2011-12 NBA broadcasting guide
ESPN is changing the format of its studio show and expanding Magic Johnson's role
TNT will feature its newest star, future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal, in studio
NBA TV has a Thursday pregame show leading up to TNT's pregame show
Last year confirmed one of the undeniable truisms of sports television: Hate sells.
NBA viewership rose mightily in 2010-11 on both ESPN and TNT, thanks in large part to the interest in the Miami Heat. But let's be frank: Viewers enjoyed rooting against LeBron James, and did so in large numbers.
TNT had a 45 percent increase in viewership from the previous year, drawing an average of 2.45 million viewers over 52 games compared to 1.73 million viewers over 53 games in 2009-10, according to SportsBusiness Journal. It was the largest viewership for TNT since it began broadcasting the NBA in 1984.
NBA games on ABC and ESPN garnered more viewers. According to SBJ, ABC averaged 5.1 million viewers over 15 games (up 30 percent from the previous year), while ESPN's coverage was up 30 percent, bringing in an average of 2.03 million viewers compared to 1.57 million the previous year. The Finals (which aired on ABC) between the Heat and Mavericks averaged 17.3 million viewers over six games, the second-most-viewed NBA Finals in nine years, trailing only the Lakers-Celtics in 2010.
Christmas Day has often marked the beginning of heavy TV interest in the NBA, so don't expect the lockout to dramatically affect ratings negatively. In fact, the uncertainty and player movement is likely to draw added eyeballs on opening day.
While the focus will be on the those on the court, we're here to offer the scouting report on those who will bring you the game, including arguably the biggest NBA free agent this offseason: Shaquille O'Neal, who is now a member of TNT's Inside the NBA studio show.
Here is SI.com's NBA broadcasting guide for the 2011-12 season:
ESPN will air 90 games this season, including 15 exclusive broadcasts on ABC (all ESPN telecasts will also be available via ESPN3.com). ESPN Radio will broadcast 24 regular-season games, while ESPN Deportes, ESPN's Spanish-language U.S. sports network, will televise 19 games. The Heat (16), Bulls (15), Lakers (15), Celtics (14), Knicks (14) and Mavericks (12) have the most appearances on ABC and ESPN combined. ESPN will air the Eastern Conference finals and ABC will broadcast the NBA Finals. Worth noting is games airing on ABC are subject to flexible scheduling.
PREGAME COVERAGE: Jon Barry (analyst), Chris Broussard (analyst), Magic Johnson (analyst), Mike Wilbon (analyst).
STUDIO COVERAGE: Chris Mullin (analyst), Jalen Rose (analyst), Kurt Rambis (analyst), Bruce Bowen (analyst), Tim Legler (analyst), J.A. Adande (reporter), Broussard (reporter), Ric Bucher (reporter) and Marc Stein (reporter); Kevin Connors (host, NBA Tonight).
1. Mike Breen (play-by-play), Jeff Van Gundy (analyst), Doris Burke (reporter).
2. Dan Shulman (play-by-play), Hubie Brown (analyst), Lisa Salters (reporter).
NOTES: Mullin will call selected games and is scheduled to be the second analyst for Clippers-Warriors on Christmas night (10:30 p.m. ET). Announcer Mike Tirico will work with Brown during the year for some ABC games, and those two (along with Heather Cox) will work the Bulls-Lakers game on Christmas at 5 p.m. ET. Shulman will call some games with Van Gundy and Burke. Dave Pasch and Burke will call the Magic-Thunder game on ESPN on Christmas at 8 p.m. ET.
WHAT'S NEW: Goodbye, Bristol. ESPN is moving its studio show to Los Angeles to take advantage of an increased role for Magic Johnson and the proximity to some of the biggest NBA stars and celebrities. The show will now tape at ESPN's Los Angeles Production Center at L.A. LIVE, across the street from Staples Center where Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and now Chris Paul call home.
"We wanted to get Magic more involved in our shows on a regular basis, and in order to fit his schedule [Johnson is based in L.A.], we said why not move out there," said senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross, who has been charged with the network's NBA coverage. "It gives us much better access to players who might be in town on a travel day and stars who are big NBA fans. It felt right to take advantage of what California has to offer."
Hannah Storm and Stuart Scott have exited as pregame hosts. Instead, ESPN will have Barry, Broussard, Johnson and Wilbon in a free-flowing format, without a set host. While ESPN executives claim this isn't a direct response to TNT's Inside the NBA, clearly those in Bristol hope to duplicate the same chemistry that has made Turner's show the best in class.
"We are kind of thinking, 'Do we really need a traditional host for this show? Can't it be these four guys talking about the NBA like they would be talking about the NBA in the hallway or over dinner?' " Gross said. "We are taking a chance and trying something different from most of our shows. In this case, our thinking is these guys talk so well and are well-versed in the league, we think we can get from topic to topic."
