SBJ/March 12 - 18, 2007/This Weeks News

NASCAR lets ‘Primetime’ cameras in for summer series

ABC News “Primetime” crews were at Las Vegas Motor Speedway over the weekend to begin filming an unscripted documentary series that is expected to air this summer.

The initial plan calls for at least four one-hour episodes of the series, which will chronicle all aspects of NASCAR, from competition to marketing to the culture surrounding the sport.

Michael Bicks, a veteran of more than 20 years with ABC News, will serve as executive producer of what’s being called “NASCAR in Primetime.” Bicks has served as a producer on “20/20,” “Primetime Live” and “Last Days on Earth.”

“This is the first time NASCAR has let a news organization do this, and that’s important because they’ve maintained editorial control in the past,” Bicks said. “With this, they’re letting somebody else have editorial control, and we’re honored they’d let us do it.”

Bicks emphasized that he had been talking to NASCAR about this project for about two years, which predates ABC/ESPN’s NASCAR rights deal. The news and sports divisions work independently, he said.

ESPN is in the first year of an eight-year deal to televise NASCAR and will begin its Nextel Cup race programming on July 29 at Indianapolis. Its first six races will be on ESPN, while the final 11, beginning Sept. 8, will go to ABC. ESPN2 has the complete Busch Series schedule.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin are two Nextel Cup drivers who have agreed to be filmed, according to sources at the team level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart also have been approached, while Jeff Gordon turned down an offer. Bicks said several other drivers either have been approached or will be.

The initial plan calls for ABC to follow Busch, Craftsman Truck and Whelan All-American series drivers as well.

From NASCAR’s perspective, it likely will enjoy unprecedented prime-time weeknight exposure. In the 2006-07 TV season, nine episodes of “Primetime” (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) have averaged 6.1 million viewers. Four episodes of a special “Primetime Outsiders” (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) averaged 6.7 million viewers.

“We’re going to find drivers whose stories are big enough to connect with those outside the sport,” Bicks said. “A lot of these types of [NASCAR behind-the-scenes] shows have not done a good job explaining to non-fans why it’s so exciting. We’ll find the universal stories that will draw a large TV audience.”

Camera crews were expected to spend the weekend at Las Vegas capturing behind-the-scenes footage. Bicks said he hoped to film at 10 to 12 races during about a three-month period, as well as follow teams from site to site to capture logistical issues.

ABC also intends to follow the drivers home for an in-depth look at their lives away from the track.

The series is expected to examine NASCAR’s growth and appeal, while also delving into the challenges it faces as it tries to expand into new markets and reach new fans.

When asked how difficult it was to gain access to NASCAR’s world while maintaining editorial control, Bicks laughed and said, “It’s extremely hard. My last project was juries and murder cases and getting the supreme court to allow cameras in the jury room. This is just as hard.

“These folks [at NASCAR] have grown this sport by controlling its image. They have to think long and hard about letting go of that. They weren’t unreasonable, it just took a long time to convince them.”

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