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How The 4 Faces Of Inside The NBA Make 1 Great Show

“In an industry where everyone has an opinion about everything and everyone, no one has much bad to say about Inside the NBA.”

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The 2019-2020 NBA season is upon us. How will one of the most interesting and unpredictable offseason’s be paid off? Well, starting tonight the talking is over and we’re on a road to finding out.

Most Americans will turn to TNT this season when they want someone to make sense of the league’s biggest stories or see some of its biggest matchups. This is the 30th anniversary of the network being in the basketball business, and that deserves to be celebrated.

We’re not going to lay out a retrospective of all three decades. Hell, outside of the “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday!” song, there wasn’t much notable about TNT’s NBA coverage until the year 2000. That is when the show that put the network in heavy rotation for NBA fans was launched.

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Today, we are going to take a look at Inside the NBA. This isn’t a history of the show. Four of us here at Barrett Sports Media are going to look at what makes the show great by looking at what makes each of its four stars great.

In an industry where everyone has an opinion about everything and everyone, no one has much bad to say about Inside the NBA. That is a testament to the men and women both in front of and behind the camera, but for today, let’s focus on the men we see before, during, and after every game on TNT.

JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF WIT, SARCASM AND PROFESSIONALISM: ANDY MASUR ON ERNIE JONSON

While many may think it’s, Kenny, Shaq and Charles that make Inside the NBA the show it is, I disagree. It’s all about having a quality, well-seasoned, witty and capable host. It’s all about Ernie Johnson. Let me tell you why. 

As a studio host it’s not easy to just walk onto a set and be tremendous. Johnson has the added task of working with big personalities who have not been trained as broadcasters. That’s what makes this show, hosted by Johnson so special.

He is among the best studio hosts around. Johnson handles the three ringed circus with just the right amount of wit, sarcasm and professionalism to make it all work. I love the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and allows the “players” to be the stars of the show. Johnson isn’t afraid to laugh at himself either which is a tremendous quality. If he’s not there to act as the traffic cop, the show would run itself out of control.  Inside the NBA wouldn’t work without Johnson.

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When you are working with some “wildcards” that have varying opinions and varying ways of expressing them, as a host you’ve got to be ready for everything. It’s very easy to tell that Johnson comes well prepared for every show. Sometimes he needs to jump in to make sure that facts are presented correctly and Johnson does this in such a way as to not look like he’s correcting one of his teammates. That is an art form and I’m sure appreciated by the guys on the set with him. 

Johnson has been around the game of basketball for quite some time and knows a lot about the NBA. He is smart enough though, to defer to the guys that played it at the highest level, when it comes to breaking down a game. His knowledge allows him to nudge the guys in the right direction, with excellent follow up questions or analogies. It’s fun to watch. 

Johnson is a versatile broadcaster, which allows him to transition from the NBA to the NCAA Tournament pretty seamlessly during the run up to the Final Four. Even when paired with different people on set, he just continues to do what he does and makes the shows flow like he’s worked with them for years. That is not easy to do. 

HE’S NOT CHANGING FOR ANYONE: JASON BARRETT ON CHARLES BARKLEY

Honest, fearless, comedic and spontaneous are the first four words I think of when it comes to Charles Barkley. For nearly twenty years basketball fans have enjoyed his raw and unfiltered approach on Inside The NBA, making the show a must-watch. It hasn’t mattered that the league enjoys a business relationship with TNT or that players have friendships with Charles because if he has an opinion, it’s being delivered with a purpose, and if it ruffles a few feathers in the process so be it.

Though his lack of structure may drive executives nuts at times, it’s Chuck’s off the rails and unpredictable style that helps make Inside The NBA one of the best sports shows on television. Another attraction is the cast’s authenticity and credibility. Their experiences are well documented and their discussions are honest, funny and spirited. That helps the viewer feel like they’re watching four well known respected friends talk about the NBA and providing a mixture of laughs, insights and unscripted ball busting in the process.

