Monday, April 7, 2008

Backwards "TWIN" A Good Show In Reverse

There are a lot of things that SPEED has sorted out on their new Monday night TV series called This Week In NASCAR. There is one very fundamental thing that they have not.

Steve Byrnes hosted an hour with Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle as the panelists on this week's show. As usual, the conversation at the top of the show was about the big Texas weekend and the many happenings over the past three days.

Regular viewers of the show knew that soon this good conversation would be halted, and it was. For whatever reason, it was time once again to look forward to the next Sprint Cup race before ever starting the review of the one that just took place...yesterday.

No one quite seems to understand what SPEED is trying to accomplish by putting the preview before the review. It certainly is tough to remove the current news and the current highlights and put them on the shelf for thirty minutes. For better or worse, that is exactly what TWIN did again this week.

Once the program got through the Phoenix preview and opened the door to conversation about Texas, things came alive. Waltrip was finally comfortable and outspoken on all kinds of topics, and even began to show his unique sense of humor.

For his part, Biffle was more comfortable on this program than he has been in a long time. The conversation about the COT, the dynamics of tuning the car and the problems the teams have been having was outstanding. Biffle brings a mechanical approach to racing in the same way that Waltrip brings an emotional one.

Steve Byrnes still has to integrate a lot of video and features into this program. Sometimes, they close down a good conversation that is in-progress. While the quality of the edited video is outstanding, this is the reason that the Inside Winston Cup program was once expanded to ninety minutes. Just too much content for an hour.

SPEED took a gamble in starting this franchise over, and TV viewers have watched the changes in this series as it has developed. Suggestions on other changes have included returning Ken Schrader to the panel and having a weekly studio guest.

The one curious item continues to be asking fans to wait thirty minutes to see the panel discuss the recent race weekend. This show was a good example of that, as the panel had a blast talking about Texas. As the series continues to develop, it should be interesting to see how long SPEED can stick with this format.

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"NASCAR Now" Misses A Monday Voice

Viewers who tuned-in to ESPN2 expecting to see Marty Smith on the Monday NASCAR Now panel were surprised to see only Mike Massaro and Randy LaJoie. Smith was home attending to an illness in the family.

That left Allen Bestwick to work extra hard to fill the hour with his two panelists. The results were not exactly what viewers had come to expect from this program.

Massaro has been a good role player on this show, and LaJoie is best when he gets to speak freely. In this case, without the glib Smith on the program, things were a little bit off-balance. It certainly showed the true need for a third panelist.

Bestwick is as organized as ever and all of the ESPN driver "soundbites" and race highlights were right on-the-money. In the middle of the show, Bestwick welcomed Jack Roush and did his best to get some information from this unique man.

What many viewers were expecting right off-the-bat was a detailed look at the Randy LaJoie seat that was in Michael McDowell's car. The rookie's crash at Texas was the talk of the weekend, and it would seem only natural to have one of LaJoie's seats on the set of the Home Depot garage. For some reason, it did not happen.

After all the resources that ESPN has put into this show and the focus on the safety elements of both the track and McDowell's car, it seemed very strange not to have the President of the company that made the seat showing off his product.

Instead, LaJoie was put on the spot about lots of specific NASCAR issues relating to the action on the track so far this season. That was not really fair to LaJoie, who has been focusing on his nationwide racing safety seminars and his seat business.

Massaro did his best to fill-in as many details as possible, but his perspective is as a reporter. This lack of current driver knowledge put a crimp in portions of the show, but Bestwick carried on at a steady pace throughout the hour.

Now that the "Big Monday" edition of NASCAR Now has been around for a while, the thrill and the "new-ness" of it has faded. This is the time of the year where the show is really going to define itself and take the direction it will follow for the rest of the year.

Bestwick did a lot of talking in this show because the panel was down one man. That put him in a new role, and changed the on-air dynamic. Massaro did a lot of "reporting" in his comments this week, including talking about who he "just spoke with" or "just called." Those buzzwords remind viewers of the 2007 NASCAR Now where it seemed every "Insider" just got off the phone with either Jack Roush or Rick Hendrick.

