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.
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