Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thoughts On My Weekend With ESPN

I took advantage of a rare off-weekend to watch some racing on TV this weekend.

The results surprised me.

For months, many heralded the return of ESPN to the NASCAR broadcast landscape, envisioning a return to the high standards of journalism and production that made Bob Jenkins and company the industry leader a decade ago. What I saw this weekend was a decidedly mixed bag.

Saturday’s ESPN2 “NASCAR Countdown” pre-race show never aired, pre-empted for the second time this season by women's tennis. The race was promoted heavily on the entire family of ESPN networks; ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPN360. But when Venus Williams ran long, NASCAR got the boot. The pre-race coverage could easily have been pushed to ESPN, where viewers were being subjected to a taped billiards match. Instead, it was summarily cut. GRADE: F

ESPN2 switched to Texas Motor Speedway just as the Busch Series field rolled off pit road. With Dr. Jerry Punch on vacation, veteran Marty Reid filled the host’s role, and filled it well. He meshed seamlessly with analyst Andy Petree and first-time commentator Dale Jarrett, setting the table professionally and allowing his co-workers the time and space to do what they do best. As he has previously on ESPN’s broadcasts of IndyCar and NHRA Drag Racing, Reid checked his ego at the door, steered the broadcast in a competent and efficient manner, and raised the term “team player” to new levels.

Petree has quickly proved himself to be one of the best-informed analysts in the business. He does his homework, talks to the men and women behind the scenes and brings that insight directly to the viewers. Jarrett had an admirable first outing, equaling anything Rusty Wallace has mustered in more than a season of work. His comments were concise (are you listening, Rusty?) and devoid of the ego and self-aggrandizement that so many former drivers insist on subjecting us to each weekend. Pit reporters Allen Bestwick, Dave Burns, Mike Massaro and Vince Welch completed the broadcast, covering the action quickly and professionally. GRADE: B+

Sunday morning, ESPN rolled out its “NASCAR Now” magazine show, hosted by Ryan Burr, who in limited outings this season has dramatically out-performed stiff-as-a-board pretty boy Erik Kuselias. Burr did his best, as did analysts Stacy Compton and Boris Said. Unfortunately, they were hobbled by bad writing, lousy producing, and ESPN’s insistence on manufacturing drama where none exists.

Brad Daugherty – a smart guy who the show’s producers seem unable to find a steady role for – was trotted out to announce that failing to qualify for races is a bad thing. “If you miss the race,” said Daugherty, “you lose momentum. It’s a real morale deficit if you do not get to participate on the weekend."

Say what? Since when does that pass for news?

Unfortunately, the real low points were still to come. Later in the hour, “NASCAR Now” made much ado about Mark Martin’s return to competition, as if his return to the US Army Chevrolet this weekend was somehow unexpected. Burr asked Compton with great earnestness, "What does it do to the field to have Mark Martin back?"

To his credit, Compton stifled a giggle before responding, “Not a lot."

Later, “NASCAR Now” aired a feature on the Jeff Gordon/Jimmy Johnson "controversy" at Martinsville, apparently not realizing that the story was two weeks old, and not much of a story in the first place. Burr tossed Compton another knuckleball, asking, “Is there any fallout from this?"

Compton once again did the best he could, saying, “No, I don't think so. They’re still friends." Said, meanwhile, had heard enough, sitting alongside and laughing. Burr completed the inanity trifecta following a report on the infamous “Texas Bump,” asking the panel, “doesn’t every track have its quirks,” before wondering aloud whether the entire issue had been overblown.

Summarized Compton, “I think so.” (Note to ESPN’s producers. When your own studio analysts struggle to keep a straight face, it may be time for the host to stop asking stupid questions.)

“NASCAR Now” followed with a feature likely left over from the previous day’s scuttled Busch Series pre-race show, hyping the Grand Opening of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s new JR Motorsports Busch shop. It might have fit-in 24 hours earlier, but Sunday morning, it had me wondering, “What does this have to do with today’s race?” GRADE: D-

All in all, ESPN’s race weekend left me with the distinct impression that there’s a lot of work left to do. It also made me miss Larry Nuber.

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