Thursday, November 1, 2007

In-Progress At Texas: SPEED's Very Strange Friday

It certainly is a strange Friday for SPEED, as they have a wide variety of NASCAR programming on that is going to be fascinating to watch.

Noon Eastern Time has the Busch Series practice, scheduled for one hour. We can assume that Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond, and Larry McReynolds will be upstairs in the booth, and usually Wendy Venturini and Bob Dillner are on pit road.

The network returns with NASCAR Live at 2:30PM before presenting the Survival of the Fastest episode from Atlanta at 3:30PM and the strange little Go or Go Home show at 4PM.

After a break, the network comes back for Busch Series qualifying at 6:30PM and leads directly into the one hour live version of Trackside at 7:30PM. This block of programming could be tricky to do, depending on what has transpired on the track during the day. But, it needs to get done on time for one reason.

The Craftsman Trucks take to the TMS high banks at 9PM. SPEED has told me that during the 8:30PM live edition of The Set-Up pre-race show, Kevin and DeLana Harvick are going to have a major announcement about their Truck Series plans for 2008. Krista Voda hosts the pre-race, with Rick Allen and Phil Parsons calling the action for the Trucks. Ray Dunlap returns to SPEED to cover pit road along with Adam Alexander. I have no word on whether Michael Waltrip is also on the TV crew.

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In-Progress At Texas: ESPN's Big NASCAR Friday

As the season draws to a close, this is going to be an interesting Friday for the NASCAR on ESPN2 gang.

Beginning at 6AM, and running through until 10AM Eastern Time, the popular Mike and Mike in the Morning Show will be live at TMS. The show will originate from the cafeteria in the infield, and any NASCAR fan with a ticket for the infield can attend the show live. Both Jimmie Johnson the driver, and Jimmy Johnson the former NFL Coach of the Dallas Cowboys will be featured as guests. That should be fun.

At 1PM, ESPN2 shows the first NEXTEL Cup practice session live. This interesting twist is a positive one for the network. The normal ESPN NASCAR gang will be announcing, but I am not sure if they will be in the Infield Studio or in the booth. TMS is a tough place to call any on-track action from a studio in the infield.

A special early edition of NASCAR Now follows at 2:30PM for thirty minutes. Ryan Burr will probably be the host, but with this show....anything goes.

The Friday action is wrapped-up at 4:30PM with live NEXTEL Cup qualifying that is scheduled for two hours on ESPN2.

This is a big day of action for ESPN, and it certainly will lead up to one of the most exciting NEXTEL Cup races of the year.

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Mike Skinner Reminds ESPN The Truck Series Exists

The names of the drivers roll-off the tongue with ease. Mike Skinner, Ron Hornaday, Ted Musgrave, Johnny Benson, Jack Sprague, Dennis Setzer and Todd Bodine. The series is locked in the most exciting points battle in years. The action on the track since February at Daytona has clearly been the most exciting racing of the three NASCAR National Touring Series.

Joining the stars of the series have been Mark Martin, Kenny Schrader, Bill Lester, and Stacy Compton. Regular fans of the series know names like Travis Kvapil, Terry Cook and Rick Crawford. To many of these drivers, this series is their life as well as their career. They always come to race.

Thursday afternoon host Ryan Burr led ESPN2 viewers through a thirty minute edition of NASCAR Now. Right from the start of the show, Burr was promoting the excitement of the series and the fact that he would interview the points leader.

Coming out of the first commercial break, there was a "billboard." This is the sponsor mention that is given to a company that buys advertising time in the program. On this night, a red logo appeared and the audio boomed out "welcome back to NASCAR Now...presented by Craftsman."

Finally, the Craftsman Truck Series had found a way to be mentioned on ESPN's NASCAR Now. That would be the only way this series has found to get access to the ESPN airwaves on a regular basis. That way would be to spend money. This is the sad and tired saga of the Craftsman Truck Series on NASCAR Now.

Last Saturday was the most recent Truck Series race. It was at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the series running right alongside of the NEXTEL Cup gang. All of the ESPN on ABC personalities were on-hand to see the Truck race. All of the footage was broadcast live on a national cable TV network.

Monday night NASCAR Now was one hour in length. Tuesday and Wednesday...thirty minutes. Now, on Thursday night the first frames of video appeared that contained the Truck Series highlights from Atlanta. What they showed was Kyle Busch rounding the final corner, doing a burnout, and waving. They lasted all of fifteen seconds.

