Thursday, January 14, 2010

NASCAR Media Notes: Updated DirecTV Information

There are several stories that unfolded Wednesday. They involved the new Showtime TV series, SPEED's former This Week in NASCAR program, changes in the Fox management structure and ESPN moving races between networks.

Thursday update: A break may be happening in the DirectTV stand-off with the VERSUS cable network, which is owned by Comcast. Sports Illustrated reporter Josh Gross said an agreement between the two parties is expected in March. This would protect several of VERSUS sports properties and restore this 24 hour channel to DirecTV.

Radio update: Jayski will be on Sirius NASCAR channel 128 Thursday night at 8:30PM talking NASCAR with Claire B Lang on Dialed-In.

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported the new line-up for the Inside NASCAR series that will debut on Showtime in February. Fox's Chris Myers will host. On the panel are TNT's Kyle Petty, SPEED's Randy Pemberton and ESPN's Brad Daugherty. Those seem to be rather political choices for this new series that is being produced by NASCAR's own in-house TV group.

Petty and Pemberton are NASCAR TV veterans who have extensive family backgrounds in the sport. Myers departs the NASCAR scene after the Fox races and moves to other assignments. Daugherty is an active Sprint Cup Series owner and has fought that issue in his day job with ESPN.

Inside NASCAR debuts on Showtime February 10 and will run for 38 weeks. It will be bundled with Showtimes's Inside the NFL as a sports TV block.

Press information sent to the media recently lists Michael Waltrip's TV background. Two sentences leapt off the page for us:

“In addition to his role as co-owner, Waltrip has been a popular television personality on SPEED since 1996. He’s an analyst for its NASCAR Camping World Truck Series broadcasts and was an original member of one of the longest running shows on the cable network, “This Week in NASCAR” 1996-2009.”

That would seem to put an unofficial end to rumors that TWIN was returning for 2010. There has still been no comment from SPEED, which has been strangely silent on this issue. 14 years is an amazing run for any cable TV series, Monday nights will just not be the same.

Also, some senior management changes have resulted in shifting TV duties. Fox Sports President David Hill is having his responsibilities broadened to include managing the Fox Cable Networks. While this includes the Fox Regional Sports Networks and FUEL, it also includes SPEED. This puts Hill as the ultimate boss of that network, which has been in transition for several years in terms of programming and direction.

Finally, news broke from ESPN about the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races of the season. In a nutshell, all but three of those events are going to air on ESPN in 2010. The three in question are Saturday night races that will remain on ABC. In addition, the Sunday Chase races that air in NFL season will have the pre-race show moved to ESPN2, with the race then being shown on ESPN.

This is quite a change in direction for NASCAR. Originally, one big part of the NASCAR TV contract was that the final ten races should be on "free tv," as over-the-air network transmission is called. In 2010, all NASCAR fans will have to get ESPN and ESPN2 to see the pre-race shows and the races themselves.

ESPN is quick to point out many other major sports properties are on cable. NASCAR is also on board with this change, so there is no contract issue. While the decisions have been made and the changes will go forward, there are some things to remember.

NASCAR has been a nightmare for ESPN. Plain and simple, it has been a face-off where every change of format, on-air talent or production technique has been like pulling teeth. It has been three seasons since Brent Musburger stood on pit road at Indy in his sneakers and told us ESPN was the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Now, Musburger and many of the first year gang are gone. The NASCAR Now show has been completely revamped with great success. Allen Bestwick has brought order to every program originating from the Infield Pit Studio. Jerry Punch has been moved to pit road and Marty Reid is here to call the action in 2010.

ESPN gets the nod on this schedule change because it comes at a time when everything in NASCAR from COT wings to race start times is changing. Something has to be done to get this sport back on its feet other than politics on the radio or good social media PR.

If leading into the Chase races with an NFL Football preview show will help, then let's do it. However, one big issue still remains and only ESPN can solve it. 2010 is the last gasp of credibility for ESPN where producing live Sprint Cup Series races is concerned. There is no other way to say it.

Images of seeing Jimmie Johnson's pit stop replays one lug nut at a time as the field went green are burned into our minds. The awkward silence of Punch at critical moments in races has been documented for three seasons. Who can forget when Johnson hit the wall early and the telecast switched to coverage from the garage? The actual Chase race became an afterthought. For many fans, so did ESPN at that moment.

Kudos to ESPN for making changes once again. Now, it's time to look in the mirror and make changes to help the network's production of this great sport. Those changes are always the hardest. The time is right. A lot is at stake. Here we go.

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