Thursday, July 3, 2008

ESPN's Delicate Balance

It is going to be a very interesting Friday night for the ESPN gang in Daytona.

Following the action on the track for the 8PM Nationwide Series race will not be a problem. Handling the action off the track might be a different story.

It was ESPN's Outside the Lines and the ESPNEWS Network that Thursday first showed Mauricia Grant to the world on television. The same network that paid for exclusive rights to broadcast the Nationwide Series later used a rain delay in the afternoon to almost painfully play "the soundbite" for NASCAR fans.

Viewers who had tuned-in expecting to see Marcos Ambrose and company practicing instead heard references to male organs and the "N word." As NASCAR TV goes, it was quite a moment.

Now, with Grant's words and face in rotation on ESPNEWS, a whole lot of sports fans are going to be exposed to a very different view of NASCAR than they get from race highlights and winner interviews.

The challenge for ESPN is to package this issue respectfully into the one hour NASCAR Countdown show that starts at 7PM. Hosted by Allen Bestwick, this program has been outstanding for the network this season. Bestwick has handled a lot of delicate topics, and this should be one he organizes well before air time.

Here is what ESPNEWS was running on Thursday, complete with a professional approach and a very good script. Former Morning Express with Robin Meade sports anchor Will Selva handled this introduction and once again ESPNEWS came away looking good.

This post is going to serve to handle your comments specifically about Grant's interview on Outside The Lines, ESPNEWS and the video on the website. Put your comments in a TV or media-related perspective please, or they will be deleted.

What was your reaction to this video and how did you think ESPN handled the issue on Thursday?

There will be a new post up for comments about NASCAR Countdown and the Nationwide Series race at 6PM on Friday.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

NASCAR's Side-By-Side TV Failure

There is a lot of media attention that is going to be paid later this week to the TNT telecast of the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night.

TNT will once again move the commercial elements around and offer NASCAR sponsors a one-time opportunity to be innovative in their messages to the fans.

The network uses advertising aired in a secondary video box on the screen and offers race sponsors opportunities to make these commercials longer and more creative. TNT adds-in logos and animation elements to keep an advertising presence during the event. The bottom-line for fans is the ability to see the race continually, except during the commercials inserted by the local cable systems.

This concept works well and NASCAR fans always react positively the day after the telecast is done. Then, they come to the realization that this type of commitment to keeping the racing action on the screen during commercial breaks is nothing new.

Over in the IRL Series, this side-by-side approach is standard. Here is a TDP column about the email received earlier this season on that topic. The overall issue was raised several years ago by our friend Marty Smith in this article published on the website.

Simply by watching one IRL race, NASCAR fans begin once again the annual process of asking why this simple but effective technique is not used by the NASCAR TV partners. All three of NASCAR's national touring series continue to run commercials full screen during all the races except the upcoming one at Daytona.

Last Sunday, while the Sprint Cup Series raced in New Hamphire, fans had an interesting list of viewing options. DirecTV provides Hot Pass which has individual channels and announcers assigned to various drivers. Each driver has his own mini-network for the entire race. The TNT folks offer RaceBuddy which gives online fans four live camera angles, driver audio and interactive features.

Meanwhile, over at the Trackpass and Sprint Raceview features continue to offer their online content for a small price. Raceview has a long list of video and audio features that allows fans to participate in crafting their own viewing experience during the entire event.

Where then does that leave the single network TV feed that gives fans only one option? That option is to turn the volume up or turn the volume down. In this technology dominated society, the network TV telecast often seems to be the least desirable way to "consume" a Sprint Cup race.

One would think that the priority for all three of NASCAR's Sprint Cup TV partners would be to get this side-by-side advertising approach going full-time for 2009. Simply by examining the issues associated with the other viewing options and the availability of other technology it should be a hands-down decision.

Viewing the race while a commercial airs keeps the TV viewer in their seat. Why would they leave? Why would they change the channel? Knowing that the network would instantly return to the race if there was an incident means viewers would probably also not mute the audio during the commercials. Where is the bad part of all that?

Those fans who DVR or Tivo the beginning of the race and then join-in-progress would no longer be able to fast-forward through the commercial breaks because they all contained race action. With the heavier commercial loads of the current NASCAR TV partners, this approach to "skimming" the race and joining for the final thirty minutes has become all the rage.

Finally, advertisers are coming to their senses and not believing that there are fans out there who sit through the ads when they have a remote control in their hand and five hundred channels to surf. Face it, side-by-side commercial insertion is the only way to motivate the fans to even see the content of the sponsors.

