Friday, July 13, 2007

NASCAR's TV Package In Transition At Chicago

Halfway through July, things have certainly been very different from the NASCAR TV coverage that most fans imagined back in February. The Daly Planet has over two hundred and twenty columns dealing with a wide variety of television issues that all relate to NASCAR and their TV partners.

Some of these items might have been expected. The veteran NASCAR on Fox announcing team was working well together. ESPN put a good solid Busch Series production team in place, and their races were fun right from the start. Dale Jarrett proved to be a great TV partner for Andy Petree. The SPEED team producing the Craftsman Truck Series continued to excel, and perhaps show the most exciting racing of all.

Other stories were just curious. Brent Musburger as ESPN's "NASCAR host." Dave Despain back on Inside NEXTEL Cup without a smile on his face...ever. Jayski gets bought by ESPN. SPEED shows the All-Star race. Doug Banks hosts NASCAR Now and then disappears.

There were also the stories that really made everyone think. Fox showing only the winner of the race...and no one else finish. Jimmy Spencer and his anger toward Dale Junior's sister. Michael Waltrip removed from Tradin' Paint on SPEED. Brad Daugherty as the "expert" on the ESPN Infield Set. Two drivers in the TNT booth while Larry McReynolds sits in the infield.

As we arrive at the Chicagoland weekend, NASCAR's TV package is in a heavy transitional phase. With Fox Sports long gone, TNT's efforts at covering the NEXTEL Cup have resulted in a wide variety of problems and situations. They have also resulted in some positive "experimental" ways of dealing with commercial elements in a sport that does not stop. Mostly, they have featured Larry McReynolds explaining things to the announcers and the fans.

Now, TNT will telecast Chicagoland and be done. They have no other NASCAR programs, no series, and no interest in this sport in general. They ran their ads, showed their promos, and now they are going back to their normal agenda of primarily entertainment. They have hammered us with press releases about their "Wide Open" coverage in hopes that this will erase the memory of the "other" races they covered. Who will ever forget Sonoma?

ESPN is putting on a full-scale dress rehearsal for their NEXTEL Cup coverage this Saturday, with all the heavy-hitters in place. For the Busch race, Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty will hold down the Infield Studio, the ESPN version of the Hollywood Hotel. Tim Brewer will man the cut-a-way car outside and point at things. Upstairs, the "A" team of Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree will be watched by all the ESPN executives. The network has invested a lot of money in this sport, and is about to transition to the big time in two weeks.

On pit road, veterans Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro will be on-hand. Joining them will be newcomer to NASCAR Jamie Little and the always curious Dave Burns. This team will be integrated into the pre-race, call the pit action, and then handle the post-race interviews. Both Massaro and Bestwick have also anchored the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show, prior to Kolber joining the team.

SPEED keeps right on Craftsman Trucking with their solid team of Krista Voda hosting the pre-race, and veterans Rick Allen and Phil Parsons in the booth. Ray Dunlap continues on pit road, and as a feature reporter for the pre-race show. Dunlap is joined by Adam Alexander, who is having a very good year on this series.

After this week, only one lonely Busch race stands in the way of the big Indy weekend for ESPN. With the recent announcement that Formula-1 will not return to the Brickyard, this heightens the profile of their lone NASCAR event even more. While all three series will be in action, ESPN and ABC take over "the franchise" for the first time in many years.

The Brickyard 400 on ESPN will be a very historic moment for the network, and the entire corporation. Don't underestimate what NASCAR really means to ESPN.

Fans and viewers will now have only two production teams to deal with for NASCAR. ESPN's team will telecast races on ESPN2, ESPN, and ABC Sports as the package moves into "The Chase." SPEED will shows its Trucks, but also literally surround ESPN's Busch and NEXTEL Cup events with support programming. This include RaceDay, Victory Lane, Trackside, and NASCAR Live. Apparently, it will also include SPEED showing some of ESPN's practice and qualifying for both series.

This new partnership between Disney (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2) and News Corp. (Fox/SPEED) is a "shotgun wedding" that has been brokered by NASCAR. The TV compound is run by NASCAR Images, and supports all kinds of broadcasts. These include DirecTV's Hot Pass, the NASCAR In-Car Pay-Per-View, and multiple international language feeds. In a way, NASCAR's TV compound is a bit like the Olympics. Lots of people doing lots of things for lots of networks.

ESPN has been a well-mannered groom at this wedding so far, but with the network taking over as the rights holder for all the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series on-track action, things might get interesting. Right now, SPEED reporters roam the garage freely, and originate all kinds of features and live reports for a lot of SPEED shows. Truthfully, SPEED personalities have dominated the NASCAR garage for the last several years.

ESPN is now going to be getting into the business of also trying to provide "content" to SportsCenter, ESPN News, NASCAR Now, and NASCAR Countdown. The problem is, there are only so many stories and so many drivers to go around. Both ESPN and SPEED are about to encounter a very new situation.

Imagine, ESPN's pit reporter is going to be waiting in Victory Lane for the winning driver while SPEED's John Roberts and Jimmy Spencer are taping a new episode of their own Victory Lane show right behind him. Literally, right behind him. When the driver climbs out and the beer shower begins live on ABC Sports, SPEED will be just steps away recording an exclusive show using that same footage. Now, that is a "shotgun wedding" of TV networks.

For the last several weeks, we have seen one example of this "TV clash." There has been a thirty minute overlap between RaceDay on SPEED and TNT's pre-race live programming. This forced viewers to decide between continuing to watch the network not carrying the race, or leave a good NASCAR program in-progress and tune-into one on the "official" NASCAR network. No matter how you slice it, this was not good for the fans or the sport.

So, as ESPN steps-up to bat in the big time, it will be interesting to see how they share the spotlight with SPEED, a cable network that is used to being the "big boy" on the block when it comes to all things NASCAR. Check your calendar, the fun begins July 29th and lasts all the way to November 18th. It should be interesting.

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