The view from my couch

TNT Coverage of the Winston Cup Awards Show
by Cheryl Lauer
December 7, 2003

This is a review of both the TV broadcast and the content of the 2003 Winston Cup Awards Show. Overall, I give NASCAR a big thumbs up on a significant improvement in the content of the show from the 2002 awards. They returned the awards presentation to its traditional site at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel which, at least, gave the feel of past's year's banquets. NASCAR or TV still insisted on calling it the Awards Ceremony instead of "banquet," but that's not really a big deal. TNT did a decent job with the broadcast, although they seemed to be plagued with technical glitches throughout the 3+ hour program.

First off, I'm not sure that this show warranted the amount of time allotted to it. My biggest complaint is that TNT showed the same damn highlights over and over and over all night long! This was extremely annoying to this viewer. There were at least three repetitions of the same highlight collages of the season and some replays were shown at least six times. I'm not kidding! I counted the replay of Harvick's Brickyard 400 win and we heard Allen Bestwick say "and the California Kid wins!" six times. I can understand that NASCAR and TV wanted to show the finish of the spring Darlington race because it really was the only exciting finish during the entire season. However, hearing Mike Joy say, "Did you ever?" and Darrell Waltrip's, "No, I never!" got pretty old after the first 3 or 4 times. I sincerely think that if TNT had shown us the season highlights only once during the night, the viewers would have gotten the idea and the show could've ended at least an hour earlier than it did. Being on the east coast, I'll readily admit I had to tape the end of the show. I made a valiant effort to stay up, but after it went beyond midnight, I simply gave up and went to bed. I guess TV was stretching the show to appeal to those coveted fans on the west coast or something.

After last year's fiasco when actor James Woods hosted the Awards show, I was somewhat surprised to read that Kiefer Sutherland would be the host the year. But I have heard that he is narrating the IMAX film NASCAR is currently producing, so I thought there was some thin tie-in there. Being a fan of the Fox show 24, I thought that he had an interesting voice and might do a good job. Well, yes, he did do a good job for the five minutes he was on the program. It was quite odd that while Kiefer Sutherland spoke about the history of the sport, the words he was reading appeared on the big screen behind him. What was the purpose of this exactly? Now, don't get me wrong, I think Allen Bestwick was the right person to actually host the show, but why even bother having an actor do the introduction to the show? Did NASCAR somehow feel having someone outside the sport using superlatives about the sport and saying that it was now "mainstream" adds more credibility to NASCAR? After Kiefer's remarks, the viewers at home got to see their second video review of the season while I'm assuming the participants at the Waldorf saw the highlights for the first time. This started out nicely being set to the Boston song Don't Look Back, but then switched to some barely discernable "music" that kind of ended in unintelligible screaming

When Bestwick came on, he did his usual professional and excellent job introducing the presenters and drivers receiving the awards all night long. There were just a few mistakes reading the teleprompter, but I can live with that for someone who is used to speaking in a more impromptu manner. Throughout the broadcast, the folks at home were treated to Bill Weber "high above" the banquet room providing occasional overviews and segues during the show. He did a very good job.

What really bothered me with the TNT broadcast was that beginning with the season highlights of Terry Labonte, the technical people at TNT started to lose it. Three-quarters of the way through Labonte's highlights, all of a sudden, TNT showed Bestwick's introduction of the driver again and the entire highlight reel was repeated. This immediately made me think that the whole show had been recorded on a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and TNT hit the wrong button when replaying this part. During the last hour of the show, there were also numerous and frequent video drops outs. I'll give TNT the benefit of the doubt and guess they may have been having some trouble with their video feeds because of the snowstorm in the northeast on Friday night. I don't claim to be real knowledge about this type of thing, but found it odd that the audio did not drop out, only the video during this time.

