Star Power Drives TNT’s NHL, NBA Playoff Ratings Push, Says WBD’s Craig Barry (Q&A)

Stephen Curry and LeBron James in Game 1 of 2023 NBA Western Conference Semifinal
Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors drives past LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals, which set a cable viewership record for TNT. (Image credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

TNT continues to build ratings momentum heading into its second-round coverage of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs. 

Coming off its most-watched first-round NBA playoffs coverage in five years, TNT’s May 2 coverage of Game 1 of the Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors Western Conference semifinals drew a cable-record 7.4 million viewers. Through Tuesday night, TNT’s NBA postseason coverage has averaged 3.8 million viewers, up 10% compared to last season, Nielsen reported.  

Warner Bros. Discovery Sports EVP, chief content officer Craig Barry

Craig Barry (Image credit: WBD Sports)

On the ice, Game 7 of the Boston Bruins-Florida Panthers first-round Stanley Cup playoff series drew 3.2 million viewers to TNT, making it cable’s most-watched first-round game of all time. Overall, TNT averaged 959,000 viewers for its first-round coverage, the most-watched first-round NHL playoffs on cable of all time and up 18% from last year, according to Nielsen.

Warner Bros. Discovery Sports chief content officer Craig Barry, who oversees operations and technology for sports content airing on TNT, TBS and TruTV, spoke with Multichannel News about the network’s fast ratings start to the NBA and NHL postseason. Barry also talks about WBD Sports’ efforts to integrate sports and entertainment through technology and the popular talent found on shows such as Inside the NBA. 

MCN: Are you surprised by the strong ratings performance of the opening rounds of the NBA and NHL playoffs on TNT and to what do you attribute the network’s fast ratings start?

Craig Barry: I’m pleasantly surprised. I think that you're seeing really competitive games both in NBA and NHL playoffs — there’s been a number of overtime games that have really attracted viewers. In the NBA, in particular, you have powerhouse teams in the running. Whenever New York, Los Angeles, Golden State, Miami are in the playoffs, it just feels like the planets are aligned and people are generally really interested. Sports is always matchup-driven at its core. It doesn’t matter how good of a job we do on the production, it's driven by the teams that people love and that the fans love to watch.

MCN: How do you see sports content fitting into the overall programming strategy from TNT and TBS? 

CB: I don't want to speak for the entertainment side of the business, but what I'll say is they are great supporters of sports and it's part of their programming strategy. They can strategically program their entertainment programming around sports — I can tell you five years from now when the playoffs are happening, when March Madness is happening, when the [NBA and NHL] All-Star games are happening. They’ve been great partners.

MCN: WBD Sports has been successful in melding sports with entertainment through shows like Inside the NBA. How important is that in terms of attracting both hardcore and non-sports viewers?  

CB: There’s an intersection between sports and culture that we want to make sure that we understand and serve. We understand the obligation to the hard-core fan, but we also believe in an equal obligation to the casual fan. We look at creating an on-ramp for the casual fan to come in and watch and to be entertained and informed, while creating as much access to the game and to the players on the court or field. 

There are a lot of companies that believe there’s a specific box that you work in, and this is the way to do things. We believe in the individuals that work here, and we believe in and what they bring, as individuals, to the table. We love the kind of authentic output that comes from that. It's not always perfect, but it’s always authentic and that's important. We’ve become well-known for taking that imperfection and turning it into something special. 

MCN: How do you see the TV sports industry evolving in the near future, particularly on the technology side?

CB: That’s an interesting question. The streaming of sports rights content is obviously in the forefront. Being able to deliver your product where the fans are is the most important objective. If your fans don't have cable, make sure you're creating an opportunity on a direct-to-consumer product for your brand, like in our case Max or Bleacher Report. 

I think that's the most important part about streaming — it’s not necessarily differentiating yourself with the presentation, although that's a big part of it. It's first making sure that you can reach that scale of fan and consumer, regardless of where they are. I also feel like one of the largest disruptors is not necessarily just streaming, but also the cost efficiency of content. There are so many platforms calling for so much scale that we have to find ways to create more content at a high-quality level, but where we can scale to various platforms and make sure that we can sustain a model of efficiency while we’re doing that. 

I don’t care if you're a sports network, an entertainment network or a streaming platform, I think everybody sees the demand for content consumption as so large  that in order to be successful in this business you absolutely have to find a model where you have economic efficiencies in the way that you create and distribute content.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.