The pro basketball world will be focused on Atlanta this Sunday as the NBA holds its annual All-Star game festivities, which TNT will air live.
Unlike previous NBA All-Star weekends, where events were held over two days, contests like the 3-Point Contest, the Slam Dunk Contest and the All-Star Game itself will all take place on March 7. The NBA will also pay tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities through HBCU-inspired elements incorporated into the broadcast and in-arena during the event.
I caught up with Turner Sports executive VP and chief content officer Craig Barry to discuss the challenges in producing this year’s All-Star game while still in the midst of the pandemic. Barry also talked about audience expectations for the game, as well as TNT’s second-half season NBA coverage. Here’s an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Picture This: What adjustments did you have to make for this year’s All-Star game in comparison to last year’s contest?
Craig Barry: Usually, as soon as we finish an All-Star Game, we're preparing for the next All-Star Game — we look at what we did right, what we did wrong and how to make it a better experience for the fan. This year, it was probably about six weeks ago when we had the realization that an All-Star Game was going to happen. So the challenges of preparing for something in six weeks that we normally quite frankly have a year to think about — and then layered on top of that, the challenge of health and safety, which is obviously the priority — is a relatively large undertaking. Being in Atlanta definitely helps. We’re in our backyard where there's infrastructure already in place. We do have a lot of experience around health and safety protocols having worked in [last season’s NBA] bubble, having done The Match [golf event in 2020], and throughout the [NBA] season this year, but it doesn’t eliminate the risk and the necessary due diligence that needs to be done in order to create the safest environment possible.
PT: What should fans expect from this year’s game that’s different from previous events?
CB: There’s a new format going from two days worth of events and consolidating it into a single evening. We’ve worked with the NBA to come up with a format that makes sense for everyone involved. Disruption breeds innovation, and I think it's an interesting prospect that we are putting all of the weekend into one, six-hour window. It's not optimal, and it's nothing that we would do going forward, but it is an opportunity to be creative and innovative around the opportunity that's given to us. This idea about doing the three-point contest and the skills competition in the hour and a half leading up to the All-Star game, and then airing the dunk contest at halftime is, I think from a fan experience, a really interesting prospect.
On top of that, having all of our talent — whether they're in the booth or in the studio contributing to the entire night of events — is, for me, an interesting opportunity for the fans. We’re leaning into a one-off opportunity and we’re hoping to be as creative and innovative with it as possible.
PT: Are you satisfied with the ratings performance of Turner Sports’ NBA telecasts leading up to the All-Star Game?
CB: We've seen about an 8% to 10% uptick in general. That's pretty admirable when you think about the emotional and mental fatigue that has set in across the nation, and it says a lot about the NBA that people are still tuning in and ratings are up. For the All-Star game, viewers will see the best 24 best players in the world play on the court, and that is a compelling enough reason to watch. I think people are going to be genuinely interested in the format to kind of buckle up for a Sunday evening and watch it all the way through. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see good numbers.
PT: Are you also confident the league’s ratings momentum will carry over into the second half of the season?
CB: The second half of the season is the most important season — I’m not discounting the first half of the season, but it’s the drive for the playoffs. The games elevate, the players elevate and the stakes elevate. I feel confident that we're going to continue to see strong, sustainable ratings, if not a certain amount of lift.
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