Monday, July 14, 2008

"This Week In NASCAR" Has A Restrictor Plate

It has taken host Steve Byrnes and the NASCAR Media Group production team a while to get This Week In NASCAR running on all eight cylinders. Now, the TV series is humming along but somehow can't win the race. One quick check of the TV engine reveals the problem. TWIN has its own restrictor plate.

Monday's date was July 14th. The day of the Brickyard 400 is July 27th. Several minutes after panelists Chad Knaus and Michael Waltrip were completely fired-up and talking about the Chicagoland race, the restrictor plate was once again slapped-on another episode of this TV series. It was time to talk about the Brickyard.

The voice in the earpieces of the announcers told them the news. "So, what's happening at Indy?" said Waltrip jokingly. "Let's look ahead," answered Byrnes after he stopped laughing. It seems that the only people not getting this joke are the SPEED Channel executives. The format of this show is killing it.

There was Chad Knaus, brilliant crew chief of Jimmie Johnson. His driver had fought back all race long and almost pulled-off the win, only to be topped by the incredible outside run of Kyle Busch. Knaus had a story to tell and TWIN finally had a contending team member on the set. It would have to wait.

Waltrip and Knaus began a professional preview of Indy just as they have done so many times for other tracks as they are forced to offer a static preview first. Complete with edited video features and soundbites, this portion of the show lasts for thirty minutes in a world where uninterested viewers have surfed-on in just seconds.

Byrnes and Waltrip continued the laughter as they now introduced a preview of the Craftsman Truck Series at Kentucky, which will be carried on SPEED. The NASCAR Media Group knows how to put on a show and all the video and sound is outstanding. The problem is viewers had yet to see or hear about the Cup Series action.

The hard thing for the panelists to do is get back the level of excitement that began the program. Byrnes encouraged Waltrip and Knaus to come back up through the gear box as rapidly as possible. He did this with the good humor that has come to be Byrnes trademark in this series.

Once the highlights finally got underway, the magic that Waltrip and Knaus have found began to work once again. These two have discovered how to interact and that this new on-air relationship works for both of them. They now have open and flowing conversation without Byrnes prompting them with questions. He simply "directs traffic."

Dave Despain continues to stop by with his pre-recorded commentary and is usually interesting. His views on Tony Stewart's recent moves were thought-provoking and contained the bitter sharp edge we have come to expect from Despain.

Recently, the panel has begun to have fun with viewer questions. It will be interesting to see if TWIN allows fans to send voice or video questions soon to add a new level of fan interaction. Byrnes also confirmed next week's TWIN will be taped this week.

Once again, this group has begun to mesh and viewers have begun to return to Monday nights on SPEED. Perhaps, once the restrictor plate is lifted we will all find out just how fast this TV engine really runs.

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Ryan Burr Handles "The Roundtable" Live

Allen Bestwick is off on a scheduled vacation, so ESPN veteran Ryan Burr stepped-in to host the Monday one-hour edition of NASCAR Now.

Burr is known for his fast-pace on-the-air, which he learned from hosting the thirty minute "wheels" of news on the ESPNEWS Network. Putting the Chicagoland highlights on hold, Burr led his three panelists into a candid discussion of Ryan Newman being released from Penske Racing.

The panel this week consisted of first year ESPN commentator Ray Evernham, NASCAR Now contributor Boris Said and veteran ESPN reporter Mike Massaro. This group struggled to get some energy and excitement going last week with Bestwick at the helm. Burr was determined not to let that happen again.

There was a sharper edge to this program because of Burr's rapid-fire style. He had the panelists answering his questions quickly and then he would just pick right up where he left off. Rarely has a Monday panel run through the Sprint Cup highlights at such a quick pace.

The key to this program was that Burr was well-prepared. While Bestwick is one of the most experienced NASCAR TV veterans, Burr clearly took the time to get his ducks-in-a-row where highlights and questions were concerned. Sometimes, hearing Burr ask questions that were slightly naive was a bit different. It gave the panel the opportunity to address more fundamental issues than would normally be discussed.

"It wasn't the most exciting race from start-to-finish," said Burr about Chicagoland on Saturday night. He pointed the panelists to the issue of whether Kyle Busch had won the race on the last two laps or Jimmie Johnson had lost it. Burr hammered the point that Johnson was clearly upset that he could not handle Busch in a shootout.

One interesting aspect of this entire hour was Burr's effective handling of Boris Said. Burr used a very "short leash" with Said, aiming specific questions at him that called for specific answers. Burr worked Evernham and Said in tandem where racing issues were concerned and it paid-off.

