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ESPN’s NBA Finals Studio Shows Keep Missing the Point

The network’s pregame and halftime productions are a collection of hastily delivered mini opinions that vanish before your eyes

ESPN/Ringer illustration

Game 4 of the NBA Finals cried out for halftime analysis. The Bucks were playing a must-win game at home. The score was tied. But ESPN has filled NBA Countdown, its flagship Finals studio show, with hastily delivered mini opinions that vanish before your eyes. It’s like ESPN is paying tribute to the Fleet. Or maybe a tweet that was disavowed by Jay Williams.

Like an aging scout, I watched Wednesday’s halftime show with a timer. First, host Maria Taylor threw it to Jalen Rose. Rose’s spiel (saluting Devin Booker) lasted 9.86 seconds. Williams went next. He talked for 9.38 seconds about Giannis Antetokounmpo. Adrian Wojnarowski chipped in 9.93 seconds about Chris Paul. There was some sponsored “brought to you by” stuff. Then the segment was over. The editorial part lasted less than one minute.

The weirder part is the way ESPN has set up its analysts to interact with one another. Basically, they don’t. They don’t get to challenge or clarify one another’s points. They don’t nudge one another toward something interesting. They “hand off,” in a time-honored TV sense, rather than have an actual conversation. Remember when the Suns whipped the ball around in Game 2 and ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said Hoosiers coach Norman Dale would approve? Norman Dale would love NBA Countdown’s halftime show. I think he may have become its coordinating producer.

For more than a week, ESPN has been reeling from Rachel Nichols’s disparaging comments about Taylor, which revealed fissures at the network and led ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro to announce a company-wide town hall. (As Michael McCarthy reported Wednesday night, Taylor might be headed to NBC when her contract expires this month.) ESPN has a second problem, one that has everything to do with the producers and nothing to do with the people on the air. Countdown is structured all wrong. It minimizes the participants in favor of ads, slick production, and equal air time. It has made it impossible for the analysts to leave viewers with so much as a memorable line.

Take Game 4’s pregame show. Some executive at ESPN probably said, “Um, could we try to give this show some of the magic of College GameDay?” On Wednesday, ESPN put its hosts on a platform high above Milwaukee’s Deer District. Taylor prodded the crowd to chant “Bucks in six,” making the crowd a participant in the show, just like they are on GameDay.

But with a half-hour to set up Game 4, ESPN slowed down its fast break only slightly. Counting Taylor’s intros and setups, the crew analyzed the game for about three and half minutes. Once again, they delivered takes (usually with a stat included) in a scripted sequence rather than having a conversation that might take them somewhere different and interesting. Given the massive audience of the Finals, its pregame shows don’t have to sound like The Lowe Post. They just need to sound like people talking basketball, preferably with one another.

For its second segment, the studio crew threw to ESPN sideline reporter Malika Andrews for an interview with the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. Like pregame interviews across sports, viewers saw only a single quote. Then NBA commissioner Adam Silver stopped by for a chat with the crew. Sample question: “What kind of journey has the league been on to make it to this moment?” And: “What has it been like for you as the commissioner and for the league to see so many young stars emerge on this big stage?”

There was a final three-man weave between Rose, Williams, and Wojnarowski. Then Taylor threw it to the court.

There, we met ESPN’s three game announcers: Breen and analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. For some reason, ESPN has decided that Van Gundy and Jackson should provide more mini opinions.

Jackson began with a point about Antetokounmpo’s “historic numbers.” Van Gundy talked about the Bucks defense. Van Gundy talked about Booker bouncing back. Jackson talked about Deandre Ayton. Van Gundy and Jackson could have said all of these things during the next two hours. It felt like they were unveiling video and graphics packages because a producer said they ought to.

On Countdown, ESPN’s announcers talk fast and look like they are always straining to stay on schedule. There are no Barkleyesque declarations that the Bucks are the “dumbest team.” No let’s-settle-down-here raised eyebrows from someone like Kenny Smith. No one has the 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 this: equal apportionment of precious TV minutes, careful prep to avoid Charles Barkley’s (or Stephen A. Smith’s) frequent disasters.

When you focus on production, rather than human interaction, you slowly unmoor yourself from the way sports fans talk to one another. As an executive told me not long ago, “TV people make TV shows for TV people more than they do for viewers.”

That’s what ESPN is doing here. That and making a show for the sponsors. On Wednesday, ESPN wedged in 29 commercials between the second and third quarters. As the old announcer Bob Wolff once noted:

When the sponsor writes your name
What he wants to hear
Is not who won or lost the game
But how you sold the beer.

It’s not news that live sports is an ad-delivery vehicle. Ideally, though, you should remember a point one of the panelists made more than the phrase “Oculus from Facebook.”

With its basketball studio shows, ESPN has been trying to catch up to Barkley and TNT’s Inside the NBA for more than a decade. (My boss Bill Simmons was once part of this effort.) Trying to reengineer Barkley is as futile as the networks’ effort to hatch their own “baby” John Maddens back in the 1990s.

The thing ESPN could easily steal from TNT is the structure and pace of its show. As NBA writers point out, the stuff Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal say on TV is often completely at odds with the way the game is actually played. But it’s delivered at a fairly leisurely pace, so the analyst doesn’t look like a bench player trying to get off a shot every time he gets the mic. Plus, there’s time for another panelist to object.

Rose et al. could have that kind of conversation and retrofit it with a few advanced stats. And if ESPN thinks its postgame should mostly reside on Scott Van Pelt’s SportsCenter, the network can still fix the halftime and the pregame shows. As Rose likes to say, you’ve got to give the people what they want.

When ESPN rethinks its NBA studio show for next season, perhaps without Taylor, it has to undo its basic production philosophy like a new general manager corrects the approach of his predecessor. The unkindest thing I can say about ESPN’s Finals studio show is that it would set up even Charles Barkley to fail.