Just as Marty Smith said back in 2006, the issue seems to be getting the four involved parties on the same page. ESPN, TNT and Fox Sports each have their own production approach, graphics look and NASCAR philosophy. NASCAR has cut the Sprint Cup pie into three pieces and now has to deal with the consequences.

One of the most prominent topics raised at The Daly Planet is NASCAR fans seeking other viewing options because of the two minute commercials every five minutes. Few other sports deal with this, primarily because stick-and-ball sports can either stop the clock or provide a natural commercial position between innings. In NASCAR, once the green flag flies, anything can happen.

So, here comes the Coke Zero 400 from Daytona and the "wide-open" coverage of TNT. There will be a post up for your comments during and after the race. Please feel free to leave your opinion about the side-by-side commercial issue on this column.

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SPEED's "Victory Lane" On Sunday Only

Before the email starts to flow after the big Daytona race on Saturday night, let's once again discuss the topic of SPEED's popular Victory Lane show being held until Sunday night to air.

To start, fans are all fired-up after the race and want to see the winning driver, crew chief and owner interviewed. Victory Lane is also a good show because reporter Bob Dillner is great at catching drivers who are a story in the race and getting their candid reactions for SPEED.

Remember, only the top three drivers eventually head over to the Infield Media Center and take questions from the reporters. This informal press conference is carried live or on a short delay by the ESPNEWS Network.

NASCAR fans have become accustomed to turning-over to SPEED once the Sunday races are done to watch The SPEED Report and then Victory Lane. Both programs carry updates from the track in a timely manner and provide solid NASCAR content immediately after the race.

West Coast fans point-out that although it may be close to Midnight on the East Coast when Victory Lane is being recorded this Saturday, it is only 9PM out West. They feel it is unfair of SPEED to hold this program until Sunday night just to serve the Eastern Time Zone viewers.

Hardcore fans have been screaming about this for a while now. They want to see what happens after the race and will stay up a little bit late on a Saturday night to do just that. SPEED has been accused of all kinds of things and the conspiracy theories have been growing.

In reality, SPEED is in a no-win situation. I sat through a rain delay at the summer Daytona race that forced the race to end after 2AM. Planning to air Victory Lane at midnight for the Saturday night races would be a tough call, simply because they often end much later than scheduled.

Logistically, it is a lot easier to record the show and feed it for a Sunday airing at a set time rather than try and get it on the air "sometime" after a Saturday night race.

Perhaps the real issue that SPEED is wrestling with is success. Fans like this innovative show that has been growing in popularity since it started. Having Jimmy Spencer, Kenny Wallace and John Roberts sitting right in Victory Lane has been a bold idea that has worked for SPEED.

Who would have ever thought that NASCAR, the drivers and the other TV networks would allow this type of intrusion on a space that is designed to do everything but host a TV show? It was Tony Stewart with his champagne dousing and Kyle Busch with his boundless energy that made this program a "can't miss" NASCAR show.

So, after the big Coke Zero 400 from Daytona is over, fans will have to wait until Sunday night at 8PM to see the resulting celebration and hear the spontaneous comments of the winning driver, crew chief and owner.

Perhaps, in the future SPEED might consider adding a Saturday night airing of Victory Lane like the one they did for the All-Star race. Coincidentally, that is the only Sprint Cup race on SPEED. With the success of this program and the continuing calls from the fans, maybe 2009 will bring Victory Lane immediately after every single race regardless of the day it is run.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking the time to stop by.

Evernham Involved In His Own Silly Season

It was the Monday after Loudon and the week before Daytona. The heart of the Sprint Cup season was here and ESPN brought-out their big guns for the Monday edition of NASCAR Now.

This one hour show that host Allen Bestwick refers to as "the roundtable" has become a weekly jewel for the network. On this Monday, Bestwick was seated alongside new ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett, veteran reporter Mike Massaro and part-time ESPN commentator Ray Evernham. The "A team" was in town.

Jarrett was refreshed after his vacation and did not miss a beat in contributing his views to the program. There is no doubt that Jarrett is the star of the NASCAR show for the network and on this program he was surrounded by exactly the right group.

Bestwick has cemented himself as the ESPN ironman and this program bears his personal signature. Each week he deals with a new mix of personalities that have included ESPN on-air talent, retired NASCAR drivers and current NASCAR personalities. This has been a challenge to which Bestwick has risen quite well.

One strong aspect of this program has been the addition of both live guests and contributions from the ESPN NASCAR reporters. On this show, Shannon Spake updated the Montoya vs. Busch situation in just the type of quick and concise report that works well.

