Monday, May 4, 2009

New TV Series Called "My Name Is Kyle"

It was the week after Michael Waltrip made his interesting cameo appearance on My Name Is Earl. On this Monday, another personality dominated the NASCAR TV talk-shows. My Name Is Kyle was the title of this series.

While Kyle Petty was riding his motorcycle and across the country and sending pictures to Twitter users, Kyle Busch was dominating both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races in Richmond. That got a lot of folks talking.

Waltrip joined host Steve Byrnes and panelist Chad Knaus for a version of This Week in NASCAR that covered a lot of bases. Unlike some other TV types, Waltrip is firmly on the Kyle Busch bandwagon and essentially voiced the view that the current dominance of Busch in the sport is historic in nature.

Knaus continues to provide the level-headed analysis on this program that one might expect from a crew chief. It was clear from the start of the show that he was upset by the equipment failure Saturday night on his car. Knaus was upfront in saying a brake line was placed incorrectly in the shop and was torn by the suspension when the racing began.

The vibe on this program is different with Knaus present. Last week, Waltrip constantly spoke overtop of Greg Biffle and many TDP readers noticed. This week, Knaus coolly waited for Waltrip's jokes and comments before offering his own remarks.

Perhaps, Biffle can take a cue from this when all three panel members join Steve Byrnes and a live audience for next week's show. That is All-Star week and nothing causes more hysteria at SPEED than the build-up to that network's high-profile Sprint Cup event.

Just imagine giving Waltrip a live audience packed with all kinds of dignitaries, sponsors and NASCAR types. Adding Darlington highlights and an All-Star preview should put that show over the top.

TWIN continues to work with two panelists on most programs and the combination of having two drivers on the show really isn't clicking this season. Whether it is the occasional presence of Knaus or Waltrip's inability to respect Biffle, the two-driver combination lacks the punch and fun of the Waltrip/Knaus team.

Byrnes has done a good job keeping the show on track since it started in 2008. Now, the formula is familiar and all Byrnes has to do is keep Waltrip semi-focused and get in all the sales features. For someone used to dealing with Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds almost every weekend on Trackside, this Monday studio assignment is a piece of cake.

Each week, Waltrip correctly points out the value of the footage gathered by the NASCAR Media Group and edited into tremendous features. The two or three minutes shown in TWIN really begs the question of why there is no program series on SPEED using this content. Perhaps, Waltrip's persistence may pay off in 2010.

Over at ESPN, the NASCAR Now bunch was a new mix of Ricky Craven, Randy LaJoie and reporter Angelique Chengelis. Host Allen Bestwick did his best to breathe some life into the group, but this combination did not click.

Chengelis is a hardcore NASCAR reporter who has been outstanding on the all-journalist editions of this show, but was out of place with LaJoie and Craven. Right now, Craven is probably the best studio analyst on TV. He also knows how to deal with LaJoie's sense of humor and sometimes crude remarks.

Unfortunately, Craven and Chengelis did not mix. Each had their own views, stated them and moved-on to the next topic. Bestwick kept the pace quick, but eventually Chengelis began to ask Craven questions herself. It was the reporter in her.

Since ESPN continues to keep a tight lid on any actual discussion of the sport, nothing came of the comments and Bestwick returned to the script. Without a Mike Massaro, Ray Everham or Marty Smith to mix things up with Craven, Monday's NASCAR Now just zooms-by harmlessly and leaves no lasting quotes or moments.

It is clear, however, that ESPN knows it has hit on a goldmine with Craven. His studio appearances on the Sprint Cup Series morning preview show have changed the entire dynamic of the program. When given the opportunity to interview guests, his thoughtful questions raise the level of conversation. It should be interesting to see how the network continues to use Craven for the rest of the season.

If the younger Busch brother wins at Darlington, it could mean another Monday episode of My Name Is Kyle. Ironically, on this show Waltrip gets a leading role.

Thanks to Getty Images for the photo, click on it to see it full-size.

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Side-By-Side Commercial Issue Now On Full Boil

The twists and turns of the 2009 NASCAR season have run from bankrupt auto manufacturers to declining TV ratings. NASCAR itself is clearly in a fight to retain the national status that the sport gained over the last ten years.

The problems of the NASCAR on Fox gang are easy to understand. The economy has forced Fox to sponsor everything possible in each Sprint Cup Series telecast. We mean everything.

