Sunday, June 17, 2007

TNT Dumps NASCAR For "Van Helsing" Movie

Make no mistake about it, Turner Network Television is an entertainment network. Basically just a bunch of file servers located in Turner's Atlanta facility, the network is a twenty-four hour computer-driven playback machine occasionally interrupted by a sports program. NASCAR fans certainly have that feeling after Sunday in Michigan.

TNT originates no regular NASCAR programming. They don't have any other NASCAR shows, and don't carry any other racing series. The NASCAR information on the TNT website takes up...two pages. NASCAR is not even in the TNT website forum under "sports on TNT."

Sunday at Michigan, there was a whole lot going on in the NEXTEL Cup race, and a whole lot going on in the sport. But, for TNT...that did not matter. What was going on for them was a vampire movie called "Van Helsing."

Carl Edwards talked a bit from Victory Lane after his back flip, and dedicated the win to his father. Finally, one of his crew members could shave the beard he had been growing until Carl won in the big series. It was a good story, and Carl made for just the type of winner that NASCAR needed to get itself back on track with the fans and the media after this week of chaos.

Luckily, Carl's interview still left well over fifteen minutes in the allotted time on TNT for NASCAR. This would give the pit reporters plenty of time to cover all the stories after the race, get all the good interviews with the happy and sad, and let TNT show off their new infield set and crew. Finally, fans were going to get some good post-race TV.

But first, the pit reporters got Martin Truex Jr. and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. for some quick comments. Then, Bill Weber closed out the race from the announce booth with a recap of the season standings and some good-natured kidding of Kyle Petty, who will race next week in Sonoma. Then, he "threw" down to the infield for the post-race show. Well, at least that's what NASCAR fans thought.

Infield host Marc Fein and analyst Larry McReynolds were atop the new multi-million dollar TNT infield set. The weather was great, the race was over, and the interviews were just waiting to be had. The best part was, it was Father's Day and seeing the drivers with their families was going to be fun.

Remember, this is the network that has one hour and thirty minutes of pre-race programming before every event. This is the network with two separate shows, TNT Live and Countdown to Green before the race. These two shows completely set the table for following-up on the stories presented pre-race with the same drivers and teams now that the race was over. Things could not be coming together better.

Fein and McReynolds chatted briefly about the race, with Larry Mac doing his usual thorough job of summing-up the event. Since Edwards, Junior, and Truex had been interviewed, this left the pit reporters forty drivers to choose from. As with almost every NASCAR event there were some great stories, but in this race, one stood out like a sore thumb.

There he was, standing on pit road with a smile on his face. After a strong sixth place finish, Kyle Busch was showing any potential employer that he still had what it took to run fast. But, more important than that, after a week of hearing how many cars he had crashed, how he was too hot-headed, and how he "never fit in" at Hendrick, he had just finished four hundred miles at Michigan without a scratch.

Shaking Kyle's hand was Casey Mears, who finished fourth and showed that his recent win was not a fluke, and that his season is on the rise. The big sigh of relief you heard was Jamie McMurray, who finished eighth. After a tough early season, a strong showing for both Crown Royal and Ford was exactly what he needed.

A little further down pit road was a tall guy with big hair and a tired look on his face. Michael Waltrip had finished a NEXTEL Cup race in tenth place in one of his own Toyotas. It seemed that the weight of the world was slowly lifting off his shoulders. He smiled brighter when David Reutimann stopped by to say he finished fifteenth. Both of these guys together was going to be one wild interview.

Back on the TNT "Thunderdome" rotating set, Marc Fein said something that sent a chill down the spine of TV viewers. He asked Larry McReynolds for his "final thoughts." Millions of NASCAR fans nationwide checked their watches. It was 5:15PM Eastern Time. There were fifteen minutes before TNT fired up their hard drive and went back to playing movies. At least, that what viewers thought.

Fein began to say goodbye, the music began to play, and the last words he said from Michigan were "thanks for watching NASCAR on TNT." Most NASCAR fans could not believe their ears when the Steppenwolf "Born To Be Wild" theme was then sung by the young man in serious need of some hair care products and a Lands End gift certificate. It was over, with fifteen minutes on the clock. TNT Sports has left the building.

There, on pit road and walking slowly toward the garage was NASCAR. The entire sport was there for the taking. Every driver, crew chief, owner, and front tire changer had just finished four hundred miles of what they love. Every wife, child, father, and human interest story was standing around shaking hands and beginning to organize the trip home. As they say in today's world, this was a "content rich" environment.

Basically, TNT did the mandatory interview with the winner, interviewed both DEI drivers, and then sprinted for the airplane. There was not a moment after the race where anyone except Larry McReynolds was "fired up" about what just went on during the race. If this had been an event that ran long on time, fans might understand. After a long rain delay like Pocono, leaving quickly is understood.