It was Loudon winner Kurt Busch who appeared as the first guest and Bestwick did an outstanding job of covering all the bases with this surprise winner. Busch has matured and Bestwick let him talk about his day and how Penske Racing is grinding their way through this tough season. It was a good follow-up to the big news of the weekend.

We have been critical of NASCAR Now for not allowing all three panelists to ask questions of the guests this season. ESPN has been very nice in responding and informing us that due to the scheduling of the panelists on other ESPN media outlets they are sometimes not available when some liveshots are taped. Happy to get that issue cleared-up for this season.

As this show progressed, it was clear that this classic mix of a driver, crew chief and reporter worked very well in making the conversation flow. One good segment was Bestwick leading a discussion about the silly season and how it works for drivers who are now suddenly unemployed.

Jarrett and Evernham were the right duo to address this topic and Massaro was perfect to update the media aspect of the topic. Bestwick introduced the issue of agents in the sport and how the mechanics of contracts worked. Evernham stated that his company was negotiating with several drivers, but he had never talked to any of them. Agents were now a way of business in the sport.

That leads to a good question for next season where Evernham is concerned. Introduced at Daytona in February as a surprise new member of the ESPN NASCAR team, there is no doubt that Evernham and ESPN have a good relationship. Working with Jarrett, Evernham is a natural on TV and has very good technical knowledge.

As a current NASCAR owner, rumors have been around for a while that Evernham will step away from the ownership role and consider a full-time role in the media. Fans saw Dale Jarrett work part-time for the network last season and then step into a full-time role for 2008. Perhaps, this is the same process Evernham is going through as ESPN works him in a variety of commentary and analyst roles in the network's NASCAR coverage.

A slick and professional program like this Monday edition of NASCAR Now goes a long way toward perhaps pointing Evernham in the TV direction. In a way, ESPN is a perfect choice for him because of the large amount of NASCAR content that need to be generated for the various ESPN media outlets.

The Monday program features a retrospective of the races at Daytona. This single topic really showed-off the strength of the panel ESPN had assembled for this program. Multiple Daytona winners Jarrett and Evernham spoke from positions of experience, and Massaro and Bestwick added the media and historical perspective.

The bottom line for this episode of NASCAR Now was that there was a whole lot of NASCAR history on the set, and all four of these personalities are set to play key roles in the network's coverage of the sport down the stretch.

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TNT Not Getting A Lot To Work With From NASCAR

What a nice change of pace the TNT summer Sprint Cup TV package has been so far this season.

Once the network made it through the road-course race at Sonoma, there was a collective sigh of relief all around. New Hampshire would be a breeze.

This little six race TV deal is tough to produce, but the freelancers working hard to put this package together have had to deal with one big obstacle. NASCAR and the drivers have given them very little good racing to work with so far.

Yes, we did see some passing at Loudon and Kyle Busch winning at Sonoma was a surprise. But, the racing has been far short of spectacular and even the upcoming Daytona race threatens to be another COT "aero-fest."

TNT's best move was to add Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds to the broadcast team. Although things were a bit rough in year one, this season has signaled a remarkable change of pace. TNT has slowed things down, opened things up and let the announcers have some fun. It has paid-off with the fans.

Bill Weber has mellowed and emerged as a solid announcer this season despite his limited TV exposure to the sport. Wally Dallenbach has thrived with Petty alongside and McReynolds down in the infield. Often, there is a very fluid conversation in-progress with input from all of the TNT personalities. Weber spends much of the broadcast directing "TV traffic."

While Loudon is a bland track in TV terms, the use of medium and wideshots from the TV cameras worked well to keep things in perspective during the telecast. Even though the crew missed a couple of incidents, they were up-front about the situation and explained the reasons why. Many fans are just fundamentally happy that "Digger" and the endless in-car camera shots are long gone.

The TNT graphics package continues to work well, as does the lack of excessive music while the race is under green flag conditions. This season the commercial breaks have been integrated as well as possible and Loudon was tolerable where restarts were concerned.

On a flat one-mile track there is just not a lot going-on sometimes. Petty was the saving grace for the telecast with his ability to talk about any issue and continue the discussion with McReynolds and Dallenbach. Their efforts at keeping a running commentary during the very boring parts of this event made the telecast work.

The RaceBuddy concept created by the TNT and folks has been getting great reviews and lots of use. Again in this event, both the in-car camera and the battle-cam angles proved to be effective as an adjunct to the main telecast. It was tough to sometimes see battles in the pack and good racing that were just a little too far back to make it to the TNT screen.

It has been fun to watch this concept get tweaked as the races progress and it may be tough for fans when ESPN comes along and the only online option once again becomes Sprint RaceView. Maybe the RaceBuddy application can be used for other NASCAR events in the future.

