Let’s start with the horse.
To kick off Inside the NBA’s pregame coverage of the Western Conference Finals Sunday, analyst Charles Barkley rode in atop a dark chocolate steed, symbolizing his championing of the Dallas Mavericks amid a long running feud with Golden State Warriors fans.
The idea had been finalized just hours earlier, as producers scrambled to lock in the perfect hooved guest. “Then all of a sudden, bang, here it is,” Inside host Ernie Johnson recalled. Barkley would need a stepladder to dismount, but otherwise the grand entrance went off without a hitch, stirring up a “We Love Chuck” chant from the Mavericks fans in attendance. A clip of the moment garnered over a million views on Twitter and mentions on multiple ESPN shows the next day.
“You just never know how all this stuff is going to play out,” Johnson said. “But luckily, we were able to extricate him from the horse and get him on the set.”
Add horseback riding, then, to the ever expanding potential job description of a Turner Sports personality. While the market for game broadcasters reaches unprecedented heights, Turner has found new ways to leverage its stars before and after games. Increasingly, that has also meant showing up alongside the network’s other ex-pros.
Earlier this month, for instance, Shaquille O’Neal joined TBS’s Tuesday night MLB show to take wiffle ball pitches from Pedro Martinez. He struck out swinging. The baseball group later appeared on Inside for a 3-on-3 demonstration, with Shaq ultimately getting scored on. Late last year, Barkley tried to stop a few shots from Wayne Gretzky. More recently, he refused to touch the Stanley Cup when Lord Stanley visited the Inside the NBA set, sticking to the superstition that only champions hoist it.
O’Neal, Martinez and Gretzky then appeared together at Warner Bros. Discovery’s first post-merger Upfront. While the new corporate setup’s ultimate impact on the sports division remains somewhat unclear, the group has played a critical role so far. At the presentation to ad buyers, sports was positioned as “the new primetime” after the new ad bosses decided to play up the combined company’s sports assets. After all, what better metaphor for the potential synergies of a new media conglomerate could there be than basketball, baseball, and hockey Hall of Famers sharing a stage?
“We felt that the real strength of the new company that we’re creating, in terms of primetime, is NBA, March Madness, MLB postseason and now the NHL postseason,” Warner Bros. Discovery chief U.S. advertising sales officer Jon Steinlauf said this week. “That’s what people are watching more than anything.”
When Johnson arrived at Turner and began hosting Inside the NBA in 1990, “It was just me in the studio,” he said. “I would just be cranking out scores and highlights. Here’s a score, here’s a highlight. Here’s a graphic. Here’s another one.”
Producer Tim Kiely joined Turner in 1995. Inspired by political talk show The McLaughlin Group, he wanted to let the show breathe. “The game itself is three hours, and it’s three hours of talking basketball and talking stats and talking trends,” Kiely said. “Why not make the studio shows a little bit more entertaining?”
Barkley joined in 2000, and the program took off. Kiely expressly told the analysts not to look at the camera when talking. They were also encouraged to skip production meetings if they wanted, in the hopes that underrehearsing would produce more authentic moments on camera.
“You also have to be willing to—I won’t say fail but—you need to be willing to be OK to just not be perfect occasionally,” Turner Sports chief content officer Craig Barry said. “One of the great things that Inside did was it made it okay to make a mistake on air to some degree.” As Shaq showed recently, even swings and misses can make for good TV.
For all its creativity, Inside took home two more Sports Emmys this week for Outstanding Studio Show and Outstanding Studio Show – Limited Run. Its personalities’ online dominance continued too. Year to date, Barkley-related moments on Bleacher Report’s handles have more than 52 million views, while Shaq’s stuff accrued more than 67 million.
Exploding talent salaries are just part of an era of hypercompetitiveness in sports media, as new entrants emerge and games represent larger and larger percentages of traditional TV viewing time. For Turner though, its cache and culture have helped it continue to attract both leagues and voices. In the last 18 months, the company has signed long term deals with MLB and the NHL for season-long packages.
Johnson will host a baseball studio show (splitting the role with Lauren Shehadi), while Turner grabbed Liam McHugh from NBC to anchor its NHL coverage. “I definitely knew… this is the type of show that would fit me,” McHugh said. “I want it to be conversational, I want it to be spontaneous.”
“You ask for sometimes crazy things,” he added, “and people here greet that with a yes.” NHL on TNT even had its own animal husbandry moment this year, when a live goat was brought on set to celebrate Gretzky’s birthday.
Turner’s on-air group is smaller than its competitors’, which has bred tight-knit relationships on and off camera. “This sports-loving family atmosphere—that just kind of happens,” Barry said. “It’s not designed. It’s not manufactured.”
The main thoroughfare backstage at Turner’s studio runs through a common room colloquially called the treehouse, where couches and multiple TVs greet those passing through to get to makeup or a meeting, or those looking to watch a game.
A few weeks ago, McHugh and NHL analyst Rick Tocchet were watching hockey in the area when loud music started emanating from a makeup room. “Rick’s getting annoyed, he can’t hear the game,” McHugh recalled. Knowing who was controlling the tunes, the host suggested Tocchet go deal with the situation. “So he gets up, walks in, turns the corner, and literally walks right into Shaq. And rather than tell him to turn the music down, he’s like ‘Oh Shaq, What’s up? How are you?’ And he turned right back around and sat down. It was great. It was such a good moment.”
It was only a matter of time before producers began harnessing those types of interactions on camera too. “We wanted to bring it to viewers… We take what was happening in the green room and try to reproduce it for the studio shows,” Kiely said. “This generation of fan loves that stuff.” And who knows. In a year, Wayne, Shaq, and Pedro might be back on the Upfronts stage to pitch Treehouse, the sitcom.
On Thursday, O’Neal got the last laugh. After the Warriors won the West, Golden State fans greeted Barkley to a “Chuck You Suck” chant. One tossed a shirt onto the set, nearly starting an altercation, as O’Neal kept beaming. Once again, clips of the moment racked up over a million views overnight.
In the final segment, after expressing love for the show’s staff, O’Neal blared on some sort of modified, blue and yellow kazoo. Johnson could only shake his head. Then the big fella walked off camera, stage left, for his own dramatic parade towards the fans.