Saturation Point

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Us long time fans can remember the dark days back when NASCAR racing on TV was a relative rarity. In those days racing coverage was limited to a few twenty minutes segments during ABC'S Wide World of Sports. Eventually CBS started showing the Daytona 500, at first only the second half, but eventually the whole race and there was much rejoicing. The advent of cable TV and ESPN eventually led to an era where just about every race was shown live (Martinsville used to be shown tape delayed so they could present the NFL draft live). Finally fans were overwhelmed when each and every Cup race and almost all Busch series events were shown live. For those of us who became race fans in the early 70s it was nirvana.

And things just seemed to keep getting better. ESPN added a half-hour pre-race show that dealt mainly with breaking news of the week and driver interviews. RPM Tonight debuted and I recall being almost giddy with excitement there was a half hour news show devoted solely to auto racing each evening. Add in a few TNN Sunday morning shows devoted to NASCAR racing and a dedicated fan who watched every minute of the coverage got ten to twelve hours of NASCAR racing on TV every week.

I don't know if there are enough hours in a day left for a gainfully employed person with some slight semblance of a life outside of racing to watch every minute of NASCAR related programming anymore, and the number of shows devoted to the topic seems to swell monthly. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are not so good. And some of them are just flat out awful. One has to wonder have we reached a saturation point where the NASCAR fans simply have too many viewing options?

One of the more intriguing and addictive new programs is NBS 24/7 which gives fans an up close and personal glimpse of life behind the scenes with four Busch teams currently competing on the circuit. A lot of the program is very good. It gives viewers a glimpse and the frustrations and hard work of the crew members, the interactions between drivers and crew chiefs, and what the driver's commitments are beyond the track.

Some of the show isn't so pretty. As with any "reality TV" show, the cameras being on hand tend to distort reality. Some of the crew guys involved have gotten a little full of themselves and have started considering themselves TV stars. Every time one of those cars suffers an easily avoidable mechanical malfunction you have to wonder if the team would have caught it prior to the race had they not been mugging for the TV cameras or out shooting until hours with a TV crew in a night club.

Some things the fans don't need to see. It was painful to watch Casey Atwood sit there in a chair while partial team owner Terry Bradshaw questioned his commitment to racing via cell phone. Maybe the two of them needed to have that talk, but not on TV. It got even worse this week when Casey was captured looking like a wide-eyed deer frozen in the headlight of an oncoming locomotive as a consultant his team owner had bought in to analyze the team introduced himself and told Atwood he was there to see what was wrong with the team and to offer suggestions on how to correct it….even if that meant a driver change. Atwood has never been the most articulate or talkative driver, and he was clearly uncomfortable, but there was some irritation in his eyes as the surprise was sprung on him. What it appeared he wanted to say but didn't was; "Turn off those damn cameras" and "tell Armando that if he spent the money he's wasting on consultants on more powerful and reliable engines maybe I'd have a shot at winning some races." As it is the show might as well be subtitled, "Casey Atwood Career Death Watch 3."

Apparently NBS 24/7 has attracted enough viewers that FX plans a show along similar lines with cameras stalking three Cup drivers away from the track. I'll have to withhold judgement until I've actually seen the show but after viewing the promos all I can say is Kevin Harvick's wife comes off sounding like a bit of a spoiled witch.

And you have to wonder if this new direction is actually good for the sport. Those two TV programs are going to give the team's sponsors a lot of additional airtime. While some drivers might be bothered by the intrusiveness of the cameras, doubtless sponsor reps are going to want their high-speed spokespeople to do such shows. When selecting a driver, a team owner might have to consider, "Is this guy going to look good on TV? Does he have a pretty wife or girlfriend who will play along with the cameras? Does he have some interesting hobbies outside of racing that will make the reality shows want to tag along with him? Who cares if he can drive worth a lick?" Taken to it's extreme I fear one day we're going to have the 24 Hour All Access Dale Junior TV network.

