Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley are waiting patiently on set when Shaquille O’Neal bursts through a side entrance, trailed by fellow analyst Kenny Smith and bouncing a basketball from one giant hand to another.
Stationed behind this reporter is a steel-mounted basket so that, as one employee at TNT Sports Atlanta studios puts it, “if Shaq wants to dunk, he can dunk”. Johnson, though, has something a little more challenging in mind for his 7’1” colleague: US$100 says the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) champion won’t make a jump shot from a baseline painted on set.
O’Neal duly obliges and sends the ball sailing in SportsPro’s direction, but there’s no need for evasive action here. The former Los Angeles Lakers man is already strutting over to join Johnson and Barkley when his shot kisses the net as it drops into the basket. By the time he sits down in his seat, which is custom-made and could only be assembled once inside the building due to its sheer size, there are just three minutes until the four men are beamed to millions of viewers across the US.
“Shaq owes me more than that,” Smith jokes later, speaking to media about the playful wager. “You know how many bets he hasn’t paid? How many shots that I probably hit over the years that he’s never paid me? But we have a lot of fun because it’s all competition.”
Alongside Johnson and Barkley, Smith and O’Neal front TNT’s wildly popular Inside the NBA studio show, which delivers pre-game, halftime and post-game analysis of the US broadcaster’s nationally televised NBA coverage on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Tonight’s halftime segment lasts less than ten minutes, but it’s long enough to get a snapshot of the cutting-edge insight, sharp humour and camaraderie that has endeared the quartet to the nation.
And now, TNT Sports’ Emmy Award-winning NBA coverage has become available further afield. In October, the company’s British namesake, formerly BT Sport, secured the rights to the basketball league in the UK and Ireland as part of a multi-year deal starting from this season. The pay-TV broadcaster will air at least nine games per week during the regular season, along with marquee events like the playoffs, finals and All-Star game. All told, the agreement gives the network around 250 matches annually.
The deal also brought with it a couple of firsts. Indeed, it marked one of the first major rights acquisitions by TNT in the UK since the channel was rebranded to that name on the back of the 50:50 joint venture between BT Group and Warner Bros Discovery (WBD).
But it also presented the first opportunity for WBD’s sports production teams on opposite sides of the Atlantic to work together on a single property just over a year on from WarnerMedia’s blockbuster US$43 billion merger with Discovery in early 2022. That particular agreement brought together sports and entertainment brands including HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN, Animal Planet, Cartoon Network and Eurosport, forming a combined business with rights across various markets to the Olympic Games, NBA, National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB).
According to Scott Young, the senior vice president of content and production for WBD Sports Europe, much of the time since then has been spent “getting to know everybody else’s business” and figuring out how the team in the US can contribute to WBD’s sports productions across Europe and in the UK – and vice versa. When the NBA’s UK rights became available, it was an opportunity to put those learnings to the test.
“This is the start of a pretty interesting journey,” says Young. “The NBA is an exciting launchpad because it is dynamic content, it’s really engaging content. I think that’s what the sports team love producing. That’s why fans love it. That’s why this is the perfect platform for us to join forces on as a really combined project.”
The making of “the number one entertainment show”
Young refers to TNT as “the home” of the NBA in the US. The network has been broadcasting the league domestically since the start of the 1988/89 season and is in negotiations to renew the relationship beyond the end of the 2024/25 campaign, when its current deal expires. And for a generation of Americans, the NBA on TNT is all they have ever known.
That longevity is part of the reason why Inside the NBA and its panelists have become so cherished by US audiences. The quick-witted Johnson, who this year will be inducted into the sports broadcasting hall of fame, has been steering the programme for more than 30 years, while Smith doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s now been a panelist for a quarter of a decade. All four members of the cast agreed long-term contract extensions late last year, with Barkley’s deal alone reportedly worth more than US$100 million over ten years, which is more than he earned during a 16-year playing career.
Yet Inside the NBA has morphed to become about more than just basketball. The studio, which resembles something closer to a playground big enough to accommodate whatever tangent the cast chooses to go down, has been the scene of many viral moments, such as O’Neal being knocked over into a Christmas tree and Barkley’s unique demonstration of eating a churro. The show also isn’t afraid to get serious, with Smith walking off set in August 2020 in solidarity with the NBA players who boycotted their games in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
In short, Inside the NBA has become a feature in US popular culture by unapologetically emboldening the personalities it puts in front of the camera to be their true selves.
