Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Road Not Taken (Updated)

We all have different paths in life. Often our direction is driven by opportunity and the desire for change. Sometimes change is thrust upon us and we simply must respond. The final sentence of the classic Robert Frost poem from 1915 says it very well. Confronted by two paths, choosing the right one can make all the difference.

In this column we are going to touch on several subjects. The passing of Chris Economaki will be first. The Dean of Motorsports loved ESPN when the network got cranked up in the early 1980's. Economaki got the idea, the technology and made the most of his opportunities with the cable network. He gladly took the road less traveled and loved every minute of it.

In the early 1980's my late friend Adrian Karsten and I were at the ESPN Christmas party held at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington, CT. ESPN was an oddity, an all-sports cable network and the party attracted a incredible mix of personalities. One man came to our table and loudly asked to "borrow" our unused bottle of red wine. It was Economaki.

When asked why he was in a small Connecticut town in the dead of winter he gave his typical reply. "I never miss a good party," he said. To have someone of that stature in both the TV and motorsports worlds at the Christmas party of a start-up cable TV network was powerful.

Needless to say, he eventually wound-up holding court for those of us involved with motorsports at the network. As you may expect, many stick-and-ball types had absolutely no idea who he was but they could not stay away from his charismatic personality. The memory of that night and his wonderful stories is what comes up first for me when Economaki is the subject.

The sadness of the Economaki passing comes amid changes that will affect what has been done here at TDP over the past several seasons. Rather than have a long discussion, let's just say that my desire to watch live Sprint Cup Series races has faded for a variety of reasons. This weekend's race will move to the DVR and be reviewed at a later date. This switch also ends the pre and post-race TV show viewing.

We had been developing the #TDP1 hashtag for weekend Sprint Cup Series races, but that Twitter activity is going to end. Twitter has been an interesting experiment and one that has provided a lot of good NASCAR information. These days, it has skewed into a breeding ground for marketing and special interest content.

This blog is not ending, just taking on a new format. TDP will continue with columns on weekdays. The topics will range beyond NASCAR and include the digital issues confronting motorsports, the future of networks like SPEED and what the motorsports TV landscape will look like in 2013. The media-related changes now in progress are major and happening at lightning speed.

I appreciate your patience during this transition and hope you will continue to read TDP in its new form. Thanks for all the support on race weekends, but life goes on and change is something we all deal with on a regular basis. The new week will start with a wrap-up of the Sprint Cup Series telecast on Sunday night. Hope to see you then. Have a great weekend.

Update: There was nothing to discuss after viewing the Dover Sprint Cup Series race on the DVR. New columns on media topics will appear this week. If you would like to leave a Dover TV coverage comment, please do it on this post. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Waiting For Godot - Updated

Update: Still waiting for info on new MLB and NASCAR TV contracts. No new update on the situation with SPEED or the future plans for FOX Sports 1. Lots of cards being played close to the chest right now. New column up Thursday night with more ongoing NASCAR media topics.

In the classic play "Waiting for Godot" the two main characters pass the time just waiting. They have no set schedule of when their mysterious friend will arrive. They do not know what he looks like, how he is dressed or what his agenda will be when he shows up. The entire play is about the torture of just plain waiting.

Sometime this week, the executives at FOX Sports are going to put pen to paper and sign a new multi-billion dollar TV deal with Major League Baseball. The new contract will begin with the 2014 season and will feature an expansion of games across the FOX TV properties. Once the ink is dry, the waiting begins.

One of the key elements of the new contract will be a slate of games on the cable TV network we now know as SPEED. In order to accommodate baseball and other types of sports, the network will be rebranded. The new name circulating in the media is the FOX Sports 1 cable network.

In terms of NASCAR content, SPEED is currently a two-headed monster. Shows like RaceHub, SpeedCenter and Wind Tunnel are produced directly by the network at its studios in north Charlotte, NC. The network also produces its own Camping World Truck Series races, the Daytona Twins and the All-Star race.

The other programming originating from the Sprint Cup Series tracks is produced for SPEED by NASCAR's in-house TV company. NASCAR Productions works from the Hall of Fame TV studios in downtown Charlotte. This group also produces official highlight packages that air in NASCAR-related shows on several networks. The key is that they control TV production at the tracks.

Once things with baseball are official and change is on the way, there will be lots of issues to ponder while we wait. FOX is also said to be on the verge of a new TV deal with NASCAR. The current contract expires after the 2014 season. It will be interesting to see just what remains of the existing NASCAR content now carried by SPEED.

