Game 4 of the NBA Finals called for a halftime scan. The Bucks were playing a game to win at home. The score was tied. But ESPN has filled NBA Countdown, its flagship studio show Finals, with hastily-voiced mini opinions that vanish before your eyes. It’s like ESPN is paying homage to the fleet. Or maybe a tweet that was disowned by Jay Williams.
As an aging scout, I watched Wednesday’s halftime show with a timer. First, host Maria Taylor pitched it to Jalen Rose. Rose’s spiel (saluting Devin Booker) lasted 9.86 seconds. Williams passed next. He spoke for 9.38 seconds of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Adrian Wojnarowski added 9.93 seconds to Chris Paul. There was sponsored “brought to you by” stuff. Then the segment was over. The editorial part lasted less than one minute.
The strangest part is how ESPN has configured its analysts to interact with each other. Basically they don’t. They cannot dispute or clarify each other’s points. They are not pushing each other towards something interesting. They “transmit,” in a time-honored television sense, rather than having an actual conversation. Remember when the suns whipped the ball in game 2 and ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said Bonnets Would coach Norman Dale approve? Norman Dale would love NBA Countdownthe halftime show. I think he may have become his coordinating producer.
For over a week, ESPN was reeling from Rachel Nichols’ derogatory comments about Taylor, which exposed cracks in the network and led ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro to announce a city-wide town hall. ‘business. (As Michael McCarthy reported on Wednesday night, Taylor could head to NBC when his contract expires this month.) ESPN has a second issue, which has everything to do with producers and nothing to do with people at home. ‘antenna. Countdown is all wrong. It minimizes the number of participants in favor of commercials, smooth production and equal airtime. This made it impossible for analysts to leave viewers with a memorable line.
Take the Game 4 pre-game show. An ESPN executive probably said, “Um, could we try to give this show some of the magic of GameDay College? ESPN on Wednesday placed its hosts on a platform above Milwaukee’s Deer District. Taylor got the crowd to sing “Bucks in six,” making the crowd a participant in the show, just as they are. GameDay.
But with half an hour to set up Game 4, ESPN only slightly slowed down its quick break. Including Taylor’s intros and tweaks, the team analyzed the game for about three and a half minutes. Again, they delivered takes (usually with a stat included) in a scripted sequence rather than having a conversation that could take them to a different and interesting place. Considering the final’s massive audience, its pre-match shows don’t have to sound like Lowe’s post. They just need to sound like people talking about basketball, preferably themselves.
For its second segment, the studio team asked ESPN reporter Malika Andrews for an interview with Khris Middleton of the Bucks. Like pre-game interviews across all sports, viewers saw only one quote. Next, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stopped to chat with the crew. Sample question: “What kind of trip did the league take to get to this moment?” And: “What was it like for you as commissioner and for the league to see so many young stars emerge on this big stage? ”
There was a final three-way weaving between Rose, Williams and Wojnarowski. Then Taylor threw him in court.
There, we met with ESPN’s three game advertisers: Breen and analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. For some reason, ESPN decided that Van Gundy and Jackson should provide Suite mini review.
Jackson began with a point on Antetokounmpo’s “historical figures”. Van Gundy spoke about defending the Bucks. Van Gundy opened up about Booker’s rebound. Jackson spoke about Deandre Ayton. Van Gundy and Jackson could have said all of these things over the next two hours. It was like they were showing off video and graphics packages because a producer said they should.
At Countdown, ESPN advertisers speak fast and always seem to strive to stay on schedule. There are no Barkleyesque statements that the Bucks are the ” dumbest team. No, let’s sit here, eyebrows raised from someone like Kenny Smith. Nobody has time.
ESPN isn’t the first network to treat its studio shows like this. If you watch the NFL, you see the same technique on almost every network. There are philosophies behind it: an even distribution of precious television minutes, careful preparation to avoid the frequent disasters of Charles Barkley (or Stephen A. Smith).
When you focus on production rather than human interaction, you slowly detach yourself from the way sports fans talk to each other. As one executive told me not too long ago, “viewers make TV shows for viewers more than they do for viewers.”
That’s what ESPN is doing here. That and put on a show for the sponsors. ESPN blocked 29 ads on Wednesday between the second and third quarters. As old announcer Bob Wolff once noted:
When the sponsor writes your name
What he wants to hear
Isn’t it who won or lost the game
But how you sold the beer.
It is not news that live sport is an ad serving vehicle. Ideally, however, you should remember a point that one of the panelists made more than the phrase “Facebook’s Oculus”.
With its basketball studio broadcasts, ESPN tried to catch up with Barkley and TNT Inside the NBA for over a decade. (My boss Bill Simmons was once part of that effort.) Trying to reorganize Barkley is as futile as the networks’ effort to hatch their own “baby” John Maddens in the 1990s.
The thing ESPN could easily steal from TNT is the structure and pace of its show. As NBA writers point out, what Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal say on television is often completely at odds with how the game is actually played. But he’s delivered at a pretty slow pace, so the analyst doesn’t look like a bench player trying to shoot every time he takes the mic. In addition, another panelist has time to object.
Rose et al. could have that kind of a conversation and modernize it with some advanced stats. What if ESPN thinks their postgame should be mostly Scott Van Pelt’s Sports center, the network can always fix halftime and pre-game shows. As Rose likes to say, you have to give people what they want.
When ESPN redesigns its NBA studio show for next season, perhaps without Taylor, it must undo its core production philosophy as a new GM corrects its predecessor’s approach. The least nice thing I can say about ESPN Finals’ studio show is that it would even cause Charles Barkley to fail.