Saturday, July 28, 2007

Busch Race Finish Lost For ESPN Viewers

There was a good mood going when ESPN took to their airwaves with the Busch Series race from ORP as a part of the big Indy weekend. Fan favorite Mary Reid was back, and alongside of him in a "fill-in" role was former Busch Series driver Randy LaJoie. Down on pit road, ESPN broke out veteran Jack Arute along with newcomer Shannon Spake and IndyCar's Vince Welsh.

As a new group of announcers, things went quite well after the initial on-camera "opening" segment. LaJoie was not very happy to be dressed in a coat and tie with the nation staring at him, and looked as if he was trying to decide between fleeing or throwing-up. Thankfully, he chose to stay.

The Busch race at this track is normally a beating-and-banging affair, even if the second groove at the bottom comes in. This was no exception, with the normal spins and hot tempers. However, it was a good mix of veterans and newcomers racing, so it had a lot of fun elements.

Marty Reid eventually got Randy Lajoie to relax, and his funny and entertaining personality finally got a chance to come through. In person, LaJoie is hilarious. Reid worked hard to get Randy in the flow, and he responded by keeping the good information and the good humor constant throughout the telecast.

Jack Arute is a little rusty, and his reporting was spotty at best. Both Spake and Welch worked hard on pit road to keep on top of the breaking stories, and ESPN deserves credit for quickly reporting on two crew member injuries that looked a lot worse on video than they were in real life.

As the race wound down, ESPN seemed poised for a classic finish with the entire field streaming nose-to-tail for the line banging off of each other. Veteran Greg Biffle was first, and trying to hold off the open wheel veteran Jason Leffler. Toyota's David Reutimann took some hard knocks in the closing laps, but Leffler got around both drivers and was in front as the checkered flag fell.

Unfortunately for TV viewers, the only people who saw any car other than the winner finish the race were in the stands. ESPN fell squarely in the same trap that got Fox Sports earlier this year. For some strange reason, the Director and Producer chose to show TV viewers nationwide the winning pit crew jumping around instead of the entire field of cars crossing the finish line.

If this had been a superspeedway, it might have been OK. But, as it happened, there were several incidents before, during, and after the finish that ESPN totally missed because of this one mistake. NASCAR fans had to watch the winner slowing down and waving even as other cars spun, bumped, or continued to settle some issues that may have arose on the final lap.

Marty Reid struggled to keep his demeanor while describing the "other things" going on after the finish that were different from the sanitized version that ESPN chose to show the TV audience. What a shame that a good race, with a good announcing team, could be ruined by one bad decision from the TV truck.

I never saw my driver finish. I think he was in the top five. Many fans never saw their driver finish, even if he was fighting tooth-and-nail for a spot on the final lap. Just like Fox, the TV crew decided that they have the right to limit the finish of the race to just the car, or cars, that they choose. That is fundamentally wrong.

Does anyone believe that there was even one fan at the track that watched the winner of the race cross the stripe and then put their hands over their eyes? That makes absolutely no sense when you have over thirty cars screaming toward the finish line at high speed on a short track. How then can the TV Producer and Director decide that anyone watching at home should see the winner, and then see nothing?

If ESPN decides that fans only need to see the winner of Sunday's Brickyard 400 cross the finish line and no other cars, there is going to be a problem. ESPN might have gotten away with this Busch mistake because only The Daly Planet has the guts to address this issue, but if they try to pull-it off on the NEXTEL Cup race, even the "gravy train" national NASCAR media types might perk-up and notice.

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Sunday Showdown: SPEED's "RaceDay" vs. ESPN's "Countdown"

TV sports contracts are very big documents. They require lawyers, negotiations, and lots of maintenance to see that they are working properly. Many professional organizations like the PGA Tour, the NBA and the NFL use those contracts to address all kinds of issues. One of those is the TV competition.

NASCAR itself has only been in the TV business for a relatively short period of time. While the move by NASCAR to put as many races on "free" broadcast network TV was good for the sport, it also brought in a network that did nothing to support NASCAR other than show their contract races. That network was NBC.

This season, NBC is out and ESPN is in as the TV partner carrying the final seventeen NEXTEL Cup races. As a part of the contract, NASCAR demanded that ESPN put the final ten "Chase" races on the ESPN-owned broadcast network, ABC. This weekend, the ESPN contract begins with The Brickyard 400.

Long before ESPN came back into the sport, SpeedVision had been purchased by the Fox Cable Network group, and re-branded into SPEED Channel. As the network felt its way through an expanding relationship with NASCAR, they began to build a franchise by providing the "support" programming that the broadcast networks could not.

