Monday, February 4, 2008

Darrell Waltrip Shows-Up On ESPN's "NASCAR Now"

It was a full two minutes of mayhem and music before Ryan Burr said hello and started the 2008 version of ESPN2's NASCAR Now.

Burr is known to be a fast-paced, news-oriented announcer and his first segment was no exception.

Rather then set-up the NASCAR Now menu and introduce the new on-air announce team, Burr sent viewers into a pre-produced feature focusing on matching the drivers to the cars in the Sprint Cup Series. It was an interesting way to get started.

Then, Carl Edwards suddenly appeared "just to talk." With ESPN2 handling all of the Nationwide Series races, was it any surprise that the Busch Series champ from 2007 would be the first guest? Edwards is a nice guy, but ESPN's fascination with both Edwards and his mom at the close of last season was very strange.

Burr introduced video of the top ten Daytona 500 finishes, and then who should appear on-camera but NASCAR on Fox Lead Analyst Darrell Waltrip. With all due respect, why would DW appear to talk about the upcoming Daytona 500 when viewers had not yet seen ESPN's new addition and former Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett?

DW on ESPN is either opening a new level of respect and understanding between NASCAR TV partners, or a very interesting production decision on the part of the NASCAR Now staff. Burr actually slipped a Daytona 500 promo into the end of the interview, and even included the dreaded "Fox" word. My, how times have changed since Erik Kuselias.

Reporter Marty Smith appeared twenty-two minutes into this thirty minute show, and focused on the biggest story of the season, Dale Earnhard Jr. at Hendrick Racing. Smith picked-up right where he left off, with a fast-paced and informative style that fits right in with Burr.

Carl Edwards came back for the "Final Lap," and answered some really awkward questions posed to him by Burr. Some of the issues raised were just plain strange.

This show was interesting not for what was included, but for what was missing. There was no update on the Daytona, Las Vegas or Fontana testing. There was nothing about the first season of the COT. The Truck Series was never mentioned.

Strangest of all, there was no introduction of Allen Bestwick and Nicole Manske as Burr's co-hosts of the show. One sentence would have sufficed.

The most recent ESPN press release detailed sixteen on-air "talent" that would be participating in this program. It included the high-profile new NASCAR team of Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. It also included Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty, the four ESPN pit reporters and the studio regulars like Boris Said and DJ Copp. Just one little question, where were they all?

Even if the network pre-produced a feature introducing the new line-up and what would be different this season, it would have been nice. Instead, a two minute music video from "Colourslide" with lots of crashes opened the show.

Once again, perhaps to ESPN's surprise, NASCAR fans have been watching SPEED for the last three weeks and are all caught-up with most of these news stories. ESPN-owned helps as well.

Finally, there was no promo of Thursday's big Media Day at Daytona. There will be three live hours on ESPN News, signaling a new committment of that network to the sport. Brand new host/reporter Nicole Manske will be on-hand with Rusty Wallace to anchor the coverage.

So, only Marty Smith from the big ESPN cast was present for NASCAR Now show one. The other two guests were NASCAR on Fox's Darrell Waltrip and from SPEED the co-host of The Chase Is On Carl Edwards.

What an interesting way to crank-up a new series that was supposed to feature three anchors, lots of guests, and a ton of ESPN NASCAR personalities. Still, this was a positive step from the issues of last February. Maybe the glass is actually half full.

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SPEED Offers Three Days Of Season Previews

Steve Byrnes has been putting in a lot of time in the SPEED studios in Charlotte, NC. Monday, he began three days of team previews that air each night at 7PM Eastern Time.

Leading the way was Hendrick Racing, which seems very appropriate. Created with footage taped during the Charlotte Media Tour, SPEED put together a true preview program including soundbites from the key drivers, crew chiefs and owners. It was nice to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. included in a much more comfortable environment at Hendrick.

Moving on to DEI, SPEED used a lot of good interview footage mixed with the correct B-roll that helped to match the driver seen on-camera with his 2008 car. The DEI crew looks like a company with something to prove.

Childress was up next, and Clint Bowyer continues to be a driver to watch. Along with Jeff Burton, this mix certainly was presented as balanced and when topped-off by Kevin Harvick, it contains just the right amount of intensity.

The Roush Fenway guys still seem to be apprehensive, and it showed. The COT challenge was addressed by Roush himself, and with the resources that Roush brings to the table, there may be a Ford in the mix before the season ends.

The Gibbs guys put on a brave face where both Toyota and Kyle Busch were concerned. This should be one of the most fascinating stories from both a performance and personnel perspective. What an interesting mix of characters.

Tops on the team menu where "unknown" is concerned is Ganassi Racing. Soundbites from Reed Sorenson, Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti showed three completely different perspectives on the exact same season. There is no doubt Franchitti will be a big part of the NASCAR story this year.

These programs provide a nice wrap-up of driver sound that may have only been seen during the two days of the recent Media Tour. Put together in a nice package, this is an easy way to sit back for thirty minutes and put faces with places before the season begins.

From a television perspective, it certainly shows that there will be no shortage of stories and plot-lines to follow beginning in just two short weeks.

