Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When "Breaking News" Means Breaking The Rules (2nd Update 12PM Eastern)

There is an interesting dynamic at work in ESPN2's daily NASCAR Now TV series. After a difficult 2007 season, things have changed.

This year, NASCAR Now has been nothing short of fantastic. Well, that would be fantastic right up to 6PM Eastern Time on Tuesday night. Then, things changed again. This time, it was not for the better.

Sports fans know the names Chris Mortensen and Kirk Herbstreit. Both of these veteran ESPN on-air reporters have suffered big dents in their credibility for one reason. That would be a little phrase that is currently all the rage at the ESPN network headquarters. They call it "breaking news."

Both of these men went on-the-air with exclusive national "breaking news" stories. They were both totally wrong. They had not suggested something would happen, and they did not discuss the possible scenarios. They put rumor and innuendo inside the "news umbrella" and got burned.

Last season, the pressure to create "breaking news" on NASCAR Now put several of the show's "Insiders" in some bad situations. Fans may remember the columns by David Poole and other veteran NASCAR media members ridiculing ESPN for trying to pretend that somehow "breaking news" had suddenly just happened right before showtime at 6PM.

Tuesday night, veteran reporter Terry Blount took a very deep breath and tried to float as "breaking news" one of the most ridiculous items ever. Certainly, Blount's facts were easy to remember. Nothing was incorrect or misleading. Perhaps, the one fact that may be the most important to remember is that absolutely nothing in his entire report was news.

For those of you that missed it, here it is in a nutshell. Over the weekend, Michael Waltrip suggested to Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker that restrictor plate racing and higher banking might sell more tickets. That is Zucker, pictured above with some less than happy fans. Zucker then tells ESPN reporters Terry Blount and Angelique Chengelis, on the day after Zucker's weekend disaster, that she "might" consider it.

Bear in mind, Zucker has not spoken to her superiors at ISC about this issue. She has not spoken to NASCAR about this issue. She did not appear on NASCAR Now live or even in a pre-recorded interview on Tuesday to address this issue.

What Blount tried to peddle as news was nothing more than a marketing ploy by a desperate executive who is facing an increasingly hostile NASCAR fan base and a failing track.

Unfortunately, the NASCAR Now Tuesday crew chose to break-out all the bells and whistles with the big "breaking news" graphic proudly displayed in front of Blount, and then poor Andy Petree being brought-in for what should have been casual conversation about an on-going racetrack issue.

Blount added a nice touch by posting his story about this topic after 5PM Tuesday on ESPN.com, so he could point at the website as the location of his "breaking news." As the topper, host Ryan Burr asked NASCAR fans to vote on the idea of somehow changing the track into something that would require a restrictor plate. Of course, in order to do that you must go to ESPN.com first.

The credibility that Allen Bestwick, Nicole Manske and the entire cast of NASCAR on ESPN announcers have worked hard to build-up could easily be brought down by this type of ridiculous hype. The memories of Doug Banks and Erik Kuselias are not that far gone for many NASCAR fans. What ESPN tried to "sell" last season as NASCAR TV was often nothing more than sensationalism and innuendo.

It was the reporters, like Blount, who kept this show from sinking slowly in the West, no pun intended. To see this type of bad decision-making on a day when there was so much real NASCAR news to relay was tough to take.

The knife that twists slowly in the back of the fans is that Blount tried to sell the fact that Zucker wanted to know "what the fans thought" before she would move on the idea. Anyone with even a hint of NASCAR media experience knows the issues associated with this speedway have almost all been fan-related.

Reporter Paul Oberjuerge of the San Bernadino Sun says "the track's disingenuous marketing probably is far more effective at alienating traditional NASCAR fans than in attracting racing newbies hoping to spot Uma Thurman and George Clooney in the stands." In his opinion, the time and effort spent on trying to convince fans that the track is near Hollywood and that celebrities abound is the cause that has sunk this ship.

"Television images of sailboats, beaches and the Hollywood Walk of Fame may fool TV viewers on the other side of the country," continued Oberjeurge. "But those are people who can't begin to grasp the cultural, economic and lifestyle chasm that separates the (San Bernadino) area...from Hollywood and West L.A."

"Eventually, Zucker & Co. will realize the Hollywood campaign is a dry hole," writes Oberjeurge. "And perhaps they will take this track back toward people who made NASCAR such a success. Wage-earning, blue-collar, middle-class and not members of the Screen Actors Guild. You know, like the people who fill the stands at Phoenix twice a year."

Contrasting the reality of this article and the many like it written over the past few days with Blount's "breaking news" really shows how easy it is for NASCAR Now to get off-track. If the aim was to capture casual viewers with the flashy "breaking news" graphics and then get them to sign-up for ESPN.com and vote, they probably succeeded.

If the aim was to continue to grow this TV series toward additional credibility with the NASCAR fans, the entire story never should have made it to air. Assigning a reporter to speak with Zucker, lining up a reaction from her superior Lesa Kennedy at ISC and then speaking with Waltrip about his idea should have been done first.

Nothing about this story required immediate action. The conversation in question took place days ago. The only thing "breaking" on ESPN2 was the credibility of a TV series that started off the year on a very good note.

Update 1: Here are the two columns readers have been asking about, one is from Jeff Hammond and the other from Larry McReynolds. Click on this link to go there directly.

Update 2: Click here for the link to Bob Margolis blog on Yahoo! Sports.

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