Sunday, August 12, 2007

Culture Clash Explodes On "NASCAR Now"


It had to happen sooner or later, and this weekend it finally did. Sunday, the troubled ESPN studio program NASCAR Now finally hit rock bottom.

All season long, the ESPN on-air announcers have slowly divided themselves into two very different groups. As one might expect, the tension in this family feud has been slowly rising since February.

Now, it has exploded on the screen with the most dysfunctional TV show of the year. Sunday's one hour version of NASCAR Now was horrible, and ESPN knows it.

In the twenty five plus years of building ESPN, there was an over-riding culture that dominated the company. It came from the regional baseball and football fans that worked in SportsCenter back when it was really the headliner of the network.

That huge group of employees was referred to as the stick-and-ball guys. They lived for Red Sox vs. Yankees and Giants vs. the dreaded Cowboys. In the winter, they tolerated the NBA and wondered when the Celtics vs. Lakers game was coming up. They enjoyed ESPN because you could literally see all the sports going-on in the country at one location.

While they loved one group of sports, they barely tolerated another. This included auto racing, track and field, soccer, and everything else under the sun. Even today, if you look at the stories on ESPN.com or try to watch the un-watchable SportsCenter, you find the same theme...stick-and-ball.

ESPN tolerated NASCAR because the RPM2Night show was produced in Carolina, was sent in by satellite, and did not take time away from summer baseball or autumn football. The ESPN NASCAR crew did not use Bristol facilities, lived mostly in Mooresville, and rarely interacted with the Connecticut stick-and-ball guys.

This season, ESPN committed to a studio-based NASCAR show and was forced to put it in Bristol for only one reason. High Definition. ESPN in Bristol needs a NASCAR show like a Rolls Royce needs a trailer hitch.

The logistics of this problem required the NASCAR Now studio hosts to be based in Connecticut. ESPN convinced driver Stacy Compton to commute north several days a week from Carolina, but finally decided to use their own in-house announcers as hosts for the show.

This allowed both Erik Kuselias and Ryan Burr to perform other duties for the company as well as host the NASCAR show. It also allows Tim Cowlishaw to add content to the show as the type of ESPN commentator who somehow knows all sports.

This group of ESPN in-house employees knows only one way to be on-the-air. It is the way of Mike and Mike, SportsCenter, and Around The Horn. Many refer to it as the "New England way" meaning slightly pushy, not very friendly, and constantly challenging others to pick-a-winner. This is the on-air persona of ESPN in 2007.

When this approach is mixed with over fifty years of NASCAR, it is akin to oil and water. Fundamentally, the hardcore pushy approach of ESPN and the laid-back, polite, user-friendly approach of NASCAR just do not mesh.

Early on this season, it was funny. Later, it was draining. Now, it is beginning to deeply affect the on-air product and is obvious to viewers. Never was this more apparent then on Sunday when host Erik Kuselias tried once again to hold a live conversation with Rusty Wallace, who was trackside in Watkins Glen.

"We just heard the comments from Dale Junior, how much trouble is he really in right now?" asked Kuselias dramatically. The show had just played back some Saturday practice comments where Junior was frustrated with his car. Wallace took a very deep breath and said Junior was not in trouble. He would like his car to be faster, don't count him out, and strategy is key at a road course. The NASCAR translation of this is: What kind of a ridiculous and stupid question is that?

Immediately, Kuselias turned his passive-aggressive eyes to Tim Cowlishaw, who would agree with the devil if he signed his paycheck. "He is in a little bit of trouble" said Tim. "For him to say the car is not handling puts him in jeopardy." This is the root of today's ESPN. They must be right, they must be the experts, and there must be controversy. Its all about control.

Stacy Compton then took a turn at Junior's reality. "Think about last weekend at Pocono...they said their car was junk...they changed a shock...he came home with a second place finish." The NASCAR translation: Do you guys have any short term memory? Do you ever watch these races?

Now, Kuselias was mad. He got Rusty back on-camera and hammered him. ESPN's own Boris Said has missed qualifying because of a rain-out, and Kuselias knew this was absolutely wrong and something had to be done. "Do you agree with the way that NASCAR handles cancellations and qualifying due to weather?" he asked. Court was now in session, and attorney Kuselias was going to get his way.