Simply by positioning themselves at the NEXTEL Cup track, SPEED generates more than ten live and tape delayed programs about the sport. One of the strongest is the NEXTEL Cup pre-race show called RaceDay. Originally one hour long, the show is now two hours in length and features hard news, original interviews, and multiple guests.

Earlier this year, The Daly Planet referred to RaceDay as the "Super Wal-Mart" of NASCAR TV. SPEED has done a good job of including the serious, the funny, and the informative in a program that is very easy to watch as fans wait for the race to begin. RaceDay has become one of the strongest franchises on SPEED among all their programming.

On Sunday, ESPN will unveil the NEXTEL Cup version of their pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown. This program has been done for the Busch Series in a thirty minute form, but Sunday marks the one hour version of the program. ESPN struggled with the early episodes of this show, but decided on TV veteran Suzy Kolber as their host.

For ESPN, this will be their first pre-race NEXTEL Cup show in history. They have put a lot of work into this concept, and have a big crew at the track operating in support of Countdown. Brent Musburger will be the "telecast host" while basketball great Brad Daugherty will be alongside Kolber in ESPN's new Infield Studio. Booth analyst Rusty Wallace will visit the set for the first portions of the show.

RaceDay begins at noon, and goes until 2PM Eastern Time. NASCAR Countdown begins at 1PM and goes until 2PM. This puts one hour of overlap between the two programs. One hour where the "official" TV network pre-race show overlaps with the established NASCAR TV partner who has been broadcasting for years. How interesting.

SPEED is betting that fans already know RaceDay, and they will choose to "hang" with the popular show. ESPN is betting that as the "new kids in town" they will bring the many viewers without digital cable directly to Countdown. Many cable systems require a digital upgrade to view SPEED, where ESPN is considered part of most "basic cable" packages.

On-the-air however, it should be interesting. RaceDay reporter Wendy Venturini will be live in the NASCAR garage on national TV while ESPN is also live with their reporters in the same area, looking for the same stories and interviews. Did I mention this should be interesting?

There is no other situation like this for ESPN, and it is going to be interesting to see how long they put up with it. ESPN has the exclusive TV rights to the race itself once their broadcast begins at 2PM, but NASCAR is the "referee" for the pre-race portions of any live TV program.

So, this gives viewers a choice. ESPN puts its best foot forward with Suzy Kolber, and SPEED returns the popular John Roberts. Fans can tune-into ESPN for a fresh perspective, and as a relief from the horrible Countdown To Green show offered by TNT. For ESPN, its an absolutely clean slate.

SPEED needs to step-up and work hard to keep the viewers attention for this key second hour of RaceDay. No doubt Roberts and company will have something special planned to try and keep the fans with SPEED. Either way, as we mentioned earlier, it is certainly going to be interesting. Who will you be watching?

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 stopping by and leaving your opinion.

Rain Puts ESPN And SPEED Head-To-Head On Saturday

The fall-out of the weather problems at Indy was never more obvious then late Saturday morning and early Saturday afternoon. As SPEED followed its regular schedule of shows from the SPEED stage, ESPN scrambled its programming line-up to deal with changes in the NEXTEL Cup practice schedule.

The result was exactly the thing that ESPN had been trying to avoid at all costs. They were now live on-the-air simultaneously with SPEED in a head-to-head competition for viewers. It certainly did make things interesting.

As The Daly Planet wrote in a Thursday column, ESPN has found itself basically surrounded by SPEED at Indy. Safely inside the racetrack, ESPN has avoided even acknowledging that there is another network present at the track. Meanwhile, SPEED has a comfortable set-up across the street where viewers can watch SPEED's weekend line-up of live programming.

Perhaps, the best moments of Saturday came while ESPN was live on-the-air with NEXTEL Cup practice, and SPEED was on-the-air with NASCAR Live. While Suzy Kolber led the team on the ESPN side, Steve Byrnes led SPEED's NASCAR Live effort.

Viewers were put in the unusual position of watching two NASCAR TV partners try to cover the exact same practice session. While ESPN has the "rights" to the practice, SPEED was often showing on-track activity as well during their show. Certainly, the thrust of the ESPN coverage was the on the track, while SPEED concentrated on explaining what teams were doing what, and interviewing drivers and crew chiefs.

The most intense part of this unexpected head-to-head contest pitted SPEED's Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond against ESPN's Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree. There is never a time where two TV networks are covering the same NEXTEL Cup race live, so this practice session coverage was about as close as things will ever come.

Both teams of analysts delivered good information, with the advantage going to ESPN who could use the live on-track coverage, their own pit reporters, and Tim Brewer in the new "tech center" to fully integrate all the on-going stories. Hammond and McReynolds were contained on a set outside the track, basically using their pit reporters and watching the computer update the practice laps.