FOX controls its cable networks from an base of operations in Los Angeles, CA. With Major League Baseball and other general sports programming set to air on FOX Sports 1, part of the waiting game will be to discuss what will become of the existing SPEED studios and staff back in North Carolina.

If production on studio-based NASCAR and general motorsports shows continues, it would make sense to keep the Charlotte facility. On the other hand, FOX may simply turn to NASCAR Productions to originate the NASCAR content remaining on the new network and shutter the existing SPEED studios.

SPEED currently also has digital offerings that focus on an extensive motorsports-themed website and a broadband video channel called SPEED2. With NASCAR exclusively in control of all the sport's digital offerings beginning in 2013, what would become of both the SPEED website and the broadband channel is a toss-up.

SPEED originally started in Stamford, CT as a network called SpeedVision. It then moved to Charlotte and took up residence sharing production facilities with a christian religious network for several years. Finally, after a long wait, the current digital studios were built on Charlotte's north side as a "lasting investment."

While a move to LA of staff members in programming and administrative departments would work, there is a large group of SPEED employees and freelancers who are tied to the Charlotte area through personal and professional connections. NASCAR is unique in having most of the TV and media personalities in the sport living in the same general area.

So, once the baseball deal is done the waiting game begins in earnest for many of the on-air personalities, producers and production staff at SPEED. The next shoe to drop should be the new NASCAR contract, which will hopefully make very clear just how much of the support programming that SPEED has aired for many years will remain.

There are may ways to approach waiting. Here is a quote from the play about that topic:

"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse. Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!"

While this NASCAR season is winding down, 2013 may be a significant challenge for those involved with both SPEED and NASCAR. The worst part of waiting is not knowing anything about the situation about to unfold. That is precisely what many NASCAR TV veterans in Charlotte are dealing with right now.

We invite your thoughts on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From New Hampshire On ESPN

The Sprint Cup Series event in New Hampshire featured great weather and a good crowd in the stands. What it did not feature was racing.

Nicole Briscoe led Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham through a one-hour pre-race show. Wallace made some very interesting comments on various topics that were clearly greeted with mixed reactions by the other members of the panel. It made for an interesting show.

NASCAR moved the race start back by an hour to avoid the NFL early game starting at the same time. In the pre-race show, it seemed ironic that an edited feature focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his enjoyment of NFL fantasy football. The extensive piece certainly highlighted the positive aspects of the NFL.

Allen Bestwick led Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree into the live race telecast from the TV booth. Bestwick once again worked from start to finish and made sure as much information as possible was passed along. Unfortunately, this flat track has traditionally not allowed for much passing and that was the case once again.

Jarrett and Petree were happy to offer comments, analysis and opinion but often there was a single-file parade. It did not help that one car dominated the vast majority of the event. The good news is that the pictures were pretty and the audio was outstanding. It was a day made for TV.

The bad news is that several cautions for debris came out and ESPN totally avoided showing the offending piece of trash or car part on the air. A late caution that bunched up the field was really a tough sell. Even Bestwick just avoided the topic. Just taking five seconds to show the safety truck picking up debris would send a message to TV viewers that things were being done for the right reasons.

In the end, the run to the flag was uneventful. Like many track position races, this one ended with a thud. The Chase teams dominated and the storylines continued to be about the championship run.

We welcome your opinion on the TV coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Comments may be moderated prior to posting. Thanks for stopping by.

Last Call For The 2012 Chase

Like most fans, I watch NASCAR races on TV. The Daly Planet blog is a project started back in 2007 to document how the races were presented by the new NASCAR TV partners. Back then there were new faces in new places and a lot of enthusiasm about the eight-year multi-billion dollar TV contract.

Now, six years later the very topic of NASCAR TV raises deep feelings and brings sharp comments. With the advent of social media many fans have strong opinions on everything from the TV production style to the amount of commercials in the races. Once again this season ESPN finds itself battling NFL football as it tries to make sense of NASCAR's playoff format.

The fundamental truth that has been a motto since this blog began was that TV was at the races to show viewers what the fans in the grandstands were watching. It's a simple concept. The idea is that the priorities of the TV producer, director and announcers were to "extend" the fan experience to those watching on TV.

After Chicagoland's lack of excitement, this week's race in New Hampshire is probably going to determine for some folks whether they watch the rest of the Chase live or switch to NFL football and record the racing. That is a valid question given the state of affairs in the sport right now. I find myself in that mix.