Wallace took another deep breath. "They have been doing things this way for a long, long time and that's just the way it is" he said. NASCAR translation: I am pretty tired of being asked these lame questions, and you're kind of rude.

Then, Rusty actually had the audacity to change the subject. He said that Bill Elliott, a good road course racer who gave his Wood Brothers ride to Boris for Sunday is the real story. "To give-up his ride is something drivers just don't do, so that was the real surprise." Wallace had deviated from the script. This is not allowed in the tight ESPN "perfect" world.

Rusty was summarily dismissed and Kuselias was now confused. So, he sought comfort from Cowlishaw once again. "Tim, would you change the qualifying?" he asked. The glazed look told the story. Cowlishaw had no idea what Kuselias was talking about. He blamed the rain. As fans who watched ESPN on Saturday already knew, NASCAR had done European-style qualifying with the Busch Series, sending cars out in groups to run fast laps.

When Compton tried to address this, once again the pushy Kuselias moved-on without even acknowledging this reality. NASCAR fans by now were just shaking their heads. This was two disjointed groups of announcers who were trying to put forward two very different agendas.

Reporter Shannon Spake came along and provided a feature on the fact that this was the first COT race at The Glen. Her information was first rate, important, and really set the tone for why the race was wide-open. Nothing from the past except personal experience carried over to Sunday because of the COT. Unfortunately, there was nothing controversial it it. Kuselias dismissed her coldly and move back to search for controversy. None of this "tech talk" made any sense to him.

After a nice feature on Robby Gordon, Kuselias tried to pin down his fellow panelists about their feelings on Gordon. Compton called him the Terrell Owens of NASCAR, controversial and always making a statement. Cowlishaw said he was "out of control" and had to be reigned-in. Once again, that was not good enough for the former attorney. Kuselias continued his line of questioning.

"Based upon the picture you painted, is Robby Gordon good for NASCAR?" he said. Cowlishaw said "sometimes." Apparently, that was not on the list. "Its a yes or no" stated the counselor/host. Cowlishaw continued retreating on the issue. "I need a yes or a no" bellowed Kuselias. This was the passive aggressive lawyer at his finest.

Unfortunately, for both ESPN and NASCAR, this was a national on-air TV talent at his lowest. It was very clear this man has personal issues, and they do not mesh well with the plain-spoken and well-mannered personalities of NASCAR. On ESPN Radio he might shine, but he has never handled the transition to TV with success. It is a wholly different style of communicating, and requires a level of patience and flexibility that Mr. Kuselias does not possess.

One of Kuselias problems is NASCAR cannot be evaluated like baseball. You cannot used HR and RBI and ERA to handicap a race. All season long, the ESPN desire to somehow know what was going to happen has resulted in nothing more than time wasted on TV. And, it has been a whole lot of time.

Sunday, ESPN decided to manipulate "stats" to produce a ridiculous feature report that somehow suggested the network could predict the winner. They just refused to believe that racing is so random and dominated by sheer luck. In the entire report, they never mentioned the COT, gas mileage, or pit stop strategy. That would be reality. That does not matter. NASCAR Now has "the eliminator."

With this high-profile show preceding both RaceDay on SPEED and NASCAR Countdown on ESPN, Sunday's NASCAR Now is the first destination for fans gearing-up for a day of racing action. Unfortunately, what they find is a program mired in confusion and on-air tension.

ESPN has had six months to fix the Sunday morning NASCAR Now program. This is the result. Today was truly the "rock bottom" of the season. Two on-air realities continue to clash with NASCAR fans again the loser, and no answer in sight.

As a part of this column, I would ask that you add your suggestions about how ESPN can specifically improve their Sunday preview show. No one solves problems better or has stronger feelings about this sport than NASCAR fans.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click-on the COMMENTS button below, or email editor@thedalyplanet.tv if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your comments.

26 comments:

Busch Series Fan! said...

Good article so please ESPN bring back Reese Davis & John Kernan - they are good for Nascar!

SophiaZ123 said...

Hmmm..missed this show as I ALWAYS CHOOSE to do.

