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Talking NASCAR TV: 4 Big Offseason Changes for 2009

Editor’s Note: After an offseason of hibernation, our TV critique is back! Join Phil Allaway on Tuesdays every week as he picks apart the ups and downs of NASCAR coverage in 2009.

After a long offseason – seemingly made even longer due to SPEED Channel’s near complete lack of offseason motorsports programming (which is another rant for another day), we’re coming up to the beginning of the season. Now, most of what viewers will see this year in NASCAR telecasts will be similar, if not the same as in past years. However, there will be a few changes.

Change 1: No DirecTV NASCAR HotPass

On December 10, NASCAR and DirecTV announced that the NASCAR HotPass service will not continue during the 2009 season. DirecTV’s NASCAR HotPass service has been the spiritual successor to iNDemand’s NASCAR In Car service that was created in 2003. NASCAR HotPass allowed subscribers, for the fee of $99 for the season, to have exclusive access to five in-car camera channels with driver audio, and a dedicated commentator or commentators.

“HotPass as we know it today is changing,” NASCAR Spokesman Ramsey Poston said back in December.

Officially, NASCAR and DirecTV still have some kind of deal for exclusive content for this season. However, this content will be available to all subscribers of DirecTV; it is still unclear, as of now, what that exclusive content will be.

Personally, I was strongly opposed to this pay-per-view service becoming an exclusive to DirecTV at the beginning of the 2007 season. I know that iNDemand made NASCAR In Car an exclusive to digital cable providers for the previous four years prior to DirecTV’s service being created, but that doesn’t make this OK. This fits in with my general thoughts on life. DirecTV should not have the exclusive rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, NASCAR HotPass, or all those exclusive HD channels that they often talk about in their commercials (of which, Speed Channel’s HD feed was exclusive to for almost all of 2008). Instead, all TV outlets (cable companies, Dish Network (EchoStar), DirecTV, Verizon FiOS, etc.) should have access to all of these services. I don’t like AC/DC selling their Black Ice CD exclusively through Wal-Mart, or extra bonus discs for DVD releases at Best Buy only. It’s bush league. Heck, just this afternoon, I went into a mini-rant after I found out that the CDTA (the Capital District Transportation Authority, the company that operates public buses for the Capital Region of the State of New York) gives Hannaford Supermarkets exclusive rights to sell swiper cards for the buses. I don’t even ride the bus that often – but I still got a little ticked off. The bottom line is you should never make a deal like that – but NASCAR does all the time.

Change 2: SPEED Channel’s Tradin’ Paint has been canceled

On January 20, the Virginian Pilot reported that the Speed Channel had canceled the show Tradin’ Paint. For those of you who don’t remember, this show, hosted by John Roberts, had Kyle Petty and a revolving door of NASCAR journalists (ex. Lee Spencer of Sporting News) argue about various issues involving NASCAR.

I watched Tradin’ Paint a few times last season and came to the conclusion that it was a little too much like one of those shows on the FOX News Channel, where people just talk over the top of each other like a bunch of 5-year-olds. Having said that, there have definitely been worse things on television involving NASCAR in recent years.

Some fans online have stated that the show is being treated similar to how Pit Bulls was treated back in 2004. The show, which was relatively similar to Tradin’ Paint – just with four people arguing on the issues instead of just two – would snipe at some of NASCAR’s decisions, raising NASCAR’s ire. The SPEED Channel claimed at the time that the show was canceled due to low ratings, but many argued that NASCAR may have played a role in the show leaving the air. This method of eliminating undesirable TV shows is not unprecedented; in 2003, the NFL voiced significant complaints to ESPN about their gritty series, Playmakers, which starred Omar Gooding. These complaints are thought to have led ESPN to cancel the series.

The same article mentioned that Tradin’ Paint would be replaced for the 2009 season by an as-of-yet unnamed game show where fans at the track would answer NASCAR trivia questions for cash. In practice, this will probably be similar to one of two shows on television already. One is Cash Cab, the trivia game show played in the back of a cab on the Discovery Channel. The other is a show on SNY (SportsNet New York) called Beer Money, in which an interviewer on the streets of Manhattan asks passers-by sports questions. Regardless of the format, Petty and Roberts will be involved in this show in some capacity.

It is definitely a show that if I were eligible to be a contestant on (I’m probably ineligible since I write for the sport though), I would clean up like nobody’s business. I know my stuff when it comes to NASCAR trivia. You guys can quiz me in the comments section or on a thread in the Frontstretch Forums if you like.

Change 3: Some new blood for Nationwide Series’ telecasts on ESPN family of networks

Starting this season, ESPN no longer has exclusive rights to the Indy Racing League. ABC will televise only five races out of 17 in the upcoming season. Those races are the Indianapolis 500, and events at the Milwaukee Mile, Iowa Speedway, Watkins Glen International and the streets of Toronto near Exhibition Place. The other 12 events will be shown on Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network), a division of Comcast.