It was kind of odd that NASCAR still insisted on sitting the Winston Cup Champion team at a head table on the left of the stage. After the opening "ceremonies" which involved seating Matt Kenseth and his wife, his crew chief, Robbie Reiser and his wife, Jack Roush and his wife, and their head engine builder, NASCAR provided us more "live entertainment" like they did last year. Okay, Harry Connick, Jr. and Leanne Rhimes were a little more down-to-earth than the "entertainment" provided last year, but I still wonder why NASCAR thinks the folks at home want to see singers when we tune into see a racing show? I guess they felt the "casual" fan whom they are catering everything to do these days would be bored with a show which only featured drivers and awards. So after Connick had a very long performance, the show was already 20 minutes long and nothing much had happened yet. We were then told by Bill Weber that everyone was about to be served their dinner, which would give TNT a chance to "serve up some racing memories" for us. Oh boy, more highlights of the season. This would be the third time we'd seen highlights in 20 minutes. Ah, but this time we got a montage of all the winners celebrating in Victory Lane. I also couldn't help but wonder why on earth the attendees at the banquet hadn't already had their dinner by the time TV came on the air at 9 p.m.? Again, I found myself thinking that the entire show was simply tape-delayed until this time. Of course, if that were so, couldn't TNT have just fast-forwarded to the actual awards presentation. For some network reason beyond my simple comprehension, they wanted to drag the show out as long as possible. For a working person on the east coast, I found it particularly difficult to stay up till midnight after working all day. Next we got commercials, which happened to include a promo for Harry Connick's new album. Coincidence? I don't think so.

We returned from commercial to see more highlights. This time Weber prefaced them as being the "remarkable and refreshing moments which occurred a long way from Victory Lane." I found this quite odd as well because the first highlight was Ryan Newman's wreck from the Daytona 500. I guess this counted as one of the "remarkable" rather than "refreshing" moments. Next we saw more winners celebrating in Victory Lane and another replay of the Darlington finish. Then more fiery and scarey wrecks and another replay of the "California kid." I'm not sure how TNT could claim all this was "refreshing" since the viewers at home had seen many of the highlights several times already. When this montage was over, 30 minutes in the show had now elapsed with no real content, just opening ceremonies and 3 sets of highlights. When we next returned from commercial, we were shown highlights of some awards presented earlier in the evening, including the Rookie of the Year which was won by Jamie McMurray. Throughout the show, drivers alluded to McMurray's show of emotion when he received the award. I couldn't help but think that this was something that TNT ought to have shown the viewers, rather than spending all this time on repeating the same race highlights over and over again. Next Weber told us about on-line voting for most dramatic moment of the year and we got to see more highlights in order to show us the nominees for the on-line voting. Again, more time-wasting or was TNT just trying to get more hits on the NASCAR-On-Line web site? Next was a video montage of Matt Kenseth's life. Okay, I found this mildly interesting, but was still tired of highlight videos when I tuned into the see drivers get their awards.

Next, more commercials and we come back to more highlights of Kenseth's 2003 season, set to some really lovely rap music...I guess the drivers were done with their dinner or else the next segment was taped earlier. Bill Weber had a really nice casual interview with Matt which I enjoyed a lot. Unfortunately, this was followed by a repeat of an interview that Weber had with Jack Roush about his hobby of flying and his 2002 crash. I guess TNT didn't think the fans would remember seeing this in a pre-race show just a couple weeks ago. Oh, wait...they don't think any of us have a long enough attention span to remember what they showed us a few weeks ago. Weber ended with some remarks about Mark Martin being there to support Kenseth as his teammate and car owner. He also had an interesting story about Roush trying to get up from his hospital bed after his plane crash.