As we have said many times, ESPN paid the money and can present the Chase races as they see fit. That simply does not guarantee that fans will watch. The ultra-focus on the Chase to the point of ignoring the race is overwhelming. Every driver has fans. Those fans deserve to be informed regularly about their driver in a three hour telecast.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a flat track that in the past has seen little passing. Racing for position has come on restarts and pit road strategy and pit stops may well tell the tale. Contrast that with the local NFL hometeam playing a three hour game that stops for TV commercials, offers focused coverage of the on-field action and has the potential to generate excitement on every play.

The ESPN presentation of the Sprint Cup Series offers two cars on-camera at a time. Restarts are shown from in-car cameras and tight shots of the leader. Replays have been used for years to catch fans up on the actual racing and the incidents during the event. Rarely are stories like a fast car coming back through the field or a top driver struggling mid-pack reported.

All that was originally asked of TV when it was incorporated into NASCAR racing was that it bring the experience of being at the race to the viewer. ESPN has clearly shown that the network alone will decide what is important on the track, what information should be passed along and what topics should be mentioned.

Loudon is a litmus test for me. Even with the right announcers in place and all the top TV equipment at the ready, the ESPN producer and director have been reluctant to just show the best racing on the track and let the Chase settle itself after the race. The radio coverage does that. The fans in the stands do that.

If ESPN once again stumbles through a telecast dominated by the Chase storyline and meaningless tight shots of pairs of cars, it's over for me this season. The DVR is a great invention and that is where the remainder of the Sprint Cup Series races will go. I just can't watch a race without "watching" the racing.

It should be interesting to see how ESPN decides to produce this coverage. Ratings are lower in the NFL season and something needs to happen to make fans watch NASCAR this Sunday. Choosing pictures that reflect the best racing action instead of a continual focus on the Chase drivers would seem to be a viable solution.

Join us on Twitter using the #TDP1 hashtag as we live tweet the TV coverage of the race starting at 1PM ET. There is a ton of useful racing information on Twitter, including lots of team-specific content that never makes the race telecast. We will also take your race comments here and there will be a new post up when the telecast signs-off for your opinions.

Thanks as always for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series On ESPN From Chicagoland Speedway

It is that time of the year. Chris Madigan from Sprint sent along this picture of the Sprint Cup sitting on pit road at Chicagoland Speedway prior to race one. Then, the actual race began.

Nicole Briscoe and her pre-race crew focused totally on the Chase. Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham were locked into discussing the topics planned in advance and it made for a less than interesting discussion. Many race fans had already watched one hour of NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and then two hours of NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED. Those shows also focused on the Chase.

Allen Bestwick continues to be an expert at directing traffic and his comments in reference to the race are always accurate. He seems to be handcuffed in terms of looking back in the field, recognizing that is where cars are racing for position and then getting ESPN's producer to go there with the cameras. Once again, the plodding and hyper-tight coverage of this series on TV continued.

Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett did not have much to work with other than some pitstops, part failures and restarts. The racing, as expected, was limited. Bestwick worked hard to pump the drama of the final pitstops but even that did not pan out in the end.

As we offered in an earlier column, the problem for TV is how to cover this playoff within a live race. In the end, once again, the teams not in the Chase were cheated out of TV coverage unless they were leading the race. As we have said for the last six seasons, all drivers and teams have fans. TV is there to serve them.

What are your comments on the coverage after this first race of the Chase? Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

NASCAR Chase Day

It's time once again for big Brad and the NASCAR on ESPN gang to jump into the deep end of the pool and try to figure out how to show a playoff inside a live race. This will be the sixth season of ESPN trying to choose between chasing and racing.

There will be three hours of pre-race show before ESPN gets on-air from Chicagoland Speedway. NASCAR Now will be at 8AM over on ESPN2 and SPEED will have two hours of RaceDay starting at 11AM ET. There is little doubt what the focus of those two programs will be.

Nicole Briscoe will have Daugherty, Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham along for the ride. The picture above is the Infield Pit Studio from Evernham's perspective via Twitter. This crew will have a tough time fitting in once the pre-race show is over. There have been few caution periods at this track for the Sprint Cup Series and the green flag pitstops are crucial. Expect to see Nicole and company during the race recapping the event as the network returns from commercial breaks.

Speaking of commercials, all ten Chase races will be utilizing the ESPN NonStop split-screen for breaks during the final half of each race. It's better than nothing, but certainly ESPN expanding this concept should they decide to stay in the sport after the current contract expires would make a lot of sense.

