Monday, March 2, 2009

Manske Moves To The Roundtable

After a disastrous 2007 season, the powers that be at ESPN tapped Allen Bestwick on the shoulder and gave him a challenge. His mission was to take the Monday hour-long version of the NASCAR Now program and make it a viable TV choice for NASCAR fans.

Bestwick responded in 2008 by hosting an incredible variety of personalities on the program and making "the roundtable" must-see viewing for hardcore fans. Drivers, reporters, TV analysts and even team owners appeared to talk about the racing from the previous weekend.

Just like Jay Leno, it was rare that Bestwick took a day off. Even on the off-weeks, Bestwick continued to fly to ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, CT and host the show. When he finally did take a week off in the middle of the season, it was Ryan Burr who stepped-in. Click here for the TDP column about that program.

This year, ESPN has given Bestwick a week off quite early in the season. Burr has moved away from NASCAR Now, so regular co-host Nicole Manske was given the opportunity to leave the teleprompter and jump into the deep end of the pool.

Manske has been working hard in the studio since joining ESPN. Her demeanor and ability to talk comfortably with a wide variety of racing types has served her well. Monday's one-hour test would feature Ray Evernham, Ricky Craven and Randy LaJoie.

Manske proved to be up to the task, although a little blunt in her questions to the panel. Bestwick's ability is to listen to what others have to say and only step-in to direct traffic. Often, he brought out in others what had not been seen before in a TV studio setting. The outstanding program with all three Wallace brothers comes to mind. This was Manske's challenge.

There was no Camping World Truck Series race to discuss, so Manske was limited to reviewing Las Vegas and previewing Atlanta. The program also had no guest interviews. Perhaps, mentioning that she was sitting-in for Bestwick at the top of the show might have been a good idea. Unfortunately, ESPN has a habit of forgetting just who drove the car that got everyone to the big dance.

Craven has come into his own as an outstanding analyst and the one person he complements quite well is Ray Evernham. This driver and crew chief/owner combination made the show click. Randy LaJoie was a bit out in left field, but his personality and irreverent humor is something seen on very few ESPN programs these days.

Manske quickly realized that her pointed questions that are great for one-on-one interviews were not going to work with this panel. To her credit, she switched gears and concentrated on directing traffic after the panel had an opportunity to talk.

The good conversation flowed between these four, but it certainly would have been nice to let the three panelists present a closing thought. Bestwick returns next week with Craven and Evernham. They will be joined by driver Mike Wallace.

Perhaps the funniest moment of the program was in the video opening. The NASCAR Now production team chose to show the Sports Book at a Vegas casino. Beneath the odds on the board for the various drivers to win the race were some other interesting bets that could be placed. So, the camera panned down.

The over/under on the total number of Digger appearances was 20. The odds were even on whether or not Jeff Hammond misspells the word "Fox" during the event. Finally, the over/under on how often Chris Myers makes fun of Dick Bergren was 5.

Somewhere in a dark editing bay in Bristol, CT someone was still giggling over getting away with that one. Nothing like a little spice early in the season.

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Thanks again and happy posting.

The Odd Couple Back On TV

There is just something about the Monday night show on SPEED that keeps viewers coming back. For more than a decade, the network has been presenting an irreverent hour of NASCAR conversation and highlights under several different titles.

In 2009, the only remaining element from the original Speedvision program is the now-bearded Michael Waltrip. On this Monday, Waltrip was in rare form. It may well be because he was being reunited with his alter ego, the buttoned-up and analytical Chad Knaus.

Show host Steve Byrnes had travel troubles returning from Las Vegas and received a good-natured ribbing from his substitute, SPEED veteran Ralph Sheheen. It was great that the network had a strong personality like Sheheen who could fill-in with little notice. The program did not miss a beat where the host role was concerned.

Knaus had missed the first several shows and it took him a good while to remember just how his relationship with Waltrip played-out on the air. Basically, if Knaus does not stand up for himself he may never be heard in the entire hour.

Waltrip reminded Knaus of that fact by interrupting his first comment with a ridiculous tangent punctuated by an unfocused finish. It was vintage Waltrip and he continued to roam free for most of the program.

SPEED pounded the music and natural sound under the highlights to the point where the talent could not be heard. Sheheen, Waltrip and Knaus were continually drowned out by the poor audio mix. SPEED continues to struggle with the new HD studios.

Halfway into the show, it was apparent that the audio problems were going to affect a large part of this hour. Luckily, Sheheen often led follow-up conversations that took place after the horrible "library music" had ended. On both SD and HD televisions, the Sprint Cup Series highlights of this race were ruined.

Luckily, the audio mix allowed the highlights of the Nationwide Series race to be heard by viewers. Waltrip and Knaus were both quick to point out the amazing happenings in this memorable race. Often, it appears that Knaus is amused by the antics of some of the Nationwide drivers on the track.

Sheheen made this show a pleasure to watch. His calm demeanor worked well with the amped-up Waltrip and the continually head-shaking Knaus. Sheheen worked viewers though all of the good features that this program offers on a regular basis. The outstanding editing of the NASCAR Media Group is always fun to watch.

Knaus was allowed to make several good points in the Atlanta preview, reminding viewers of why he is the top crew chief in the sport. Waltrip finally stepped aside and let the knowledge of Knaus take center stage. It was nice to have a crew chief and driver combination back on the show. Just like in the TV network announce booth for the races, this line-up works well.

