30 Years of Hoops and Fun At TNT’s ‘Inside the NBA’

For Ernie Johnson, the 30 years he’s worked on TNT’s Inside the NBA have zipped by.

“It’s like a blink,” Johnson said. “It seems like a couple weeks ago, I walked into that building and started doing the show.”

(From l.): ‘Inside the NBA’s’ Kenny Smith, Shaquille O‘Neal, Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley. 

(From l.): ‘Inside the NBA’s’ Kenny Smith, Shaquille O‘Neal, Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley. 

Initially launched on CNN, Inside the NBA this season marks its 30th anniversary. Johnson was joined by former NBA players Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and the show grew into an unpredictable, engaging program that transcended basketball to become a pop-culture fixture and one of a handful of programs in Broadcasting & Cable’s Hall of Fame.

TNT will mark the anniversary by showing classic clips and memories from the show and asking viewers to vote on their favorites.

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During the playoffs Inside the NBA really takes off. Over the past five years, it averaged 2.3 million viewers, topping all of the broadcast networks’ late night shows among viewers and men in the key demos. There are some viewers who skip the game and watch the studio show, and there are also some advertisers who don’t advertise in games but run commercials during the post-game festivities.

Johnson said the show became fun when Smith — a two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets — retired as a player and joined the show full-time. “The show hit a new level when Charles came aboard,” Johnson added. “He changed the landscape for shows like that in any sports.”

The show has endured because of its chemistry in front of and behind the camera, Turner Sports executive vice president and chief content officer Craig Barry said. Early on, it was decided not to rehearse and to make the show’s discussions spontaneous.

“We don’t produce the guys,” Barry said. “The guys produce themselves.”

Now that the show is 30 years old, Barry said, it is looking to gauge what kind of impact it has had not only on sports, but on culture in general.

Barry was a production assistant on Inside the NBA 30 years ago. He helped steer the show towards including pop culture and was in favor of adding players to the on-camera mix.

His first encounter with Barkley came when he was given a company credit card and told to take the player known as the Round Mound of Rebound out to a club in Atlanta’s Bucktown neighborhood.

“Charles was the most gracious guy ever,” Barry recalled. When people would try to talk to Barkley or get his autograph, Barkley went out of his way to introduce them to “my friend Craig,” Barry said. Then Barry went to the bathroom. When he came out Barkley was gone and so was their car.

The prank-filled atmosphere is good for audiences and also good for business. “It’s not your traditional studio show,” Turner Sports senior vice president for ad sales Jon Diament said. But Inside the NBA is so entertaining, advertisers are eager to be included.

Prices for spots during Inside the NBA averaged $46,517, according to SQAD MediaCosts: National, not much less than spots in regular season NBA games, which cost $48,388.

Kia, the presenting sponsor for the past eight years, congratulated the show on its longevity. “Kia’s ‘Give It Everything’ brand mantra syncs perfectly with the show’s ‘Win or Go Home’ approach and we look forward to many years of continued future success,” said Michael Cole, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Kia Motors America.

“They’re not your average studio guys,” added Madhavi Tadikonda, senior vice president and group director, investment, at media agency Canvas, which handles Kia. “They have fun, they make it relevant not just to sports fans, but to pop culture in general. It’s a ton of everything you could ever want in a sports show, and there are a lot of non-sports watchers watching the show. So it’s a great property for us to associate ourselves with.”

Kia is looking at opportunities to participate in the anniversary celebration, Tadikonda said. Among the options is creating branded content with the hosts.

Last year, fans were invited to take shots at a basket on the back of a Kia driven by O’Neal. “The show knows the brand so well that they come up with a lot of creative things with the Kia team and they get executed flawlessly,” Tadikonda said.

No Nostalgia Overload

Barry said TNT won’t be overdoing its 30th anniversary celebration. “We’re not going to paste it all over,” he said.

The show also plans to put together the 30 greatest Inside the NBA moments and have fans vote on them.

Many of those best moments live on YouTube: Ernie running down Kenny as Kenny tries to duplicate Kobe Bryant’s leap over a car; a diaper-changing contest between Barkley and new father Kenny; the set being turned into a champion’s lounge and Barkley being excluded; Shaq knocking down the set while running to the video board.

How much longer will Inside the NBA go on? “I can go on as long as you want me to,” said Johnson, noting that they’ve been fortunate that other job offers never came to pull the cast apart.

After 30 years, Johnson doesn’t expect the show to change much this season. “I think we’re very fortunate to be in that situation where the folks at Turner look at us and say, hey, let’s not mess with it,” he said. “Let’s let those guys do their thing.”

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.