Allen Bestwick has been solid for the network, calling the action and putting things in perspective. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have been effective, with Petree taking the lead in offering opinion and Jarrett sticking to analysis of events inside the race. Jarrett has never really taken full advantage of his on-air position. These three begin the Chase in the TV booth.

Jamie Little is back from maternity leave and she will be joined on pit road by Dr. Jerry Punch, Vince Welch and Dave Burns. Things tend to get a little testy once the Chase is underway, so it should be interesting to see just how these drivers relate to the ESPN reporters in general. The past several years are filled with rather memorable moments between those two parties.

ESPN has a production formula that is totally different from SPEED when that network covers the truck series. A race with SPEED has wide angle shots, plenty of moving back into the field for racing action and an on-air conversation that evolves with the race. ESPN shows two cars at a time, recaps only when planned well in advance and tries continually to keep referencing the pre-race show topics.

Things get even tougher when a non-Chaser is leading the race. TV has to decide how to keep viewers up on the race without losing perspective on the Chase. The results over the past several seasons have been mixed. The suggestion of just showing the race and then letting the points fall where they may when it is over has been roundly rejected.

ESPN is infamous for trying to keep graphics on the screen that continually update the Chase cars as if they are alone on the track. The "points as they run" graphic has become a media joke since no points are awarded until the race concludes. It's just stats without meaning until the race is run.

With Bestwick now firmly in place, it should be interesting to watch his agenda of calling the race clash with the ESPN production agenda of following the Chase. Bestwick often tries to steer the coverage to a certain group of cars, but with little success. He is torn between watching the race out the window and continually referencing the Chase on his ESPN TV monitor.

Tim Brewer, Draft Tracker and the other assorted bells and whistles ESPN has tried over the years have not been missed. The hope is that finally an internal TV production agreement has been reached for the ESPN crew to cover all the teams racing and not exclude those not in the Chase. In these times of sponsor problems, low TV ratings and a grumbling fan base it just might be a good idea to try a little something new.

We will be hosting a live stream of TV and media comments on Twitter using the #TDP1 hashtag. Please join us. Comments can be left here during the race and there will be a "Race Wrap" post up once ESPN signs-off on Sunday. Thanks as always for stopping by.

Friday, September 14, 2012

NASCAR Marketing Mayhem

You may remember Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his girlfriend from their appearance at last season's Sprint Cup Series banquet. There they are via our friends at Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Sirius Speedway's Dave Moody used his blog and radio program to make fans aware of a National Enquirer story that Junior was supposedly put on the spot to get married in the off-season or instantly become a single man. A short time later, Sirius NASCAR morning host Pete Pistone posted at that Junior denied "the report" and was concentrating on the Chase.

All of this nonsense came as part of a total NASCAR marketing effort involving everything from Denny Hamlin talking about wild Lake Norman NASCAR parties on the Dan Patrick show to a Google search for "Jeff Gordon's moustache" returning 219 active news stories on that crucial topic.

The Chase drivers scattered across the country in the annual effort to try and divert some attention from the National Football League. As you may remember, the Chase was created by NASCAR Chairman Brian France as a playoff system to try and create more interest in NASCAR during the NFL season.

Earnhardt's appearance at ESPN this week allowed him to appear on various TV shows, only one of which was devoted to NASCAR. That program aired once at 3:30PM Eastern Time. It spoke volumes that Earnhardt's best appearance of the day was on a very popular show dedicated to the NFL. It was about the Redskins and RG3, not Hendrick and Chevrolets, during Junior's time at "the mothership."

The NASCAR marketing types called this week's media blitz "The Chase Across America." It certainly was an interesting exercise. Perhaps some of you who saw the various drivers featured on local news stations across the country could relate how they were featured and in what activities they participated.

This season NASCAR has totally shifted to a marketing-driven agenda and made great efforts to control any and all news about the sport. That may be one of the reasons for the heightened tensions between some of the Sprint Cup Series drivers and the media. Jeff Burton was recently outspoken on SPEED's "Race Hub" show about the media not helping the sport and only focusing on negative issues.

This pro-NASCAR theme is prevalent on many TV shows, including the ones seen on SPEED and produced by NASCAR Productions from the tracks. In the new world order, NASCAR's marketing arm directly controls more and more media content about the sport. As Burton mentioned, the traditional media is said to be the enemy. This allows objective reporting and informed opinion to be called-out as the reason for problems with the sport itself.

In the system currently being used called "Integrated Marketing Communications," the centerpiece is the elimination of traditional media (reporters) and the installation of a delivery system that allows NASCAR itself to control the media content about the sport. There is simply nothing made available for reporters to cover that is not coordinated well in advance.