I must say, this is so disgusting. If that Banks guy got fired for being clueless, who the hell does Erik have compromising photos of to KEEP his job?

He is WRETCHED. I mostly LISTENED to the race today on MRN and when in front of the TV had ESPN MUTED.

John, honestly, ESPN cares not ONE WHIT what we fans think. Yes, you described a new low, but much like Brian France, ESPN wants Erik to be WWE ringleader.

I for one will not be going for the bait and switch.

I am DONE with ESPN. They can show all the shows they want. I will listen to MRN and mute most of the TV during the race until CHANGES ARE MADE.

I must say, the FEW MOMENTS I had ESPN announcers on, either I MISSED IT, or can somebody tell me, did Rusty cut back on the amount of "I TELL YOU WHAT COMMENTS TODAY?"

But back to john's wanting comments, believe it or not, I am sick of bitching about ESPN. And unless you can show me PROOF we are making a difference John, I am tired of wasting my energy to gripe to a corporate greed based company that LOVES TO IRRITATE THE FANS.

I caught a few minutes of SPORTSCENTER last week and some white guy was talking over video highlights while some black guy made derogatory comments and BOTH USED SNIDE tone of voice as if mortified to be speaking of NASCAR.

That spoke volumes to me, folks,

I will continue to read this blog and add comments but I am DONE with that ****ing Erik jerk and my continued UNHAPPIENESS with NASCAR NOW and their prerace shows.. Sorry for the unladylike comment but sometimes, it is what it is and frustration meets new levels.

Thank God I did not watch this show but am thankful you filled us in John.:

P.S. I hear Jerry Springer is looking for a new behind the scenes producer to coach folks on how to be jackasses on TV and act like crude, rude, no class people. Erik, the application already has YOUR NAME ON IT

Richard in N.C. said...

The ONLY way to fix NASCAR NOW is first to fix the continued decline at ESPN - which requires changes at the highest levels of ESPN where the "We know everything" culture is ruining what was a fine network not so long ago.

Kevin said...

We've seen half of the answer, as recently as last week.

Ryan Burr and Allen Bestwick as hosts. It's an amazing theory what knowledge does for this program.

Relocation to North Carolina, permanently name Burr and Bestwick as co-hosts (c'mon - you're telling me the 4-letter is using AB correctly in the PITS???), and bag the new best NASCAR show on TV!

darbar said...

How to fix Nascar Now? It cannot be done unless ESPN admits there's a problem---and it's unlikely they are unwill to do anything of the sort. The major fix would be to fire Erik K. He's rude, obnoxious and refuses to admit he knows nothing about Nascar. Tim Cowlishaw is another problem. Send him back to Dallas to report on whatever else he reports about. Unfortunately, it's too late in the season to really fix this mess. Nascar needs to step in and put the screws to ESPN. I cannot believe that Nascar isn't hearing from fans and sponsors, and their silence on this is scarey. Unfortunately, all the best Nascar reporters work for Speed, and you don't honestly think ESPN could lure any of them over to the Darkside.

Kevin in Indy said...

Hey Sophia,
You, like John, are spot on. I think the photos that you mention have something to do with midgets (sorry, "little people"), gerbils, and leather whips. I have a few questions and hopefully someone out in Daly Planet-land can shot me some answers. Has anyone else gotten tires of Rusty CONSTANTLY shilling for the 2 and the 12? 12? Does the Speed Channel have High Def studios in Charlotte that the high-fallutin' folks up in Bristol could use (rent) to produce their NASCAR shows? Is anyone tired of Montoya running over and through people with nothing being said about it?

Daly Planet Editor said...

Kev,

Let me help you with that. SPEED is a Fox-owned cable network and ESPN is a Disney-owned company. These two things do not lead to a happy sharing and caring relationship.

Since this is an eight year committment by ESPN, I thought they would build a small digital base of operations for their liveshots and editing up near Mooresville, but they declined.

BIlly Delyon said...

Get ride of the Eric and Tim pony show and I think NASCAR NOW whether it be sunday or during the week. Beyond that, I don't think there's much hope...

I can truly say that I have not liked either one of them from SECOND ONE of hearing/seeing them be a part of the show...

projectpappy09 said...