From full-length movie trailers to endless "sponsor inserts" during live racing, the look of NASCAR on TV has changed this year. It is not for the better. Sometimes, as with the Phoenix race, it is just almost painful to watch.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that caution flag pitstops are now often just as critical as the actual racing. This leaves almost no time available for the easy insertion of commercial breaks that sometimes run three minutes in length.

Between the "Cheez-It Bite of the Race," Aflac trivia questions and endless mentions, there is a reality that is becoming very clear. Drowning in the Digger toolbars, AT&T Race Breaks and the Terminator Salvation Drivers Fighting Back Award are the NASCAR fans.

Let's face it, NASCAR is not going to return dollars to the TV networks that were paid to air the races. So, the TV networks have bills to pay and they are going to do just that regardless of what it costs the sport. So far this season, that price has been very high.

Over on the Versus TV Network, the IRL continues to go to commercial breaks and keep a second video box on the screen that shows the racing. The ability to absorb the commercial message and still see and feel the continuity of the racing is wonderful. ABC did it during that network's earlier IRL coverage.

The days of fans getting long chunks of NASCAR racing between two minute commercials on TV are simply gone. While the Camping World Trucks and even the Nationwide Series are not exactly in this situation, the Sprint Cup Series is completely mired in a sponsorship quagmire.

Perhaps, the answer is to adopt the side-by-side commercial approach for NASCAR. What else can solve this dilemma and stop the fans from leaving the TV telecasts in droves? The issues of COT's and boring racing are not up for discussion here, because fans aren't really getting enough racing content to let them decide for themselves.

The only way to bring fans back into NASCAR this season is to let them see the racing and the pit stops during the commercial breaks. The current situation of showing four or five minutes of racing and then leaving for three minutes is not working. The end result is that the financial dilemma of the current Sprint Cup TV network is slowly killing the sport.

In the past, TDP has addressed this issue and heard all kind of excuses from both the TV networks and NASCAR. Click here for the 2008 TDP column. The difference is that was during a time when the sport was healthy and side-by-side commercials would be a luxury. Now, this technique may well be key in limping through the season with what is left of the TV audience intact.

There is really no one to blame here, it is just a set of circumstances that requires attention. If this discussion does not take place soon, fans will continue to be faced with highly sponsored telecasts that only allow a glimpse inside the racing on the track. Rarely is there even time to follow-up on the storylines mentioned in the various pre-race shows.

TNT is up next for the Sprint Cup TV and then ESPN steps-in for the final seventeen events. What kind of audience is delivered to TNT after the Fox portion of the schedule is yet to be determined. Even more troubling is how many fans will be left by the time ESPN takes the air in July.

It's time to use existing TV technology to solve at least one issue that can help NASCAR through this difficult season.

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SPEED TV Rides To The Rescue In Richmond

Nothing beats live sports on TV for excitement. Sometimes, things get interesting long before the game, race or event begins. That was certainly the case with the NASCAR on Fox telecast from Richmond on Saturday night.

Cable TV network SPEED was on the air with RaceDay when viewers saw reporter Wendy Venturini suddenly standing under an umbrella. It was shortly after 5:30PM, a little more than two hours before the planned start of the race. The promised rain had begun.

Sports fans watching the regional baseball games on Fox began looking at their watches around 6PM. The NASCAR on Fox telecast was scheduled for 7PM and last year a clash between baseball and NASCAR got very ugly.

Sure enough, by the time 7PM rolled around the worst possible scenario was in place. All the Fox baseball games were still in progress, the rain had stopped and NASCAR was starting the race on time.

It was RaceDay host John Roberts who delivered the words that many NASCAR fans thought should have been said last season. Roberts told viewers at 7PM that the full NASCAR on Fox telecast would begin on the SPEED network.

Moments later, there they were. Chris Myers, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond were in the Hollywood Hotel and all of it was on SPEED. NASCAR fans had a viable alternative for viewing the coverage and baseball fans got to see their games end.

Credit goes to the Fox and SPEED executives who had discussed and planned for this scenario in advance. Even the Fox baseball producers in the field managed to get their announcers to mention that live NASCAR coverage was available on SPEED. That is like getting the Hatfields to promote the McCoy's new general store.

As the regional baseball games began to end, viewers could see something for the first time. A simulcast of a primetime NASCAR race on both Fox and SPEED. Unfortunately, the transition from baseball to NASCAR was rough for many local Fox TV stations. Some played over six minutes of commercials and promos while trying to sync-up with the Fox network for NASCAR.