Many of you have asked about the lack of rumors and gossip on the Jayski site, about the endless repetition of themes by reporters from different media companies and even the fact that the post-race press conferences have become the topic of much more media coverage. It's all about control and this season NASCAR has exerted it in virtually every area of the media coverage of the sport.

The flipside of all this control is that NASCAR fans are outspoken, independent and don't particularly like being told what to think, say or do. It's one thing to stand in line for an autograph, but it's quite another to hear endless happy talk about the sport coming through very clearly from various radio and TV outlets.

In a media environment where NASCAR is facing-off with pro football, the idea that controlling the message instead of just letting things happen and then be reported is a tough sell. In this Chase interviews are arranged, talking points are provided and the entire atmosphere smacks of a public relations festival.

The TV promo's and ticket ads may continue to show wrecks and promote tough men behind the wheel, but the reality is that this Chase is a fully-controlled marketing-driven exercise where the drivers do what they are told and the media is just along for the ride.

Jeff Gordon's moustache may not be what veteran reporters want to write about, but when the choice that day is facial hair or nothing the result is exactly what Integrated Marketing Communications was supposed to accomplish. As Janet Jackson once said, it's all about control and NASCAR has plenty of it.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Richmond On ABC

Mother Nature made it a challenge, but the race finally got underway from the Richmond International Raceway. Rain was responsible for a very late night for most fans as the race ended well after 1AM Eastern Time.

Nicole Briscoe had Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham in the Infield Pit Studio for the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show. A weather-delayed college football game meant that much of the country saw football and not NASCAR for about an hour or so. Eventually, all the ABC stations joined NASCAR before the race started.

Allen Bestwick had Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside in the TV booth. Dr. Jerry Punch, Vince Welch, Dave Burns and Shannon Spake were on pit road. NASCAR started the race under green/yellow and after TV went to commercial the five to go signal was given. ABC stations just got back when the actual racing got underway. It was that kind of night.

Carl Edwards made his mandatory appearance in the Infield Pit Studio. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon also stopped by during rain delays. Briscoe has become an expert at directing traffic and keeping her three analysts on a short leash. Having a sense of humor certainly helps that cause.

ESPN has a formula for racing and we saw it again. Tight shots, in-car cameras and lots of graphics are the order of the day and have been for years now. The broader perspective is sacrificed, even on restarts and races for position. It seems to be all about trying to make things exciting rather than just showing the race.

The good news is that split-screens were used for most green flag pitstops, the network held a commercial for a caution flag and despite the long night there were no technical problems from the track. ESPN has also started to show the lead lap cars finish and get away from the "drama" shots of just the race winner.

Allen Bestwick has been stellar this season and was again from Richmond. His eye for detail, understanding of the sport and knowledge of those involved is second to none. He has made Jarrett and Petree better this season and perhaps Bestwick may be included in planning the production philosophy for the upcoming Chase races.

This next stretch of races has been the Achilles Heel of ESPN's coverage. Trying to follow the Chase, show the race and keep up with the information flow from both has not gone well. This year ESPN has an opportunity to produce the races, let the Chase points fall as they may and use Bestwick as the face of the franchise. It just might be the combination the network has been chasing since 2007.

We invite your opinion on the ESPN coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from Richmond on ABC.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

ABC Coverage Brings Local Station Issues

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the pole and the Sprint Cup Series is ready for some primetime action under the lights on national television. As most of you already know, the race tonight is on ABC.

The history of trying to serve four timezones with NASCAR has been problematic. Tonight, several markets will not carry the pre-race show but will join the coverage before the start. Local stations have established newscasts and also previous programming commitments.

Here is the list of markets where the NASCAR Countdown show will be preempted:

Corpus Christi, TX
San Antonio, TX
Tyler, TX
Little Rock, AR
Baton Rouge, LA
Omaha, NE
Kearney, NE
Louisville, KY
Pittsburgh, PA

Meanwhile, WPVI in Philadelphia will be showing “Inside the Eagles” but will carry Countdown on its D2 channel, then switch to the race at 7:30 p.m. ET.

So, the bad news is that some markets will not see the pre-race show that will be focused on making the Chase this season. The good news is that all markets will be along for the race.

The reality check amid all of this is the event possibly running long or being delayed by rain. In the past, some ABC stations have left NASCAR in the closing laps in order to begin their late local news on time. Hopefully, this situation has been addressed.