Here's the five step plan to change NASCAR Now, in my view:

1.FIRE ERIC! We're starting to beat a dead horse with this issue, so I won't elaborate.

2. Move Ryan Burr to primary host, and have Allen Bestwick and Shannon Spake(who I believe was originally going to be the host of the show) be the back-up hosts.

3. Get rid of Tim Brewer, and use only Andy Petree as a resident crew chief. Brewer is so inarticulate it is painful to watch, and Petree seems to be a natural on TV, maybe the best analyst around right now.

4. Keep Brad, (maybe have him co-host sometimes) Stacy, and Boris, and hire Dale Jarrett as a full-time analyst and contributor when he will probably retire after the season.

5. This show needs a new location, and I'm not talking place-to-place. Maybe a better timeslot, like 3:30 on ESPN (moved to 3 when college football starts up), where there could actually be more visibility

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand what NASCAR Nows primary audience is.
Is it the passerby that says oh look a NASCAR show I'll stop and watch. Or is it us? The fans of the sport. Th guys that when they go buy a new truck go and slap on a new #3 sticker to the back window the day they buy it. (mine gets a #45 but you know what I mean)

Because if they are looking to get the viewership of the loyal NASCAR fan they are really missing the boat.

If they are going for the stick and ball guy waiting for Sports Center to come on then Eric works. The confrontation is what they are used to. But by doing this they lose the fans of the sport.

If they want me to watch they need to get AUTHORITY to their show.

-The host needs to be someone with a grounding in the sport (think Mike Joy I know he works for FOX but someone of his caliber)

-The guests need to be in the studio not on the screen. The hosts look stupid talking to video walls for the entire show. It makes the feel of the show to be so disconnected its unwatchable.

-Dump the driver pickum Volt commercial mid show. Its annoying and no one cares.
I know the bright minds at ESPN can do something else like do side by side volt commercials for the entire show.

-NO MORE PHONE INTERVIEWS!!! I feel like I'm listening to a local talk radio show with bad cell phones and drop outs.

On to the race coverage this weekend.

Where was the tech center? You figure that they would be having a lot of cuts to Tim, but I only caught one the entire race. (It was about boiling breaks early in the race, and was uncomfortable to watch. His send back to Rusty was painfull.) Then when Dale Jr blew a motor Petree talked through the animation about the valve spring breaking. I don't get it. They probably spent 3 million on that tech center trailer and the equipment not to use it was silly. Tim is a good guy, but I don't think he has the confidence to be on TV. He needs to go.

Other then that it was a good job by ESPN, quick to get a replay and a few good camera angles every time there was an incident on the track. Even if they missed the action live they got to it quick. I loved their spotters finding damage on the cars in the pack then finding how it got there and showing it!

Anonymous said...

On the bright side, at least we didn't see a single "dirty air" coloration.

Sal said...

If this show is going to be about Nascar, it needs to have people that know the sport in front of the camera, period. Eric and Tim K. are positively embarrassing, as are the various 'pick the winner' or 'chaser or racer' segments. Racing is NOT like stick and ball sports, guys! Perhaps the best example of how little ESPN seems to 'get it' with racing is the kerfuffle about Tony Stewart drinking beer to celebrate. Who can try to make this an issue? ESPN. Get Allen Bestwick or Mike Massaro to host, and move the show to Charlotte or Mooresville where the sport lives. With the moments of competence or even brilliance we've seen, there is potential, but not if ESPN continues to try to pretend that Nascar is like baseball.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone wonder why Dan Patrick has decided to leave after 18 years and being the face of the network? Maybe he see's the handwriting on the wall with the company he made famous with Keith Olberman.

RACECHASER said...

I agree with your article completely and don't have a clue whey ESPN hasn't brought back John Kernan who we all watched for years. John was an exceptional host who had straight forward facts, gave honest opinions and most important, was knowledgeable about NASCAR racing. Why they haven't begged John to come back and host this show is a complete mystery. Those two goofballs they have are totaly inept and I feel so sorry for Stacy having to deal with them and their stupid questions and remarks. Come on ESPN, "step up to the plate"...a phrase ESPN will understand and do the right thing for NASCAR fans...bring back John...Please!

