By Barry Janoff
October 24, 2016: In the mischievously good-natured vein established in the classic 1979 movie, Animal House, Turner Sports evp-production and chief content officer Craig Barry gets to play director John Landis, overseeing his own Delta Tau Chi, populated by fraternity brothers Robert Hoover (played by Ernie Johnson), John "Bluto" Blutarsky (played by Charles "Sir Charles" Barkley), Eric "Otter" Stratton (played by Kenny “the Jet” Smith) and Daniel Simpson "D-Day" Day (played by Shaquille "The Big Aristotle" O’Neal).
The NBA begins its 2016-17 season this week, and with it comes a new season of Turner Sports NBA on TNT and its Emmy-winning analysis show, Inside the NBA.
The on-air gang for Inside the NBA has become, for many NBA and sports fans, as anticipated as the games themselves. And as entertaining as watching the frat boys who inhabited Delta Tau Chi in Animal House.
The host is veteran broadcaster Johnson, mostly the voice of reason but sometimes as quirky as the show's analysts, Smith, Barkley and O’Neal, all former NBA players, the latter two members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Among Inside the NBA’s classic segments: "Shaqtin’ a Fool," "Who He Play For," "Gone Fishin’" and "EJ’s Neat-O Stat of the Night," which comes with the unsponsored tag, "Presented by no one."
There is also an unwritten rule that almost anything in the life of the four main players is up for commentary by any of the others. Shaq, who has four NBA titles, constantly reminds Charles that he never won a title. Smith's short-lived reality show, Meet The Smiths (2015) got skewered by the others. When O'Neal tripped over an electrical wire on the set last year and body-slammed to the floor, it was turned into a chalk outline usually used at crime scenes to indicate a dead body.
And Kenny and Charles continually tease omni-present pitchman Shaq about his unending list of endorsement deals, such as Gold Bond, Icy Hot, Wix and The General.
When Shaq this week signed his latest deal as a global spokesman for Krispy Kreme — plus ownership of a location in Atlanta — the Inside the NBA crew was ready with a photoshopped pix showing O’Neal and Barkley wearing Krispy Kreme hats and apparently selling boxes of the goodies to Johnson. The photo came with the text, "Shaq. He’s not in the doughnut business. He’s in the empire business."
It carried over to the telecast with an NBA on TNT "Tip Off Nationwide Promotion" offering viewers, via social media, the opportunity to get doughnuts and BBQ chicken (a favorite food among the guys).
Turner is adding some elements to NBA on TNT and Inside the NBA this season, including the NBA on TNT Road Show, described as a "series of multi-faceted fan friendly attractions aligned with select tent pole events throughout the NBA season." Road Show will include live telecasts featuring the Inside the NBA studio team, musical performances (such as opening night guest Wiz Khalifa), interactive fan experiences, pop-up stores and food trucks.
Craig Barry, who has been with Turner Sports since 1989, was promoted last September to evp-production and chief content officer after spending almost four years as vp-production and executive creative director.
Barry oversees all aspects of production, operations and technology and talent services, including live remotes and studio broadcasts for sports programming on TNT, TBS and truTV. This includes all productions in conjunction with NCAA, MLB, NBA, PGA and all digital content extensions.
He also oversees the production of eLeague, the eSports league, launched earlier this year in partnership with WME | IMG. It is now in the midst of its second season, with live weekly broadcast coverage on TBS and online streaming service Twitch, scheduled to culminate with the eLeague Major CS:Go championship in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta (Jan. 27-29).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Barry during a Turner NBA on TNT media event in New York last week about the NBA, the eLeague, the seemingly unfiltered banter among Inside the NBA’s on-air talent and delivering quality NBA games and analysis to fans and consumers in an evolving media landscape.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Looking at the changes that you’ve seen working on NBA on TNT, what has made covering the NBA easier and what is challenging?
Craig Barry: It is a little bit cyclical. Back in the 1980s, there were the great rivalries with Detroit, Boston, the Lakers. We don’t see, now, as strong a rivalry between teams and fans. That is probably a by-product of players moving from team to team and free agency. But the athleticism is the highest it’s ever been. It’s an exceptional game to watch as opposed to how we were watching the game 20 years ago. From a production standpoint, there is an incredible amount of access, not only from the standard television production but, philosophically, I can tell you for Turner, that is one of our strongest goals. How do we get the fans and consumers as close to the action, the players and the game as possible. And on many platforms. Obviously, the game is the game. But how can we provide them more information, more content on mobile, social and digital.
NYSJ: What are some of the goals you are aiming for with NBA on TNT?