The program used "soundbites" from Chicagoland throughout the broadcast to reinforce the topics Burr was referencing. NASCAR Now's use of this "sound" was perhaps the best of the season and showed a wide variety of drivers, not only the top finishers.

Bestwick is not a big fan of loud music, so apparently the staff decided to take advantage of his absence. The "music bed" was screaming under the announcers almost every time any shred of video hit the air. The generic music was eventually tough to take.

Massaro once again was a integral part of the show with his comments on a wide variety of topics. Many times, it was Massaro that stepped-in to take the heat off Evernham and Said on tough topics like who was going to make The Chase. Still flying well under the TV radar, Massaro has been the quiet rock of NASCAR on ESPN for many years.

If there was a better-edited highlights feature than the Chicagoland mid-show piece, I have not seen it this season. Featuring the voices of the NASCAR radio announcers combined with team radios and "natural sound," there may be nothing more effective on TV. These are the type of features fans deserve to see again during the off-season.

Since February, Kyle Busch has enjoyed being on NASCAR Now quite often. He has spoken with all three hosts and genuinely seems to enjoy himself with the crew. Busch joined the program from Joe Gibbs Racing and Burr pinned him down right away about the final restart and finish.

Burr had some stumbles with Busch because of his lack of in-depth NASCAR experience, but kept the interview on track. His question asking Busch what he would have done if Johnson had gone high is a classic. "Go low," calmly said Busch.

Sometimes, NASCAR Now has to interview their guests when only the show host is available. That is the reason the three panelists sometimes do not get to ask questions. There is little doubt that this interview would have been a tad better if Massaro had been allowed to step-in and help. Busch was pleasant, but there were not a lot of smiles and very little joking around.

Kudos to NASCAR Now for presenting a full highlight package of the Nationwide Series race from Friday night. The program made sure to add-in the classic post-race comment from Clint Bowyer saying "a monkey could win" in the Gibbs car. Nice touch to make sure and include the JD Gibbs response to Bowyer in the show and then let the panel discuss it.

Many Daly Planet readers wondered if Allen Bestwick would ever take a day off, and who would step-in to fill the void. With Bestwick finally on vacation, the choice of Ryan Burr to host seems to have paid-off. His news experience in handling live interviews and being well-prepared was obvious.

In the show, Burr also announced that NASCAR Now would be moving to 5PM. We will have more info when it becomes available. For East Coast fans, the program is now quickly becoming a DVR or TiVo property. Currently, the series repeats at Midnight Eastern Time.

Bestwick returns next week and will handle the stretch-run to the finish. Please give us your opinion of Ryan Burr and this edition of NASCAR Now.

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When TV Network Promo's Cause A Backlash

Several years ago, some NASCAR Busch Series races were carried on the FX cable television network. That company had an adult comedy that was called Son of the Beach. That is the cast pictured above.

The show was loaded with sexual references, bathroom humor and lots of ladies in very little clothing. There is nothing wrong with that, it is a part of the entertainment landscape in this nation. Unfortunately, when the NASCAR Busch Series met the Son of the Beach crew, there was a very big problem.

On a Saturday afternoon, following a breathless pit reporter detailing that some team had only taken two tires and gas, a TV moment of a very different sort began to take place. It was time for a commercial break in the Busch Series race and FX chose to promote Son of the Beach.

Clustered around America watching NASCAR on TV were a lot of youngsters. They were joined by families who religiously watch the sport, record the races and know the up-and-coming drivers in the Busch Series. From Mark Martin driving for Winn Dixie to Jeff Gordon in the Baby Ruth Ford, it seems almost everyone got their start on Saturdays.

FX opened their broadcast promotions with thirty second spots that featured the bikini-clad actresses and their out-of-shape middle-aged male lifeguard leader. The promos joked about male and female sex organs, the size of women's chests and often made fun of homosexuals.

The language was rough, but that was because FX was trying to find-out how far they could push the limits in the type of programming they wanted to show in prime-time. Late in the evening, Son of a Beach found an audience for three seasons. The show was cancelled in 2003.

On message boards across the Internet, NASCAR fans were screaming about this TV series. It was not the acting or the language or the content that they were concerned about. It was the fact that this content was being relayed to viewers through broadcast promotions early on Saturday afternoon in a NASCAR race.

The response came back loud and clear from FX. The network did not care. The response came back loud and clear from NASCAR. This was not their problem. Parents who continued to allow their children to watch the Busch Series on FX did so with the remote control in their hand and their finger on the MUTE button.