As a result, ESPN is being forced to shuffle some of their on-air talent around to honestly merit keeping them on the company payroll (just last week, ESPN announced the elimination of 200 jobs). Marty Reid, ESPN’s play-by-play man for the IRL since 2006 and part-time Nationwide Series play-by-play man, will see increased booth duty in the second half of the season, after the Sprint Cup Series returns to ESPN at Indianapolis in July. Also, Vince Welch will become the fourth member of the pit road reporting corps, joining Shannon Spake, Jamie Little and Dave Burns. This will be done in addition to Reid and Welch’s chores working on IRL broadcasts.

Moving Marty Reid into the booth on a more regular basis would give the Nationwide Series telecasts a different sound than they typically have had in the past. This is crucial for a series that I believe would greatly benefit from something resembling its own identity. It would not be a terrible idea to expand on this next year, too, once it is prudent enough to hire more on-air talent. Unlike what has been seen on the track in recent years, one of the main roles of the Nationwide Series is to train upcoming talent for the big show (Sprint Cup). ESPN, having the exclusive rights to broadcast the Nationwide Series, has the same type of untapped potential buried in their race coverage. Just like the sport itself, they could essentially use their coverage of the Nationwide Series to help bring up new on-air talent for NASCAR telecasts. It’s not a terrible idea in theory, but it might have significant problems in getting such a program off the ground. I’m not advocating anything like ESPN’s Dream Job for this, but allowing the general public to at least apply would not be ill-advised.

Change 4: Cost-cutting in race broadcasts

This has not been officially announced, but it is possible. The Sports Business Journal, in an article back in November, wrote that FOX went to NASCAR and ESPN after the season ended in an attempt to cut costs for the 2009 season in the production of the race telecasts.

If any changes are made for the 2009 season, they will be subtle differences. According to Paul Brooks, President of the NASCAR Media Group, NASCAR will work with FOX and ESPN to find savings as long as “the viewers won’t notice a difference.”

The idea of cutting the number of cameras used in a race broadcast by a small amount was discussed in the article (hypothetically, from 60 to 55). The networks will likely cut some unnoticeable pork from the telecasts for this season, but staples like FOX’s Gopher Cam will stay (in the case of Gopher Cam, FOX created a marketing strategy around the camera and its cartoon mascot, Digger).

Also, I’ve been watching NASCAR Preseason Thunder on the Speed Channel recently. Obviously, with the testing ban wiping out the traditional January test sessions at Daytona International Speedway, the show is relatively light on actual cars on the track; it is an OK watch, albeit filled with quite a bit of fluff. Typical episodes feature in studio interviews with drivers, like David RaganMarcos Ambrose, etc. One episode featured a tour through Raceworld USA, which is part of Michael Waltrip Racing’s shop.

One of the features they’ve had with various guests is for Steve Byrnes to quiz the drivers on NASCAR trivia in a speed round style. I’m a teacher at heart, so I find the idea of asking questions about the history of NASCAR to current drivers interesting. The questions seemed relatively easy to me, to be honest. I probably would have written a couple of toughies in there had I been there. Same thing with the upcoming NASCAR trivia show at the tracks, that this feature was likely designed to help promote. Yes, I would write some relatively simple questions to start off, but I might throw a whopper in there towards the end. For example, if I wanted to give someone a real nasty question, I might ask how many starts in the now-Sprint Cup Series that Rick Hendrick has as a driver. Kudos to the person who knows that little piece of minutia.

However, a complaint that many viewers have had is that they’re not really going into the real issues at hand. Recently, a piece of footage that was not supposed to air (as it was during a commercial break) aired where Darrell Waltrip and others were actually having what amounted to an honest talk about the state of NASCAR during a break right after Rick Crawford left the stage (he had been a guest on the show). Waltrip sounded truly concerned about the state of NASCAR, and at one point, mentioned that he was afraid that once the show got to California, that it would “look like a ghost town.” Previous to that statement, Waltrip did mention that he thought Daytona would still have a good car count, mainly because the Daytona 500 pays so much money just to start the race (something along the lines of nearly $250,000). Just qualifying for the race will likely make the whole Daytona experience profitable for a Sprint Cup team.

This clip only appeared on one airing of the episode, however. Subsequent re-airings did not feature this frank discussion. A clip of this screwup by the SPEED Channel was briefly uploaded to YouTube, but taken down a couple of days later.

Well, I believe that was a mistake, as NASCAR fans want to see the nitty gritty. They don’t want to see fluff, garbage, posturing, “reality” shows that are just about as real as ABC’s Life on Mars and the ilk. The SPEED Channel, and NASCAR themselves, would be doing themselves and fans a huge favor by just letting the on air talent speak their minds instead of being held to certain topics that will never cover the sport to the extent that it should be.

Each and every week this season, I will be here to keep these NASCAR TV shows and race telecasts honest; so if you would like to get in touch with me personally, feel free to contact me below. I look forward to feedback from all of you.

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