LaJoie was straightforward in his comments, but did not have another person to follow-up on his funny lines or innuendos. He really needed a playmate and was instead surrounded by two very serious reporters. Marty Smith would have been the perfect compliment and hopefully these two will get a chance to try it again in the near future.

Having this one hour show is a great resource. Having the top ESPN NASCAR personalities on the program weekly has been outstanding. On this Monday, Bestwick did his best to pull the show along and got all the factual information and highlights across to the fans.

The only thing missing was the normally good-spirited conversation and laughter that have become hallmarks of this series. Next week should once again be an interesting show as ESPN continues to mix-up the personalities.

Terry Labonte will join Brad Daugherty and Mike Massaro as panelists next week. This will give Bestwick yet another new dynamic as a current driver and past champion comes to the ESPN2 studios. Once again, Monday's NASCAR Now should be a good one to watch.

Our thoughts go out to Marty Smith's father for a speedy recovery. Marty has been a good friend of The Daly Planet since we began in 2007.

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Finish Line Problems Plague "NASCAR On Fox"

The email hit The Daly Planet like a tsunami headed for the beach. The messages ranged from the semi-calm to the completely enraged.

The language ranged from very well-written to emails completely laced with profanity. Despite the differences in wording, the single focus of every comment was clear.

NASCAR on Fox had blown the finish of a NASCAR race once again.

Fans of Clint Bowyer led the way with a wide variety of terms for almost everyone associated with the NASCAR on Fox broadcast. Fans of Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin also seemed to be in fine form where angry email was concerned. The bottom line is, they all had a right to be mad.

There is no doubt that the NASCAR on Fox personalities are focused on providing a good TV product for the fans. Larry McReynolds is the best at talking about the small details of a race car. This season has been outstanding for Darrell Waltrip on-the-air in a wide variety of roles on both Fox and SPEED. When Mike Joy is in the broadcast booth and "directing traffic" viewers know they are getting the best race telecast possible.

This was never more apparent than during the big Michael McDowell crash during qualifying. As I wrote in this column, thank goodness that the veteran NASCAR on Fox crew was on-hand to lead NASCAR TV fans through this trauma. As McDowell emerged from his car, Mike Joy knew he had more than just the driver to address.

It was important to bring back the fans who were simply in shock by what they had just seen. The images of the crash had to be tied together with the reality of an uninjured driver. Waltrip, McReynolds and Joy did just that for the TV viewers.

Once the Texas Sprint Cup race got underway, there were few caution flags and little side-by-side racing. The announcers really had to work to bring-out the stories happening on the track. Fortunately, they did so with great success. Jeff Gordon's struggles, the lack of a Texas COT test and the potential vindication of Carl Edwards highlighted an outstanding broadcast from a commentary perspective.

All of the pit reporters and both of the analysts contributed during the race to keep viewers interested. Jeff Hammond worked hard from the Hollywood Hotel, but the telecast was ill-served with a late on-camera plug for a local eatery.

The Fox pictures and sound were great, and the track-level "Digger" cam thankfully flew below-the-radar during the entire event. The pit stops under caution still contain a lot of video boxes, but Fox seems committed to that format for the rest of their run. Video "bumpers" of drivers who are familiar to millions continue to be used going to commercial even as the cars race under the green flag.

During the 2007 season of NASCAR on Fox, The Daly Planet ran columns detailing the struggle of the network to define what fans wanted to see on the final lap. Fox had decided that the drama of the winner topped anything and everything happening behind first place.

It began with this column in March of 2007 and grew with this article until it finally reached a crescendo at Charlotte and claimed Kyle Petty as another victim. At that time, few believed this problem would re-surface in 2008.

Now, seven races into the season and halfway through the NASCAR on Fox package, this problem has come to a head. After an entire afternoon of trying to coax storylines and action from a single-file race, the announcers had a shootout to call for the final laps. Everything was in-place from personalities who wanted to win to cars ready to make a charge on new tires. This was going to be good.

