Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Watkins Glen Coverage Did Not Click With Viewers

It was a beautiful day at Watkins Glen and the High Definition pictures from ESPN were spectacular. At the head of the field sat Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. At the tail of the field sat a hungry Aussie and a bunch of road course specialists. The recipe for good NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing was perfect.

When the green flag fell, the stories began to unfold and they were fantastic. Former champion Jeff Gordon struggling again, Earnhardt looking like a winner and Marcos Ambrose coming through the field like a snowplow. Unfortunately, that was not enough for the American public to tune-in.

In the first year of the new TV contract, ESPN managed a 4.1 rating for the Watkins Glen race in 2007. Now, even with Dale Jarrett added to the team and Allen Bestwick handling the infield studio, the 2008 effort did not come close. This year's event garnered a 3.6 rating which translates to a decline of over 12 percent.

When information like this becomes available, it starts a discussion on several topics. Some are TV-related and others are not. It would seem that the current ESPN team is having trouble generating the level of excitement and interest that NASCAR fans are looking for.

As ESPN TV viewers are aware, the network has an buttoned-up image and network guidelines that often result in an on-air look that resembles a courtroom or a meeting of the board. Nowhere is that contrast better illustrated than when RaceDay on SPEED transitions to NASCAR Countdown on ESPN.

The open-collared short-sleeve shirts of the RaceDay panelists and the casual pit road style of Wendy Venturini give way to the expensive suits-and-ties of the ESPN gang. While ratings for the ESPN races have been flat or in decline, RaceDay has seen double-digit growth in 2008.

While it may not help the ESPN ratings to have Brad Daugherty do Kenny Wallace's "booty dance" in commercial breaks, the fact remains that perhaps ESPN's current TV approach is just a little too "buttoned-up" for this sport.

What many fans have done is migrate to other available technologies to consume the Sprint Cup events. While that might be fancy talk, what it basically means is that ESPN must understand that NASCAR fans now have alternatives available to watch the races. Jerry Punch and company are not the only game in town.

DirecTV's Hot Pass, streaming, Sprint Raceview, and even listening to the MRN or PRN radio broadcast allows fans to ignore everything ESPN is offering and still enjoy race coverage. How many fans watch the ESPN pictures, mute the TV and listen to the radio call of the race?

The picture above is ESPN's original NASCAR team of Bob Jenkins (left) and the late Larry Nuber (right). The person with them was serving as both the Stage Manager and Spotter. What Jenkins is doing might be very basic, but makes a valid point. He is watching the racetrack like a hawk. To see the picture full-size, just click on it.

This concept has been lost on ESPN since they re-entered the sport. Just like SportsCenter's baseball highlights now consist of only homeruns and not the story of the game, the NASCAR coverage mostly consists of the watching the leaders and replaying the accidents. The stories are not being told.

ESPN actually moves the three announcers to the Infield Pit Studio for televised practice sessions. Punch and company can only call the action from the TV screens in this high-tech trailer. In TV terminology, they are working "blind."

For the next three races, SPEED steps-in and takes-over coverage of practice and qualifying for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. All ESPN does is produce the pre-race shows and the races themselves. This break might provide a good opportunity for the NASCAR on ESPN gang to discuss the coverage philosophy before the TV telecasts switch to ABC for the final ten races.

There are so many positive elements and so many experienced personalities in the ESPN group that it is entirely possible good things can result with just a little more freedom for the on-air team and a little loosening of the corporate ties.

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We have been watching with interest as the "convergence" of the NASCAR media continues.

TV shows like NASCAR Now want you to go to the website, while Internet sites like now want you to stop by for fresh NASCAR video every day.

After switching-over to the Internet from magazine and newspaper formats, the big NASCAR media publishers are also dipping their toes in the water when it comes to video. As many NASCAR fans who watch Tradin' Paint on SPEED already know, print reporters on TV are always fun to watch. It turns out, the same is true for in-house produced videos.

Simply by clicking this link readers will be taken directly to the video page of the popular website. Parked right there are over 60 free videos available to broadband users that discuss everything under the sun where NASCAR is concerned.

