Thursday, September 8, 2011

ESPN Downgrades "NASCAR Now" Stock

ESPN controls all the stock options for the weekday Sports Nation studio show that currently is the rage among male teens. Michelle Beadle does her best Jenny McCarthy impersonation channeling MTV's cult classic Singled Out in her interaction with co-host Colin Cowherd.

Sports Nation has all the attributes ESPN loves. It is produced at ESPN, the footage is controlled by ESPN and the series can be used to showcase ESPN's own programming.

Between the forced humor, Beadle's high heels and the endless mix of random sports videos it almost defies description. In short, it's a TV show about nothing. Where have we heard that before?

Come September, ESPN will be making a move with the series. With Beadle's stock rising and the teen-age boys howling, Sports Nation will move to 5PM on ESPN2 every weekday. It's ESPN's version of the after school special.

Unfortunately, there is one little problem. That timeslot has been occupied from February through November by the NASCAR Now program for years.

Produced to support one of ESPN's major sports series, NASCAR Now offers an hour on Mondays and thirty minute versions Tuesday through Friday. There is also a preview show before every Sprint Cup Series race for the ten months of the season.

Apparently, all of that simply does not matter right now. What's hot is hot and NASCAR Now's stock is being downgraded. The show will move to a 3PM Eastern timeslot starting in September. The re-air will be after midnight Eastern Time.

This is a tough blow for NASCAR. ESPN is NASCAR's biggest TV partner and the daily show was a integral part of the new TV contract that started in 2007 and runs through the end of 2014.

Essentially, what ESPN is saying with this move is that fans should record the show and watch it when they arrive home from work. We call that DVR theater. It's basically akin to falling off the TV radar.

The real problem for NASCAR Now is 750 miles away from Bristol, CT and tucked inside a TV studio in Charlotte, NC. SPEED has a Monday through Thursday one-hour show called RaceHub that covers the exact same material as NASCAR Now and is located in NASCAR's backyard.

While ESPN may try to spin this topic as moving a show with solid ratings into a better timeslot, the damage is done. There was a very loyal group of fans that watched NASCAR Now and interacted with the hosts and analysts online.

This is also the time of the year when NASCAR Now starts getting batted around. This week it's Little League baseball and then comes US Open tennis coverage. Jostling the show around in the very heart of the racing season got so bad last year that fans started calling it NASCAR Not Now.

With the 5PM shows often pre-empted, last season fans tried to record the only scheduled airing set for early morning East Coast time. Over and over again, NASCAR Now never popped-up on the DVR. By the time October rolled around, TDP readers suggested ESPN stood for Ever Seeking to Pre-empt NASCAR.

Even though it had a rocky start, hats off to those who persevered with this series and made it into a very viable NASCAR news program. Strong field reporters are now mixed with solid studio hosts and a wonderful variety of analysts.

Five years after ESPN returned to NASCAR, it's tough to swallow the fact that the network's daily news program is being pushed to a meaningless timeslot in the very heart of a critical season for the sport.

On the other hand, ESPN's relentless pursuit of the late teen demographic has finally paid dividends with a show centered around social media, sports videos and a cute girl with attitude. At least NASCAR now knows where that demographic is hiding.

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

Allen Bestwick: The Quiet Man

In John Ford's 1952 film called "The Quiet Man," American boxer Sean Thornton played by John Wayne arrives in Ireland seeking a second chance. After an incident in the boxing ring, he is on a quest to regain a normal life.

Eventually, Thornton has to stand up for himself and show that his pride is intact despite the grim reality of his past. In the climactic fight scene, even his archenemy in town learns to respect Thornton and a friendship is born.

As the 2004 NASCAR season opened, Allen Bestwick was on top of the world. He had worked his way up from an MRN radio announcer into the TV side of the business. He was the lap-by-lap announcer for the races on NBC, TBS and TNT.

Since 1996, Bestwick had also been hosting a Monday night TV program first on SpeedVision and then on SPEED Channel. Changing names with sponsors, it had begun as Inside Winston Cup Racing and then incorporated Nextel and Sprint as the years went by.

The Monday show was a cult classic when it featured Michael Waltrip, Kenny Schrader and Johnny Benson as the "expert panel." With Bestwick playing the straight man as the frustrated host trying to maintain order, the program put Sprint Cup Series drivers into the TV spotlight as never before and launched a TV career for Waltrip that continues to this day.

In September of 2004, Bestwick was playing in a charity ice hockey game near his home in Rhode Island when he broke his leg. The injury and subsequent surgery put him on the shelf for only two races. NBC moved infield host Bill Weber into Bestwick's position.

Shortly after returning to TV, Bestwick was informed by then president of NBC Sports Ken Schanzer that he would be replaced by Weber upstairs in the TV booth for the 2005 season. Bestwick was offered the job of hosting the pre-race show from the infield.

In the blink of an eye, Bestwick's run as the face of Sprint Cup Series racing on NBC was over.

Later in 2005, viewers of the Monday show on SPEED saw a shaken group of panelists offer an off-balance and disjointed effort. Something was clearly wrong. In fact, former SPEED executive Chris Long had summarily fired Bestwick and Benson before the program. After almost a decade of work there were to be no goodbyes. It was an awkward and awful ending.

When ESPN returned to NASCAR in 2007 the network chose to promote three personalities in the national media. ESPN veteran Dr. Jerry Punch would step into the lead announcer role. He would be paired with new arrival Rusty Wallace who would be the network's lead analyst.

The third face was one the network said was familiar to sports fans nationwide. He would host the pre-race show, remain in the infield to offer comments during the telecast and then host the post-race show. His name was Brent Musburger.

