By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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For there are many ways Scruggs, Channel 5's sports director, is different from the longtime Dallas-area ratings champion, Channel 8 sports director Hansen. They are so numerous that space prohibits a full listing.
Scruggs is young, 33, and black. Hansen is old, 56, and white. Scruggs is an Army brat who isn't used to being in one place too long and is kind of freaked out that he's been in Dallas four years already. It's what made him reluctant to sign his new contract, which has slightly more than four years left on it. Hansen has been in Dallas nearly three decades and at Channel 8 for most of that time.
Hansen replaced a legend, Verne Lundquist. Scruggs replaced a legendary joke, Scott Murray, who stepped down in 2003. (Murray's mannered delivery and lack of self-awareness was only entertaining as a sort of running Saturday Night Live skit.) Hansen will talk hours with you about the local media scene, ratings, how race or gender or age factors into hiring decisions but seems bored by sports discussions that last more than a few minutes. Scruggs says he doesn't care about analyzing the Dallas sports media landscape and his place in it, but he will--I've seen him--talk Drew Henson vs. Vinny Testaverde with a zoned-out college kid who recognizes him during lunch at his favorite pizza joint. Talk with him for 12 minutes. And seem happy to do it.
"Here's the deal with Henson," Newy says, pushing back the ball cap that covered his eyes so he can stare at the table of fans ("Excuse me, sir, are you Newy?") next to us. "When is he ready? We don't know that."
The kid nods and considers this. "Yeah. But, you know."
Scruggs isn't fazed. He goes on to talk rookies vs. veterans, playoff chances vs. long-term development.
The kid considers this. "Yeah."
I've also seen Hansen interact with fans. Let's just say that Hansen, who is borderline genius at cramming a mix of sports facts and opinion into a humming newscast, doesn't mix effortlessly with the plebes. The last time I saw someone try to engage him at a public event, it was like the scene from The Simpsons where Bart and Ms. Krabappel mix at Martin's birthday party. Awkward silence, followed by Bart saying, "I'm going to go stand over here now."
Why is this relevant to a discussion of Scruggs? Because it speaks to what has made Scruggs--Newy to his friends, "Newdawg" to Channel 5 anchor Jane McGarry and those friends who don't mind using that groan-worthy nickname--an unlikely success in the Dallas sports scene. In a medium that puts a premium on "likability," on that elusive quality that makes you want to invite a local news anchor into your media room, Scruggs has entrenched himself because he seems like the dude you can argue with at the bar. Which sounds real easy until you have to do it wearing a suit, staring at a red light on top of a camera, listening to the producer yell in your ear and co-anchor Mike Snyder bloviate in your general direction.
"Man, you think about this stuff a lot more than I do," says Scruggs, who is also co-host of a weekday sports talk-radio show on the local ESPN affiliate, 103.3. "To me, it's not rocket science. You do what you do. Be who you are. You see all types of guys trying to be smart-asses and imitate ESPN guys. Never works. People see through that. Just have a conversation."
When Scruggs arrived in 2000, he was greeted with skepticism by the local sports-media frat boys. You can blame some of this on the competitiveness of the market and the silly way in which Channel 5 promoted him (for example, pairing him with weatherman David Finfrock in a series of easily mocked ads that ran during the Olympics). Also, Scruggs and a local talk-radio host who knew him from Cleveland exchanged some heated words before a game--Scruggs got fed up with the radio guy's on-air bashing, which included making fun of Newy's weight.
But slowly, as it became clear that Scruggs wasn't just bluster and schtick (remember Ted Dawson, anyone?), he earned his share of respect, at least in objective quarters. The Fort Worth Weekly named him best local sports anchor. More important, he began to compete on nearly equal terms on Sunday-night sports broadcasts, when he and the longtime Big Dog, Hansen, go head-to-head at 10:20 p.m. His success has led station managers and staff at competing stations to do what they do best: overanalyze the success of any competitor and react in the most panicked way possible. It's why some television media people have said to me that they have to counter "The Newy Factor" by getting younger and hipper. Which is almost always PC code for "blacker."
This at once belittles and misunderstands Scruggs' success, as TV ratings for a nightly newscast are about so many things--lead-in shows, tenure, talent, idiosyncrasies of the market, the geographic distribution of Arbitron boxes--that to think you can copy any aspect of an anchor's success is silly. It's why the many Hansen imitators have failed over the years, why the Lundquist imitators failed before that, why any attempt to imitate whatever it is that Scruggs' young fans like will fail. Because they like him, not his street lingo or hipness or color or easy rapport with certain athletes. Silly as it may seem, they dig the Newdawg.