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TNT and ESPN: Different looks at the same NBA game

TNT has its signature studio show, while ESPN takes a big-picture approach. Both have been successful, with ratings showing a big increase this season.

April 16, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley, top, help anchor TNT's zany coverage of the NBA; Mark Jackson, Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy help bring a big-game feeling to ESPN's coverage.
Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley, top, help anchor TNT's zany coverage… (Erik S. Lesser / For The Times;…)

It's kind of like Big Corporate Restaurant vs. the neighborhood bar.

During the NBA playoffs, ESPN and its highly orchestrated pregame, postgame and in-game NBA telecasts offer a whole lot of pro basketball. Something to ease your basketball hunger.

TNT and its Ernie (Johnson), Kenny (Smith) and Charles (Barkley) panel of zaniness, its sideline reports from Craig Sager and his kaleidoscopic jackets, its "Gone Fishin' " graphics, offer a whole lot of laughs and goofs to make you wonder if any adults are in charge.

NBA playoffs coverage

However you sample your NBA playoff coverage, you aren't alone. Growing numbers of viewers — on television and online — are watching both. ESPN uses the NBA as only one part of a vast sports network, while TNT wants viewers to think of it as the place to go for their NBA fix.

In the battle for the NBA, it's closer to a win-win.

"Each entity has a unique perspective on how to cover the game," said Danny Meiseles, executive producer of production, programming and broadcasting for NBA Entertainment. "TNT has an incredible stable of personalities and their studio show is a destination place for both Turner fans and fans of the playoffs.

"ESPN has definitely carved out a spot for itself with all the talent. They bring a big-event feel to the playoffs when [main broadcast team] Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen are in your town."

Meiseles cited a record-setting number of 100 million unique viewers on all the networks (including NBA TV) this season as a sign that the partnership with ESPN/ABC, TNT and NBA TV is working.

According to the Nielsen Co., NBA viewership is up on both ESPN and TNT this season. TNT had the biggest jump from last year with a 42% increase.

For example, four of TNT's highest-rated regular-season games since 1995-96 were this year — including the Lakers and Celtics on Feb. 10 (4.714 million viewers), the opening-night game between the new-look Miami Heat with LeBron James against the Celtics (7.348 million viewers) and the LeBron-returns-to-Cleveland Miami-Cavaliers game on Dec. 2 (7.096 million viewers).

ABC was up 38% and ESPN gained 28% viewership. TNT's average season rating of 1.6 was its highest in 27 years.

The NBA's current television contracts run through the 2015-16 season, ensuring the continuation of games and studio shows over the two networks. TNT televises 52 regular-season games as well as the All-Star game. ESPN gets up to 75 regular-season games and ABC has a minimum of 15 regular-season games and the NBA Finals.

The networks' on-air personalities could not be more different.

"Obviously, a lot of talented people work on both sides," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "What makes TNT unique is that our studio show has broken the mold of normal studio shows. Literally, there is no plan. Ernie just keeps it rolling. Charles is one of the funniest people on earth. Turner encourages that kind of artistic freedom … because we're not so big we can expand our horizons a little bit, not do everything.

"ESPN has so much more programming to fill — 'NBA Tonight,' 'SportsCenter' hits, ESPN News, maybe they're different, they have more people. But viewers are more familiar with us; we're more familiar with each other."

Mark Gross, senior vice president and executive producer of NBA production for ESPN, said he watches almost everything NBA on both networks and understands there are differences.

"I guess we're more about the game," Gross said, "more about providing analytics, different types of statistics and maybe a feature you might not see anywhere else.

"Honestly, for us, it's not just about a game or a studio show. We're about servicing the fan all day long. That's what fans come to us for, before the game, 'SportsCenter,' ESPN News; we build momentum during the day for the broadcast at night."

Van Gundy understands the differences as a fan might.

"TNT, I think, the signature is their studio show," he said. "ESPN has more moving parts. But really, I don't think the philosophies are any different — stay true to the game and have as much fun as possible."

Barkley sees it a little differently.

"We try to have more fun for the fans," he said. "The game is the most important thing, but sometimes you don't have good games."

Besides, he added, "Jeff and Mark are fantastic," he said of Van Gundy and Jackson. "I think they would fit right in to our group."

Imagine that. Van Gundy and Barkley together. That might take a whole new network.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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