Sunday, October 21, 2007

ESPN Needs To Admit NASCAR Problems

Short track racing brings a very different dynamic to the TV networks who try to cover the action live. Gone are the long pace laps of a Talladega, gone are the long caution periods of a road course. From start to finish, things on a short track happen fast, and demand the full attention of the TV crew until the very last corner.

The last several laps of the Sunday NEXTEL Cup race in Martinsville, VA summed-up the fan frustrations with the ESPN on ABC coverage this season. Under caution, the TV Producer chose to replay once again the previous close finish between Jimmie Johnson and one of his car owners, Jeff Gordon.

What they did not do was reset the field. What they did not do was reset the positions of "The Chasers." What they did not do was put their head in the game. It was elsewhere.

Once again, ESPN confirmed to sports fans that this "new ESPN approach" to all types of sports involves promoting the stars of the sport and trying to manufacture drama where, in reality, there is none. At seemingly the most critical times in live sports coverage, ESPN seems to step-out of the moment for the sake of controlling the action and creating their own reality.

Some of the top sportswriters across the nation are livid with this "new ESPN" and their "hype and drama" approach to TV sports coverage.

Phil Mushnick of the NY Post begs ESPN to try and fix Monday Night Football. He says this NFL Series under ESPN is "the most insufferable, big ticket live game series in National TV history."

Mushnick asks "why must every play signal the start of a windy, tortured analysis, lines drawn by Telestrator, the discussion of silly stats, forced cross-promotions, or a throw to Suzy Kolber on the sidelines?" He closes by saying Monday Night Football is "a must-see game delivered in a can't-stand TV package."

These are the same complaints of NASCAR fans with ESPN. Why all the hype? Why all the phony bells and whistles when what all of us came here to see is the race?

We came to see NASCAR racing before ESPN "re-arrived," and we also watch this sport when ESPN is not broadcasting it. Fans are here to focus on the race, not the fact ESPN is covering it. That message has fallen on deaf ears.

On the studio side, Richard Sandomir of the NY Times reviewed the new ESPN magazine show E:60 and found it to be a copy of HBO's Real Sports with "more bling" and hype. The ESPN content was flashy and dressed-up, but absolutely had no originality or exclusivity. The only thing it had was the fact that this time, ESPN was talking about it. How does that make it count?

ABC viewers had to sit through a NASCAR Countdown studio show from Martinsville that insulted the intelligence of even the most basic race fans. It actually included a re-air of a feature shown earlier in the week on NASCAR Now, ESPN's daily racing show. It was the driver's "race" to the airport when the real race was over. The thirty minute program was worthless.

The inane ramblings of Brad Daugherty mixed with the perky but un-informed comments of Suzy Kolber created a fatal mix for fan interest. The NASCAR Countdown show is a disaster that is continuing to implode.

Rusty Wallace sweats his way through a brief appearance and then flees for the relative safety of the broadcast booth. Wallace and Daugherty are not on the same page, and several times this season Wallace clearly restrained himself in his comments about the "analysis" of Daugherty. Even Dale Jarrett took Daugherty to task for his "knowledge" level.

Sunday at Martinsville, ESPN just seemed to be going through the motions. Dr. Jerry Punch cannot rise to the occasion when the intensity of a true play-by-play announcer is required. On short tracks, it is required a lot. Listening to both the radio call of the race and the TV commentary of Punch is mind altering.

What viewers are seeing and hearing on TV is often times completely the opposite of what the radio announcers are describing. This is the quandary of ESPN. The struggle with reality.

Rusty Wallace was the subject of rumors this week about being replaced. While ESPN quickly chose to assure viewers Wallace was "their man" in the booth, it is clear that the threesome currently announcing for ESPN is in trouble. Wallace and Petree disagree a lot, and in this race Wallace was exposed time-and-time again for having less knowledge about many aspects of racing than the experienced Petree.

It often seems that Punch is speaking to Wallace, and Petree is just an afterthought. In fact, it is the competency of Andy Petree that has kept many of these telecasts from becoming almost slapstick comedy. Earlier this season at Bristol, TN and this week at Martinsville, Punch was absolutely tongue-tied as to the action on the track. Only Petree's calm nature once again allowed the ESPN crew to sort things out and save face.

In the final laps at Martinsville, David Ragan spun to cause the caution that ended the race. Never was this addressed or replayed. Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled to the inside and never even re-started. ESPN never said why. As the field thundered across the start-finish line at full speed, the network never showed us that Ragan's car was still in the middle of the track.

