Last year confirmed one of the undeniable truisms of sports television: Hate sells.
NBA viewership rose mightily in 2010-11 on both ESPN and TNT, thanks in large part to the interest in the Miami Heat. But let's be frank: Viewers enjoyed rooting against LeBron James, and did so in large numbers.
TNT had a 45 percent increase in viewership from the previous year, drawing an average of 2.45 million viewers over 52 games compared to 1.73 million viewers over 53 games in 2009-10, according to SportsBusiness Journal. It was the largest viewership for TNT since it began broadcasting the NBA in 1984.
NBA games on ABC and ESPN garnered more viewers. According to SBJ, ABC averaged 5.1 million viewers over 15 games (up 30 percent from the previous year), while ESPN's coverage was up 30 percent, bringing in an average of 2.03 million viewers compared to 1.57 million the previous year. The Finals (which aired on ABC) between the Heat and Mavericks averaged 17.3 million viewers over six games, the second-most-viewed NBA Finals in nine years, trailing only the Lakers-Celtics in 2010.
Christmas Day has often marked the beginning of heavy TV interest in the NBA, so don't expect the lockout to dramatically affect ratings negatively. In fact, the uncertainty and player movement is likely to draw added eyeballs on opening day.
While the focus will be on the those on the court, we're here to offer the scouting report on those who will bring you the game, including arguably the biggest NBA free agent this offseason: Shaquille O'Neal, who is now a member of TNT's Inside the NBA studio show.
Here is SI.com's NBA broadcasting guide for the 2011-12 season:
ESPN will air 90 games this season, including 15 exclusive broadcasts on ABC (all ESPN telecasts will also be available via ESPN3.com). ESPN Radio will broadcast 24 regular-season games, while ESPN Deportes, ESPN's Spanish-language U.S. sports network, will televise 19 games. The Heat (16), Bulls (15), Lakers (15), Celtics (14), Knicks (14) and Mavericks (12) have the most appearances on ABC and ESPN combined. ESPN will air the Eastern Conference finals and ABC will broadcast the NBA Finals. Worth noting is games airing on ABC are subject to flexible scheduling.
PREGAME COVERAGE: Jon Barry (analyst), Chris Broussard (analyst), Magic Johnson (analyst), Mike Wilbon (analyst).
STUDIO COVERAGE: Chris Mullin (analyst), Jalen Rose (analyst), Kurt Rambis (analyst), Bruce Bowen (analyst), Tim Legler (analyst), J.A. Adande (reporter), Broussard (reporter), Ric Bucher (reporter) and Marc Stein (reporter); Kevin Connors (host, NBA Tonight).
1. Mike Breen (play-by-play), Jeff Van Gundy (analyst), Doris Burke (reporter).2. Dan Shulman (play-by-play), Hubie Brown (analyst), Lisa Salters (reporter).
NOTES: Mullin will call selected games and is scheduled to be the second analyst for Clippers-Warriors on Christmas night (10:30 p.m. ET). Announcer Mike Tirico will work with Brown during the year for some ABC games, and those two (along with Heather Cox) will work the Bulls-Lakers game on Christmas at 5 p.m. ET. Shulman will call some games with Van Gundy and Burke. Dave Pasch and Burke will call the Magic-Thunder game on ESPN on Christmas at 8 p.m. ET.
WHAT'S NEW: Goodbye, Bristol. ESPN is moving its studio show to Los Angeles to take advantage of an increased role for Magic Johnson and the proximity to some of the biggest NBA stars and celebrities. The show will now tape at ESPN's Los Angeles Production Center at L.A. LIVE, across the street from Staples Center where Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and now Chris Paul call home.
"We wanted to get Magic more involved in our shows on a regular basis, and in order to fit his schedule [Johnson is based in L.A.], we said why not move out there," said senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross, who has been charged with the network's NBA coverage. "It gives us much better access to players who might be in town on a travel day and stars who are big NBA fans. It felt right to take advantage of what California has to offer."
Hannah Storm and Stuart Scott have exited as pregame hosts. Instead, ESPN will have Barry, Broussard, Johnson and Wilbon in a free-flowing format, without a set host. While ESPN executives claim this isn't a direct response to TNT's Inside the NBA, clearly those in Bristol hope to duplicate the same chemistry that has made Turner's show the best in class.
"We are kind of thinking, 'Do we really need a traditional host for this show? Can't it be these four guys talking about the NBA like they would be talking about the NBA in the hallway or over dinner?' " Gross said. "We are taking a chance and trying something different from most of our shows. In this case, our thinking is these guys talk so well and are well-versed in the league, we think we can get from topic to topic."
