Monday, July 25, 2011

Last Chance For Romance

Donna Summer thumped out the classic disco tune "Last Dance" in 1978. It was simple and to the point. As the final song was played in the club, it was her last chance. In order to find romance she had to do just one thing. She had to dance that last dance.

Next weekend, ESPN returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the fifth time to begin the network's Sprint Cup Series coverage. In many ways, it is ESPN's last chance at romance with the NASCAR fan base.

The network's coverage of the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races last season was an unprecedented disaster. TV viewers fled in record numbers and left NASCAR mired in simmering frustration.

In 2010, TV ratings for the first four Chase races were down almost 30%. ESPN executives were summoned to Charlotte for an October meeting. They pointed to the NFL, they pointed to earlier race start times and they made a lot of excuses.

What ESPN did not do was look in the mirror.

Since 2007, ESPN has struggled to figure out how to present a Sprint Cup Series telecast that engaged the fans. While the network's online and studio news coverage of the sport has been sorted out, the live event production has become a running joke.

In a company known across the board for pioneering the coverage of many sports, this situation is almost unheard of. Despite the commitment of technology and manpower, the issues for ESPN have remained unsolved.

There are some things ESPN cannot change. The commercial load will remain the same, the network will never influence the racing and Mother Nature will ultimately decide if the weather will cooperate.

The problem is that ESPN refuses to solve the issues within its control.

There are eleven on-air voices in every ESPN Sprint Cup Series telecast. This format has never worked. The two analysts based in the infield have just as many opinions they want to share on the air as the two analysts in the TV booth.

The host in the infield is often more informative and energetic with his updates than the play-by-play announcer upstairs calling the race. Toss in a former crew chief in the Tech Garage and four pit road reporters who also want a share of the TV spotlight and you have a pretty fundamental problem.

"Overproducing" is a term that is being used a lot where ESPN is concerned these days. Instead of simply focusing on the sporting event in progress, the network seems to be concerned with other agendas.

For NASCAR coverage, these have included forcing new technology into the telecasts and creating storylines during the race that echo the pre-race comments of the ESPN analysts. Often, it appears as if the producer is following a script written in advance.

ESPN has seven races before the Chase begins to show NASCAR fans what the network has to offer. Nothing is more important than these seven telecasts. Without TV viewers being drawn in by good coverage during this stretch, it's almost impossible to get them to return once NFL football has started.

Once the NASCAR playoffs begin, the teams outside of the Chase simply disappear on ESPN. Fans invested deeply in specific drivers, teams and manufacturers for perhaps years are suddenly out in the cold. If fans of twelve drivers stay and fans of the rest of the drivers change the channel, the TV math is not hard to figure out.

Turner Sports developed the online RaceBuddy for NASCAR fans. On the surface, it just provides a few video sources that allow fans a more interactive experience. In reality, it provides fans a place to go and view the one-third of the racing action that will be covered by TV commercials.

ESPN has again decided not to include RaceBuddy in this season's Sprint Cup Series coverage. This transition is especially tough because all six TNT races made extensive use of this platform. From the moment ESPN hits the air, the familiar pattern of several minutes of coverage followed by several minutes of commercials will begin again.

The commitment by ESPN to use the side-by-side commercial format for the second-half of the final ten races this season doesn't fly. If there is no RaceBuddy and ratings last year were abysmal, it might be time to embrace this new approach to commercial integration for the entire seventeen race package.

The big on-air change that ESPN has announced will be positive. TV veteran Allen Bestwick will be moving from the infield studio into the TV booth to call the Sprint Cup Series races. Since 2007, Bestwick has been quietly working hard for ESPN in a variety of capacities.

After early chaos with the NASCAR Now series, Bestwick suddenly appeared one day to host just one episode of the show. Click here for a 2007 TDP column on that day. His appearance started the ball rolling in the right direction after four months of struggle. He still hosts most Monday shows produced in a format he helped design.

Following a run as a pit reporter in season one, Bestwick was moved into the Infield Pit Studio to bring some organization to the host position ESPN was unable to fill. Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler and Suzy Kolber were just some of the faces who hosted NASCAR pre-race shows in the early days of this contract.

