Monday, March 31, 2008

Baseball Blues Hit "NASCAR Now"

It was somewhat ironic that Brent Musburger was the play-by-play announcer on the opening day Chicago Cubs game on ESPN2. Musburger's appearances on NASCAR programs in 2007 were memorable for many reasons.

The focus of each week on NASCAR Now has become the "Big Monday" show that the network calls the roundtable. They assemble three panelists to join Allen Bestwick for a full hour of conversation about NASCAR topics. The program airs at either 5:30 or 6PM Eastern Time.

On this Monday, Major League Baseball and NASCAR Now had a manifest destiny that would ruin the plans of many East Coast NASCAR fans. After two rain delays, the Cubs game began again and quickly swallowed-up the edition of Baseball Tonight that was scheduled for 5PM.

As the scoreless game began to approach the 6PM hour, it became clear that all the effort of the network to prepare the "Big Monday" show was about to be scuttled. On a nasty and rainy day in Chicago, the play was sloppy and the game was boring.

This week, NASCAR Now was simply loaded for bear. Panelist Johnny Benson had moved his way through the Truck Series race on Saturday only to be spun on the last lap by an over-enthusiastic Kyle Busch. This prompted some post-race festivities between pit crews that NASCAR settled quickly. This would be the first opportunity to see Benson on-camera, as the NASCAR on Fox crew chose not to interview him during the post-race coverage.

Also along for the ride was Mike Wallace. In a surprise move, Wallace flew to Bristol, CT on Saturday night after the Truck race and co-hosted the Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now with Ryan Burr. Later, Wallace appeared on ESPNEWS to talk about the race and help the anchors interpret the live post-race comments from the Infield Media Center.

Monday morning, Wallace was on the First Take program talking NASCAR. With all this as a warm-up and the fact his daughter Chrissy had finished in the top twenty in the Truck race, Wallace was going to have a lot to talk about.

The journalist on the panel was Mike Massaro, ESPN's most veteran NASCAR reporter. Massaro has a long history in the sport, and certainly was going to have some views on the news topics of the weekend, including "Part-Gate" and the return of Hendrick Motorsports.

As NASCAR fans began tuning-in, the clock went past the 6PM hour and Brent Musburger continued to talk baseball. Musburger never even took fifteen seconds to do a "scene set" for NASCAR fans and explain what was going on. At least the graphics department inserted a crawl that indicated NASCAR Now was coming up next.

There was wall-to-wall baseball on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. It was opening day and this was the featured sport. There was, however, one place where baseball was not on-the-air.

Over on the ESPN Classic network the 6PM hour featured two editions of Stump the Schwab. Howie Schwab was the original ESPN "stats and research" guy and has a ton of sports knowledge. While Howie is a great guy, both of these programs were re-runs.

Last season, when NASCAR programming was being pushed around by live stick-and-ball sports, the company took the bold step of putting live racing on ESPN Classic. As with everything there were drawbacks. The size of the network is smaller and the TiVo's and DVR's did not know to switch networks, so video recorders missed the racing.

The one thing this move did for NASCAR fans was to show them that ESPN understands the sport and their passion for it. The company took positive action to try and get whatever they could on-the-air for the fans and it was appreciated.

Monday at 6PM, it might have been appreciated if NASCAR Now was switched to ESPN Classic. At least the viewers tuning-in at that time could have been sent to that network and seen the program they had intended to watch. The earliest re-air of the Monday program was actually Tuesday at 1AM Eastern Time.

The Cubs game finally ended at about 6:54PM, and most TV viewers thought that an abbreviated version of Baseball Tonight would serve as the "bridge" to the next live baseball game at 7PM.

Instead, the crew of NASCAR Now appeared from the studio and tried to make use of this shortened program time. Bestwick led a review of the Martinsville Cup race and a preview of the Texas event next weekend. The panelists sounded great together, and NASCAR fans were reminded of just how far this program has come since February.

For baseball fans, this must have been an interesting moment when four NASCAR types appeared for six minutes between live games to talk about a NASCAR race that aired on Fox. Perhaps, by that point Baseball Tonight would have been a better choice.

The Daly Planet, along with lots of NASCAR fans, will record the 1AM version of this program and then offer some comments on Tuesday about the show. What a shame that after a big weekend of racing and a great line-up of talent, the reality of ESPN's extensive live sports line-up became apparent once again.

It should be interesting to see if the Tuesday evening version of this show includes any of the content from Monday's missing episode. For fans who do not record programs, this might be the only way to see what we all missed when the baseball blues hit NASCAR Now.

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"This Week In NASCAR" Goes Khaki

Steve Byrnes started This Week In NASCAR with a great review of the topics that race fans wanted to talk about. With Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus on the set, Byrnes talked about Jack Roush's "Part-Gate," Jeff Burton's post-race comments and the Jimmie Johnson Martinsville spin.

Then, continuing to frustrate fans, Byrnes aimed the program at the upcoming race in Texas. Only a couple of minutes into this program, and with the conversation flowing, this change once again did not make any sense.

The saving grace of the Texas conversation was the evolving dynamic between Chad Knaus and Michael Waltrip. These two seem to have figured out a nice way of relating, even though they are completely different. Unfortunately, this change kills the momentum of the show and makes it tough to switch-back to current events.

