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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED’s Stewart Announcement Debacle Overshadows TNT Season Finale

NASCAR media outlets had plenty to discuss this week, as Tony Stewart’s future plans came to public fruition piece by piece. Multiple reports surfaced at the beginning of the week stating that the Stewart-Haas deal was done; and the very next day, Joe Gibbs Racing officially announced to the media that they were granting Stewart his release for 2009. Thursday, SPEED carried the official announcement of the partnership of Stewart and Joe Custer of Haas CNC Racing that had been rumored for months.

At least, they tried to.

SPEED broke into its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series replay to bring this announcement to the fans live from Chicagoland Speedway. John Roberts opened the special report from the SPEED Stage, while Bob Dillner provided a quick introduction to the announcement from inside the media center. Things were off to a solid start; but unfortunately for SPEED, this opening was the only part of their coverage that went well. The rest was a disaster, as Matt McLaughlin so eloquently stated in his column on Monday.

As soon as Mike Arning, Stewart’s PR man, began the conference, the TV coverage quickly sped downhill. Apparently, SPEED did not plug into the correct audio feed, so the beginning of the press conference sounded faint and muddy. Not soon after Stewart and Custer made the official announcement and unveiled the Stewart-Haas Racing logo, the picture went black. Audio was available for a short time via telephone; but after that, the entire broadcast went dead, with only the SPEED logo left appearing on the screen.

Just as he did when NASCAR Race Day experienced the same problem, John Roberts addressed the viewers on the telephone, acknowledging the satellite feed issues and recapping the announcement for those who may have tuned in late. This was the best move that SPEED could make to attempt to rectify any TV executive’s worst nightmare – dead air. It wasn’t pretty… but at least it was something.

After SPEED fixed the satellite feed, it carried a few more minutes of the news conference, showing Stewart fielding the media’s questions. But too soon after the rejoin, the network decided to end the feed and cut back to John Roberts so he could wrap up the breaking news. Another mistake occurred here as well, as Roberts very obviously thought he simply was going to wrap up the coverage by voicing over a visual of the conference. Instead, the camera shot Roberts as he read some scripted lines on a piece of paper, brushed his hair out of his face, and never once made real eye contact with the camera. Ouch!

Breaking news coverage is what sets networks apart. It’s extremely captivating to viewers, which is why cable news channels and local news channels alike murder the term by overusing it – simply to get viewers to stay tuned to their broadcasts (Can somebody say, “Anna Nicole Smith” or “Apartment Fire!”) That being said, SPEED Channel had a prime opportunity to own one of the biggest, most anticipated NASCAR Silly Season announcements. Instead, the motorsports network not only had major technical problems throughout the press conference, but also offered sparse analysis before and especially after all was said and done. It even would have been nice to hear a bigger portion of the endless barrage of questions that Stewart had to answer at the announcement… but it didn’t happen.

SPEED Channel’s format does not allow it to break much news, as other outlets are more immediate and break stories first. Because of that, the network can afford technical failures of Thursday’s magnitude during color shows like NASCAR Race Day – but has much less room to put up with these mistakes during the airing of a major announcement. Apart from breaking news, though, the channel does a fine job covering the sport; they just cannot continue to allow these failures to overshadow a talented team in front of and behind the camera. Fortunately, the announcement took place in the middle of a weekday afternoon, not during primetime or during one of its popular NASCAR shows.

TNT’s final race broadcast of the season was the other major TV storyline this week, as their six-week stretch has quickly come to a close. And though the Chicagoland race was almost as boring as watching paint dry, the TNT team made very few errors while broadcasting it. Here are some high points and low points, as well as what to look forward to from ESPN:

TNT’s pre-race show was awesome! The show opened with a great interview between Marc Fein, Kyle Petty, Larry McReynolds, and Stewart and Joe Gibbs. This interview helped put to rest any rumors that the split between the two was contentious, as both the demeanor and choice of words for Gibbs and Stewart conveyed that the two not only have a deep respect for each other, but are sad to see one of the most iconic partnerships in NASCAR racing go by the wayside. The TNT boys were also not at all afraid to ask questions about Joey Logano’s chances of being the next pilot of the No. 20, and what Stewart’s qualms might be about starting his own team.