Next weekend, with Bestwick now steering the ship and Nicole Briscoe handling the infield studio, ESPN is putting a new face on the coverage. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree work well with Bestwick, while Briscoe has shown the ability to keep a short leash on Rusty Wallace and his cheerleading partner Brad Daugherty.

In the end, it will all come down to the willingness of the production team to make changes. Embrace the entire field, respect the sport and show the best racing on the track. Tone down the Chase points updates, the pit reporter hype and Tim Brewer talking fundamentals of the sport.

Fans have faithfully shown up on weekends since late February for NASCAR races on TV. July might be the start of the ESPN season, but viewers have already invested five months of time watching races on two different networks. Respect that commitment in the coverage by the third.

Well, this is it. The last chance for ESPN to romance the NASCAR fans. For the past five seasons, we have rarely seen any signs of life from this disjointed coverage. The music is about to begin and ultimately ESPN has to do just one simple thing. They have to dance this last dance or risk going home empty-handed once again.

The Brickyard 400 is on ESPN Sunday, July 31 at 1PM Eastern time.

We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below.

Bestwick To Call ESPN Sprint Cup Races

Wednesday morning ESPN made it official. Allen Bestwick will call the network's Sprint Cup Series races. It was a big mid-season shake-up that the network had never done before.

Here is the official press release with the details from ESPN:

Allen Bestwick and Nicole Briscoe, two veterans of ESPN’s NASCAR coverage team, will have expanded roles as ESPN’s telecasts of the final 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the season begin next week.

Bestwick, who has filled a variety of positions since ESPN returned to live NASCAR event coverage in 2007, will move into the booth as the lap-by-lap announcer for all ESPN NASCAR Sprint Cup telecasts, including races, practices and qualifying. He will be joined by analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree when ESPN starts its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series coverage with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 31.

Briscoe, who has been a host and reporter for ESPN2’s daily NASCAR news and information program NASCAR Now since joining ESPN in 2008, and a fill-in host for the pre-race NASCAR Countdown show since 2010, will become the regular NASCAR Countdown host for all NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series telecasts on ESPN. Briscoe will work with analysts Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty in the ESPN Pit Studio at racetracks. Bestwick has been in the NASCAR Countdown host role since midway through the 2007 season.

Marty Reid, who has been primary lap-by-lap announcer for ESPN’s coverage of the NASCAR Nationwide Series since 2009, and for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2010, will continue to call NASCAR Nationwide Series race telecasts on ESPN as well as practice and qualifying telecasts. In addition, Reid also will continue as lap-by-lap announcer for ESPN’s coverage of five races in the IZOD IndyCar Series, including the Indianapolis 500, with the next event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Aug. 14.

“We are blessed with a talented and versatile group of NASCAR commentators,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president, production. “We believe this arrangement best plays to our individual and collective strengths.”

Since joining ESPN in 2007, Bestwick has worked as a pit reporter and host and has called some races in the lap-by-lap announcer position. In addition to his new duties in the booth, he will continue as the main host and moderator for the Monday roundtable discussion edition of NASCAR Now. The program features a panel of three racing experts who discuss and debate the latest NASCAR news in a one-hour format.

Bestwick has extensive experience in both radio and television, having started his NASCAR career in 1986 as a turn announcer for MRN Radio. He worked for MRN for nearly 15 years and was the lap-by-lap announcer from 1988-2000, as well as host of the network’s daily news program. He made his television debut in 1995 on the original NASCAR Today program on ESPN and joined SPEED in 1996 as the host of a weekly NASCAR show, a post he held for 10 years. He started pit reporting for TBS and TNT in 1997 and was part of NBC and TNT’s NASCAR coverage from 2001-2006, both as a pit reporter and lap-by-lap announcer.

Before joining ESPN, Briscoe worked for two years as co-host of a motorsports news program on SPEED. Previously, she was a sports reporter at a TV station in Indianapolis, where she was first exposed to auto racing through covering the Indianapolis 500. She later worked as a pit reporter for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network on the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 as well as IZOD IndyCar Series race broadcasts before joining SPEED in 2006. She started her TV career as a general assignment reporter in Rockford, Ill., and also worked in TV in Fort Wayne, Ind., before moving to Indianapolis in 2004. With her new duties, she will continue as a NASCAR Now host on a limited basis.