SPEED has decided to lighten-up the set and apparently one way to do that is to arrange for all three on-air talent to wear khaki-colored shirts. As Michael Waltrip said, he feels like he is in his PJ's. The look was certainly interesting.

The pre-produced features about Texas continued and for fans looking for a continuation of Martinsville topics, there was nothing left. The video editing and the sound is outstanding, in the normal manner of the NASCAR Media Group. Unfortunately, these features are produced as complete segments that really do not require any additional conversation from the panel.

As the program continues to transition from the original program format to this one, the pro's and con's of the changes are becoming clear. Trying to motivate fans to look ahead first is tough to do. Even with the great video features, the action from one year ago just does not trump the race from the previous day.

It was twenty minutes into the hour when the panel was allowed to delve into the Martinsville racing weekend. Knaus and Waltrip did a solid job of talking about the highlights. Waltrip sounded like he wanted to have some fun, but Byrnes keeps the show on a relatively short leash.

Knaus has been working on speaking-up and participating, and this was his best show to date. He is good on the mechanical and crew chief issues, which works well to compliment the driver and owner perspective of Waltrip. It also makes for the fun moments of the show.

One of the best moments involved Waltrip asking Knaus if Dale Earnhardt Jr. has access to Jimmie Johnson's set-ups and car information. Knaus did a good job of explaining how the teams work together, and put a new spin on the low-key Tony Eury Jr. situation now that Eury is at Hendrick.

As Byrnes continued to work his way through the highlights, Knaus and Waltrip continued to feel free to ask each other questions about racing issues. Their hilarious description of Matt Kenseth losing his temper and spinning David Gilliland was outstanding.

This energetic discussion of the race from the previous day is the best part of the show. What a shame it is not held right at the top of the show to keep the viewers and pump the panel up for the rest of the hour. Maybe we will see some adjustments as SPEED and NMG continue to work on this new show.

The Truck Series discussion focused on the Kyle Busch vs. Johnny Benson confrontation and let both panelists voice their views. Both Waltrip and Knaus took the high road, but it was clear that everyone felt Busch's conduct was not expected from a Cup Series driver.

Dave Despain continues to lend his opinion to the show each week. This role is perfect for Despain and is a good weekly promo for fans that might not know about the wonderful Wind Tunnel on Sunday nights.

A weekly interview feature is interesting, and this week the person being profiled was Max Siegel, the executive in charge at DEI. There is no reporter on-camera asking questions, and the feature is essentially what is called "soundbites" from the subject on various topics. Even though the in-studio talent "tags" this feature, it certainly would be better to have the subject in the studio.

Byrnes keeps the program upbeat, and even as this show continues to find a firm footing, the potential for good things in the future is there. Waltrip and Knaus have worked out a good on-air relationship, but not having three panelists is still tough. It should be fun to watch SPEED continue to tinker with this show as the season progresses.

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"NASCAR Now" vs. Brent Musberger And Baseball

As the 6PM start time of the Monday NASCAR Now roundtable program approaches, we are going to document how ESPN handles a a live program situation on ESPN2.

The Chicago Cubs are playing live and two rain delays have extended the game. It will definitely run past 6PM Eastern, which is the start time of NASCAR Now.

Update #1: Nothing has been said about the NASCAR Now program by the baseball crew and it is 5:58PM. ESPN Classic has two repeat episodes of Stump the Schwab, but no indication that NASCAR Now will be moved to that location.

Update #2: It is now 6PM and live baseball is coming back from commercial. Musburger never mentioned NASCAR Now and only referenced baseball. There is no program change alert on the screen, Stump the Schwab is on ESPN Classic. It appears at this time that the 6PM original airing of this program is cancelled.

Update #3: At 6:04PM a crawl has appeared on the screen saying NASCAR Now would be seen following the baseball game. Earlier, a crawl said that Baseball Tonight would follow the game.

Update #4: There is a live baseball game at 7PM which will start on ESPN2 on time as scheduled. Whatever program follows live Cubs baseball will be collapsing down to the 7PM start time of baseball. A one hour version of Baseball Tonight was originally scheduled at 5PM before NASCAR Now.

Update #5: It is now 6:14PM and the bottom half of the ninth inning is about to get underway. Even if it only lasts fifteen minutes, that will bring the network to 6:30PM. The only way to get NASCAR Now on the air and make any sense would be to do it live. Meanwhile the Baseball Tonight crew is already live and on standby in the studio. It should be interesting to see what airs.

Update #6: The content of NASCAR Now and the name of Allen Bestwick has never been mentioned by Brent Musburger on ESPN2 now 20 minutes into the scheduled show time. There is no graphic alert on the screen to say it it coming up next.

Update #7: The game is in-progress at 6:38PM, so we can assume NASCAR Now is cancelled. The program re-airs at 1AM Eastern Time. What a shame ESPN Classic could not have been used to run this program at 6PM as scheduled.

Final Update: Allen Bestick and NASCAR Now got about six minutes after the baseball game suddenly ended. Bestwick led a review of the Martinsville Cup race, a preview of Texas and promoted the re-air of the show at 1AM Eastern Time. The panelists looked great, and I hope everyone takes the time to record the show at 1AM...but just in case you might want to record an extra two hours as another live baseball game is before the 1AM show.