Weather is a factor and the scenario for tonight's race to go hours longer than scheduled is very real. There is live college football in progress on ESPN, but SportsCenter is on ESPN2 from 10:45PM through 1:30AM Eastern Time. Look for that network to get the NASCAR switch should things run very long.

In the event of the race being postponed until Sunday, it would run in the afternoon against NFL football. ESPN's flagship NFL Countdown show ends at 1PM ET, so perhaps NASCAR would take over ESPN at that time as the network is in replays for several hours. On Sunday afternoon, ESPN2 is contractually obligated to coverage of US Open tennis.

We will be hosting our usual live stream on Twitter using the #TDP1 hashtag for TV and media comments about the race coverage. Please join us, as Twitter is easy to use and provides instant communication. You can check to start putting your customized NASCAR timeline together.

After the race, there will be a new post for your comments. Friday night, the crowd was small and looked awful on TV. Hopefully, tonight will provide a much-needed spark for the sport and get the fan interest back in gear as NASCAR heads down the stretch. Thanks to Team Hendrick for the picture of the pole winner.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Gentlemen, Start Your Sports Cars

It was a news item that snuck right past many NASCAR fans. After all, sports car racing is for a different breed of motorsports fan. All the different types of cars on the same track is confusing. The drivers are mostly foreign, rarely well-known and there is little national media coverage surrounding the sport.

Well, all of that is about to change. The two major professional sports car series operating in the US have merged. The American Le Mans Series was owned by Don Panoz. The Grand Am Rolex series was owned by Jim France. Now, they are both owned by NASCAR. That's right, NASCAR.

Click here for a review of the official merger announcement from Jeff Olson at USA Today. As Olson reported, the total value of the deal was approximately $10 million. Aside from the under-used Road Atlanta and the crumbling Sebring track, the concept that NASCAR wants to totally control this brand of racing in the US is fascinating.

It's not hard to remember France talking about his Grand Am plans long ago. For the top series, he took the NASCAR template of requiring teams to use basically one chassis and gave them a choice of tires and engines. This was the polar opposite of the classic Le Mans style sports car environment of manufacturer prototypes fighting it out while trying to avoid the racing dentists in their rent-a-ride Porsches.

The result of the France plan was that Grand Am got a TV package and some media, but ultimately detached from the global sports car community. The season opening Rolex 24 race from Daytona took on an entirely different look. Grand Am's own "company cars" raced against each other without the feel and flair of real sports car racing.

France is NASCAR's executive vice president and vice chairman. He and Panoz will share senior management duties of the newly-merged sports car series with France taking the senior position. Lesa France Kennedy, who oversees the family's racetrack properties, and NASCAR's deputy general counsel Karen Leetzow are also prominent members of the new organization's board of directors.

All of this leaves a lot of unanswered questions on the table. The new organization has no name but will begin racing in 2014. There are no technical rules in place, no class configurations and few specifics available. Guarded optimism has been the polite response from various manufacturers.

""While we await further details on the homologations and rules for the individual classes," Ford director of racing Jamie Allison told Olson, "the new, unified approach has a lot of appeal to Ford due to the potential international alignment."

The bottom line is that this unholy alliance is essentially a buyout of ALMS by France and NASCAR. Click here for another take on the deal from Chris Gill of Gatehouse News Service. While it makes sense for the two weakened series to unite, even trying to imagine what configuration or classes the series may run is an exercise in futility.

Grand Am makes use of Kennedy's International Speedway Corporation tracks and runs several weekends with various NASCAR series. Now, France has cornered the market on professional sports car racing in the country and can essentially set the tone for the future with a blank piece of paper. While Panoz was the sole connection to Le Mans and the international set, his tone seems to have changed.

"This series that we are putting together is the American Sports Car Series," Panoz told Gill. "We have to take care of our own business, our own market, addressing our sponsors, our fans, our teams, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. Of course we are going to pay attention to what’s going on around us, but we’ll be acting responsibly in our own best interests."

Those words may foreshadow yet another switch in the strategic direction of sports car racing in North America. Whether this new series becomes more closely aligned with NASCAR in terms of racing, business practices and shared media resources is yet to be determined.

One thing is for sure, France and company will have a very busy 2013 trying to build a healthy sports car franchise amid a rapidly changing automotive marketplace and shrinking sponsorship environment. This may be the very last chance for sports car racing to get a toehold in North America and slowly try to climb the ladder of racing success.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

TV Negotiations Suggest Rebranding Of SPEED

It was back in April when the Sports Business Journal first raised the possibility of the new management team at FOX Sports making some changes to SPEED. The FOX team had previously taken the outdoor and extreme sports network FUEL and turned it into a network full of boxing and mixed martial arts. Clearly, this group is about advancing their own agenda. Click here to read the original story.