At Talladega, on the final lap, ESPN missed the daring move of Jeff Gordon for the lead that eventually won him the race. A complete whiff. Sunday at Martinsville, ESPN never went "wide" and showed us the spun car, the pack continuing to race, or NASCAR waiting until the last moment to put out the caution. Nothing.

The network was obsessed with their own created storyline of Jeff vs. Jimmie for the win. They stayed glued to the leader and never left. Once again, what was actually happening in a sporting event was interfering with the storyline ESPN wanted to playout. They stayed with their reality, and missed everything on the track.

Phil Musnick's statements about Monday Night Football and Richard Sandomir's review of E:60 fit very nicely into this column about Martinsville. For whatever reason, the struggle seems to be between ESPN and reality right now. The battle over who will control the content of your sports TV broadcasts is new and confusing.

ESPN on Sunday got in all of their ABC commercials, all of their ESPN/ABC promos, all of their sponsored features, and all of their billboards for the various products. They showed us the Infield Studio, the SportsCenter updates, the Tech Center, and even the live "helmet cam" on a pit crew member.

What they did not show us was the race. What they did not follow-up were the stories. What they confirmed was that content is secondary and ESPN's network agenda is primary.

Emails and comments to this site contained phrases like "lost me as a fan" and "had enough for this season." One viewer wrote that he had been a dedicated fan since 1959 and "he was done" simply because of the "horrible TV coverage." One female viewer called it a "sad, sad mess."

ESPN and NASCAR need to roll-up their sleeves and step directly into this sinking ship of TV ratings right now. Regardless of the money, regardless of the egos, and regardless of the public humiliation, something must be done before things get even worse.

By the close of The Chase, the TV audience for NASCAR may have been so deeply affected by the poor coverage of TNT and ESPN that the sport itself may take years to recover. If it recovers at all.

Update SportsCenter: Kenny Mayne spent the NASCAR highlights portion of SC referring to Jeff Gordon as "Gordo." He referred to Jimmie Johnson's #48 as the "per diem car" because that is the amount of money ESPN staffers get to eat per day when traveling. When Gordon's catch-can slipped out, and the gas man was forced to stop fueling, Mayne said "he dropped the catch-can, whatever that is." The NASCAR highlights were treated as a joke from start to finish on this national show which was taped Sunday night, as repeated many times on ESPN Monday morning.

Please note: This column was linked by on his articles/links page. We appreciate his continued support and want to thank him for his help this season.

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 and leave your opinion.

Early "RaceDay" Running On Empty For SPEED

It certainly has been one of the hottest topics for fans of the outstanding NASCAR coverage delivered every race weekend on SPEED. On one of the key weekends of the NASCAR season, SPEED chose to move their Sunday morning program called RaceDay.

This two hour live program is a mix of news, conversation, and features. It has struck a chord with fans, and this season has been scheduled in a position to overlap the ESPN/ABC pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown.

While SPEED has undergone many changes over the last several years, they find themselves in the position of continuing to host live Formula-1 coverage. Voiced-over in SPEED's network headquarters in Charlotte, NC, this series has a cult following in the US that is dedicated to the point of fanatical.

SPEED has clung to this base of fans, and often appears to cater to them more than any other fanbase on the website. Prior to SPEED investing in the multiple at-track programs on the NASCAR circuit, it was the open-wheel and Rally coverage that kept the network on the TV map.

Sunday morning, SPEED faced a choice that ESPN had also faced many times during their first decade of growth. Two high-profile and successful programs were locked in a Mexican stand-off. Both wanted to be on the air at 11:30AM on Sunday morning.

Formula-1 had the promise of a season-ending championship fight. The drivers had been battling all season long on a wide variety of circuits and in very diverse weather conditions. It was going to be a great live event from Brazil.

RaceDay has come into its own this season, and has been a tightly-knit crew of TV personalities who have momentum on their side. The failure of the ESPN on ABC crew to present a viable pre-race show has played into the hands of SPEED who took a big chance when scheduling RaceDay to directly compete with NASCAR Countdown.

So, SPEED faced a tough decision anyway you cut it. This was a classic case of a TV program vs. a TV event. The program was RaceDay, which has no actual "start time" associated with it, where the F-1 race certainly has a scheduled race start.