Listed last on the press release were the names of the pit reporters. Behind Jamie Little, Dave Burns and Mike Massaro was the name Allen Bestwick. Three years after his hockey injury, losing his original NBC job and having his beloved series on SPEED cancelled, Bestwick was starting over.

Only four months into the first season, ESPN's NASCAR Now studio show was sinking fast. One host had already been fired and the tension between the teams and ESPN over reporting practices was building. Host Erik Kuselias and analyst Tim Cowlishaw were hype artists treating NASCAR as nothing more than fodder for redneck jokes.

On the last Wednesday in May frustrated NASCAR fans got a big surprise. The face hosting the show was none other than Allen Bestwick. Many employees at ESPN had never met a "real NASCAR guy." With only one program, Bestwick set the tone that got the show back on track both inside ESPN and with the personalities in the sport.

Click here for a TDP post on that day. Veteran reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount were both doing liveshots via satellite and could not hide their smiles with Bestwick hosting the program.

After the show, one fan (Jules H.) offered this comment. "When I heard AB’s voice I stated jumping around the room like a kid on Christmas morning!"

Since that time, Bestwick has gone on to grow his relationship with NASCAR Now into becoming a vital part of that franchise. His "Monday roundtable" show echoed the format of his former SPEED series with various drivers, crew chiefs and reporters chiming in over the course of an hour.

Although ESPN at first changed the Monday panelists every week, Bestwick has now managed to bring back two NASCAR veterans as semi-regulars for the Monday show. You may remember them from a while back. Their names are Schrader and Benson.

It didn't take long for NASCAR fans to register their frustration with Musburger. Even when he moved into the new Infield Pit Studio, it was clear Musburger was a stick-and-ball fish out of water. ESPN tried several new faces before settling on in-house anchor Suzy Kolber as host. After one season, she was gone.

"Allen Bestwick Emerges From The Shadows" was the title of a February 2008 post at TDP. Click here to read it. After running out of options, ESPN had finally moved Bestwick from pit road to the infield host position for good.

Immediately, Bestwick tabbed Brad Daugherty as the "Voice of the fans" to help explain Daugherty's awkward role on the telecasts. Bestwick also helped Rusty Wallace with TV lessons in when to talk and when not to talk. That was an early struggle for Wallace as a TV novice.

As Dr. Jerry Punch faded in the booth time and time again, it became clear that ESPN needed to return the good doctor to pit road and bring in someone with a better play-by-play style of presentation. ESPN looked around and Vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg made a decision. It would be IndyCar and NHRA veteran Marty Reid taking over that role beginning in 2010.

Now in his second season, it's become clear that Reid's lack of a NASCAR history has handicapped him in the TV booth. After five months of Reid working the Nationwide Series telecasts this year, Feinberg finally made a move. Just a week before ESPN starts its fifth season of Sprint Cup Series races, a new face would head the team.

After restarting his TV career in 2007 as a Nationwide Series pit road reporter, Bestwick finally gets the chance to return to the spotlight. While Reid will continue on the Nationwide telecasts, Bestick will call the Sprint Cup Series races for ESPN and ABC.

It seems ironic that rather than utilize Bestwick in this role from the beginning, it has taken ESPN five years to put the pieces of the puzzle in the right places. Now alongside of Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, ESPN is poised for the first time to come at the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races with Bestwick leading the charge.

In all the media releases, interviews and social media conversations over the past five seasons there has never been a moment where Bestwick has complained about his role, about any of his fellow announcers or even offered a negative comment.

During a media teleconference on Tuesday, Bestwick was asked how he felt about getting the opportunity to return to a TV role he enjoyed in a sport he cherished. He simply said it was an honor to get a tap on the shoulder from the coach asking him to get in the game and play.

As Bestwick walks into the TV booth for the Brickyard 400 telecast, you have to wonder what kind of thoughts will be running through his head. This saga of TV frustration turned into a triumph of success through hard work is simply amazing.

In many ways over the last five seasons, Bestwick has truly been NASCAR TV's own version of "The Quiet Man."

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 The Daly Planet.

Post-Race Comments: Sprint Cup Series On ESPN From Atlanta

ESPN moved the Infield Pit Studio and Tech Garage down the road, but most of the production team stayed for the Tuesday race coverage.

There was no pre-race show for this event. The highlight of pre-race activity was the Grand Marshal saying "Gentlemen, spark your engines!" That was a classic.

Allen Bestwick was in the TV booth with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. On pit road were Jamie Little, Dave Burns, Dr. Jerry Punch and Vince Welch.

The stripped-down telecast resulted in a show focused much more on the racing and less on the hype and 11 on-air voices we normally hear. Bestwick kept things on the right track through a rain delay and several awkward incidents on the track.

The TV team sat through one red flag for rain, but hung in there and brought the telecast home before 4PM ET. While the information offered from the booth was accurate, the telecast started with the same type of focus on the early race leaders and the lack of an overall perspective on the field.

Late in the race, ESPN stayed commercial free for a significant amount of time. The rumor was that the network was going to practice with side-by-side commercial breaks in the second half of the telecast, but that did not happen.

The finish coverage focused on the two leaders crossing the line, but never cut back to watch the others on the lead lap racing. Announcers tried to reference it and after the race the drivers talked about it, but once again fans watching on TV never saw it. Tony Stewart fans were not happy.

Post-race consisted of interviews of tired drivers by tired reporters. It was a surprise to see a feature on Jeff Gordon's record run in full after the race. It was a long and extended race weekend and perhaps all parties are just happy it's over.

We invite your comments on the TV coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from Atlanta on ESPN. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below.