CB: As the media landscape evolves, we have greater opportunity and greater responsibility to provide content and connect with the consumer, with more access on multiple levels. In the 1980s, the broadcast dictated how you watched. Which games. Which players the stories would be about. The evolution since has been tremendous. Now when you watch a game, the broadcast play-by-play guys, the analysts, the color guys do a great job and will take you through the game. But if you follow that narrative on a social platform, it will be totally different from the broadcast. The social media dialogue could be about events happening off the ball, about celebrities in the front row, about LeBron James' shoes. You just don’t know. There are so many different conversations going on simultaneously, This is a by-product of the evolution of the media landscape.
NYSJ: Turner tries to keep ahead of the curve regarding technology and platforms, but how much of that is based on what you hear from viewers and what fans and consumers are telling not just you but all sports networks about how they want to consume and interact with sports?
CB: One of the things we have learned from being in the eSports space is how important it is to be authentic to the community. It is such a concentrated and dense community. There is so much conversation going on and so much interaction around the content and about everything you are distributing to them and that they are consuming and digesting. To take a page out of that with our NBA coverage, considering how many choices there are and where you are getting your content and information, it is really important to be able to put it out there and let it be authentic in the process and let the consumers make up their own mind.
NYSJ: Is that why the on-air team on Inside the NBA seems to have so much leeway as to what they do and their topics of discussions?
CB: What’s great about Ernie, Charles, Kenny and Shaq is that they have their own opinions, great opinions, and they are not shoving their opinions down your throat. And they are not telling people that you are wrong and they are right. They are not saying they are the smartest people in the room. But it is important that the narrative is created from the consumers’ point of view.
NYSJ: You have integrated your on-air talent with marketing partners, such as when Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith appeared in State Farm ads, and there is a lot of talk about the non-NBA endorsements of Charles and Shaq. Do viewers see that as being authentic or intrusive?
CB: It is important to be authentic with that process. When we talk about brand integration with sponsors, that is highly vetted with our creative group, our content group and our talent to make sure that it’s an organic match and that we are not putting a round peg in a square hole. That it speaks not only to our audience but also to the brand’s needs and architecture. If we were to just go in and say we want to put Charles on a lacrosse field to sell a product — although that would be funny — it wouldn’t make sense. We’d get busted by the viewers right away.
NYSJ: So will you continue to do it as long as it works and it's done right?
CB: This model about integrated brand content versus the hard-sell commercial breaks is evolving, as well. At this point, and this is my opinion, the audience will connect with you if they know the advertiser is supporting the game and not just selling it. There is a thin line, a slight differentiation there. Instead of the hard sell, bang-them-over-the-head tactic, we just lay it out there. If you have an opinion about it, and it’s good, we’ll try it.
"What’s great about Ernie, Charles, Kenny and Shaq is they have their own opinions, great opinions, and they're not shoving their opinions down your throat."
NYSJ: Is that something you are using with eLeague?
CB: So here, and in the eLeague and eSports space, people are starting to see more value in integration with the content than in frequency and saturation of branded spots. As I said with our NBA programs, it is important to be authentic
NYSJ: Do you see it as success in that area that you have taken this to the point on Inside the NBA where people almost expect Kenny, Charles and Ernie to get on Shaq’s case, for example for having so many endorsement deals and rag him about Gold Bond or Icy Hot?
CB: It’s like with Howard Stern. He reads a commercial and it’s organic to his show. You might not like it, but you pay attention, give it a double-take. You think, He read it like he uses it. With us, it’s kind of like the secret sauce. If something comes up with one of our guys, if it’s Gold Bond or something unique to one of the guys, we are going to do a bit. We are going to blow it up. Charles will rip Shaq about Gold Bond, and it’s not so much what he says but the reaction. So if they’re talking about a movie or a product, there is the initial engagement, but then it’s the two and a half minutes of the weird, nonsensical spin-off of whatever that product led them to.
NYSJ: What are you looking forward to this season as far as production and content?
CB: It wouldn’t be far-fetched to hear me say that content is king, not to be cliche. And at this point I would say that user experience is queen. So whether that’s social or mobile, or an experiential event, people actually care enough now about our brand, and the authenticity of our guys, where we have started NBA on TNT Road Show, beginning with opening night in Cleveland. We can do a clinic, you can meet the talent, put it on a T-shirt, and connect with all the things that happen on the show. We will have six more games, on Mondays, that we have some ideas to build around. And we can move the footprint around.
NYSJ: How key is this to the evolution of Inside the NBA and the NBA on TNT?
CB: It’s not so much lightening in a bottle as much as the real evolution of the space, the media landscape and our viewers and the way they consume it. It is just being smart about it. When I talk about access, it’s not about new gimmicks like the yellow line on the football field (showing first downs), it’s about higher quality, getting closer. People want to know about the new flashy thing. After 50 years, I don’t know how many more yellow lines there are. And the bottom line is that it’s about the game, the narrative of the game. It should never be more important than the game.
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