Monday, word came from several sources that the ongoing TV rights negotiations over Major League Baseball had revealed some more details of the FOX plan. Click here for a story from our friends at Sports Media Watch. This is the first time that plans for a new FOX cable sports network have been revealed as part of a negotiation for TV rights.

In other words, FOX had on the table an offer to host a significant amount of MLB content on a network not yet in existence. The popular theory is that this mystery network is SPEED. That would help to make sense of the fact that SPEED continues to offer Pimp My Ride shows from many years ago and other dated programming. The network seems to simply be riding out the existing TV contracts and waiting for the change to come.

SPEED's multiple personalities are well known by motorsports fans. Once a thriving network deeply invested in racing of all kinds, the network took a hard left years ago when it came to weekdays. The term "automotive lifestyle programming" came to mean cheaply scripted reality shows that continue to this day. Most have been nothing short of disastrous.

At the same time, Friday through Sunday on SPEED continued to deliver some of the best motorsports coverage ever seen on television. Formula One, NASCAR and sports cars are among the series that have thrived in this environment. Weekends continue to be a hotbed of racing on SPEED.

The network's former president came from a regional sports network, an RSN. That environment is quite different than a high-profile national cable network. SPEED never developed a weekday morning show, never chased a noon news program and never established weekly shows that supported the various motorsports series shown on the network. All NASCAR programming not originating from a track was eventually cancelled.

The only current NASCAR weekday offering, a show called Race Hub, is said to have resulted from NASCAR forcing SPEED to produce that series in exchange for exclusive rights to the Hall of Fame inductions and other coverage. For many years SPEED executives had stubbornly declared no one watched TV for NASCAR content on weekdays. Race Hub was thrashed together in days.

While most believe it will be SPEED that is rebranded, reporter Joe Flint at the LA Times believes that FUEL may be the network to become FOX's version of ESPN. Click here to read his take on the subject and the baseball negotiations. Most believe, however, that SPEED is the network that will go away.

All of this comes because FOX missed the train long ago on starting a national cable sports network. Back in the mid-90's, FOX purchased a group of regional sports networks and one 24 hour stand-alone network that operated under the Prime Network banner. Instead of pushing ahead nationally, FOX chose to operate the regional networks and used the renamed FOX Sports Network (FSN) to provide additional programming to them.

These days, FOX Sports finds itself fighting at a disadvantage. ABC pairs with ESPN, CBS now has the CBS Sports Network and NBC changed VERSUS into the NBC Sports Network. That gives each of those parties an opportunity to spread sports programming between broadcast and cable networks. FOX desperately needs the same to remain viable in negotiations for sports properties.

SPEED's production facilities and administrative group are located in the Charlotte, NC area. The remainder of the FOX Sports cable networks operate from Los Angeles, CA. The best case scenario for the Charlotte-based employees would be for that group to continue to originate the motorsports studio shows like Race Hub, SpeedCenter and Wind Tunnel.

In today's digital world, SPEED also has a thriving website and a broadband channel that carries additional motorsports programming. If these two projects are allowed to continue when the network itself is rebranded, the impact to the remaining motorsports programming may be minimal.

The other side of the coin is for FOX to simply close SPEED and have NASCAR Productions, the in-house TV arm of NASCAR, produce all the NASCAR-related programming. The sanctioning body has a studio, production facilities and and an experienced staff already in place at the Hall of Fame building in downtown Charlotte.

In talking to friends involved in sports programming, it was pointed out to me that motorsports events directly conflict with many of the sports properties that FOX Sports has been chasing or already owns. The bottom line is that when and if SPEED goes away, it is doubtful that the wall-to-wall coverage of NASCAR practice, qualifying and racing will remain intact on the new network.

It seems that the only real question is when this change will take place. The current TV contract between FOX Sports and NASCAR ends at the conclusion of the 2014 season. But, that certainly would not prevent FOX from changing the network name and other programming content on SPEED next year. It would just mandate that the current NASCAR content continue.

As negotiations take place on other key sports products, we should continue to get a clearer picture of what FOX Sports plans to do with SPEED and when the FOX Sports 1 cable network may appear on our channel guide. As we always say, the only thing constant in sports TV is change.