Well, there you have it. In the blink of an eye, everything changed for ESPN's NASCAR team. Suggestions have been that ESPN got information regarding this decision from fans who filled out NASCAR Fan Council surveys. Others simply believe it was easy to see that Reid was struggling on the big stage in his first NASCAR season.

Any way you slice it, this might become a turning point for ESPN's entire NASCAR package. Just as a new crew chief may spark an entire NASCAR team, putting Bestwick in the booth may finally motivate the entire ESPN team to produce a TV product that veteran fans can respect.

Memories of Bestwick resonate with fans just like memories of veteran drivers. Bestwick's radio past and his move to TV were well documented. His struggles with NBC and move to ESPN were on a very public stage. He has worked his way up through the TV ranks and this is his reward.

Let us know what you think of this move and how you think it might impact ESPN's overall coverage down the stretch?

The Boys Are Back In Town

Apparently, nine billion dollars is a pretty strong motivator. After all the blustering, legal wrangling and angry comments it appears that the NFL owners and players are ready to settle the current lockout.

ESPN's Adam Shefter is reporting that lawyers are putting the final touches on an agreement that will be offered to the players for ratification on Thursday. If that goes well, the NFL will be back in business on Friday and ready for the regular season on time.

While NASCAR Chairman Brian France said earlier that the NFL situation is not on his radar, it certainly is for ESPN. Nine of the final ten Chase races are on Sunday afternoons directly up against the regional NFL games carried by local TV stations across the country.

No sport guts the NASCAR fan base like NFL football. Just like NASCAR, it appeals to both men and women. The NFL also has what NASCAR can't deliver and that is a home team. Football has been the biggest TV frustration in building an audience during the Chase.

One of the reasons for "Boys have at it" was the TV struggles of the sport down the stretch. Despite the made-for-TV playoff format and subsequent tweaks, the Chase has not resonated as a successful TV product up against NFL games.

A key reason in this equation is ESPN. The NFL dominates ESPN like no other sport. While the network's Sprint Cup Series races do get a post-race show, NASCAR takes a clear backseat to the total "NFL surround" experience offered by ESPN's various media platforms.

Now in season five, it's been a struggle to figure out how to present the Chase races on TV. It's been well-documented that the major conflict is how to balance the action in the race with the drama of the Chase. There are two very distinct stories unfolding on the same track at the same time.

The result on TV is often confusion. Drivers not in contention for the Chase but in the top five of the race can fall off the TV screen, even while leading. When a top Chase contender has trouble the cameras follow, regardless of how poorly he was running in the race. It's a tough assignment.

Meanwhile, the NFL has no such problems. The games unfold play-by-play with TV commercials integrated without ever missing a down. Halftime gives the networks an opportunity to insert a studio presence and promote the second half through analysis and highlights.

Now that the NFL is returning, the clear challenge for ESPN is to brand the network's Sprint Cup Series coverage in a unique way that will keep the NASCAR fan base from straying to the regional football games. While we don't know what that might be, we certainly know from the last four years what it should not be.

The jokes about ESPN inserting Chase standings continually into four hour races are endless. There has to be a better balance. The screams of protest from fans of non-Chase drivers never mentioned in the entire telecast also need to be heard. Fans don't change favorite drivers seven months into a season.

Wouldn't it be interesting if ESPN produced the Chase races focusing on the race? Wouldn't it be interesting if the best racing on the track, regardless of position, was put on the screen? Figure out how to update the Chase without affecting the race coverage and as they say in the sport, business will pick up.

Simply put, focusing the TV coverage only on the Chasers alienates the fans of more than two-thirds of the entire starting field. When those fans get frustrated, we know where they go. It's a familiar location right down the dial. It's a familiar sport and a familiar team.

It's time to sit up straight and face the fact that unless something changes, the TV results of the Chase will be the same. Especially now that we know the boys are back in town.

We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. Thank you for taking the time to stop by.