Network switch no laughing matter

It's been 30 years since a NASCAR driver won three championships in a row. Yet, as Jimmie Johnson closed in on the mark, ABC cut away.

What could have been so important to force viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones to flip over to ESPN2 for the conclusion of Johnson's romp at Phoenix International Raceway?

A new episode of Desperate Housewives might have been acceptable.

No such luck, though.

ABC ditched its NASCAR coverage for America's Funniest Home Videos with 34 laps left in Sunday's race. That's right, Johnson's seventh win of the season was interrupted by cats running into walls, dancing brides falling and children inflicting unintentional pain on adults.

"I knew we were in trouble when I looked at the monitor and saw a monkey scratching its butt," one team member said after Johnson's victory.

Yep, the network that promised to broadcast the final 10 races of the season on ABC as part of its estimated $270 million a year contract dumped the closing laps of a Chase race for home video hijinks.

Nice "partner," NASCAR.

In fairness to the network, the race did run exceptionally long because of two red-flag stoppages (one for rain, one for an accident) that totaled nearly 45 minutes. And it is November sweeps, when networks aim for high ratings to set their advertising rates.

And unlike the infamous "Heidi Game" when NBC abruptly cut away from a 1968 telecast between the New York Jets at the Oakland Raiders, the NASCAR broadcasting team gave ample notice that coverage was moving to ESPN2. Any justification did little to soothe the NASCAR community, which suddenly felt like a second-class citizen at the height of its season.

"It doesn't say very much," winning car owner Rick Hendrick said.

The drivers seemed incredulous.

"I can't imagine being a race fan and being on the East Coast and trying to watch this, and then going to that," third-place finisher Jamie McMurray said. "Obviously, if the president was going to talk, or maybe if something big had happened. But I can't imagine America's Funniest Home Videos would take priority over us. I mean, I like that show, but I'd rather watch the race, you know?"

ABC defended its decision, noting the two red-flag periods pushed the broadcast into its prime-time lineup and partner ESPN gave the network a viable alternative.

The NFL's television partners, in part because of the angry reaction to the Heidi fiasco -- only viewers in the Pacific time zone saw the Raiders' 14-point frantic comeback -- now force all networks to show games to conclusion in the teams' markets. NASCAR obviously doesn't have such a provision, but still deserves some courtesy from one of its partners.

Johnson deserves respect as he closes in on racing history.

"I thought it went dark and nobody could watch it," he said. "So the fact that it was on another television channel was better. But to go to America's Funniest Home Videos ? That one hurts. I thought we have a lot of characters. Why do we need that show?"

That's the answer NASCAR should be demanding.

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