Depending on the time zone, some TV viewers wound-up joining the telecast in the middle of the National Anthem while others caught the tail-end of the invocation. Since Fox did such a good job of making changes since last season, perhaps getting the stations quickly from baseball to NASCAR next time will be a more orderly transition.

Once everyone was on board, the Fox team thanked SPEED and the cable network returned to regularly scheduled programming. Motorcycle fans had their Supercross, NASCAR fans had their racing and all the Major League Baseball games had been aired to their conclusion.

This was a good example of planning ahead and then executing that plan as the situation unfolded. In the future, Fox will no doubt add graphic elements to the baseball games with the SPEED logo promoting the coverage. In addition, SPEED viewers tuning-in at 8PM found themselves staring at NASCAR instead of motorcycle racing with no graphic update.

All-in-all, this was the best use of the Fox-owned cable network possible. SPEED has helped out in the past with Monday races and even served as a platform to carry an ESPN-produced NASCAR race due to scheduling conflicts with the World Wide Leader.

Perhaps, using SPEED in other situations for additional NASCAR programming might be a result of this very successful Saturday night experiment.

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Almost All The Pieces In Place For ESPN

The Friday night Nationwide Series race in Richmond provided Rusty Wallace an opportunity to move from the infield back to the broadcast booth as lead analyst Dale Jarrett had the weekend off.

Wallace has been consistent this season with his approach to TV and his excitement for racing is clear. Joined by Andy Petree on the commentary team, Wallace was pumped-up to call a race again and it showed.

Petree and Jarrett have become one of the top duos in NASCAR TV because of their complementary relationship. They respect each other and often find that listening is the key to continuing a good on-air conversation. That element continues to be a struggle for Wallace.

While Petree tried to provide substantial help from his perspective as both a crew chief and owner, it was Wallace who often spoke over top of Petree and kept portions of the telecast off-balance. It was clear Wallace was speaking with honest enthusiasm, but as ESPN viewers found in 2007, that does not spell success on TV.

The casualties of Wallace and his continual conversation were substantial. Brad Daugherty and Greg Biffle could not get a word in edgewise from the Infield Pit Studio and were able to get airtime only when prompted by infield host Allen Bestwick.

Unlike Jarrett, Wallace did not go out of his way to continually include the infield personalities as the racing unfolded. Also silenced was Tim Brewer in the Tech Garage. Despite winning an Emmy recently for technical innovation, in this race the expandable trailer could have been left in the hotel parking lot.

The reality of this situation is that none of it is really Wallace's fault.

Normally, this type of problem would have been sorted-out on the air by a professional play-by-play (PXP) announcer. The "TV traffic cop" would have stepped-in and made sure that every member of the broadcast team got a fair share of the on-air exposure. Now in his third season, this is still not a challenge that Jerry Punch has mastered.

If an ESPN announcer struggled on a PXP assignment involving the NFL, college football or Major League Baseball like Punch has with NASCAR, he would have long since been replaced.

It is hard for veteran fans to watch someone who has valuable skills and a wealth of knowledge about NASCAR being forced into an on-air role that simply is not working. Regardless of who is involved in the changes, there is absolutely no doubt after Friday night that Punch needs to be moved before the Sprint Cup coverage begins for ESPN and ABC.

The Punch monotone never changes. Incidents, accidents or even great racing will not raise the excitement level one notch. As TDP has noted many times, he is unable to speak spontaneously as action on the track unfolds, especially accidents. This was again the case in Richmond.

ESPN has been able to get by despite this issue because Jarrett jumps into the PXP role on a regular basis. Often, it sounds like Jarrett is the PXP announcer, Petree is his analyst and Punch is a reporter in the booth.

With Jarrett gone this weekend, the true role of the PXP announcer was returned to Punch who reacted as usual. There was no excitement, no vivid descriptions of the action and no relating to the TV viewer directly as a partner in the telecast.

Instead, there was the constant identification of drivers, car numbers and the recent histories of the cars on the screen. The only real excitement Punch could muster was when he read promos or led the network to a TV commercial break.

The ESPN team has so many pieces of the puzzle in place. The changes over the last several years have almost all been tremendously positive. There should not be a need for fans watching TV to listen to the radio broadcast of the race. The same level of information and excitement should be offered by the TV announcers.

Perhaps, one more shuffle in the ESPN line-up may ultimately result in the right people in the right places and a big shift in the current TV rating momentum for both the sport and the network.

TDP welcomes comments from readers. Just click on the comments button below to leave your opinion on this topic. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting.

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