If there’s an attribute that sometimes gets undervalued it’s Charles’ ability to be self-deprecating. We love his strong opinions and willingness to venture into odd conversations, but he’s also more than comfortable being the butt of the joke. When laughter ensues on this show, it’s impossible to change the channel. One minute Charles may butcher a foreign player’s name, the next he’s either losing his train of thought during a commentary or taking part in a produced bit that leaves you in stitches. 

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Not many personalities on the air today can piss off NBA executives by telling viewers a particular game is bad or an NBA service isn’t worth paying for, but the league is wise enough to recognize this is who Charles Barkley is and he’s not changing for anyone. When you combine his credentials as a hall of fame basketball player and his larger than life unique personality with the team of Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, you have a sports television show that’s first in class and the envy of every other sports network.

HARDLY JUST A GLUE GUY: JACK FERRIS ON KENNY SMITH

“Glue Guy” is a term tossed around in sports to describe a teammate who may not be the biggest star, may not have the best resume and flat out may not be a house hold name.  He is, however, a locker room guy, everyone’s friend.  The proverbial straw that stirs the drink.  While this might be a relatively accurate description – Kenny “the Jet” Smith is hardly just a “Glue Guy.”

If Ernie is the point guard, Chuck the power forward and Shaq the center – Kenny is without question the team’s versatile shooting guard/small forward.  

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Consider your typical halftime show.  Ernie will welcome the audience and distribute to his three analysts as he sees fit.  If a marquee big man is struggling or excelling – he’ll look to Shaq for comment.  If a player or team is disproving an adamant point Chuck made in the pregame, he’ll lob it over to the quote machine.  You might see one, both or neither of these happen in any NBA on TNT halftime show – one thing you can always count on is Kenny’s Big Board.

Kenny’s Big Board, outside of being a tool to show off the comically large set, is arguably the most insightful element the best NBA studio show has to offer.  Whether it’s guards going under screens, big men not rotating fast enough, or just flat out bad shooting – Kenny will show you exactly why the first half of a game played out how it did.  The bells and whistles of the segment are always impressive – but it’s Kenny who shines as he points out small details the casual NBA fan would never notice.  It’s well known that Inside the NBA is built on personality, but it’s these moments that offer the best analysis in what might be the best studio show in sports television.

As for each show’s inevitable off-the-rails banter, Kenny Smith easily holds his own.  When Chuck is making a point, the Jet knows exactly what to say to antagonize the star of the show.  More times than not – it’s merely reminding Barkley of a different point he made the day before that completely discredits his current rant.  He may not have the MVPs or the hall of fame credentials of his counterparts, but Kenny is well armed with the ultimate equalizer in NBA debates – two rings.  And no, it’s not his fault Jordan left the league for two years.

Kenny may not make the controversial statement that runs through the media cycle the next day – but his knowledge of the game and Chuck’s head make him an invaluable member of the squad.

A GIANT GOOFBALL, A KID AT HEART: DEMETRI RAVANOS ON SHAQUILLE O’NEAL

There isn’t a guy alive in my generation that didn’t look at Shaquille O’Neal with absolute wonder and awe when we were kids. We all wanted to be like Mike. We knew no matter what we did, we’d never be like Shaq…at least on the court.

Off the court, Shaq was just like us, and he’s still just like us. How can a physical freak also fill the role of Inside the NBA’s everyman? It’s because Shaq is a giant goofball, a kid at heart that is as shocked by the spoils his profession has brought him as anyone watching is.

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Shaq can explain how the role of the big man has changed. He can point out when someone is dogging it on defense. He can do both by making jokes at the expense of his work ethic or free throw shooting. That isn’t when he is most valuable to this show.

Inside the NBA gets the most out of Shaq when he is dancing with the Jabawokees or when he is eating the world’s hottest chips. He is comfortable in the role of basketball’s clown prince because he operates from a place of emotion. Sometimes that leads to genuine hostility with Charles Barkley or his other co-workers, but Shaq shows up to the studio looking to have a good time and more often than not, he does and so do the people around him.

Pregame and halftime shows across all sports are built on fake laughter. That is what makes Shaq and Inside the NBA a welcome and needed change of pace. His smile and laugh are infectious. Seeing someone that size, that legendary in his sport genuinely having fun is genuinely fun.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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