The game coverage also has a major shift with Mark Jackson leaving to become Golden State's coach. That leaves Breen and Van Gundy to carry the majority of discussion about league-wide issues.
"I'm one of those who enjoyed the three-man booth more than doing the two," Van Gundy said. "I really don't know going forward if ESPN/ABC has plans to fill Mark's spot or just leave it as is. Even though there will be more time available to talk, I just don't want to talk for the sake of talking. I want to make sure I don't throw too many hare-brained ideas out there. I don't want to just fill time."
ESPN officials said the new format allows for increased interaction with fans via social media, as commentators will answer fans' questions submitted from sites like Facebook and Twitter.
WHAT'S OLD: ESPN will once again be very aggressive (read: tonnage) on the Heat. "People care about the Heat whether you are a Heat fan or not," Gross said. "You might be a LeBron fan, you might not be a LeBron fan. But with LeBron, [Dwyane] Wade, [Chris] Bosh and Pat Riley, there are a lot of big-time names and personalities. We will be as equally aggressive this year as we were last year."
The game-announcing crew remains first-rate. Breen and Van Gundy are a terrific listen, and the same goes for Tirico and Brown. Burke is a valuable commodity in that she excels as both an analyst or sideline reporter. Salters, who has a hard news background, thankfully avoids the enabling questions viewers too often get from sideline people.
ESPN has high hopes for Johnson, but while he's one of the most likable guys in basketball and a great ambassador for the sport, he's an average analyst (at best) with a below-average voice. It doesn't help that Wilbon genuflects at his presence nearly every time they are together on air. Adande, Bucher and Stein are well-sourced and good at what they do. It's always great when Brown and Jack Ramsay are part of the same broadcast on ESPN Radio. It's like a doctoral seminar on hoops.
WHAT WE'D CHANGE: The bold, outside-the-box changes to the studio show are to be applauded. ESPN's previous hosts (Storm and Scott will continue a regular SportsCenter schedule based out of Bristol) simply did not duplicate the success of TNT's Ernie Johnson -- an ego-free broadcaster who fits well into any hosting situation. This quartet has the potential for interesting talk. It's a smart group, even with Broussard's and Wilbon's tendency to show certain players (hi, LeBron) an inordinate amount of love.
10 MUST-SEE GAMES ON ESPN/ABC:
Dec. 25: Heat at Mavericks, 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Jan. 27: Knicks at Heat, 8 p.m., ESPN
Jan. 29: Bulls at Heat, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Feb. 10: Lakers at Knicks, 8 p.m., ESPN
Feb. 19: Magic at Heat, 3:30 p.m., ABC
March 4: Heat at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABC
March 11: Celtics at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABC
April 1: Bulls at Thunder, 1 p.m., ABC
April 22: Thunder at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABC
April 25: Clippers at Knicks, 8 p.m., ESPN
WHY VIEWERS SHOULD OPT FOR ESPN's COVERAGE: "I think we offer much more than others regarding the coaching angle. We have Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown. One is a Hall of Famer and the other was an outstanding coach. We are much more aggressive in rolling out coaches who are wired in the huddle. I think our production values are top-notch and our play-by-play people do an outstanding job of personalizing and humanizing the players." -- Gross
OBLIGATORY PRAISE FOR TYSON CHANDLER: "I think to get to the Heat's level will be very difficult for any team in the Eastern Conference. Miami is blessed with a unique opportunity with its talent at hand. But I did like the Knicks' move. Defense in this league is all about your ability to protect the basket and with Chandler, not only can he protect the basket, he can rebound. If other players are double-teamed, he knows how to cut and find the open area and finish. He just has an upbeat, positive nature that brings people together. The price they paid [four years, $56 million], you can debate. The player is not debatable." -- Van Gundy
SI.com: How objective can you be regarding coverage of Mark Jackson?
Van Gundy: Everyone has to know up front that every broadcaster has certain people in the league that they want to win more than others. They have relationships with those people, whether it's Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, who I worked with forever, or my brother [Orlando's Stan Van Gundy]. There are certain people that I just want them to win. But when you are doing the game, I don't think it is hard to be objective about the game because what you see is what you talk about. If they are playing great, then you are going to have many positive things to say. If they are having a rough night, then the game does not lie. You say something is good [when it's] bad, you lose credibility. So I think the objectivity is easy when you are doing the game. I think it would be harder if you were on the studio shows.
SI.com: How will Magic Johnson's role expand?
Gross: In the past, we had him on Christmas Day and we had him during the conference finals and NBA Finals. He now has much bigger presence and will basically be there every time we have a pregame show. We want more consistency with our NBA team, and having Magic there as much as possible is a big win. He's fair, he's fun, he's entertaining and he'll take a stand. He is not afraid to be critical of the Lakers; I think some people have this vision he won't say anything bad about them. He's tough on the Lakers.