Prior to watching the show, I was really curious to see if NASCAR would provide a suitable send-off to their long-time sponsor, Winston, and parent-company, R.J. Reynolds. TNT first had a taped feature, including comments from many top WC drivers saluting Winston and thanking them for their support and promotion of the sport for the last 33 years. This was very nice and included a lot of historical footage mixed in with the drivers' testimonials. Each of the drivers and former drivers really brought home how much Winston did to make the sport what it is today. About an hour into the show, there was a live tribute by former driver and TV announcer, Darrell Waltrip, that was very well done. This was followed by another video highlight montage and tributes from drivers, team owners, etc. about Winston. It was nice to see pictures of the late T. Wayne Robertson included since he did so much for NASCAR. Next came a really nice tribute to Winston by Bill France, Jr. It started off with Mr. France making fun of NASCAR's poor choice of venues for the Awards show last year. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with Mr. France's sincere tribute and thanks to Andy Schindler, CEO of R. J. Reynolds. He also had some wonderful stories to relay about the beginning of NASCAR's relationship with RJR. This segment showed real class in bidding farewell to the company that brought the sport to where it is today. It was also quite humorous to see Brian France cringe when his father said he didn't care how much time he took and "to hell with it!" Mr. Schindler and several of the drivers in the audience seemed truly touched by France's speech and it was clear that RJR wished they were not leaving NASCAR. Mr. Schindler made sure to mention the big part that Ralph Seagraves and T. Wayne Robertson played in making the relationship between RJR and NASCAR successful and increasing the popularity to the sport. He also thanked the fans and I thought this was wonderful and seemed truly heartfelt.

Finally, after an hour and fifteen minutes, NASCAR started presenting the awards to the drivers. But not before, we saw more highlights of all of the top 10 in points counted down. Then before each award was presented, we got another individual highlight reel of that driver's season. I guess it was a night for highlights...I enjoyed all of the drivers' speeches and most of them seemed more natural than in the past few years. Most of them seemed not to be woodenly reading their speeches from the teleprompters and that was a relief. I did feel Allen Bestwick having a little chat with each driver before he left the stage to be a bit contrived. Also, they never really introduced the gentleman from RJR who presented the checks to the drivers . I found it a little disconcerting that a few of the drivers already were mentioning Nextel. This seemed a bit like they were already trying to cozy up to the new sponsor. It would have been nice if they could have just left this night for Winston to enjoy as the sponsor of the 2003 season.

I found Terry Labonte's comments amusing that he was just giving his new teammate, Brian Vickers, a ride to school a couple of years ago. Bill Elliott was able to laugh at himself because of his bad luck at the last race at Homestead, saying he wondered if anyone would give him a can of Fix a Flat. He also said he told Bobby Labonte all he wanted for Christmas was a picture of the trophy from that race. Several of the drivers made fun of Bobby listing all his sponsors. We got to see drivers in 10th through 6th position receive their awards and then we got to hear Leanne Rhimes sing. Personally, I know I could have done without that interrupting the flow of the awards, but obviously NASCAR and TNT thought otherwise. Fifth place, Kevin Harvick, tried to make a joke about having to climb up on Ricky Rudd's car to reach the podium, but his attempt at humor seemed to go over like a lead balloon with the crowd at the banquet. I was surprised that TNT kept showing Michael Waltrip in the audience at the banquet, even though he finished 15th in points. We also heard that Waltrip asked his teammate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to say something about him in his acceptance speech and this was humorous. It was also enjoyable to see second place, Jimmy Johnson, laugh at a faux pas he made during his acceptance speech during last year's ceremony.

The final forty-five minutes or so of the show were reserved for honoring Winston Cup Champion, Matt Kenseth, his crew chief, and car owner. But not before another video highlight montage concerning Kenseth's season, wedding, hometown, etc. Although I did find amusing the interview where Kenseth and his wife pointed out that his crew chief, Robby Reiser, commented at their wedding that Matt's wedding ring might not be as important as a Winston Cup Champion's ring. Also humorous was Kenseth's comments about some fans going crazy when they realized who he was, and him musing "So this is what it feels like to be Dale, Jr." During Kenseth's acceptance speech, he also poked fun at his competition with Dale Jr., saying Kenseth had the last word this time since he was the one with the first WC trophy.

Overall, this was a good awards show and Allen Bestwick did an excellent job as host. Other than the excessive repetitive highlights videos, I think TNT did a very good job with the award broadcast this year. I also respect that NASCAR made a real effort to honoring departing sponsor Winston.

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