But, for a network like TNT who has only six NEXTEL Cup races in their entire schedule for the year, this was strange. When you add-in the fact that fifteen minutes remained in the scheduled time slot for this event, it becomes even stranger.

Finally, TNT had thumped all of us over the head with their NASCAR connection. They had Kyle Petty this season, and even talked him out of his own race car. They got Larry McReynolds to man the new infield set and "crew chief" the race. Finally, with much fanfare in the media, they rolled out their new "spin, lift, and turn" infield set on which they spent more than a million dollars.

How does all this fit with the network "running away" because they had fifteen minutes to fill? I wanted to hear from Michael Waltrip. I wanted to hear from Kyle Busch. I wanted to hear from Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, and the others. How did Bill Elliot finish eleventh? What happened to Jimmie Johnson? There were far more stories to tell than fifteen minutes would have allowed. But as a lifelong fan who loves the sport, I sure would have appreciated it if TNT had tried.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

TNT's "Theatre-In-The-Round" Is A Work In Progress

Slowly spinning its middle-aged cargo above the Michigan International Speedway, the TNT "revolving set" delivered a couple of guys who were still trying to figure out how to relate to each other, what all this spinning was about, and who the heck is Marc Fein?

TNT began its second week of the NASCAR "mini-season" still sorting out the dynamics of a this year's network line-up. The new race "pre-preview" show is called "NASCAR on TNT Live!" and is a one hour show similar to RaceDay on SPEED. The TNT effort relies on a new host named Marc Fein to direct traffic. Fein is a TNT "in-house announcer" and is new to NASCAR. This fact does not sit well with Bill Weber, who hosts the Countdown To Green actual pre-race show which comes next and is used to being "the man."

As the Michigan version of TNT Live began, there was a strange group of people assembled on the set. Along with analysts Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Kyle Petty, there were two hosts. Show host Marc Fein was seated alongside "Countdown to Green" host and race announcer Bill Weber. Instead of Weber, it should have been Larry McReynolds on the set. His presence was sorely missing in the discussion that followed.

Fein immediately put Weber on the spot for his prediction that Earnhardt Junior would go to a "dark horse" team, instead of a big operation like Hendrick Motorsports. Weber was not happy with that, and was clearly uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of questions from "the host." With Weber being front and center for the next pre-race show, and then the entire race, maybe he could have let Fein have the spotlight for this program.

Its also tough for Wally Dallenbach to "hang in" with this new group. He begins a lot of his statements with "just like Kyle said" and then re-hashes what Petty has already explained. Like ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC found out very early, one driver and one crew chief is all you need. With Petty being a current driver, he is clearly more up-to-date on the events concerning NASCAR this season, and with his outspoken nature it is tough to define the new role for Dallenbach.

Fein then cleared the set, and spoke one-on-one with Larry McReynolds in the next segment. This left Kyle Petty out of an important discussion, and he should have been there. McReynolds talked about gas mileage, the big track, and drivers moving their "racing lines" around during the event. Petty should have been present for the entire segment, and if it had been McReynolds, Petty, and Dallenbach the entire time,
things would have been consistent. That is one key element this one hour show is lacking...consistency.

McReynolds and Fein continued in the next segment while TNT rolled more of Marty Snider's interview with Junior and Rick Hendrick. Where was Kyle Petty? There was more than an hour to race time, and Kyle was not on the set for this high-profile topic. That made two segments of quality on-camera time Kyle missed, both of which contained topics that begged for his comments and expertise.

Suddenly, Bill Weber returned and Marc Fein disappeared. One host was gone, and another host was back. No one ever said why. Weber introduced a great tribute to Benny Parsons, and this pre-produced feature is exactly the type of thing at which Bill Weber excels. There is perhaps no one better at writing a scripted feature involving NASCAR content than Weber. He cut his teeth early-on as the reporter for Inside Winston Cup Racing alongside host Ned Jarrett back in the 1990's.

Just as suddenly, Marc Fein was back and hosting the show once again. After even more of Snider's taped interview with Junior, Fein led into one of the most annoying elements of this program bar none. TNT has decided to turn the track description and Wally's World hot laps into a moving promo for TNT entertainment shows.

Of course, both the pre-race and race itself are shamelessly loaded with even more promos for exactly the same shows. Now, instead of learning the racing lines, the problem corners, and the issues with things like the pit road entrance, viewers are treated to an actor screaming with Dallenbach about a TNT series over the roar of the engine.

This ended the TNT Live program, and Marc Fein then sent things over once again to Bill Weber for TNT's Countdown to Green, their next pre-race show. Talk about confusing. There was Weber on the same set, with the same graphics, talking about the exact same things and playing back the exact same interview we had just seen. Are you sensing a theme here?

