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The Newy Factor

Hansen says that TV news is increasingly becoming like radio, where every station is just looking to find its niche.
Mark Graham

Newy Scruggs and Dale Hansen are both big guys, in suit size and local ratings. They're both sports anchors. And that's where the similarities end.

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.

But panic the suits will. Because they don't just look at the fact that Scruggs and Hansen pull similar ratings on expanded Sunday-night sports shows--last month, Hansen had a 7.0 rating, or 154,000 homes viewing, as opposed to Scruggs' 6.7, or 147,400 homes. (For reference, Hansen's show used to pull 20 ratings a decade ago, 10s and 11s five years ago.) They look at how, combined, all the anchors are down from November last year (Hansen had a 7.3, Scruggs a 7.0), continuing a trend that won't change anytime soon: Viewers are abandoning network news, local and national.

"I don't like it, but I understand what's happening," Hansen says. "We're becoming radio. We're all trying to carve out our own little niche. And I don't always like what Newy or Babe [Laufenberg, Channel 11 sports anchor] do. I look at it and think, 'That's not very good,' by what I was taught was the way to do a sportscast. But I also understand that they're just being themselves, going after the audience that likes what they offer. And that's all we're all doing now.

"At least, for the first time, everyone isn't imitating me," he says, laughing but quite serious. "Newy is young and hip. Babe is the former jock. I'm arrogant and opinionated. Choose what you like and let's go."


Your opinions are of no merit. Your lack of sports knowledge is amazing! The fact you maintain a job in the DFW market is nothing short of amazing. It's not even debatable. You are a big fat stupid racist. Newdawg? Guess that's supposed to be some hip hop black crap...Your newscast and radio show suck beyond description.

--A letter to Scruggs on his Web site, www.newdawg.com

It takes awhile to convince Scruggs it's OK to analyze Newy Scruggs. For the first half-hour of our interview, he responds with varying themes of "no comment."

Is it tough being a black anchor in a business dominated by white guys?

"I don't think about that. I just do my job," he says, smiling.

What about taking on Hansen?

"The pie is big enough for everybody," he says. "I just do my thing."

Is it fair that some people in the sports media here have said to me--off the record, of course--that any warm pulse would do better than Scott Murray, the person you replaced?

"Always gonna be people who criticize you. I won't play that game."

It's not just goading someone for a good quote. The question "Why are you doing a story about Newy?" came from every sports fan I talked to the past two months. And when you point out that no one has really challenged Hansen the past 20 years, and that in itself bears exploring, the response was a cocked eyebrow, a smirk or, as one reporter flat-out said to me, "But isn't that just because he's black?"

As racist as this sounds, there are even people at Channel 5 who will tell you that because of the way the latest group of Arbitron households were selected--one person who says he saw the map suggested there was a disproportionate number of households in Southern Dallas and that this has affected recent ratings books--the point has some unintended merit.

The problem, of course, is that's not what the questions and conspiratorial looks really mean. They're a way of saying, "If all the minorities watch him, doesn't he have a built-in advantage?"

Which is always funny, because if you were to suggest that white people watch newscasters because of their color, you'd be laughed at. But black and brown people, apparently, are incapable of changing the channel when they see a man of color.

To Scruggs' defense on this comes...Dale Hansen.

"I keep hearing that, and it's one of the most offensive things anyone can say about Newy or John McCaa or Joe Trahan [both of Channel 8]. For some reason, still today, when a black man is hired for a job, he always has the burden of proving he deserves it."

 

As Hansen points out, that view is especially prevalent in the TV biz, because often people are hired for superficial reasons. Everyone interviewed for this story points out that they know someone hired because she was a pretty face, or because he was a genial older father figure, or a redhead or looks good in red or whatever subjective reason a station manager finds. ("Are you going to tell me," says one on-air reporter, "that [Channel 11's] Karen Borta's looks had nothing to do with her hiring? Everything about you matters somewhat.")

So even though he won't discuss it in depth, Scruggs knows he's a bit of a lightning rod. When the black guy from the Dallas Mavericks sales staff told him that he's lasted longer than other black sportscasters in Dallas, he reminded him that Max Morgan, Chris Arnold, Curt Menefee and others did or are doing just fine before him.

"You just can't get caught up in that stuff, trying to figure out people's motives, why you're hired, if people see past your skin color," he says. "You end up chasing your tail. You'd go crazy. "

But after a while, when his guard goes down a bit and he becomes more contemplative, he will acknowledge that, if nothing else, a young black man seeing a black face in the TV anchor seat can only be a good thing.

