• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, May 01, 2011

FIELD TRIP

HARD HAT AREA: (From left) Paul Corliss, Mark Armijo, me, Chris van der Beeck with PIR's front straight and grandstands in the background.

UPDATE, FRIDAY, MAY 6: I'll again be a guest on Rick Benjamin's The Checkered Flag show following the Turkish Grand Prix this Sunday (May 8) on Sirius XM Channel 94. Race coverage starts on Sirius XM at 8 a.m. EDT with the post-race show immediately afterwards. I'll probably be on somewhere between 10-10:30 a.m. EDT.


Some of the more useful days I've spent at racetracks have been when race cars were no where in sight. Such was the case last week when the Arizona Republic's Mark Armijo, Chris van der Beeck and I surveyed the on-going construction at Phoenix International Raceway with PIR communications director Paul Corliss as our guide.

With the front straight and pits devoid of asphalt, Mark and I had the same idea: Bring on the World of Outlaws!

We could feel the effect of the variable banking (10-11 degrees) in our legs as we walked turns 1-2. Although they won't be utilized right away, new walk-through tunnels are now under those corners.

Most interesting to me: The reconfiguration of the track's signature dogleg. There will be no more shortcuts -- it will have bite and be a real challenge.

The $10 million project is on schedule. A wide-open Sprint Cup test is planned for October before a four-day Kobalt Tools 500k (Thursday an added practice day) Nov. 10-13. The economic gods and ISC Board willing, this is just phase one of a multi-year construction, accomplished between the two NASCAR weekends. Spectators, competitors, sponsors and media will benefit and the work will bring PIR to modern standards in time for its 50th anniversary in 2014.

Finally -- and this is for the benefit of the Indianapolis media cheerleaders and chatroomers -- if Motegi, Japan is canceled for all the obvious reasons, PIR will NOT be the replacement venue. The only on-track activity in September will be a Goodyear tire test.

Before we left to meet PIR President Bryan Sperber, our group climbed the hills behind the track for a better big-picture view. The desert winds were blowing. That's PIR below me, with the turn 1-2 grandstands and suites to the left.


/strong> FAST LINES: Sad word from Stan Clinton that longtime and award-winning racing photographer Dan Bianchi died recently . . . Another standard of acceptability falls as TV networks hired lip readers to tell us what William and Kate said to each other at the Royal Wedding . . . Media hypocrisy would be laughable if it weren't such a huge problem. Those very same "journalists" who claimed no interest in President Obama's birth certificate want Donald Trump's tax returns and proof of paternity for Sarah Palin's baby . . . Most laughable of the liberal media lot was ultra-ego Chris Matthews criticizing Trump by saying, "Where do you go to get an ego like that?" Try looking in the mirror, Chris. This MSNBC headcase fancies himself one of Washington's smartest people, I take it in part, because his resume includes fetching coffee for Tip O'Neill and Jimmy Carter . . . ESPN PTI sub co-host Dan Le Batard last week spoke the most offensive line to average American sports fans since Kenny Wallace told rpm2night viewers to "chill out" days after Sept. 11, 2011. In commenting on Los Angeles Dodgers' owner Frank McCourt saying baseball Commissioner Bud Selig taking control of the management-challenged franchise was "un-American," Le Batard said McCourt was wrong because "America was built on seized property." Another example of an ego-drunk media elite being out of touch with the audience . . . Around this time last year, I noted how Tom Jackson had been completely marginalized on the ESPN NFL draft coverage. He sat on the set, a silent hulk, as other announcers talked around him. I observed that Jackson was not included in last week's draft shows . . . If you want a great example of how embarrassingly frivolous so much of TV has become, check out Win McMurry's cotton-candy act on Golf Channel's 19th Hole. Especially the walk onto the set, sit down, and silently cross legs bit at the end. It's a weekly personal humiliation . . . Another embarrassment: Robin Miller answered a reader comment about Versus' Lindy Thackston on Speed.com last week by writing, "Lindy is learning racing on the fly . . ." I thought IndyCar was a top-level, major-league sport deserving of in-the-know and highly experienced announcers. Guess I was wrong. Note to Randy Bernard: Katie Couric is available (see below).


It's not that we should read too much into Katie Couric choosing People.com to confirm her departure as anchor of the CBS Evening News. We should read EVERYTHING into it. In the early weeks of this blog, in 2006, Couric's impending occupation of sainted Walter Cronkite's anchor chair was a case study in hype. In part, here's what I wrote on Aug. 22, 2006:

"The Katie Countdown is underway: The only thing that surprises me is CBS doesn't have a digital clock at the bottom of the screen, so we instantly know the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until Katie Couric's Sept. 5 debut as the network's news anchor. This is the PR Case Study of the Year. Couric hired her own image-makers (non-NASCAR drivers, please note this willingness to invest in your own career) to work in consultation with CBS' publicists, and they have undertaken an extensive and sophisticated campaign, to 'reposition' Katie from morning show perkiness to nightly news seriousness. The run-up has included carefully controlled one-on-one interviews, group sessions, photo shoots, focus groups, and a Hillary-esque 'listening tour' so Katie could hear from average Americans (no press allowed). Plus, heavy promotion on CBS Sports programming (wink). The New York Times reported the on-air promos would cost an outside advertiser more than $10 million. Those in charge of the orchestration have liberally borrowed tactics from Hollywood and Washington spin doctors. According to the Washington Post, CBS News President Sean McManus sees a media 'feeding frenzy' over Couric's new role and is surprised by 'this unbelievable thirst for information' about her life. No, it's NOT a surprise. As I have often said: We live in a celebrity-driven, People magazine, photo-op, sound-bite society."



Couric's failure -- and it WAS just that, a failure -- is a rare and somewhat heartening triumph of substance over celebrity. The unprecedented hype for Couric's debut led to boffo opening-night ratings, which then steadily dived to record lows over her five-year tenure. Couric's substance never matched her celebrity. Couric was very hands-on on the initial attempt to redesign the news format -- she gave stories of major significance a sentence or two and then instructed the audience to go to CBSNews.com to get the all-important details. Time was wasted on outside commentators, a gimmick quickly dropped. Eventually, the program was recast in a more traditional form, but Couric's credibility was shot. CBS wasted $15 million per year on her and was slow to hold those responsible accountable. Yes, there were executive producer changes, but it was only recently that McManus was removed from his position as head of the news division. (He's still in sports.)

It's no surprise Couric would use People as her announcement outlet. Remember, a true low-point of her CBS time was revealing that Michael Jackson wanted to date her. The public, as reflected by the ratings, rejected the Celebrity Anchor concept. ABC realized that and totally low-profiled Diane Sawyer's move to its anchor spot.

Couric's spin on her future (expected to be a syndicated daytime talk show) is she wants a format "that will allow me to engage in more multi-dimensional storytelling." Right.

Remember, even Oprah's numbers were going down before her show's farewell tour. Jane Pauley, on Today before Couric, was more fondly regarded by the American public but her own daytime talker bombed and ended after one season. Say goodnight, Katie . . .

Meanwhile, Couric's CBS failure is an object lesson on the limits and perils of hype. A comprehensive review and think session on this case study would be well worth the time investment by all contemporary publicists. I doubt that will happen, though, given how busy so many of them seem to be in not picking up the phone to build solid one-on-one relationships with journalists and not even bothering to visit media centers.

[ more next Monday . . . ]