The game coverage also has a major shift with Mark Jackson leaving to become Golden State's coach. That leaves Breen and Van Gundy to carry the majority of discussion about league-wide issues.
"I'm one of those who enjoyed the three-man booth more than doing the two," Van Gundy said. "I really don't know going forward if ESPN/ABC has plans to fill Mark's spot or just leave it as is. Even though there will be more time available to talk, I just don't want to talk for the sake of talking. I want to make sure I don't throw too many hare-brained ideas out there. I don't want to just fill time."
ESPN officials said the new format allows for increased interaction with fans via social media, as commentators will answer fans' questions submitted from sites like Facebook and Twitter.
WHAT'S OLD: ESPN will once again be very aggressive (read: tonnage) on the Heat. "People care about the Heat whether you are a Heat fan or not," Gross said. "You might be a LeBron fan, you might not be a LeBron fan. But with LeBron, [Dwyane] Wade, [Chris] Bosh and Pat Riley, there are a lot of big-time names and personalities. We will be as equally aggressive this year as we were last year."
The game-announcing crew remains first-rate. Breen and Van Gundy are a terrific listen, and the same goes for Tirico and Brown. Burke is a valuable commodity in that she excels as both an analyst or sideline reporter. Salters, who has a hard news background, thankfully avoids the enabling questions viewers too often get from sideline people.
ESPN has high hopes for Johnson, but while he's one of the most likable guys in basketball and a great ambassador for the sport, he's an average analyst (at best) with a below-average voice. It doesn't help that Wilbon genuflects at his presence nearly every time they are together on air. Adande, Bucher and Stein are well-sourced and good at what they do. It's always great when Brown and Jack Ramsay are part of the same broadcast on ESPN Radio. It's like a doctoral seminar on hoops.
WHAT WE'D CHANGE: The bold, outside-the-box changes to the studio show are to be applauded. ESPN's previous hosts (Storm and Scott will continue a regular SportsCenter schedule based out of Bristol) simply did not duplicate the success of TNT's Ernie Johnson -- an ego-free broadcaster who fits well into any hosting situation. This quartet has the potential for interesting talk. It's a smart group, even with Broussard's and Wilbon's tendency to show certain players (hi, LeBron) an inordinate amount of love.
10 MUST-SEE GAMES ON ESPN/ABC:
Dec. 25: Heat at Mavericks, 2:30 p.m. ET, ABCJan. 27: Knicks at Heat, 8 p.m., ESPNJan. 29: Bulls at Heat, 3:30 p.m., ABCFeb. 10: Lakers at Knicks, 8 p.m., ESPNFeb. 19: Magic at Heat, 3:30 p.m., ABCMarch 4: Heat at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABCMarch 11: Celtics at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABCApril 1: Bulls at Thunder, 1 p.m., ABCApril 22: Thunder at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABCApril 25: Clippers at Knicks, 8 p.m., ESPN
WHY VIEWERS SHOULD OPT FOR ESPN's COVERAGE: "I think we offer much more than others regarding the coaching angle. We have Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown. One is a Hall of Famer and the other was an outstanding coach. We are much more aggressive in rolling out coaches who are wired in the huddle. I think our production values are top-notch and our play-by-play people do an outstanding job of personalizing and humanizing the players." -- Gross
OBLIGATORY PRAISE FOR TYSON CHANDLER: "I think to get to the Heat's level will be very difficult for any team in the Eastern Conference. Miami is blessed with a unique opportunity with its talent at hand. But I did like the Knicks' move. Defense in this league is all about your ability to protect the basket and with Chandler, not only can he protect the basket, he can rebound. If other players are double-teamed, he knows how to cut and find the open area and finish. He just has an upbeat, positive nature that brings people together. The price they paid [four years, $56 million], you can debate. The player is not debatable." -- Van Gundy
SI.com: How objective can you be regarding coverage of Mark Jackson?
Van Gundy: Everyone has to know up front that every broadcaster has certain people in the league that they want to win more than others. They have relationships with those people, whether it's Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, who I worked with forever, or my brother [Orlando's Stan Van Gundy]. There are certain people that I just want them to win. But when you are doing the game, I don't think it is hard to be objective about the game because what you see is what you talk about. If they are playing great, then you are going to have many positive things to say. If they are having a rough night, then the game does not lie. You say something is good [when it's] bad, you lose credibility. So I think the objectivity is easy when you are doing the game. I think it would be harder if you were on the studio shows.
