Monday, April 16, 2007

ESPN's "NASCAR Now" Is A One Hour Culture Clash

There comes a time when it is impossible to continue to give "second chances" to someone who refuses to change. There comes a time when things are so bad that its almost hard to believe they will ever get better. On Monday, ESPN2 rolled-out the one hour edition of NASCAR Now. Promoted as a way to provide more race recap and analysis, the show turned out to be a culture clash between the "NASCAR guys" and the "ESPN guys." As the season continues, this has "Hatfields" and "McCoys" written all over it. And its starting to get ugly.

Erik Kuselias, the former ESPN Sports Radio talk show host, served as the studio host of this new one hour TV program. He is the king of the "Hatfield" clan, who likes to talk in radio-style accusatory sound-bites and use harsh and demeaning language. As the host, he constantly talks over anyone on-the-set, or anyone who appears as a guest. He is brutal. The most interesting part is, he is lost on any kind of actual NASCAR issue, has no clue to any NASCAR personalities beyond the obvious, and is absolutely oblivious that he is walking in the hallowed footsteps of RPM2Nite.

Tim Cowlishaw is also a "Hatfield." He will appear to talk about any subject, at any time, on any network. But, it must involve hype and absolutely no factual information of any kind. Nice work if you can get it, and he certainly has found his dream job on NASCAR Now. Cowlishaw and Kuselias make NASCAR Now into great sports radio. Unfortunately, ESPN has chosen to present this "talk show hype" in video form on ESPN2.

On this premier show, Boris Said and Stacy Compton lead Kuselias through a recap of the Texas NEXTEL Cup race. Then, the show slowly began to crank-up the hype machine. First, it was Montoya vs. Stewart. Then, Dale Junior in a Hendrick car. Mark Martin going part-time again. Finally, Kyle Busch in trouble because he was "gone" when they needed him. The garbage was just piled-up higher-and-higher by Kuselias and Cowlishaw until they made the one mistake that always shakes things up. They brought-in people who know.

Reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount are "McCoys." They appeared via liveshot and both seemed very eager to speak to a lot of issues. When these guys are on together, Kuselias changes instantly into Superman in the Kryptonite Cave. This is his worst nightmare, two guys who have been there and done that right in his face. He tentatively stepped into the water with his Earnhardt Junior hype. And then it happened.

Without wasting a breath, Marty Smith reached back and brought the pain to Kuselias and Cowlishaw like he has never done before. It was a smack-down of epic proportions, and showed the country the division that exists at ESPN between the people actually out working in the field, and the hype-kings of the studio. And as I mentioned earlier, it was ugly.

Smith leaned back and smacked Kuselias a mile on the "Dale Earnhardt Junior in a Hendrick car issue." Kuselias had been trying with all his might to make this simple act into a conspiracy of contract negotiations and anti-Theresa sentiment. He kept asking anyone who would listen if Junior was "making a statement." Smith forcefully said that he was personally standing there when "it happened." There was no conspiracy, there were no statements, there was just a friend asking Dale to run a couple of laps to move the car-up in points. Dale made sure and got permission, and then helped his friend out. Perhaps, a lot of us were just waiting for Marty to say..."and you are an idiot Erik!"

Kuselias tried to speak with Terry Blount on several issues, but Terry knows the entire NASCAR scene as well, and what he was saying was so far above Kuselias head that the host just spoke right over top of him and quickly moved the reporters off the show.

ESPN had to return to the hype, had to return to the ridiculous "fact or fiction" and "driver pick-em" segments that serve as advertising platforms, and nothing else.

With an hour of program time, one would surmise that ESPN would focus on The Busch Series, seeing as ESPN paid millions for the rights to the entire season. This edition of NASCAR Now again avoided The Busch Series like the plague. Mondays are for looking back at the entire racing weekend, not just Sunday. No where is this concept more lost than on the "Hatfields" of studio hype at ESPN than with the struggling Busch Series. The "hype kings" have no time for actual racing stories and interviews when there are rumors to be invented and motives to be created. Does the ESPN Programming Department watch this show?

Kudos to Stacy Compton for keeping a smile plastered on his face while surrounded by the ridiculous behavior of Kuselias. Compton patiently corrects the host over-and-over again on even the most basic points of NASCAR racing. Boris Said is happy to be working, and while he brings an upbeat personality to the set, he is also forced to deal with the sophomoric questions and rude behavior of the host. Compton and Said are working men trapped with a very bad boss and nowhere to go.

The animosity that reared its head between the field reporters and the studio host is bound to flare-up again. Pros like Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Angelique Chengelis, Shannon Spake, and Mike Massaro are not going to risk their reputation and credibility by getting caught-up in the "sports radio hype" that Kuselias and Cowlishaw bring to the table. While the "Hatfields" may rule the studio in Connecticut, the "McCoys" are on the road alongside the entire NASCAR family, and working hard. As the season moves forward, and more real and serious issues arise, there will be even a bigger difference between those who know, and those who just talk about it. And my feeling is, its going to get ugly.