Tuesday, February 8, 2011

ESPN2 And SPEED Face-Off In Studio (Updated)

Update: Did you watch the two shows? What did you think? Leaving this post up for one more day for your comments on NASCAR Now and Race Hub.

It's been a long time coming, but NASCAR finally has two healthy and credible studio news shows comitted to a full ten months of TV coverage. This season, NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and Race Hub on SPEED may play a key role in helping the sport regain its footing.

The story is a classic. ESPN was lost in the woods with its NASCAR studio show until Allen Bestwick stopped by one day and the rest is history. Click here for that story from a while back. NASCAR Now got itself sorted out and was the first to become a valuable TV conduit for the fan base.

All along ESPN had good reporters and contributors in the field. The problem was the personalities in the studio. Hype, incompetence and ego made the early shows laughable. Now, a tight trio of Mike Massaro, Nicole Briscoe and Bestwick offer familiar faces and a straightforward approach to NASCAR topics.

Last season, Shannon Spake was among the pinch-hitters in the host role and showed her versatility. Veteran fans may remember her from earlier hosting roles with SPEED. Even Marty Smith was pressed into service for vacation relief and managed to depart the mothership with no damage done.

This year Bestwick's influence is greater than ever on this series. Last week ESPN announced that Johnny Benson and Kenny Schrader would be frequent panelists on Bestwick's flagship one-hour Monday roundtable version of the show. Combined with outstanding studio analyst Ricky Craven, Bestwick may now have the top studio team on TV.

Monday nights with Bestwick, Schrader, Benson and Michael Waltrip were mandatory viewing for many fans as SpeedVision and then SPEED carried a NASCAR talk show under several titles for years. With Waltrip off doing Inside NASCAR for Showtime, Craven is about to have a very interesting season of Mondays.

There are two fundamental drawbacks to NASCAR Now that ESPN is unable or unwilling to solve. First, the show is on at 5PM Eastern Time and then re-airs at various times for West Coast viewers. We often refer to this timeslot as "DVR Theater" because most East Coast workers are not yet home and the overnight re-air is too late for both the Eastern and Central Time Zones. Bottom line, it's tough to catch sometimes.

Secondly, the show is preempted for everything from Little League baseball to ladies tennis. Fans joked that ESPN stood for Ever Seeking to Preempt NASCAR. Click here for the ultimate insult that happened last season. It was jaw-dropping for fans and brushed off by the network.

In order for ESPN to save its own NASCAR efforts, the move for NASCAR Now when preempted has to be to ESPNEWS. At 5PM, ESPNEWS is mostly bored announcers who have shown last night's stick-and-ball highlights endlessly and are now just waiting for the 7:30PM scheduled games to begin.

This move is done by ESPN for in-house branded shows when there is a conflict, but has never been done for NASCAR in the four seasons of ESPN's participation in the sport. Now is the time for ESPN's Julie Sobieski to make her case to the senior programmers and get NASCAR Now on the schedule on the weekdays throughout the season.

Things are shaking at SPEED as new management is changing the programming and production sides of the network once again. This has to be at least the fifth or sixth major overhaul of this network in the last ten years. This time, FOX's David Hill and veteran TV executive Patti Wheeler are calling the shots.

Race Hub was one of the first to feel the effects. Steve Byrnes was brought off the road and installed as the fulltime host of this Monday through Thursday program. Byrnes kept his FOX pit reporting gig, so the first several months of the season are going to be quite busy while Byrnes works on both assignments.

Byrnes has been just what the doctor ordered for Race Hub. The show is now one-hour long and that means good opportunities for longer-form interviews, analysis and conversations. It had paid off in a huge way for SPEED.

Leveraging the North Charlotte location of the SPEED studios, Race Hub has become a destination for drivers, owners and personalities seeking to update information, make announcements or simply respond to an interview request. It takes someone with the lengthy and diverse experience of Byrnes to handle the challenge.

SPEED hired reporter Danielle Trotta full time and assigned her to the show. She clicked from the start and has been the surprise of the new format. Moving between the NASCAR shops and facilities in the greater Mooresville area, Trotta has fit right in with the good-natured but frank approach to discussing topics in the news.

While it is clear that Race Hub is being used to reinforce the NASCAR on FOX brand, viewers need a break from Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds on the weekdays. As the producers continue to tinker with the format, perhaps making area journalists a regular part of the show would lessen the feel that this is an in-house effort.

Jimmy Spencer continues to struggle on this program, now fully immersed in the cartoon image of himself he has created. Spencer deserves to be on the main set, interviewed as an analyst and taken out of his demeaning attire. If he is being paid to play, let him play with the big boys or go home.

Both Race Hub and NASCAR Now have embraced social media with active Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. The shows often take fan questions for guests in advance of show tapings and fan feedback has resulted in change. This ability for any fan to speak directly with Bestwick, Massaro, Byrnes or Trotta makes both shows score high on the interactivity meter.

ESPN has a suit and tie dresscode that is not going to change. The formal on-air look is now part of the Bristol, CT culture despite the fact it does not fall in line with the NASCAR fan base in any way. Polo shirts or long-sleeve oxfords would be a simple change for NASCAR Now that might make a big difference for some TV viewers.

Byrnes and friends are casual on the air, but Race Hub has come a very long way from the early days when a bunch of tired middle-aged men in acid washed jeans stood around a workbench in the studio to offer race analysis. SPEED has always had issues with building working sets, but Race Hub seems to have settled right in to the current design.

Monday on ESPN2 it will be Mike Massaro leading NASCAR Now back on the air with a 5PM show for thirty minutes. The one-hour roundtables with Bestwick do not start until the following week. Race Hub has been on the air for several weeks now and on Thursday at 7PM will feature a look at NASCAR's media day from Daytona.

It's certainly nice to have a slice of the NASCAR TV pie all squared away. Now fans have a daily choice for news, highlights and interviews between two of NASCAR's official media partners. The schedules, including any guest information provided, are on the left side of the main page.

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