In this race, there was a battle between the series "regulars" and several Cup stars who had crossed-over and were simply running for the win. As mentioned earlier in The Daly Planet, Kyle Busch had his window net fall down while running at full speed in the race. His solution was to hold it up with one arm, drive with the other, and not slow down. He was doing one hundred and ninety miles an hour at the time. They fixed the net during a caution, and then he won the race.

Burr never mentioned what really happened, never showed the actual highlights of the whole race, and never followed-up on any stories. What he did instead was welcome one of NASCAR's veteran drivers onto the show, and then enjoy his charm and personality. Mike Skinner is a character, and he is built for the Truck Series in almost every way. This season has been fantastic for him, and the racing he has done with his fellow drivers has been the best on TV.

Skinner speaks in plain language and makes it clear from the start that he loves to race. He is great for the sport, and great for the series. Burr asked good questions about the title fight, and Skinner gave good answers. While Skinner talked, NASCAR Now showed lots of generic footage from the series. Skinner would up the interview by remarking that he would see NASCAR Now at the season's end. He is always the optimist.

When Skinner was gone, Burr threw to the next commercial. Before it started the announcer once again said, "brought to you by Craftsman, the official tools of NASCAR." Then, amazingly enough, there was another Craftsman commercial.

Every year, lots of college students decide to study Communications. This involves a mix of journalism, radio, television, and even some marketing studies. One course that everyone takes is called Ethics. What this class does is help the students to understand that facts have to be evaluated fairly in order for a newspaper, radio program, or TV show to be taken seriously. Reality has to be respected.

Since the start of the NASCAR season in February, ESPN's NASCAR Now has routinely treated the Craftsman Truck Series as if it simply did not exist. There are no highlights or results shown on the big one hour Monday wrap-up show. When ESPN expanded this show to sixty minutes early in the season, they stated it was specifically to add additional highlights and interviews.

Somehow, the ethics of reporting on one of NASCAR's three touring series took a backseat to the fact that the series happened to air on a network other than ESPN. There can be no other explanation.

ESPN has never had a reporter do interviews of Truck Series drivers after a race. They have never done a Monday feature on the Truck Series. When NEXTEL Cup drivers mention the Truck Series during an interview, they are immediately forced into a change of subject. It is a purposeful campaign that has affected the credibility of both NASCAR Now...and ESPN as a whole.

Last Monday night, one hour of NEXTEL Cup content was shown on NASCAR Now. Many story themes were repeated over-and-over again. Busch Series highlights consisted of a short music video with no announcer. Truck highlights consisted of exactly what they had been all year long...missing.

My old friend Bob Ley heads up the Emmy Award winning ESPN News unit that produces Outside The Lines. This show examines issues in sports that take place off the field. It is a great series, and has done some fantastic work. When Outside The Lines appears on ESPN, the show needs to be taken seriously by the viewers. The reputations of the journalists ride on the credibility of their information.

In the same company, on the same family of cable networks, and from the very same building comes the only daily NASCAR-themed news program that ESPN produces. When NASCAR Now takes to the air, the studio analysts, the "Insiders," and the field reporters want to be taken seriously by the NASCAR fans. Just like Outside The Lines, the entire success of NASCAR Now rides on its credibility.

Unfortunately, even the most basic NASCAR fans know that ethics in this particular TV series have long gone by the wayside. The tug-of-war between reporting on the sport as a whole, and reporting on only the ESPN slice of the NASCAR pie has been decided. The "slice" has won hands down.

One of the strategic roles of NASCAR Now was to support the Busch and Truck Series in addition to promoting the NEXTEL Cup Series and the Chase For The Championship. This was the TV series that would "overview" NASCAR, and would also give time to the regional series and their future stars.

Back in February, ESPN's man in-charge of both studio and event production addressed the debut of NASCAR Now. Norby Williamson said "In the history of ESPN, news and information have been a key part of our growth, and it's at the heart of everything we do. We're really proud to have the opportunity to extend that on a daily basis to NASCAR Now."

Little did NASCAR fans know that it was only going to be the news and information that ESPN "chose" to share. Little did they know that "extending the ESPN brand" to NASCAR meant stepping around the ethics of reporting and being force-fed one single slice of the pie for ten long months.

Now, as the NASCAR season comes to a close, ESPN might finally be realizing how much their network credibility has been damaged by over two hundred and fifty hours of this type of reporting on one of the biggest professional sports in North America. After watching this series all year long, the only question in my mind is...what else are they not telling us?

The Craftsman Truck Series races at 8:30PM Friday night under the lights of the Texas Motor Speedway.

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