"You know, my parents grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, at a time when that was the worst place for a black person to live in America," Scruggs says as he sips his drink, long after he's finished his pizza, after the tables full of college kids have left and the din has diminished. "Back then, you never saw black faces on TV. So when I told them I wanted to be a sportscaster, they weren't too happy. They didn't understand. So where I've gotten now is important to me that they saw that."


Scruggs had the typical hopscotch upbringing of an Army kid; born in Wiesbaden, Germany, jumping to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to Fort Hood in Killeen, and finally growing up during his late elementary and middle school years in Savannah, Georgia. It was there where, in fifth grade, Scruggs found his calling.

For a class play, the teacher suggested they stage a newscast. Scruggs was selected as sports anchor. He says he knew right away he was good at it. He started paying more attention to Irv Cross and Bryant Gumbel. Even when he moved back to North Carolina, he checked out books about broadcasting and asked instructors for advice. When he was contemplating trying to get a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, he was told that he should consider a smaller school where he could get hands-on broadcast experience right away. NC-Pembroke was such a place.

It was here where his Omega Psi Phi fraternity buddies christened him Newdawg and where, by his senior year, he was a video photographer for a local affiliate. When the weekend sports anchor was fired, Scruggs got his job.

When he graduated in 1993, Scruggs got a gig as a sports reporter at an Austin station, KVUE, where he worked with current Channel 11 weather forecaster Kristine Kahanek. By December '94, it was off to Cleveland as a weekend sports anchor. A year later--"I loved Cleveland, I hated the cold," he says--he landed an awful job in a great market: lead sports anchor at the UPN affiliate in Los Angeles. He was 23.

Counting the Spanish-language stations, the UPN station was dead last, the ninth-rated broadcast in town. It was a no-lose situation for Scruggs, as long as he could handle the nightlife. ("I was in my early and mid-20s in Los Angeles, and I was on TV," he says, laughing. "I partied just a little.") The ratings climbed, and he launched a Sunday-night sports show in 1997. He won Associated Press awards for best sportscasts in 1998 and 1999. He began filling in as guest host for nationally syndicated radio talker Jim Rome, whose show was broadcast from L.A. (Some of his most potent memories are from his in-studio interviews with former L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda: "He had 70-year-old-man gas. He didn't care. He'd just let it rip. It was awful.") From that, he got his own afternoon drive-time sports-talk slot.

Then, as he puts it, "I played a game of chicken with my station. And I lost." When his contract expired and they couldn't agree on new terms, Scruggs found himself a radio host only. He'd overplayed his hand but was still making enough money from radio and side projects to stay in L.A. if he wanted. He says he realized the other jobs were fun, but sports anchoring is what he wanted to do full time. His agent called with an opening: Channel 5 in Dallas.

 

Scruggs missed Texas and good Mexican food, but he feared coming to Dallas, settling down, getting married, having a kid. (This is exactly what came to pass, of course: He and his wife, whom he met during a halftime contest at a Mavericks game, live on Lake Arlington with their newborn daughter.)

Despite what Scruggs says was "the worst interview I've ever had," Channel 5 hired him in April 2000. The station had been trying to figure out a way to move out Scott Murray, who'd been hammered by Hansen in the ratings for years on Sunday nights despite the station's recent ratings victories over longtime dominator Channel 8 at 10 p.m. weeknights. They had tried Hansen's former No. 2, Brian Jensen, who came off as Hansen-lite, and that hadn't worked. So they went with Hansen's opposite.

In seemingly every way. "Everyone likes Newy," says a Channel 5 on-air staffer whom I quizzed on background specifically because he would tell me the juicy, behind-the-scenes dirt. "I can't think of anyone who doesn't think he's a good guy. Hmm. You want something on Mike Snyder? I can talk all day."

Hansen, however, is a controversial figure even within his own station. He would tell you it's precisely this quality that made him No. 1 all these years, albeit precariously of late. He shrugs off the criticisms of himself as a bomb-thrower who doesn't go to games or comb the locker rooms by pointing out that this is exactly why he can be straightforward when it comes time to criticize a player, coach or owner. It is what makes him unique. And, although he doesn't say it, you know when he points out that Scruggs, Laufenberg and Channel 4's Mike Doocy (whose shows run at different times than his competitors, which makes comparisons tough) do things "I think are pretty weird sometimes," what he means is, they're soft, I'm tough. A point that's easy to concede.