Finally, we would be remiss in not mentioning that TNT left the air several minutes early once again and directed fans over to the Jack Daniels post-race show on the website. At first, it was the TNT gang doing some post-race analysis. Then, the Turner folks at took over and the fan reaction was not good.

Led by Beau Estes, the Turner online gang was less than professional when it came to the post-race show. They mocked Michael Waltrip and even said he would never finish this well again in his career. They continued with this type of "chat room talk" to discuss more drivers in a very different style than TV viewers are used to seeing.

This included making comments about Kurt Busch's wife and even imitating Juan Montoya's Colombian accent while discussing the Kyle Busch incident.

Perhaps, this is the format that Turner believes will draw fans to after the race and make them interact. The Daly Planet got comments that included the words rude, insulting and awkward about this online show. Fans saying that the online show is insulting to NASCAR is certainly a new one for us to hear.

All in all, an interesting day with a surprising outcome to the race. If you would like to add your comment about TNT, RaceBuddy or please click the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. We do not want your email address and there is nothing to join. We just want your opinion.

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TV Partners Strangely Quiet Where Grant Is Concerned - UNTIL NOW

UPDATE: ESPN has revealed that they have Mauricia Grant as an exclusive on-camera interview as a part of the Outside The Lines series. They played excerpts from Grant today on ESPNEWS and also during the live Nationwide practice session at 5:30PM. This issue relates directly to the Nationwide Series. More info will follow shortly

Just when things seemed to be quieting down about the Mauricia Grant lawsuit, an article by veteran NASCAR journalist Matt McLaughlin has come along.

Most fans have read the original story, the follow-up interviews and even the response from NASCAR.

At The Daly Planet, we tried to suggest that the sanctioning body stop allowing Brian France to speak directly to this topic until he was better informed. No such luck, as this column details.

The number one thing that NASCAR wants to do at Daytona is walk-out the door on Saturday night with Ms. Grant and her lawsuit never having been a topic. Judging from the NASCAR media's response to the issue, that is entirely possible.

This is a new area for the NASCAR Internet, radio and TV bunch to deal with. These veterans have handled racing stories of tremendous success and horrible tragedy with professionalism and maturity over the years. As a group, they originate hundreds of stories a week and many hours of both radio and TV content. The Grant lawsuit is very different from their regular "news beat."

Here is the link to the McLaughlin story. The key element for us is the following paragraph:

"In his handling of the allegations, France has once again shown himself to be the Great Bumblini. The racing press may be willing to sweep this one under the carpet but the mainstream attack media, folks like 60 Minutes and 20/20 will not. Doubtless they smell blood in the water and potential Emmys for investigative reporting on the “Good Old Boy” culture of NASCAR. It ain’t going to be pretty."

McLaughlin's point is that right now the issue of the lawsuit is in the laps of the traveling NASCAR media. While others may write to the topic, they do not have access to the key individuals involved in the lawsuit and knowledge of the overall culture that has been called into question. Eventually, this will change.

Lurking behind the familiar faces of David Poole and Marty Smith and Wendy Venturini is an entirely different group of reporters. They do not care about Joey Logano, how the COT turns or the overall health of the sport.

What they care about is primetime TV ratings for their own individual shows. They will do and say almost anything to win the TV ratings race. Many of them make millions of dollars a year and enjoy the publicity that their high-profile media positions have brought them.

What used to be called the mainstream media is now a fractured group of Internet-dominated TV personalities who are challenged to fill 24 hours a day both online and on the cable TV news networks. Despite the reality of the world, the media monster must be fed and Mauricia Grant is looking like a lot more than just a snack.

As McLaughlin intimates, the damage that can be done to this sport by programs like 60 Minutes, Dateline and even Nancy Grace on CNN is simply huge. Looking at this story from outside the sport and reading the allegations in the lawsuit make it a great target for a wide variety of TV programs from news magazines to tabloid series.

In the business world, we see professionals called-in to handle public relations crisis management. We see media professionals enlisted to manage the messages that are communicated worldwide on TV and the Internet. This is a specific set of skills that is learned with time and experience.

While it has been Internet stories that have played a major role in this issue to date, things are about to jump over to the television side of the media and that change is going to be dramatic.

Perhaps, before something very ugly happens on TV and a media feeding frenzy begins, NASCAR might consider bringing in some professionals to manage this issue for the overall health of the sport in this very tough season. In the veteran perspectives of several public relations professionals, the clock is ticking.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking time out of your day to stop by and leave your opinion.