As the final lap of the race unfolded, it was clear that the top ten would be a free-for-all. Then, as Carl Edwards pulled away from Jimmie Johnson, all eyes turned to the mad scramble behind them. Mike Joy called it "a hornet's nest" as a tight pack of cars dueled three-wide down the backstretch and and sprinted for the finish line.

As Edwards made his way off the final turn, Fox showed an infield shot of his car only and then the camera started a slow zoom into the NASCAR flagman. Regular NASCAR on Fox viewers knew that move all too well. It was time for "drama" to take over "racing" once again.

It was only Larry McReynolds yelling that Clint Bowyer was crashing off the final turn that caused a sudden switch back to the track as a portion of the field crossed the line. It was unclear who was where or what was happening. There were no graphics on the screen. The announcers were watching the action on the track, as were the fans in the stands. It did not work out well for the millions of TV viewers.

Even as the live in-car camera once again showed the winner slowing down on the backstretch, the announcers were still talking about the racing action of the other top ten cars. Only after Edwards had made his lap, unbuckled his equipment and did his customary back-flip did viewers see a replay of the finish and understand what had happened.

Joy and company did a good job during the replay of explaining exactly what happened on that final sprint to the line. It was a shame that the momentum and excitement of the live action was once again broken by poor camera selection. I wonder how many NASCAR fans were standing in their living rooms or at their favorite watering holes and yelling at the TV set once again?

We all know that when a TV network gets the rights to a NASCAR race they can show anything they want anyway they want. Fox paid many millions of dollars for this product. If this is the philosophy of the network on the final lap, then that is simply the way it is going to be. Get ready for some more yelling.

There are six Sprint Cup Series races left in the NASCAR on Fox TV package for 2008.

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Things have been changing all over ESPN this season where NASCAR is concerned.

The new integration of the sport into all the areas of this big company has been yielding positive results in some unusual areas. One of them is ESPNEWS.

This network has gone back to the policy it had years ago of covering the post-race news conferences after the Sprint Cup Series races. While in 2007 ESPNEWS struggled to figure out how to squeeze NASCAR into its already busy Sundays of sports highlights and news, this year is much different.

The TV arm of the sport called the NASCAR Media Group uplinks the post-race press conferences live. Simply by tapping into this raw feed, ESPNEWS has been presenting to NASCAR fans a slice of the sport that cannot be seen anywhere else.

While SPEED offers three post-race shows, only one of them focuses on NASCAR alone and that program uses on-site reporters to interview the drivers and personalities. Since ESPN2 does not produce a NASCAR Now show on Sunday night, this ESPNEWS live coverage is unique.

The assembled NASCAR media ask questions of the drivers, crew chiefs and owners. The second and third place drivers are up first, as the race winner is still involved in Victory Lane activities. As ESPNEWS viewers know from Tony Stewart's recent tire rant, lots of things can happen in the Infield Media Center.

After the Sunday Texas race, the patience and commitment of ESPNEWS was put to the test as a big time lapse happened between the appearance of the second and third place drivers and the eventual appearance by the winning driver and his entourage.

The network hung-in there and continually informed viewers that when Carl Edwards appeared, they would break-in live and have his comments. Minutes later, that is exactly what happened. Unrestricted by pit reporters and network time restraints, this coverage is raw and wonderful.

It also allows fan an opportunity to see the live interaction between the NASCAR personalities and the media members who cover the sport. This dynamic is going to be what determines the content of the stories in the newspapers and on the Internet about the event. It is fascinating to watch it unfold.

Hopefully, ESPNEWS may expand this presence to have a coordinator on-site. This would help both NASCAR and ESPN to make sure all of the comments make the air. Simply holding the drivers for one minute while a commercial clears would allow their comments to be broadcast live nationally.

When the value of this TV time becomes apparent, perhaps we will see more media-savvy drivers make themselves available to the press in the Media Center after the races. In the same manner, having the moderator repeat the media questions or using a microphone would allow fans at home to clearly hear both the question and who was asking it.