We knew that ESPN's arrival in the NASCAR community was going to result in some flexible scheduling and on-air changes, but it certainly was amazing that SPEED was able to broadcast live while ESPN was simultaneously on-the-air with NEXTEL Cup practice. Once ESPN discovers that someone else was broadcasting quality coverage of exactly the same activity that ESPN is paying millions to have as "exclusive," it should be interesting to see how these types of changes play-out in the future.

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.

John Kernan Returns To ESPN Motorsports

Just a quick note for veteran NASCAR fans. Former RPM2Night host John Kernan has returned to ESPN as a field reporter on ESPN's coverage of the NHRA tour.

Kernan is currently the host of The Driver's Seat, a daily morning radio program on Sirius Satellite Radio.

This ESPN assignment puts Kernan back in the ESPN family of motorsports, and may set the table for future assignments. Your comments are welcome.

"Trackside" On Friday Was Just What Indy Needed

On a dreary Friday in Indy, NASCAR was absolutely stalled at the gate. The clouds were overhead, the rain was coming, and everyone knew that the on-track schedule was going to be out the window. It was the first day of a big three day racing weekend, the first day of a seventeen week stretch, and the first NEXTEL Cup race on ESPN in seven years.

Somebody had to step-up and inject the fun back in this day. Something had to get race fans back to being excited about this race. It had to be someone who can poke fun at himself, play well with others, and keep a sense of humor under any circumstances...including a day of rain.

This situation called for the one man who has quietly established himself as a NASCAR TV favorite among both the fans and racers. Someone who perhaps will be seen a lot more on NASCAR TV in the future. That man is Steve Byrnes, and his show is Trackside on SPEED.

Unless you have been living in a basement without cable TV, you should probably still be laughing from the Chicagoland version of this show. Panelist Elliott Sadler, who is an outstanding athlete, threw a fastball to "batter" Jeff Hammond to show off his major league arm. Unfortunately, even in full protective gear, Sadler's pitch beaned Hammond like a Nolan Ryan fastball.

In typical Trackside style, Hammond opened the Indy show with half a baseball pinned to the back of his head and still complaining of a headache. Larry McReynolds and Byrnes could not get enough of this one. The best part of this show is the fact that these four guys work well with each other, and each one is given an opportunity to shine in their own right.

Steve Byrnes has been hosting Trackside, along with NASCAR Live, for the entire season. Like any good host, he builds on the stories and experiences of the previous race. Watching Trackside is a double whammy. Viewers get the current news and information while also looking back on the past races and keeping things in perspective. This has been a tremendous struggle for other NASCAR TV partners.

No one evokes more eye-rolling among the NASCAR TV gang than Kenny Wallace. "Herman" has countless jokes out there about his ability to talk non-stop until the people around him beg for mercy. On Trackside, infield reporter John Roberts gave "Herman" a chance to talk, and the Trackside gang took full advantage.

Nothing was funnier than seeing Hammond, Sadler, McReynolds, and Byrnes pretend to be asleep on the SPEED stage while a "Kenny clock" runs on the screen. Without being able to see what was going on, Kenny kept talking and talking and talking. It was hilarious. This is why fans have come to enjoy this program on a regular basis. They have fun.

On this one show, the panel welcomed Casey Mears to talk about his Indy connections and his family history. Then, Kasey Kahne stopped by to talk about his year and the Evernham team's progress. He also took a good-natured ribbing for his now famous "Yak" commercial. Finally, Max Siegel from DEI stopped by to explain the DEI/Ginn merger and update the fans on why and how things took place.

What more could viewers want on a dark, dreary, and rainy Friday from Indy? On stage was Larry McReynolds, the savior of the TNT race package and NASCAR guru. Jeff Hammond always has a good opinion and a solid race perspective. Elliot Sadler has turned out to be a good TV personality, and his gaffs including falling off the stage in Charlotte and beaning Hammond have been hilarious.

Finally, the heart-and-soul of the program is Steve Byrnes. He has moved himself up a notch in the NASCAR pecking order, and now finds himself poised to step-up to a play-by-play role on a regular basis after his hosting of NASCAR practice sessions on SPEED. His versatility in the studio, on the infield stage, and in the broadcast booth have made him a sought-after property for next season.

If you haven't seen Trackside, its a good program to put on the DVR and view before the race. Its also a blast to watch live, and contains a lot of the good-natured fun that SPEED has captured in their RaceDay program. As SPEED and ESPN continue to share the NASCAR spotlight for the rest of the season, Trackside is a home run for the network and a blast for the fans.

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 stopping by.