Now, several years later, NASCAR fans have once again experienced a situation that has them chatting and complaining. This time, the TV series in question is called Saving Grace. Promoted by TNT as the chronicle of a hard-living female detective, Saving Grace makes Son of the Beach look like SpongeBob Square Pants.

Veteran actress Holly Hunter plays a police detective who has a male angel that guides her in times of crisis. Hunter is sometimes nude or partially nude and there are graphic scenes of sex that have involved everything from bondage to adultery. Hunter spent 20 minutes of one episode naked and tied face-down to a bed with markings on her back and rear-end in lipstick.

This was the television content being promoted by TNT in the NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

One website even joked about the troubles of trying to promote this TV series in NASCAR:

Can you imagine an ad like this on cable TV? (Imagine this in the "voice" of an announcer for a NASCAR race ad):

"Monday night at 10 p.m. TNT is proud to present the most intense, dramatic hour on television as Holly Hunter gets naked for some (reverb and echo effect) NUDE SEXUAL BONDAGE!!! That's right, Holly Hunter, star of stage, screen and television will get (echo effect) NAKED and (reverb efffect) TIED HAND AND FOOT for YOUR viewing pleasure! Never before has any cable station submitted such (reverb and echo effect) SALACIOUS, EXPLICIT, NUDE SEXUAL BONDAGE for your viewing pleasure! Don't miss this (reverb) EXCITING presentation!"

I would provide the link to the site, but it contains nude still pictures of the episode and goes on to speak in rather graphic terms about the type of sexual treatment Hunter's character received in this program. Here is a season one video recap link that also contains adult content but is available to any Internet user.

The Daly Planet also received many emails about the repeated promotion of The Bill Engvall Show. Most referenced the rather twisted moment where he picks up his daughter's thong from the laundry basket. Other viewers felt if they saw Kyra Sedgwick one more time they would lose their sanity. "We know she is The Closer," they all said.

But nothing shook the fans like the reality of Saving Grace. While the promos on TNT featured Hunter drinking beer and aiming her gun, there was only a brief moment of her partially disrobed and engaged in sexual activity with a man. It was when the "brand loyal" NASCAR fans followed the advice of TNT and crossed-over to actually watch Saving Grace that this strong reaction began.

Where NASCAR is concerned, TNT is here and gone. There is no NASCAR programming on TNT before they arrive and there is none now that they have left. Essentially, this was an opportunity to use the high-profile Sprint Cup Series to promote as much TNT programming as possible.

Well, they certainly accomplished that goal. The questions are, did you really know what they were promoting, did you watch the shows or did the repeated promos make you vow to never watch them?

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ESPN's Toughest Call: Punch Or Bestwick In The Booth?

After a long first half of the 2008 season, ESPN is closing-in on that network's coverage of the final seventeen Sprint Cup races. Some of these events will be on ESPN, but the final ten will be on the ABC Broadcast Network. There is no bigger stage in TV sports.

ESPN has come a very long way since the 2007 NASCAR season, which signaled the return of the network to the sport. This Friday night, the NASCAR on ESPN crew was at Chicagoland Speedway. While normally the Nationwide Series races are on ESPN2, this first night race from the track was on ESPN.

The TV production experience that ESPN brings to NASCAR is second-to-none. At Chicagoland, the pictures and sound were once again flawless. The graphics were crisp and easy to read. The TV production effects for racing elements like green flag pit stops and restarts worked just the way they were planned. While the in-race reporter continues to need work, the helmet-cam on a pit crew member has been fantastic.

The network has also gone out and made some wholesale changes in the on-air talent. In came Dale Jarrett to be the Lead Analyst while Rusty Wallace migrated down to the Infield Pit Center. Wallace has also worked selected races in the booth, like the Chicagoland event, with great success. Wallace has come alive with this one simple change of scenery.

Jarrett has been the consummate professional since he arrived. He continues to walk in the footsteps of his father with a good word spoken and a bad word held back where NASCAR commentary is concerned. Jarrett has also proven to be a master at learning the "TV skill set" as he works seamlessly with the other members of the NASCAR on ESPN announce team.

The biggest change this season is the addition of Allen Bestwick. This multi-faceted on-air talent has seen the highs and lows of this business first-hand and longtime NASCAR fans certainly know it. Once the play-by-play announcer of NBC's NASCAR coverage, Bestwick later found himself as a pit reporter for ESPN2 on the Nationwide Series.

