NBA TV Gives Fans a Choice

by March 01, 2011

by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack

NBA TV thinks the customer is always right — at least on Tuesday nights. That’s when the 12-year-old channel, which is available in more than 55 million US households, airs Fan Night, in which fans get to select the game they would like to watch.

In this era of TV networks battling not just each other but online channels for viewership, permitting the customers to determine content has taken on higher priority. MTV used to do it with Total Request Live, at a time when they still aired music videos. CNN now airs iReports and other videos from viewers. NBA TV has opted to become the first sports channel to practice this method of fan integration.

The rules behind Fan Night are simple. Each Tuesday morning fan voting is opened up for games played the following Tuesday night. Fans have until midnight on Thursday night (technically Friday morning) to vote on for their preferred match-up.

Once that Tuesday night comes around, Fan Night host Ernie Johnson and analysts Kevin McHale and Chris Webber break down the chosen game in depth, providing commentary during commercial breaks in the game, which is broadcast live on teams’ local regional sports networks. “It’s a fun, lively debate over what we see and what’s working and not working,” McHale said of the type of analysis conducted by Webber and him.

Johnson, McHale and Webber also interview a Fan of the Night during the show — usually a long-time season ticket holder or a rabid fan of the home team — and McHale and Webber answer Twitter questions from fans. The night is capped by the studio crew interviewing one of the players from the night’s highlighted game.

The show’s format appears to run by the book more than its cousin show — Thursday’s five-time Emmy Award-winning Inside The NBA on TNT, which still has Johnson at the controls yet offers Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith as the analysts. McHale or Webber typically appears as a guest analyst. Inside The NBA is more off-the-cuff, as Johnson noted when asked about the difference between working with McHale and Webber on Fan Night versus Barkley and Smith.

“Nothing prepares you for working with Charles,” Johnson said dryly of Barkley’s typically off-topic observations. While Inside The NBA is celebrated for its chemistry among Johnson, Barkley and Smith, Fan Night has a chemistry unique to itself. Scooter Vertino, NBA Digital’s Vice President of Content, made it clear the Johnson helps drive the show.

“EJ is the quintessential point guard/traffic cop/quarterback, in that he can work with anyone,” Vertino said. “He’s never gonna get rattled because he is overly prepared, which is fantastic. He’s really the producer’s best friend, and he makes everyone around him better.”

Vertino and Johnson conceptualized the idea for Fan Night during a brainstorming session in the summer of 2009. Vertino noted it was something for them to “strike out on our own.” They wanted a show that would give the NBA TV crew the freedom to delve deep into analysis of one game.

“The idea you see right now is the idea we walked out of the room with,” Vertino said before noting that some of the show’s details, such as Fan of the Night, were thought up by producers and the managing editor.

What the show offers the 387,000 viewers and 295,000 households that tune in per week is a level of analysis that runs more in-depth than most other NBA shows. This one is fixated on a single game.

McHale said that he and Webber’s analysis is vital, since it offers an objective look at each team. “I think sometimes the home announcers really see things through rose-colored glasses for their teams,” McHale said.

McHale and Webber have no qualms about calling out players or teams, if need be. Many times, McHale will use his research from research outfits StatsCube and Synergy to make a quantitative-inspired point, to which Webber will counter with a comment such as, “I don’t see that at all,” McHale said. But McHale enjoys the research even if it doesn’t always align with Webber’s thoughts.

“I’m a basketball junkie, so I watch games all the time,” he said. “I have NBA TV and there’s the NBA package…I end up watching basketball too much. [Laughs] I should have more of a life sometimes.”

McHale also noted local broadcasts are still important because the analysts there might have information on a player or a coach to which he is not privy. He emphasized research is the backbone of what he offers to the show. Johnson reiterated that point by noting “homework is the foundation for the whole thing.”

Johnson explained he prepares all week for everything he does for Turner Sports, which includes coverage for the PGA Tour on TNT and MLB on TBS. During the NBA season, he updates a notebook daily of each game’s winner and loser and notable individual performances, such as 30 points, 15 rebounds, assist totals in the teens and winning and losing streaks.

He arrives at Turner’s Atlanta studios at least six hours ahead of the on-air start time. He’ll update player’s individual statistics and pluck quotes from various articles about that night’s games — particularly the fan-selected contest. “I’ve got that down to a routine,” Johnson said.

Many of each night’s viewers are in the desired 18-34 male bracket, although there have been initiatives to expand the show’s primary viewership, according to Christina Miller, the Senior Vice President of Strategy/Marketing/Programming for Turner Sports. A partnership has been formed with Cartoon Network, of which a target demographic is boys aged 6 to 14, to promote Fan Night.

Social media plays a vital role in attracting a broader fan base and notifying people where they can vote for each Tuesday night game. NBA TV has its own 50,000-follower Twitter feed, and a separate account has been created solely for Fan Night. The NBA and NBA TV Facebook accounts also provide interaction with fans. “Core to our strategy is to know our fans and where they socialize,” Miller said.

And the network understands that fans like to be given a choice to help determine what they watch. McHale noted that’s a good thing, emphasizing that fans have picked the Playoff-contending teams more often than not. “The fans have been phenomenal.”