As the program closed with viewer email, it was clear that Knaus had recaptured the dynamic and colorful relationship he has with Waltrip on this show. Simply by letting "Mikey be Mikey," Knaus can navigate right around his cohort and make all the points that he feels contribute to the program.

It has been well over a decade since the lanky and off-the-wall Waltrip brother first made a splash on a small cable TV network broadcasing to almost no one. Now, as a Sprint Cup team owner and well-known television personality, he sits in the new High Definition studios of a Fox-owned major cable TV network.

Like I said, there is just something about Monday nights on SPEED.

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NASCAR On Fox Crew Trapped In The Breakdown Lane

After a tumultuous Nationwide Series race Saturday on ESPN2, the NASCAR on Fox crew walked into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway knowing they were about to televise a very interesting Sprint Cup Series race. They were not disappointed.

Chris Myers and the Hollywood Hotel pre-race show continue to present a mix of content that swings wildly between interesting and ridiculous. The analysis of Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip continues to be right on the money, but the time spent on fluff was tough to handle. The reason for that was because Fox was on the air at the same time as the final thirty minutes of RaceDay on SPEED. Fans had to choose.

Once Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Waltrip took to the air to call the race, they were quickly trapped in the breakdown lane. Matt Kenseth started his engine and the equipment failures never seemed to stop. Hour-after-hour of live TV coverage was dominated by the curious failure of Sprint Cup teams to do things right.

As Joy pointed out at one frustrating point in the race, there were no engine failures at this event in 2008 and yet that situation dominated this race. Waltrip and McReynolds tried their best to keep up with the situation, but most of it was simply blamed on high rpm's and engine stress.

Fox presented the race in a straightforward fashion. There were no problems with commercial integration or pit road coordination. Several pre-race soundbites were used during the race to reference driver stories and Myers presented several video recaps during the event.

Unfortunately, Fox continues to not take advantage of the best crew of pit road reporters on TV. Unlike ESPN on Saturday, the Fox team did not provide regular "through the field" rundowns with the pit road reporters talking about the teams to which they were assigned. This was a big hole in the telecast, even though a brief update was done with about 40 laps remaining in the race.

It may be that time spent on setting up Digger in every segment of the race takes away from the time spent getting current information ready to be told to the viewers. The Fox team makes sure that Digger is a constant presence. It would be wonderful if information from the pit road reporters was presented as regularly as the animated cartoon character.

Mike Joy again presided over a constantly changing live telecast that was never lacking for action. Long runs were rare and Joy again showed that he is still the best at his play-by-play position by keeping order and adding the kind of excitement that makes NASCAR racing on Fox a lot of fun.

Solid graphics, good pictures and outstanding natural sound rounded-out the NASCAR on Fox presentation. Unfortunately, many viewers on the East Coast checked-in with TDP to say that weather updates from their local Fox station were being done regularly with little regard for how the race was proceeding. The local stations were more concerned with presenting the information every fifteen minutes or half-hour. Snow has a way of whipping local TV stations into an update frenzy.

In the end, the race came down to a shootout and went well past the 8PM scheduled off-time. The Fox team did a great job wrapping-up the event. The win by Kyle Busch at his home track was another good story for the sport and one that it probably needed. Seeing all the lead lap cars cross the finish line was wonderful. Thanks to the production team for making that change this season.

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Thanks again and happy posting.

Travel Scramble Should Make For Interesting Monday TV (Updated)

Kyle Busch was very happy about winning the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday afternoon. In Victory Lane, he spoke with the SPEED TV crew and told them something else he was happy about.

All the NASCAR team planes had been grounded because of the weather back in the Concord, North Carolina area. Kyle got another night in Vegas.

While this might make for some interesting sights in the casinos on Sunday night, there is something else that the weather is probably going to affect and that is the Monday TV shows.

Chad Knaus and Michael Waltrip are supposed to team with host Steve Byrnes for the Monday version of This Week in NASCAR on SPEED. The show tapes Monday afternoons at the new SPEED HD studios on Harris Blvd. in the Greater Charlotte area. That program would seem to be in big trouble as even Byrnes was in Las Vegas working on the Fox telecast.

It may well be that SPEED gathers the three parties together in Las Vegas, as the snow is expected to continue most of the day on Monday. There are certainly several facilities that could host and uplink a show on short notice in that TV-friendly town.

Update from SPEED: Ralph Sheheen will step-in for Steve Byrnes, but both Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus made it back to Concord, NC and will appear as scheduled.

Over at ESPN, the Monday version of NASCAR Now might be in a little better shape. Nicole Manske is filling in for Allen Bestwick this week and she is already at ESPN. We also know one of her panelists, Ricky Craven, is already in Bristol, CT as well. Craven was the analyst on the Sunday morning version of the show.

The two other folks scheduled for the program are Randy LaJoie and Ray Evernham. While neither of them was in Las Vegas to our knowledge, both of them are regularly in the North Carolina area and the East Coast travel corridor is a mess.

It may well be Manske and Craven again on Monday night. These two have a great on-air relationship and the Sunday morning program was perhaps the best of the pre-race shows in terms of racing content.

Update from ESPN: All hands are on deck and the show will proceed as scheduled with Manske, Craven, LaJoie and Evernham.

Thanks to both ESPN and SPEED for providing the updates on Monday's TV shows.

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