Anonymous said...

Why is ESPN bothering to produce this show? It is poorly done (all those phone interviews--get a downlink, guys!), with a shouting host who doesn't know NASCAR and clearly doesn't want to learn it, and with content we learned from internet news sources hours earlier.

ESPN seems to think it Knows All when it comes to any sport, and thus, fans must be wrong when they believe differently.

Too bad they're wrong.

Anonymous said...

The best stupid Erik Useless trick was when he tried to beg an invitation from Richard Childress to go hunting. The sook on Richard's face would make one of those MC Priceless ads.

Vince said...

How to fix NASCARNow, jeez where to start? Talk about a target rich environment for change. Ok Disney, I know you own ABC/ESPN and I know how much you value your "image". Well your image is going down the toilet as far as ESPN as a whole is concerned. This network is a shell of it's former self. I very rarely watch anything on ESPN, the all hype sport network anymore.

AS for fixing NASCARNow:

1. Get rid of Erik with a K. Period. He is everything true Nascar fans hate. Obnoxious, rude and doesn't have a clue about our sport.

2. Get rid of Tim C. For reasons, see #1 above.

3. Move this show and it's production to the Charlotte, NC area. I personally don't need to see it in HD, but if you insist surely someone in Charlotte has a HD studio you can rent.

4. Get a host the fans are familiar with. Like John Kernan (the best) or Allen Bestwick. I personally am not a fan of Arron Burr who doesn't know beans about Nascar either, but is certainly less abrasive that Erik the butcher.

5. Do on camera interviews only. No more phone interviews. All the race shops are in a the same general area. Send a reporter like Shannon Spake or Marty Smith out there to conduct the interviews. Both are more than capable.

6. Get rid of the driver pickems, fact or fiction, chaser or racer and all the other lame pitting one driver against another stuff that you try to do. This is just plain stupid and nobody likes it.

7. And MOST IMPORTANT, quit treating Nascar fans like we know nothing about the sport. Who do you think is watching this show anyway? Stick and ball people? Hell no! Nascar fans are watching and give us credit for knowing our sport.

I've pretty much given up on watching this show. I DVR it on Wed. or Thurs, because those seem to be the days that Erik with a K is not hosting. But this show is wrong in so many ways. ESPN, you just need to start over from scratch with this show and try again. The product you are putting out now isn't fit to watch.

Anonymous said...

There are more drivers out there than Junior. And if he doesn't qualify for The Chase, it's not a National Crisis. When he was 12th, ESPN's Bottom Line showed the top 12 points leaders. After Pocono, ESPN was showing the top 14 (Junior was 14th). I wonder what they're doing right now, but I'm not watching.

KoHoSo said...

"anonymous" earlier stated, "What I don't understand what NASCAR Nows primary audience is."

To answer that question, it is any male between the ages of 18 and 35. They do not care whether or not he is already a NASCAR fan or will remain a NASCAR fan. They make their shows the way that they do in order to suck in this "impressionable" age group because that's what advertisers demand. They do not care about the "loyal" or "traditional" NASCAR fan because people like that are generally more influenced by a driver's or team's sponsorship relationships than the commercials shown during NASCAR programming. And, the programming is not more "mature" because people who have finally grown up mentally in the areas of consumerism are far less likely to get sucked in by the claims or showmanship of a particular ad (because, hopefully, those who hit 36 have been burned enough by false claims to have finally learned better -- or, it is simply a matter of people getting to a certain age who have finally decided whether they like Coke or Pepsi, Bud or Miller, and are no longer open to changing brands.).

So, in addition to ESPN's ingrained northeastern-ized "stick and ball" culture, it is this absolute need to ignore all who do not fall within this coveted 18-to-35 demographic that leads to the absolute disappointment (with one or two exceptions) that has been their NASCAR programming. In the old days of Bob, Benny, and Ned, ESPN was just happy to get a rating and have something to fill time besides Aussie Rules Football. Times have changed, and I don't think they will ever go back to a level of programming that most who read this blog will ever find truly acceptable. Sad, but true.

Mike24 said...