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ESPN Classic Showcases NASCAR In Transition

The 1999 Daytona 500 was the feature presentation on ESPN Classic Monday afternoon.

Airing at 2PM, and clearly intended for your DRV or TiVo, fans were once again reminded of the "CBS Sports style" of presenting this race with the focus on excitement.

Free of goofy gimmicks, inside jokes and intrusive graphics, the on-track action in this race made it very clear to both the announcers and the fans that what we were witnessing was a sport in transition.

The familiar tones of Greg Gumbel opened the telecast, with Gumbel serving in much the same role as ESPN's Brent Musburger this past season. I believe "show host" was the official title.

It seems somewhat ironic that Gumbel started at ESPN and then moved to CBS, while Musburger started at CBS and is now a staple on ESPN. This validates once again that the only constant in TV is change.

Both Ken Squier and Mike Joy were heard in this telecast, as the transition theme continued. Joy was on the way in as the future announcer of the Daytona 500, and Squier was on the way out. If not for the hard work and dogged determination of Squier, the sport may never have established a real "toe-hold" on network TV.

While the highlights of races on ABC's Wide World of Sports made it a curiosity, only the determined and focused CBS Sports coverage of the Daytona 500 made it a "real sport" to millions of Americans. Today, every lap of every race in all three national touring series is televised live and so is much of the practice and qualifying.

As we have mentioned time-and-time again throughout these last five ESPN Classic programs, the one production element that immediately strikes the viewer is how wide the Directors kept the cameras in those days. Clearly, the idea was to treat the whole field equally, and then zoom or cut to a specific pass or incident.

Few visual moments are more powerful than the Director cutting to a wideshot of the backstretch at Daytona moments before the field thunders into view. That one moment of an empty racetrack registers in the mind, and then suddenly it is invaded by forty-three very fast machines locked in tight formation. Is there anything better?

As the CBS production team proved, using a wideshot is also the best way to convey speed. Other than the single "speed shot" fixed camera where the cars just zoom by, a wideshot of the pack as they run shows the infield scenery flying by and conveys a sense of speed that is sorely lacking in today's "leader dominated" coverage.

Buddy Baker and Ned Jarrett were very good in this race at treating every driver equally. This field reflected the veterans like Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, and Dale Jarrett. It also featured the youth movement of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Elliott Sadler. All of them were fast.

This is the race that went 96 laps before a caution. Back then, with a ten thousand dollar bonus for leading at halfway, fans actually saw some racing right before the midpoint of the race. Once in the pits, CBS unveiled the "triple split" effect on the pit stops, and was always right on top of the action.

Another interesting element featured in this race was CBS cutting back from commercial break to catch the big crash triggered by Dale Jarrett. Mike Joy immediately heightened the excitement with his commentary, and the key replays were not seen until CBS made sure all drivers were OK.

As usual, the entire announce team did a good job of building up the finish in terms of fuel and tire issues. With ten laps to go, this race became exactly the kind of barn-burner that NASCAR wanted the fans to see.

The finish was outstanding, and to see a fresh-faced Jeff Gordon in Victory Lane and hear his words once again was certainly interesting for all kinds of fans. This type of programming really hammered home the fact that "old school" NASCAR races have value on TV networks like ESPN Classic.

This series ends next Monday, and then all six of the races replay after the Daytona Nationwide Series race in two weeks. Hopefully, with ESPN now starting their second season of NASCAR coverage, this type of programming will become a lot more frequent on the one ESPN TV network specifically designated to show us the past.

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TV Notes This Week

ESPN Classic continues the historic Daytona 500 series on Monday at 2PM with the 1999 race that featured Jeff Gordon and Earnhart Sr. racing for the win. This is a two hour program for those of you recording it.

SPEED also returns on Monday after covering pre-season testing with three days of team previews at 7PM Eastern Time each night. Hosted from the SPEED studios, the network will look at the contenders for the Sprint Cup Championship in 2008.

The big story is that NASCAR Now returns on ESPN2 at 6PM. This first thirty minute program is going to serve to show-off the new format, the new announcers, and hopefully help to begin a new chapter in the relationship between ESPN and the NASCAR fans. Ryan Burr, Nicole Manske and Allen Bestwick are the three co-hosts.

Set your DVR or TiVo for Thursday at Noon Eastern Time as ESPN News puts NASCAR front and center for three hours as Daytona International Speedway holds its annual Media Day.

The interesting part of this "news coverage" is that veteran reporter Mike Massaro has been moved to the ESPN Studios in Connecticut to co-host alongside of Ryan Burr.

Let me give you one guess as to who will be hosting the ESPN News coverage from Daytona? That's right, the new kid on the block Nicole Manske will be in Daytona joined by Rusty Wallace for three hours of live interviews and conversation.

Friday at 7PM Eastern Time is the kick-off of Dale Junior's five part TV series called Shifting Gears. This post-produced series follows his transition from DEI to Hendrick, and promises some new footage and interesting perspectives on those issues. We shall see.

NASCAR TV really begins to get cranked-up this week, and it should be fun to see all the new personalities and programs. Both ESPN and SPEED have made significant changes to their NASCAR TV packages, and we can only hope for positive results.

There will be columns about several of these programs after they air. Please feel free to add your comments below. Thanks.