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Sunday, August 19, 2012

CHANGING OF THE GUARD CAUSES WORRY

The news this year has been a lot about who gives us the news.

Fox politely steered Dick Berggren into retirement after honorable service on the NASCAR pit lanes. Bob Jenkins announced in May he'll retire from race broadcasting after the Sept. 15 IndyCar season finale in California. And, last week, I got onto a story that went to the top of the charts in the NHRA world.

Wednesday night, my exclusive report that Paul Page will not return to the anchor post on ESPN2's NHRA coverage in 2013 was posted on CompetitionPlus.com. Here's the link:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/22119-source-paul-page-out-in-nhra-booth-for-2013

Friday morning, ESPN issued a predictable statement:

“Paul Page will pursue other opportunities after the 2012 season and will not return to the ESPN NHRA anchor position in 2013. He has been a tremendous presence on our motorsports coverage, most recently NHRA, for decades and we wish him the very best in the future. We have not finalized our plans for 2013 and we don’t expect to make any NHRA commentator announcements until after the 2012 season.”

(On another ESPN front, read this from Friday's Arizona Republic:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/heatindex/articles/20120816espn-has-lost-nauseated-viewer.html . The validity of this column was proven again Sunday when ESPN actually wasted precious TV time by asking NASCAR drivers about a SportsCenter drummed-up "issue" -- if they wanted Tim Tebow or Mark Sanchez as the New York Jets' quarterback. What a disgrace!)

From my own years of experience I was not surprised at what followed my Page exclusive. When a Big Story like this is published, sources come out of the woodwork to tell you stuff. Not that I believe it all. But I now am in possession of more information -- and perspective -- since I wrote the Page story. I was pleased with how comprehensive that first report was -- almost 1,000 words -- and let the record show for the new generation of "journalists" and "PR" people that I actually picked up the telephone and called the four people who needed to be called. I didn't E-mail them, or Tweet, or not bother to ask at all or just repeat Internet rumors. That's rare these days. Even more rare than the way Kirk Russell eats his steaks.

So, there's more to this important story, and right now I plan to share that in my September CompetitionPlus.com column.

The Page story is a reminder of how dramatically the dynamics of racing TV are changing. David Hill, who as boss of Fox Sports brought NASCAR onto the network and gave Darrell Waltrip the stage to become what DW has become, has moved on to other duties. How that might change NASCAR on Fox is yet to be known. NASCAR bought back its digital rights from Turner, effective next January, which will alter what people have become accustomed to on NASCAR.com. Speed's production has been on a roller-coaster since last December and those pesky fan telephone calls on Wind Tunnel have been punted over to the Internet "extra" program. (I'm still trying to figure out the channel's disjointed dress code, where some people have to wear jackets while others wear sponsor ID shirts and at least one flip-flops.) When I asked a network TV producer about what might come out of the next round of NASCAR TV rights negotiations it was eye-opening to be told the landscape is evolving so rapidly who knows what online entities like YouTube might do.

The departure of respected people like Berggren, Jenkins and Page marks the end of an era and that is not a good thing, in my view. Those three bring an air of authority and credibility and -- even in the Twitter age -- that's important.

IndyCar's NBC Sports Network's anchor position looms as very troubling. Producer Terry Lingner is pushing hard for Kevin Lee to follow Jenkins. What a terrible mistake that would be -- and haven't we had enough of those to last the rest of the century from everyone and everything associated with open-wheel racing? (!) Lee simply does not have the journalistic chops to sit in that chair. He's widely viewed as an IndyCar, Hulman-George family and Randy Bernard cheerleader and while the hard-core fan viewers might like that, I think we've clearly established there are not enough of them to produce a rating sufficient for teams to sell the needed level of sponsorship. If the goal is to drive away the casual viewer even more than has already happened, go ahead, hire a cheerleader. Might as well hire the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders if that's what you want. No one can question that Bob Costas doesn't love baseball or Al Michaels the NFL, but they sure don't pretend that there are no problems or controversies in those sports when they call the action.

Lee ignored a fundamental of journalism on his Indianapolis radio show last year. When Bernard ripped Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan Sperber on-air for supposedly not responding to IndyCar, Lee swallowed whole and picked-up Bernard's batton. He never bothered to invite Sperber on the show to get his side of the story. I was the one who exposed in the Arizona Republic that Bernard later admitted he had never called or tried to contact Sperber and came to Phoenix earlier this year to apologize to Sperber in person. Lee never owned up to any of this or apologized for his lack of journalism or the disservice he did to listeners. That's not what the IndyCar sport -- or industry -- needs in its TV anchor chair.

Not when solid pros like Page and Rick Benjamin are available.

The times, they are changing. And not necessarily for the better. That worries me -- a lot.


One racing series is aggressively charting its course for the future. Another seems to be spinning its wheels. Read my August CompetitionPlus.com column:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/22095-michael-knight-anyone-have-a-plan-to-grow-the-sport

[ more next Monday . . . ]