This ESPNEWS coverage has been an unexpected bonus this season, and NASCAR fans who want a little more than the usual network TV post-race show may like to see this media process unfold. It certainly is interesting to see what the drivers actually say, and what the media subsequently reports.

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Monday Night Match-Up: This Should Be A Good One

Every week after the race, another kind of race begins for the NASCAR TV partners.

Both ESPN2 and SPEED have been working hard to capture the Monday audience of NASCAR fans who want more information about the racing weekend once the dust has settled.

Both networks offer their own versions of a one hour wrap-up show. ESPN2 is up first with NASCAR Now at 5:30PM Eastern Time. This week, host Allen Bestwick welcomes Lead Reporter Marty Smith and veteran pit reporter Mike Massaro to the Bristol, CT studio.

In another stroke of luck for this program, the third panelist on the show will be Randy LaJoie. This former Busch Series champion is now a well-known safety expert and runs a company that makes racing seats for NASCAR and other series. It was a seat from The Joie Of Seating that was in rookie Michael McDowell's car when he crashed at Texas.

LaJoie is also a part-time analyst for ESPN2, and he will be returning this season to select stand-alone Nationwide Series races. His candid on-air demeanor is a hit with fans, and he works well with Allen Bestwick who is a long-time friend.

Both Smith and Massaro have finally been given an opportunity to shine this season, and have both responded well. Smith moved-up to cover the "hard news beat" at the tracks and his reports and interaction with the drivers and personalities has been outstanding. Massaro has finally been able to let his voice be heard on this Monday show, and has proven to be an experienced and opinionated panelist.

Bestwick is having the TV year of his life, and continues to be focused and organized on the air, which is his trademark. Working both at the tracks and in the studio, Bestwick has provided the anchor for the NASCAR on ESPN team that neither Jerry Punch or Suzy Kolber could provide last season.

This Monday program with LaJoie has the potential to force the ESPN "stuffed shirts" to let the NASCAR guys loosen-up and have some fun on-the-air. ESPN's formal high-fashion approach might work for the NFL and the NBA, but it is simply out of place in the NASCAR world of polo's and khakis. We can all watch as this program continues to evolve.

SPEED has decided to start-over on Mondays, and they did not provide host Steve Byrnes a whole lot of help. He anchors This Week In NASCAR, the network's one hour program that airs on Mondays at 8PM. Leading into this program is Pass Time, a drag racing show and after TWIN is the very British Super-Cars Exposed.

The network has downsized the panel from three to two, apparently because they have added a ton of video and features to the show. Byrnes gets a break this week because he is joined by Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle. Once again, both panelists were in the Texas race and it was Waltrip's young driver Michael McDowell who was involved in that nasty practice crash.

For some reason, SPEED has chosen to force the show to preview the upcoming race that is five days away during the opening segments. Instead of chatting about the events of the weekend and finishing off all of the pending topics that fans tune-in to see, Byrnes finds himself talking about last season's race at a track that currently sits empty. This format change is simply tough to take.

The rotating panelists on this show are supposed to include Kenny Schrader, but viewers have not seen him this season. Chad Knaus is also a panelist, and he has been solid in his on-air relationship with Waltrip. Having only two panelists sometimes makes it tough for Byrnes to get the good humor flowing, but he certainly tries.

There is no doubt that the NASCAR experience of the on-air personalities of TWIN is solid, but the challenge is to put that knowledge in a format that works for the viewers. Even with the outstanding video edited by the NASCAR Media Group, it is the conversation and tidbits from the weekend that viewers want to hear.

As with ESPN2, SPEED has continued to tinker with this program from top-to-bottom and just last week changed the on-air talent into long-sleeved tan oxford shirts. Waltrip said he felt like he was still in his PJ's. Tan is not a primary color that you see on TV a whole lot.

Monday should bring some new twists and turns with both NASCAR Now and This Week in NASCAR. TV viewers should once again be able to see two very different networks talk about the same subjects in two very different ways. TV is always interesting.

The Daly Planet will have columns about both programs immediately after they conclude, but your comments about the series so far this season are welcome on this post. Just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the instructions.