Moving RaceDay later was not an option, as the NASCAR race would be underway. Tape delaying the F-1 coverage until 1:30PM Eastern Time would have disrupted a full season of live coverage on SPEED. There were two possible solutions.

One, move RaceDay up to 9:30AM and let it run until the F-1 program at 11:30AM. Secondly, make RaceDay available on a different distribution pathway. This could have been another Fox Cable Network like FX, Fuel, or FoxSportsNet. SPEED's decision was to move RaceDay to 9:30AM, and keep the Formula-1 race live at 11:30AM.

As The Daly Planet is NASCAR-themed, we are going to discuss how these changes affected the RaceDay program. Essentially, SPEED removed about four of the six bullets in the RaceDay gun with this change. Removed were the live elements that fans had come to expect, and remaining were the RaceDay on-set announcers and the pre-produced features.

John Roberts and his crew kept brave faces, and the NASCAR fans turned-out at the track, but the program was missing its soul. The production crew worked with the content and conditions they had, switching the focus of the show from live reporting to pre-produced features and conversation.

The single person who paid the highest price for this change was Wendy Venturini. Normally the centerpiece of this show, Venturini found herself working in a time frame where the cars were still in their garage stalls, and the drivers in their RV's. Her "target rich" environment was gone.

The show moved into a cycle where a feature was presented, then discussed. Solid taped pieces were used on a variety of subjects. Clint Bowyer, Junior Johnson and Doug Yates were all used for content. Hermie Sadler, Ricki Rachtman, and the RaceDay panel filled-in the blanks with extended conversations.

This edition of RaceDay had none of the spontaneous interviews and exciting background activity that fans have come to expect. Inside the track, Venturini did her best to arrange some interviews and update some news, but it was not the same.

NASCAR is high-profile and vital to the continued success of SPEED. RaceDay is the anchor of this franchise, and sets-up the other programs and personalities on the network. This program has been on-the-air every race weekend since February. Moving it with only four races to go was a tough decision.

Maybe Wendy Venturini said it best while she stood frustrated outside the driver's meeting all alone. "As soon as they get done with the driver's meeting, we are going are running out of time...I do know that." There would be no drivers interviewed, no pit walks, and no real version of RaceDay this Sunday morning.

NASCAR fans got the short end of the stick from SPEED. This situation shows the network slowly growing into a TV outlet that is going to need a second pathway of program distribution in the future. Maybe, this conflict on Sunday helped SPEED to understand that their future as a big-time sports network may have finally arrived.

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 and leave your opinion.

In-Progress At Martinsville: NEXTEL Cup On ABC

Sunday afternoon at 1:00PM Eastern Time ABC will begin coverage of the NEXTEL Cup Series in Martinsville, VA.

Coverage will begin with a thirty minute edition of NASCAR Countdown, hosted by Suzy Kolber. Alongside of Kolber on this pre-race show will be Brad Daugherty, ESPN's "voice of the fans." In the past several weeks, Rusty Wallace has also joined the panel in the new ESPN Infield Studio.

At 1:30PM, Dr. Jerry Punch takes over and leads Andy Petree and Wallace through this classic short-track race. Supporting these announcers will be pit road reporters Mike Massaro, Allen Bestwick, Jamie Little, and Dave Burns.

There was no mention of Brent Musburger in the ESPN press materials for this event.

This page will host your comments on the pre-race show and the race itself. You can comment before, during, or after the telecast. Please limit your comments to television related issues, and keep your posts within the rules located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop-by and visit us at The Daly Planet.

In-Progress At Martinsville: RaceDay On SPEED

This Sunday morning at 9:30AM Eastern Time SPEED presents NASCAR RaceDay from Martinsville, VA. This program is airing early because of the live Formula-1 race that SPEED is carrying at 11:30AM.

RaceDay is hosted by John Roberts, and features Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace as analysts. Hermie Sadler is used to offer the track description and the viewer ride-a-long in SPEED-1, the network's camera car. Ricki Rachtman appears on the program to participate in the weekly race winner picks.

News and features on the program are offered by Wendy Venturini. There are only several weeks left in the 2007 NASCAR season, and Venturini's name is all over the place when it comes to current and anticipated openings in "NASCAR TV land." She has worked very hard on this program, and it will be interesting to see what additional role she plays, or where she lands for next year despite her current TV contract.

This page will host your comments about this early edition of RaceDay on SPEED. To add your comment, simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the instructions. Please read the rules for posting on the right side of the main page, and thanks for taking the time to visit The Daly Planet.