Weber once again wished everyone happy Father's Day just like Fein. He read the same Earnhardt Junior story and used the same interviews. Then, Weber brought on Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach to talk again about the same Junior issue on the same infield set without McReynolds. Then, just like the earlier show, they went to break.

Incredibly, when Weber came out of commercial Petty and Dallenbach were gone, and who should be there but Larry McReynolds. Its enough to make a viewer dizzy. After one very brief comment on Junior, McReynolds was silenced by another driver feature. This one was on Martin Truex Jr. and his father, and again proved to be very well done. After a good follow-up on-camera with Martin, the final show element was a chat with polesitter JJ Yeley and then things were done.

There is no doubt that TNT intends for this ninety minutes of pre-race TV programming to be interesting and informative. There is no doubt they have some talented people in place with lots of good experience. Unfortunately, there is also no doubt from watching the final product that there are not open lines of communication between the different "camps" in the TNT compound. TV egos tend to create teams, and those teams never get along.

After two weeks, its time to have a meeting and address the overall on-air presentation of this long live program block. It was not fun, there were no laughs, the two hosts clearly did not get along, and the team spirit was missing. It might have made the egos in the TNT compound feel just fine, but for viewers it was a bumpy and disjointed ride through a landscape of non-smiling announcers and constantly changing faces.

One emailer to The Daly Planet referred to it as The TNT Passive Aggressive Pre-Race Show. Control issues anyone?

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

SPEED's "RaceDay" Continues To Re-Define NASCAR TV

Over the years, the network originally called SpeedVision has worked hard to re-define itself. Along the way, there were fundamental shifts in programming strategy that upset lots of viewers, and signaled the change from a niche network to a mainstream cable sports provider. Gone were the aviation and boating programs, and in were the lifestyle shows about car customizing and "reality" shows about everything from drag racing to dating a driver.

Lost in this mix originally was the NASCAR brand. SPEED continued to carry the NASCAR Images produced program Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on Mondays, but struggled to figure out how to approach the sport. As the network now called SPEED Channel found its footing, they filled-in the rest of Monday night with critically acclaimed shows that put NASCAR in a very good light.

SPEED continued to try and get a handle on NASCAR information during the week by creating, airing, and then cancelling a series of programs. Some focused on hard news, others on features, and one memorable effort combined NASCAR and Hollywood with disastrous effects. Then, SPEED decided to concentrate its efforts on the weekend, and things began to take shape.

The network committed to creating the "SPEED stage" at NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events, and using that "platform" to create a wide variety of shows. Simply put, it worked. Fans gravitated to this area to watch SPEED create both live and taped programming. One issue the network had was how to approach Sunday mornings. SPEED did not have any NEXTEL Cup races, and was clearly not going to be in that mix anytime soon. How then, to establish itself as a "player" on the scene when the host network was going to put on its own pre-race show? The answer was RaceDay.

Nestled quietly on Sundays a couple of hours before race time, RaceDay has expanded into a two hour event the likes of which has never been seen before on any NASCAR related TV network. SPEED's own "walk-on quarterback" John Roberts has turned into a mature and respected NASCAR media personality. He leads Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace by the hand through a series of news stories, commentaries, interviews, and race-related features.

With the "SPEED stage" outside the track, the pit road and garage beat is patrolled by former producer and racing insider Wendy Venturini. As the show developed, it became apparent that Venturini was so clearly at home inside the track that SPEED declined to provide another reporter on the same "beat." This good decision allowed Venturini to become the single focal point for SPEED's connection to drivers and team members. The results continue to be fantastic.

Inside the track, everyone watches RaceDay. The drivers and owners in their motor coaches, the teams in the garage, and even the journalists in the Media Center. Without any opposition, RaceDay takes center stage each weekend and has clearly enjoyed the limelight. Like all TV programs, there have been some issues, but SPEED has proven to be flexible in listening to the concerns of the fans.

This year, Venturini has been allowed to prepare a feature during the week entitled "the Real Deal." It added a new twist to RaceDay, in that a regular feature prepared away from the track often times becomes the center point of the show. This week, Venturini returned with Mark Martin to his Batesville, Arkanasa local racetrack and spoke with Martin about the father-son issues that have dominated his life. Not only was the feature powerful, but it allowed both Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace to react as "people," and not drivers, to this very touchy subject with racers.

This type of commitment by SPEED in terms of manpower and production dollars has allowed RaceDay to separate itself from the other Sunday NASCAR programs. Slowly, RaceDay has warmed-up to including the fans in the show, and hopefully this process will continue. The hundreds of NASCAR fans that stand for two hours watching this show should be allowed to participate a bit more than holding a homemade sign and smiling. Questions and comments from fans to the panel would really round-out this excellent program.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.