Just my opinion... NASCAR doesnt give a crap about its fans and their opinions. I cant tell you how many times Ive written and expressed my feelings over a multitude of issues. One of the big ones being the "National Anthem". Why is it so hard to find someone that not only knows the words but can sing it without without butchering it and putting there personal touch on it. DAMN!! this makes my blood boil!! Sun. this moron couldnt sing and I counted three words in their I never heard of. I play taps for military funerals and sing the "National Anthem" from time to time and would never think of showing such disrespect as NASCAR hiring these egotistical morons to shame our country with low class talent. Ive written NASCAR and of course the usual reply is " we value your opinion" blah blah blah....same oh same oh. My love of the sport is wanning each year because of the Hollywood mentality invading our beloved sport. After over 25 yrs watching the race Im now spending my Sun. out on Lake Michigan Salmon fishing....good bye NASCAR your budding new audience may be with you a couple years than show their true colors and find the next popular gig likely turn to WWF

Dick Trickle said...

My suggestion echos everyone elses...Get rid of Erik "give me the Aerosmith" Klueless and Tim Cowlinshaw.

Why not have Allen Bestwick anchor this show live from the track at the infield booth similar to what Speed does? Let Bestwick and Compton host the show live from the track.

Anonymous said...

I am so disgusted with ESPN right now I have no answers. I have been a NASCAR fan for 50+ years. For the first time since I can remember, I almost turned off the race yesterday.

Please don't tell me we have eight years of ESPN. YIKES!

MrPandy said...

SophiaZ123 - I tell you what, how about that Rusty? I finally got to see the end of a race this week! I've been playing the Rusty Drinking Game, where I take a shot every time he says "I tell you what" and I'm usually passed out drunk by the halfway point. I actually counted him say it at least 79 times from the green to the checkers at Pocono last week (I may have missed a few refilling my glass). I also noticed a big decrease in 'tell you whats' at the Glen. He must have been told to keep an eye on it. Thank God.

Anonymous said...

The big question is why did espn want nascar back.I have watched since it was on espn years ago and used to enjoy the coverage back then .Very much enjoyed rpm2night as well.If I feel like watching any prerace coverage I'll tune into speed channel til the race at least every body on speed has either grown up with the sport or actually raced.I used to enjoy watching the speed race recap on monday nights when allen bestwick did it and he would be perfect for the nascar now show you couldn't find a more knowledgeable person.
Unfortunately we have 8 more years of this crap let's hope they get it right soon.Unfortunately nascar is also starting to loose there way as in there zeal to attract new fans they are leaving a trail of disappointed and disgusted long time fans by the wayside [see lower tv ratings]obviously the new fans they are so hungry for have short attention spans so lets hope thay also realize this before the fan base shrinks any more .Just my opinion maybe i'm right maybe I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

what I dont understand is didnt anyone think for one minute that there was never enough room at ESPN for Nascar, Their (ESPN) plate is full with all the stick and ball sports, didnt Nascar exec's see this comming, these two power houses of their perspective industries will never peacfully co-exist, The only soulution that I see is if they use their espn2 network to carry the bulk of their auto racing, and leave Espn the network the way it was so their product want be so doluted as it is know. The move could make Espn2 as powerful as SpeedTV with its present coverge of NHRA and the combined Nascar races sprinkled with a little Golf and college football.
wishfull thinking
louis grant

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad there is a nascar show on in the morning and it's nice they aren't cozy with the drivers and will ask a rude question now and then. Do you want a Fox News type deal where espn is informed to follow the nascar party line. The show needs improvement. If you don't like it don't watch it. I enjoy hearing people pick winners. I do get tired of rehashing the same story for 3 days but the show is trying to target new fans that maybe don't understand the dozens of story lines that follow the circuit week to week. Most new fans can't get by the "they just go round in circles?" line. So maybe they invent a little controversy. But I can remember a day when I was happy to to see qualifying on tv. So I'm a little more tolerant than some. If I had a gun to my head I'd rather watch espn's Nascar Now over Speed's Inside Nextal Cup. That show used to be must see tv but it stinks like the host and Waltrip. Be patient fans, maybe it will grow on you. Victory Lane is top shelf.