One thing fans have seen from Bestwick over the years is determination that matches his legendary preparation. From standing in pit road for ESPN2 as a reporter in 2007, Bestwick earned a promotion to become one of ESPN's most vital connections with the fans. Whether hosting the pre-race show, dealing with weather delays or coordinating post-race interviews, Bestwick has been the face of NASCAR on ESPN this season.

On Thursday of this week, a practice session rained-out for the Nationwide Series. Instead of Bestwick and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Studio, ESPN put the telecast crew of Punch, Wallace and Andy Petree in that location. The timeslot for this practice session was one hour and thirty minutes.

The task for Punch was to fill this entire time with conversation among his panelists and various guests that would come to the set. Over the next ninety minutes, Punch welcomed drivers Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Stanton Barrett and Carl Edwards. It was wonderful.

This was a chance for some NASCAR fans to see Punch in the setting in which he thrives, interviewing. Punch is a TV reporter and a darn good one. He led this program through five different drivers on-the-fly, always had his information correct and kept the conversation entertaining and humorous the entire time.

Friday night, ESPN put Punch back in the setting in which he is not thriving. That is calling the play-by-play for multi-hour NASCAR races. For those of us who watched both programs, it was a painful reminder that ESPN should perhaps consider making one more change to the network's NASCAR line-up.

It is time to flip Jerry Punch and Allen Bestwick. The current situation is not working for the fans and does not seem to be working for Punch either. Perhaps, just like Wallace, one change would allow both Punch and Bestwick to thrive.

This feeling was reinforced by Punch's wonderful Thursday hosting of the "rain fill" program from the Infield Media Center. In what had been Bestwick's chair, Punch looked right at home. He was animated, happy and kept the energy high even as the rain poured down.

Last season, ESPN used Allen Bestwick to cover some stand-alone Nationwide Series events. Partnered with Randy LaJoie, Bestwick showed that he still had the TV skills to handle the play-by-play role with no problem. Bestwick is a very good "TV traffic cop" who can direct traffic on-the-air and let the other announcers use their skills to tell the story of the race.

Now, with Dale Jarrett on the ESPN team full-time, there is little doubt that Bestwick and Jarrett would be a potent team in the announce booth as The Chase rolled through the final ten races on the ABC Broadcast Network.

Punch would equally be a major player in his infield host role with interviews and the ability to use his outstanding reporter skills once again in the sport he clearly loves.

Every single NASCAR team is forced to make changes as the season progresses. Fans have seen drivers, crew chiefs and many team members come and go. The one reason this happens is to improve the performance of the team. The key to accepting the changes is the commitment to be as good as possible while the race is on.

It is time to ESPN to take a look in the mirror and see if they are as good as possible with the network's on-air announcers in their current positions. The big question is going to be, can change take place if it is needed for the overall good of the team?

The Allstate 400 at The Brickyard begins ESPN's seventeen race Sprint Cup coverage on July 27th.

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Burr In At "NASCAR Now"

Apparently, someone convinced the ironman to take a day off. It will be veteran news anchor Ryan Burr stepping-in tonight to host the one hour roundtable edition of NASCAR Now. Allen Bestwick is actually on vacation.

Burr will be joined by Ray Evernham, Boris Said and Mike Massaro on the panel. Burr has come a long way since moving over from ESPNEWS to host NASCAR Now regularly this season. He has a fast pace and keeps things moving. He also asks good questions.

He will need to do just that as the news is breaking that Ryan Newman is officially out at Penske. This sets the table for an announcement of Newman joining Stewart/Haas Racing and possibly bringing UPS on as a sponsor. Burr is going to have his hands full today.

Bestwick and Infield Studio Partner Brad Daugherty are also going to take a day off this weekend as ESPN hosts the Nationwide Series from Gateway. Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree will handle the pre and post-race content from the booth. Thanks to our friends at ESPN for this update. NASCAR Now airs at 5:30PM Eastern and again at 9PM Pacific Time.

Steve Byrnes is back with Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus on This Week in NASCAR over on SPEED. They will be previewing and then reviewing. With the next Sprint Cup race two weeks away at The Brickyard, it should be interesting to see what they choose to preview.

TWIN is on at 8PM for one hour and then repeats head-to-head against NASCAR Now at 9PM Pacific Time. There will be full columns up immediately after each show for your comments and opinion. Please feel free to comment on this post in advance of the shows. Just click on the COMMENTS button, the rule for posting are on the right side of the main page.