he is, as opposed to "what car" he drives.

Behind the scenes glimpses continued with a historic look at the Wood Brothers, a look at their current shops, and a conversation with team members. Michael "Fatback" Mcswain continues to be a character in NASCAR, and his "hot rod" hobby was an interesting look into his desire to "fix things" and make them right.

As usual, things at the track did not go according to plan. Between bad shocks, rain, and that doggone Jeff Gordon, the Wood Brothers did not finish in the top thirty. Finally, fans get to see the reality of racing, and the on-going struggles that have eluded the documentation of the NASCAR TV partners who air the races live. As The Daly Planet has been saying for five months, this sport is absolutely not about the winner, but the other forty-two teams that came up short.

The "hand-held camera style" approach to this series meets with the same success of "ER" when viewers felt they were fully a part of the action. With the only voice-over announcing being added to transition between reality segments, this program avoids the pitfalls of too much post-production, and shows the experience of the NASCAR Images team in the editing suite.

This series is a strong new addition to the SPEED family, and will hopefully lay the groundwork for additional series of this nature to document the Busch and Truck teams. The human interest stories in NASCAR are limitless. There are so many fascinating people, so many interesting lifestyles, and so many amazing hobbies and interests that the potential exists for SPEED to lock-in another franchise. With the changes coming to the sport next season, the 2007 roll-out of this program might set-up incredible opportunities to document NASCAR like never before in 2008. The NASCAR fans can hardly wait.

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