Sports fans may know that ESPN just scoured the nation and hired a slew of former newspaper reporters as NFL Football bloggers. The company that began with one TV network back in 1979 is now in a full sprint to develop and grow as much Internet content as possible in all different forms, including video.

While our friends over at have a website that is just loaded with tons of NASCAR videos, it also has a very fundamental problem. It is tough to get around. With hundreds of links just on the front page, is so "front-loaded" that it is overwhelming to many fans and casual users.

Meanwhile, sites like are just growing slowly into the combination of news, blogs and video that we see from other sites covering professional sports. As usual, NASCAR is a bit behind the technology curve.

The pure joy of watching the videos is seeing people who are clearly not used to being on-camera squirm and wiggle just like any of us would in that circumstance. When four writers are huddled around the company's conference table with their hands tightly clasped and nodding in agreement like Dave Despain bobble-heads, its just fun to watch.

Recently, the company has invested in a program that inserts a new picture behind the folks on-camera. Now, instead of checking-out the Charlotte weather through the conference room windows, viewers are treated to random pictures of tracks, cars and fans. This video is mandatory viewing for any fan who loves Bob Pockrass.

Eventually, the guys at Street & Smith's in Charlotte will wise-up and create a permanent set in the office that is well-lit and ultimately interactive. Just like any liveshot location at newspapers around the country, they will realize that the logo needs to be in the background and that inserting a commercial before the video might even pay the bills.

But for the moment, NASCAR fans can get a glimpse of their favorite writers as they learn a new skill in a very public way.

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Marty Smith Gets A Chance To Shine

This season's turn-a-round of NASCAR Now has been nothing short of spectacular. The presence of Nicole Manske as both a viable studio host and a reporter from the tracks has been a key to this success. Add-in the one hour Monday shows hosted by Allen Bestwick and the hard work of the news-oriented Ryan Burr and things are hitting on all eight cylinders.

One voice that persevered through the chaos of 2007 after moving-over to the TV world was reporter Marty Smith. This season, Smith has been expanding his experiences to include front-page stories for ESPN the Magazine and featured interviews on ESPNEWS and SportsCenter. Wednesday, it was Smith's opportunity to host a NASCAR Now mid-week special from Joe Gibbs Racing.

This was a new experience for Smith who has not really been in the anchor chair, so to speak. For some reason, ESPN2 insisted on making a clearly under-the-weather Nicole Manske officially host the show from the Connecticut studio. She should have been given the day off.

Smith introduced a dynamic feature documenting the history of Gibbs Racing. His chat with JD Gibbs explaining the coach's absence due to a kidney stone and talking about the philosophy of the racing organization was interesting. Smith's interviewing skills worked well in this on-location situation.

Smith continued with Denny Hamlin, who graced ESPN with flip-flops and jeans. Tony Stewart was up next in an interview done slightly earlier. Smith did a remarkable job with Stewart and got some great personal information about the relationships he formed at Gibbs and what role they played in his life on a day-to-day basis.

It was a nice touch to feature Marc Davis on the program. This driver is going to make an impact on the sport when he arrives. That should probably be 2010. Next-up was Joey Logano and his answers were just as polite as Davis. The both showed-off one of the strengths of the Gibbs system, good public relations.

The tour of Gibbs Racing was hosted by Greg Zipadelli and finally gave fans a perspective of just how huge modern day NASCAR team facilities really are. Manske was inserted into the program again, and rather than let Smith continue with the program, it was Manske who spoke to Kyle Busch and his crew chief.

Event though Busch was in St. Louis testing, ESPN would have been better-off to let Smith continue to host this part of the show. Manske's questions were fine, but she was clearly not feeling well and Smith was available to continue the Gibbs Racing theme.

Smith was allowed to follow-up with JD Gibbs on the subject of Kyle Busch and this was a fitting way to close the show. NASCAR Now has the potential to continue to offer fans more glimpses at the inner-workings of NASCAR that we do not see at the track.

Now, having done three of these specials, ESPN may be understanding that there is an entire world of NASCAR shops and personalities located in a small area of North Carolina. Perhaps, NASCAR Now may set-up a shop of their own in Mooresville or Concord for 2009.

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