Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Shifting Gears" Continues To Rattle NASCAR TV Establishment

Other than the TV coverage from the tracks and one daily news show, the NASCAR landscape is barren of long-form television programming.

The Charlotte-based NASCAR Media Group may have lots of "official" resources and footage, but without a TV network that wants to participate, they are just watching the world go by.

Meanwhile, upstart TV production groups run by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have made in-roads on the racing TV landscape. Stewart has made a name for himself with his annual Pay-Per-View charity race, while Junior has offered his first TV series called Shifting Gears.

Earnhardt paid the freight to ESPN with commercial spots in order to get his originally-produced one hour TV shows on-the-air. Three episodes of Shifting Gears aired earlier this season, documenting Junior's transition from DEI to Hendrick Racing.

The first two programs were groundbreaking, the third was a mess. The brutal honesty and the behind-the-scenes moments with family members, friends and NASCAR personalities were sometimes breathtaking. Junior had clearly decided to open himself up totally and he emerged as an adult in charge of his own life and destiny.

This television project was original, meaning that it had no set schedule and was done on-the-fly with a very dedicated group of production folks. Things worked out well logistically for the first two shows, but the schedule caught-up with the Hammerhead Entertainment guys for the third episode. It turned-out to basically be a re-hash of the earlier two programs.

In this fourth episode, things got back to normal with plenty of documentary-style production involving activities both on-and-off the track. Earnhardt's life is a whirlwind of scheduling and sponsor activities. The storyline woven through the foundation of the series is the 2008 Sprint Cup Series experience.

Mixed with race footage, Shifting Gears moves the focus from the track to the personalities involved in Junior's NASCAR world. The highlight of this episode was the tangle between Earnhardt and Kyle Busch in Richmond. "As I was spinning out, for some reason I knew it was coming," said Junior.

Cameos from Darrell Waltrip helped this show, as DW's candor is legendary and his words about Earnhardt and his new found maturity rang true. This was especially meaningful after Walrip actually called the race in Richmond and was criticized by the fans for his over-the-top enthusiasm for Kyle Busch this season.

Earnhardt's sister Kelley continues to be a presence in these programs, but by now she has returned to her role out of the spotlight. Her perspective continues to be relevant where Junior's family roots and personal history are concerned.

ESPN's Marty Smith was included in the show, talking about Junior's in-depth interview with ESPN the Magazine. Smith described the history behind his story and Junior described why he agreed to do it. Anyone who has read it will definitely come away with a new understanding of the demons and struggles in the life of this third-generation racer.

There is an anonymous voice-over announcer that played a significant role in the first three shows tying segments together. In this fourth show, he added cheerleader to his responsibilities and it did not work. Junior does not need more compliments. Viewers just need the function of explaining where the show is going and why.

The candid comments of Earnhardt about the All-Star race and its lack of value in its present form are destined to raise some eyebrows and start some conversations. Also memorable were the soundbites from Jimmie Johnson about Junior and his consistency this season. Add his sister and crew chief to those saying flat-out that the team will make The Chase and finish strong.

Ultimately, this series is an eye-opener for the TV networks and NASCAR itself. This is exactly the type of programming that NASCAR envisioned would be on-the-air regularly with its television partners.

So far, no TV network has stepped-up to the challenge and committed to even one regularly scheduled long-form new NASCAR programming series in 2008. As with many other things in his life, Junior had to do this by himself.

The fifth and final episode of this series airs on ESPN Friday at 7PM Eastern Time.

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ESPN: Re-Air "NASCAR Now" In The Morning

The programming line-up on ESPN between 6AM and 3PM Eastern Time is in the middle of a major transformation. Daly Planet readers may remember this story that addressed the hiring of veteran sports TV anchor and reporter Hannah Storm.

Now, ESPN has suddenly backed-off of their commitment to originate nine hours of daily sports news and has scaled the new live schedule back to six. Here is the story from Reuters:

ESPN has scaled back its plans for a daylong live "SportsCenter" block.

The cable sports powerhouse told employees that it would produce six hours of live "SportsCenter" a day during the daytime. The previous plan, announced in May, was for nine hours Monday-Friday beginning at 6 a.m. ET.

But ESPN executives realized, a month before the show was to debut, that the first three hours of "SportsCenter" between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. wouldn't be that much of a change from the last live "SportsCenter" the night; reruns currently air in the wee hours.

"It felt like a better use of our resources" to concentrate on the 9 a.m.-3 p.m. block, said an ESPN spokesman.

The scheduled early anchors, Linda Cohn and Steve Berthiaume, will be reassigned to other jobs at ESPN. No one, either in front of the camera or behind it, will lose their jobs.

Hannah Storm and Josh Elliott will continue to anchor the 9 a.m.-noon block, while Robert Flores and Chris McKendry will co-anchor the later block.

During this time of change, ESPN could perhaps consider diversifying the three hours between 6AM and 9AM. That diversity should include NASCAR.

One of the biggest struggles ESPN and ESPN2 are having can be seen almost every day. Live event programming pushes shows like NASCAR Now, NFL Live, Outside the Lines and a host of other seasonal non-event shows to earlier timeslots.

NASCAR Now actually moves to 5PM as its daily East Coast air time just as ESPN steps into the Sprint Cup Series. The next airing of the program is at Midnight Eastern Time.

In the morning, fans that want a quick review of the overall sports night swing by the ESPNEWS Network to catch the thirty minute "wheel" of sports. Watching the one hour or ninety minute version of SportsCenter does not work for many East Coast viewers. Real life is calling.

Moving the general sports fans over to ESPNEWS would allow for a morning re-air of NASCAR Now. This is only becoming possible because ESPN2 is producing a one hour Sunday wrap-up show that would be perfect to start the Monday morning of NASCAR fans. Then, the remaining shows during the week would be the thirty minute version.

This Fall, NFL Live, College Football Today and Outside the Lines: First Report would be wonderful compliments to fill-out this never before available timeslot. For ESPN there is nothing to lose. A brand new live version of SportsCenter will be along shortly and the overnight show has already shown all the final scores and highlights.

The new 9AM live show with Hannah Storm and friends could come on-the-air without having to be preceded by three hours of the very same highlights Storm will show. Catering to an existing audience that now struggles to record or rush home to view these specialty shows would seem to be a solid idea. It might be an idea whose time has actually finally come.

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