At the same time, it's easy to figure out who Laufenberg is referring to when he says, "My number-one concern is credibility. Not just with the viewer, but with the people I cover, too...The players know who's in the locker room actually covering the team and who's not. And if you take shots at them and they never see you so they can confront you or make you explain yourself, it's just not fair."

Again, Laufenberg says he respects all his competitors, and he's just talking about general philosophy. But this is the charge that other sports people level at Hansen all the time: He's not just a bomb-thrower; he's a long-distance bomb-thrower. They say Scruggs' and Laufenberg's more relaxed, less-abrasive style is not just what players want, but what more and more viewers want, too.

"It's obvious the Dallas market has changed," says Michael Hill, an ESPN News broadcaster who had a bitter break with Hansen and Channel 8 a few years ago, one no one can discuss because of signed agreements. "You're getting more and more [outsiders] moving there. Dale and his critical style is played out. New people come to the market, look at him, and it's obvious he's never played before. So they're saying, 'Who does he think he is?' Newy can be critical, but because he is in the locker room and because he doesn't come across as know-it-all, he is more enjoyable to listen to. Bottom line, Newy is simply better."

Scruggs, by the way, does take his shots at players and owners. But he does it with that big grin, not a Hansen smirk. Hansen will heap praise but can't help but sound smart-ass even when he does this. Laufenberg will call out Cowboys players during radio broadcasts but is a former player so is seen as someone who gives them a lot of rope.

And although Hansen firmly believes he is the best at what he does, and that he would rather be seen as an asshole than a kiss-ass (because you're one or the other, right?), he again offers a defense for those who complain that Scruggs goes easy on players because many of them are black.

"Do I like it that some black players will talk more openly to Newy or to Jean-Jacques [Taylor, the Cowboys beat writer for The Dallas Morning News]? No. Makes me mad as hell. I don't think it's right. But I also think it's legitimate when athletes say they've been tired of never seeing anyone in the locker rooms who looked like them, that the people who cover them are always white. That's changing, and it's important. I'd be lying if I said that hiring people of color or a woman wasn't something I take into consideration when I hire people, and Channel 5 would be lying if they said, 'Oh, Newy's black? We didn't even know that!'

 

"It's just one more thing that makes [the local sports anchors] different. And Channel 5 was smart to get someone who isn't at all like me. 'Cause trying to be me doesn't work."


The day before our interview, Scruggs got a call from a video photographer at Channel 8, a longtime friend. He'd just been laid off and was crying. He was a single father with two kids and no job. He didn't know what to do.

This bothered Scruggs, because a friend was in need. (He said he would throw as much work his way as possible.) But also because it tapped into the fear that Scruggs says still drives him. He tries to have as many money streams as possible: the radio gig, a fledgling residential real estate business, an Internet marketing company he's started.

"I can't sleep at night because I'm always worrying about how can I make sure I provide for my family. You can't feel too secure in my job, no matter how you're doing. We're in the replacement business. Ratings go down, management changes, you never know. It could all end tomorrow. And I don't want to be the guy who, when they pull my card, I'm thinking, 'Oh, man, what can I do?' I don't want to be that guy."

On its surface, his concern seems overblown. He signed his new five-year contract in January. ("I wish I'd known then there was 'a Newy factor,' he says, dismissing the idea and laughing. "I would have told my agent, 'Hey, there's a Newy factor! I'm Newy! Get me more money!'") The powers that be at ESPN, according to other staffers, love his radio work, although the station is soundly beaten in the ratings by its competitor, The Ticket 1310-AM.

But the doubters remain: Is Scruggs' success a result of his station's good numbers? Is he just a nice guy caught in a good spot--a combination that never lasts? To those who appreciate Scruggs--they like the nicknames, the youthful lingo, the easy-go-lucky on-air manner--they say all this is talent, baby, and that doesn't go away.

"What do you want me to say?" Scruggs asked, defeated by attempts to bring him in the fray. "I'm good at what I do. I know that. I can't worry whether everyone else gives me credit. There are a lot of people in this business who want to bring you down if things are going well. I can't change that.

"I just don't want to ever turn into that guy. I don't want to be defined by my job. There are people in this business, if they didn't have this little bit of celebrity, if they weren't on camera, they would shrivel up and die. That's not me. I'm Newy, on camera or off."


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