We welcome your opinion on this topic. Your comment may be moderated prior to posting.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Atlanta On ESPN

The ESPN TV team continued coverage of the Sprint Cup Series this season with the Sunday night race from the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Nicole Briscoe hosted from the Infield Pit Center. Allen Bestwick handled the lap-by-lap coverage. Rusty Wallace was in rare form and the booth analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree provided good information.

The reality check for viewers was the combination of the lack of racing action and the typical TV style of ESPN. Without searching for stories the telecast had lots of two-car camera shots with Bestwick and company trying to keep the conversation flowing. It was not an easy task.

College football again affected the pre-race show, as it did for the Nationwide Series telecast on Saturday. This was the final weekend without NFL regular season games, so a college game on Sunday was on the schedule. Luckily, it was a one-sided affair and the NASCAR Countdown show was started on the ESPNEWS network.

Once the actual race started, complaints flowed in from fans about a wide variety of issues with the online pay services. No team scanners, no telemetry and a large time lag made the fans line-up at the virtual complaint window. Eventually, the bugs were sorted out but this type of situation has been all too common.

During the race, several cautions for debris were thrown and ESPN did not even attempt to show the debris on-camera. After the Saturday incident toward the finish of the Nationwide Series race with Brad Keselowski, it seemed strange not to have TV really focus on making sure to document for the TV viewers what caused the racing to be stopped.

Green flag pitstops normally are presented in a split-screen video box so viewers can continue to see the leaders racing at speed while also viewing the key cars pitting. This was not done consistently, but got better as the race progressed. The same was true for showing full-screen replays of passing or other incidents while the race itself was under green. These needed the split-screen approach.

With long green flag runs, it is tough to integrate the Infield Pit Studio crew and give them a continuing role in the telecast. There was just not too much to discuss that had not already been covered from the TV booth. Trying to do that in this race made for some awkward moments.

ESPN does not start split-screen commercials until the final ten Chase races. This is one of the best examples of a race that needed them. Long green flag runs meant missing substantive time in the race with every commercial. With the heavy commercial load in Sprint Cup Series races, fans missed a lot of laps.

The good news for ESPN is that the mix of on-air personalities is the best ever heading into the Chase. Ray Evernham gets Rusty Wallace fired up, while Bestwick and Briscoe are very good at keeping order and directing traffic. Petree and Jarrett work well together and finally Jarrett is speaking out and assuming his role as the lead analyst.

The bad news is the continuing inability of the producer and director to grasp what is going on in the race and relate that to the fans. This season there is no "script," but rather a mind-numbing pattern of tight camera shots as if TV viewers are purposefully being kept from seeing the actual racing on the track. It makes little sense and forces key issues in the race to be offered through replays.

It has been made clear that this style of production is what ESPN wants and fans have to accept it. The problem is that the post-race stories reported by the pit road reporters are often the ones missed during the live telecast. Stepping back, both figuratively and literally, for a better perspective on the racing would certainly help this effort.

We invite your opinion on the ESPN telecast from Atlanta. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Join Us On Twitter For Live Race Chat

Note: We will be hosting a live stream on Twitter during the Sprint Cup Series race from Atlanta using the #TDP1 hashtag. Search it to see our conversations, add it to your tweets to be included. There will be a post here immediately after the checkered flag for your TV post-race wrap up.

TDP will return next week with new columns. Thanks for your patience this week. There are a lot of ongoing TV and media stories that we will attempt to update. Thanks to Jeff Gordon PR for the picture via Twitter.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

TV Timeout: The Orange Gloves Are Back

Lou Cappi and his magic orange gloves are back. Lou crosses his arms on the sidelines when the TV network covering his NFL game needs a timeout. The officials then stop the game. Lou keeps his arms crossed until the commercial is over and then the game rolls on. In his world, calling a timeout is simple.

I am happy to inform TDP readers that I am making a career change this holiday weekend and will be starting down a very different road next week. A TV timeout is needed for a couple of days as I work to get things arranged over in the real world. My new position is not NASCAR or media-related.

Over the next few weeks I will be working to determine my availability to interact on NASCAR TV and media topics. There certainly may be some changes on the way, but I hope to be able to continue to discuss the topics that make NASCAR fans passionate about how the sport is presented on TV.

Update: We will have a #TDP live stream on Twitter for the Cup race from Atlanta that I will moderate. Chatting for trucks and NNS as possible. Let's hope the weather cooperates!

I appreciate your patience. There will be a new post up after the Sprint Cup Series race in Atlanta is over. Have a safe and happy holiday weekend.