On this occasion, the halftime analysis includes Smith’s notorious big board segment, which recently earned the 58-year-old praise from NBA commissioner Adam Silver for the quality of the analysis. Later, O’Neal puts Barkley in a headlock to recreate the move Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green pulled on Rody Gobert to get himself suspended for five games. The atmosphere throughout is so relaxed that it’s difficult to gauge exactly when the show is on or off-air.
Smith reveals that O’Neal is responsible for most of the slapstick comedy that occurs on the show, while he attributes “99 per cent” of the controversy to Barkley. He describes himself as the “team psychologist” who tries to put himself in the shoes of the viewer, and Johnson as “the referee of it all”. Whatever role each individual plays, the former Houston Rockets man is in no doubt as to where the programme now sits in the US entertainment landscape.
“I think,” he begins, before pausing to choose his words, “we’re the number one entertainment show. Not sports – entertainment. It just happens we’re talking about basketball. That’s the subject, but we entertain. And that’s what separates it.
“The greatest compliment that we ever get is, ‘man, I don’t watch the game. I watch you guys.’ That would be like saying, ‘I don’t want to go see Beyonce’s concert, I want to hear you talk about it.’ We hear that all the time. And it’s the greatest compliment.”
Smith, who says he gets recognised more for being ‘The Jet’ from Inside the NBA than for winning two league championships, says much of the chemistry viewers see on screen comes back to the trust placed in the panel by the producers. Craig Barry, who has been working on TNT Sports’ coverage for around 30 years and now serves as WBD Sports’ chief content officer, reveals that the show’s “non-secret sauce” is its production meetings. All four members of the cast are invited, but Johnson is the only one who attends.
“The reason,” Barry says, “is because when we get to the show, everything that they’re seeing, they’re seeing for the first time, and they’re reacting in real time authentically, the same way the fan is.
“So this emotional connection is being created with the fan because when they see the highlight, it’s the first time they [the cast] see it. When they see the feature about Bill Russell, it’s the first time they see it. When we drop the odds for betting, it’s the first time they see it.
“They’re not in production meetings taking notes, they’re not prepared, they have no idea what’s coming at them next, and we throw them curveballs all the time. But that is kind of the controlled chaos of the show which makes it special.”
“They’re seeing us in all our glory”
TNT’s NBA content is produced from its 300,000 square-foot base at WBD’s Techwood campus, which houses around ten studios that are used for the broadcaster’s NHL and MLB programming, as well as its college sports and US national soccer team coverage. The site is also home to NBA TV, the league-owned network that WBD – or Turner Sports, prior to the merger – has been operating since 2008.
There are around 40 employees working on the night of an NBA broadcast, which includes the on-screen talent, production team, and on-site security staff. A control room lined with hundreds of screens is manned by operators who started their shifts at around 3pm local time, four hours before the first game of TNT’s doubleheader tips off, and they won’t be finished until around 2am. At the height of March Madness, those same individuals start as early as 8:30 in the morning and don’t wrap up until the early hours the following day.
It’s a slick operation – one screen even shows crew members squeezing in some press ups to keep fit in between live recording – and one that TNT in the UK will now be able to benefit from. For now, the broadcaster’s coverage in that market will look a lot like the programming that viewers are used to across the pond, with the live midweek games featuring the network’s US commentary team and complemented by the analysis from the Inside the NBA studio. Young notes that the network will also be using its Uefa Champions League broadcasts to cross-promote its basketball coverage starting immediately after.
However, TNT’s deal for the UK includes nearly four times as many games each year as the broadcaster’s domestic rights package of 65 annual fixtures, 40 of which will be airing in a dedicated primetime slot on Saturdays and Sundays, with some matches tipping off at 6pm UK time. A similar scheduling strategy was adopted by the NBA’s previous UK broadcast partner Sky Sports, but TNT Sports will be able to lean on a production team in the US for its additional seven weekly matches, which Young says brings multiple benefits.
“Our next step up from what we’re doing here in the US is we have volume,” he notes. “So now we’re looking at how do we bring in those matches, and how do we select from those matches?