Another new program, Pit Bull, started out as an interesting concept. Three of the sports most prolific and blunt writers plus Marty Smith gather for a half-hour panel discussion program moderated by Steve Byrnes. The first few programs were quite pointed though there were production problems, particularly with the audio because the live crowd on hand often drowned out what was being said on stage. That problem has since been resolved and in fact the latest program was apparently done without a live audience probably because some of the panelists had teed off on race fans that week. But there's apparently also a behind the scenes order to ratchet the controversy off a notch or two that involves two or more of the panelists screaming at and over each over as the show goes to break or comes to its conclusion. It's not fun to listen to and impossible to understand. And once again the TV cameras intrude on reality. All four of the gentlemen involved are actually much more polite in real life. They seem to have decided they'll stick to certain personas which I'd label, bemused, confused, enraged and speculative, stage left to stage right. For a program that bills itself as "no holds barred" anytime the topic turns to TV rating dips or problems with race broadcasts, Brynes is out of his seat like a Holy Roller seeing the first bag of snakes enter the meeting room, waving his hands, cutting off the discussion and tossing the show to commercial. And those commercials are so relentless they often interrupt a discussion that was just starting to get interesting.

One of the original new wave NASCAR programs is Inside NASCAR Nextel Cup (nee' Inside Winston Cup) on SPEED, but most weeks it offers more noise than information. The expert panel, consisting of a guy who is thirtieth in the points, 31st in the points and not racing Cup full time right now "analyze" the race. You might not see every pass for the lead, but you surely see every wreck of consequence. This week Dave DeSpain was one of the programs "Hot Seat" guests and he had an interesting opening conversational gambit wondering aloud about the trend of NASCAR alienating old time fans while attempting to draw newer fans who might not be as loyal either to the sport or its sponsors. It could have been a fascinating topic, but the four regulars on the program looked panicked. At that point NASCAR's Stepford Wife, Michael Waltrip, who either intentionally or unintentionally didn't understand what DeSpain had said steered the conversation away the topic in a rambling monologue then back onto safer less interesting topics like, "So Dave, I hear you like motorcycles?"

If you dig around a little sometimes you'll find buried treasure on SPEED. Mike Joy's "NASCAR Previous Champions" program is of outstanding quality and should be required viewing for all fans new to the sport. Unfortunately SPEED seems to use the program to plug half hour spots as they show up on the schedule.

One particular program I can seldom stomach for more than ten minutes at a time is "Trackside", which is sort of the Donnie and Marie variety hour with Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond as the emcees. I've learned anytime DW and Hammond appear on the same stage it's best to clap one's hands over your ears and find the "off" button on the remote because the show is going to revolve around them and have little to do with racing. It should be apparent to the most neutral observer that if Waltrip had set out to a standup comic rather than a race driver back in the early 70s he'd currently be residing in a cardboard box under an Interstate overpass, but somehow DW hasn't gotten the message yet. For a decidedly un-amusing hour guests try desperately to get a word in edgewise, Larry Mac fractures syntax to dust, and panelists kiss NASCAR official's butts. An unwitting live audience aids and abets this foolishness by carrying on in a desperate attempt to appear on TV, wearing their strange outfits, waving their signs, and pretending to be amused. Why? Some NASCAR fans, like some portion of the general population just seem to think having a glimpse of themselves shown on TV validates their existence.

One of the unintentionally ironic NASCAR programs is "NASCAR Fast Forward". Rather than replay the entire race as some networks did in the pass, the producers now edit down the race to fit a shorter time slot. Again, the footage is heavy on wrecks and light on dwelling on the key moments that decided the race. Shorn of the pre-race show, the comedy routines and the long boring stretches of racing where some driver runs away and hides from the field for a 100 laps a lot of fans are finding this program a more palatable alternative to wasting a Sunday afternoon watching a boring race from a track like California. It's sort of like methadone for recovering NASCAR addicts looking to kick the habit gradually and I'm hearing from more and more folks who fit that category. Even the official site of the sport recently un-intendedly recognized the trend with a blurb for their chopped down video footage of a recent race that asked, "Want to see all the race highlights without wasting three hours of your time...?"

Some say you can never have too much of a good thing. But I think we're about to have that theory tested with the glut of NASCAR-related TV programs on the market right now.

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