After this interview, a great piece on Buddy Baker was aired, allowing new viewers to learn something about a driver they may not know much about. Afterwards, that foray into old-school racers continued with a great interview with Richard Petty and a moving tribute to his 50th anniversary in racing. Those pieces, combined with an informative edition of Wally’s World (though it was filmed at Pocono), made for a great start to the Lifelock.com 400.

During the race, the boys in the booth and the crew on pit road did the best that they could to make a non-interesting race worth watching. Larry Mac did a great job explaining how the old cars got each other aero-loose, and how the new cars correct for that problem. The team did manage to miss one restart during the race, and almost every rejoin to the coverage from commercial caught the boys in the booth horsing around, not knowing their mics were up. This has been a recurring mistake for TNT, and one they’ll hopefully fix for 2009.

Here are some goodbyes and good riddances for the TNT race coverage:

  • Goodbye: Kyle Petty. Much more useful behind the mic than behind the wheel, let’s hope Petty realizes that sooner rather than later. He did sometimes clash with Bill Weber, but overall, the three boys in the booth made a great team.
  • Good Riddance: Wally Dallenbach and Bill Weber’s Allstate Countdown to Green pre-race show in the claustrophobic booth. Racetracks are huge, so there is no reason for two grown men to get filmed that close… especially at a NASCAR race!
  • Goodbye: Lindsay Czarniak. Judging by the comments to last week’s TV column, readers will agree with this statement. She has done a remarkable job as a pit-road reporter on both TNT and SPEED – impressive for someone who is only with the Cup circus for a couple of months a year. We’ll see you in 2009, Lindsay!
  • Good Riddance: TNT show promos. Yes, the cable network does have to pay the bills; but next time, sponsor a Yates racecar. At least then, these ads would be much less annoying and much more beneficial to everyone – including Yates. I hope I am not the only one that got real sick, real fast, of the Gretchen Wilson “Work Hard, Play Harder” music video that was used to promote TNT’s Saving Grace. Of course, ESPN’s promos will not be any less annoying… but they probably won’t be quite as repetitive.
  • Goodbye: Racebuddy and Wide Open Coverage. Seeing the mosaic camera angles, live leaderboard, and race scanner were big perks to compliment the TV broadcast. Hopefully, other networks will catch on with this idea. Also, the Wide Open Coverage – though not short of some quirks – was great… especially at Daytona! Maybe more networks can catch on there, too, doing the work needed to refine it into a more profitable venture.
  • Good Riddance: Hinder’s remake of “Born to Be Wild.” This song was good the first time only, and the remade Hinder music video is awful. Dramatized rockers do not mix with racing; but at least this video was not as bad as the Aerosmith one that ESPN used last year. TNT now has 10 months to find a new theme song… however, money likely dictates they will not.

Despite some technical mistakes and some other obvious directing and commentating foibles these last six weeks, TNT still gets a “B” rating for its coverage. The team did a solid job, was bolstered greatly by Kyle Petty, and offered new broadcasting and multimedia aids for the broadcast. Overall, the network had a boring set of races to handle and did so in the best way that it could; and hopefully, some of the problems and complaints will get rectified by the start of their coverage next year.

ESPN/ABC begins its slice of the broadcasting pie in two weeks at the Brickyard. Judging by the increasing improvement in the network’s Nationwide Series coverage, the Cup coverage should be better. Dale Jarrett is certainly an improvement over Rusty Wallace in the booth – although it is beneficial to have Rusty still as a part of the team. Be sure to turn here for all of the latest analysis on ESPN’s NASCAR coverage!

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