“We have a technical advantage in that we can route any of the NBA matches through our production office here in Techwood, and then send them on to the UK. That means we’re not reliant on the international distribution feed that the NBA provide, which can limit you to the number of matches you can select. That gives us an editorial benefit, because we can choose from matches we want.
“From a content perspective, we’re able to tap into every piece of content that is made by the team here in Techwood. So TNT Sports and the NBA production team, we are closely aligned on transferring that content between our two markets.”
Young says that TNT’s first UK broadcast – an opening-night game between reigning champions the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers – “had a great response”. Still, both he and Barry acknowledge that there is room for the company’s approach in the market to evolve based on the feedback it is getting from its audience. SportsPro has learned that the broadcaster is already in pre-production for a dedicated UK show that will be co-produced by its teams on both sides of the Atlantic and is slated for early next year.
That will help to feed the appetite of an audience that is more knowledgeable about the NBA than it was 15 years ago, when Smith recalls meeting the league’s UK marketing group and likens explaining the sport to trying to describe to someone what rap music is. Today, devoted fans in the UK are more than familiar with American basketball and the cast of Inside the NBA, whose wildest on-set segments are regularly shared far and wide on social media.
That doesn’t mean complacency is creeping in among the producers, who Barry believes have an “equal obligation” to the hardcore and casual fan. That means being mindful of whether to create more highlights and short-form content for social and digital platforms, or to lean into teams and players that prove more popular with UK audiences when choosing those additional seven games each week. Either way, there’s room to be flexible if what TNT does domestically doesn’t translate overseas.
“We’ll see, because they’re taking the domestic broadcasts, so they’re seeing us in all of our glory,” Barry continues. “Like, they’re saying, ‘hey, this is the NBA on TNT. And this is Inside the NBA.’ And does any of this resonate? If it does, then should we create more of it? Should we do adjacent content? Should we extend that content? If it doesn’t, then we should probably come back around and figure out what the fan does want. Because in the end, the fan always comes first.
“We’re at the very beginning of this exploration and this journey to create this global opportunity for TNT Sports, but really as ambassadors for the league, too. It’s rare that the same rights holder owns the international rights as well as the domestic rights. We have the ability to share content across multiple platforms in multiple countries.
“It’s really unique, and I think it’s exciting for us, and it’s probably exciting for the company.”
An “unthinkable” Olympic collaboration
Inside the NBA might be one of the most popular talk shows in North America, but TNT Sports’ basketball broadcasts are merely paving the way for greater collaboration between the network’s production teams on an international scale.
Young describes the NBA deal in the UK as part of the “strategic alignment” on new rights acquisitions and a step towards TNT Sports – already a prominent player in Latin America – becoming a global brand. He namechecks MLB, which the network broadcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, as “the other major one that we haven’t really dived into yet”, and it isn’t difficult to imagine more symmetry in TNT’s rights portfolios across its various markets in a few years’ time.
The most immediate project that the pair will be working on together is the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, to which Eurosport holds the rights across 49 territories in Europe through WBD’s deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Plans are still in the works for what that will look like, but Young says Barry’s team “will be involved” in the production of the event, something he describes as “unthinkable” a year ago.
TNT might not have rights in America to the Games, but Young envisages his US colleagues playing an important part in post-production after a day of Olympic action. That means the team at Techwood could be producing short clips, highlights, vignettes, openers, and closers that will be uploaded and sent to Eurosport’s servers in Europe overnight, ready for the broadcaster to integrate into its coverage and across its digital platforms the following morning.
It’s a new way of doing business, even for a TNT Sports veteran like Barry, who, having worked on the production of a show like Inside the NBA, has probably seen it all. But, as he points out, change isn’t always a bad thing.
“I’ve been through a few iterations of this company,” he notes. “It’s been merged and acquired a few different times. And it’s been run in silos before, where the businesses were run very separately – even domestic businesses were run separately…I wouldn’t even know half my counterparts on the international side.
“And now, Warner Bros Discovery has really pushed the envelope to kind of bring us all together to figure out what’s possible. If it’s not, it’s not, but we’re at least having the conversations, we’re doing the due diligence.
“In this particular case [of the NBA], it’s definitely possible. But I think just the environment is advocating for a higher degree of collaboration globally.”