SI.com: How will Magic Johnson's role expand?
Gross: In the past, we had him on Christmas Day and we had him during the conference finals and NBA Finals. He now has much bigger presence and will basically be there every time we have a pregame show. We want more consistency with our NBA team, and having Magic there as much as possible is a big win. He's fair, he's fun, he's entertaining and he'll take a stand. He is not afraid to be critical of the Lakers; I think some people have this vision he won't say anything bad about them. He's tough on the Lakers.
TNT will air 45 games this season, including 44 in prime time, with 32 part of a Thursday-night doubleheader. The network will feature 10 appearances each by the Celtics and Lakers, and nine by the Heat. The Mavericks and Knicks have eight scheduled appearances. TNT will also air All-Star weekend, including the All-Star Game on Feb. 26 from Orlando. TNT has the Western Conference finals this year.
PREGAME COVERAGE: Ernie Johnson (host), Charles Barkley (analyst), Shaquille O'Neal (analyst), Kenny Smith (analyst). Greg Anthony and Chris Webber will occasionally sit in as guest analysts.
1. Marv Albert (play-by-play), Steve Kerr (analyst), Craig Sager (reporter).2. Kevin Harlan (play-by-play), Reggie Miller (analyst) and David Aldridge (reporter) or Cheryl Miller (reporter).
NOTES: Mike Fratello will also appear as an analyst during the season, with Albert and Kerr. Webber will also do some games as an analyst.
10 MUST-SEE GAMES ON TNT:
Dec. 25: Celtics at Knicks, 12 p.m. ETDec. 27: Celtics at Heat, 8 p.m.Dec. 29: Mavericks at Thunder, 8 p.m.Jan. 16: Mavericks at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.Jan. 19: Lakers at Heat, 8 p.m.Feb. 23: Knicks at Heat, 7 p.m.Feb. 23: Lakers at Thunder, 9:30 p.m.March 29: Mavericks at Heat, 8 p.m.March 29: Thunder at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.April 24: Heat at Celtics, 8 p.m.
WHAT'S NEW: Let's start with a 7-foot-1 studio analyst. O'Neal agreed to a multiyear deal with Turner after retiring in July. What makes the Turner situation a potentially good fit for O'Neal is Inside the NBA already has a natural flow, and longtime stars in Barkley and Smith. O'Neal will not have to be the dominant figure on set; he just needs to be interesting. But there are no sure things in broadcasting. Shaq is smart and funny but not blessed with a great voice. The key will be whether he devotes his full attention to being a broadcaster.
"We don't go into this show with any 'this is your role, this is your role, etc.,' " said Jeff Behnke, the senior vice president and executive producer for Turner Sports. "Our producer, Tim Kiely, brings the guys in about 15 minutes before air and they don't know what the format of the show is except for Ernie. That's the way we have done it from Day 1. It will be the same approach for Shaq. We will let Shaq be who he is and tap into his knowledge and success and entertainment value. There is no pre-decided role."
In an attempt to fuse social media into the broadcast and take advantage of O'Neal's huge Twitter following, the Inside the NBA crew will be tweeting during games, and the tweets will appear on the lower third of the television screen during games.
"We have assigned a production assistant that we are calling the 'Twitter PA' to monitor everything going on in the social media world," Behnke said.
WHAT'S OLD: The team of Albert and Kerr is back and as good as it gets, featuring humor and smarts. The team of Harlan and Miller provides a different vibe, with Harlan's over-the-top exuberance, for the most part, tolerable. With Johnson, Barkley and Smith, Inside the NBA will always be a fun show no matter what Shaq brings.
WHAT WE'D CHANGE: Webber continues to improve and we'd love to see him drop into the studio and games more often. Let's be blunt: Love Cheryl Miller's presence, but she's not a good interviewer. The producers should work with her to up her game on pointed questions, which we get from Aldridge, Burke, Sager, Salters and the others.
WHY VIEWERS SHOULD OPT FOR TNT's COVERAGE: "We don't compare ourselves to other people so I will answer this way: Our core philosophy is to cover the game on the field, court or track and let the emotions play out live as they do, and not to go in with any preconceived notion of what might or might not happen. We tell stories and cover the emotions live as they happen." -- Behnke
OBLIGATORY PRAISE FOR TYSON CHANDLER: "He is the perfect fit next to Carmelo [Anthony] and Amar'e [Stoudemire]. Both those guys are dynamic scorers and neither one is a very good defender. Chandler is as good as there is in protecting the rim and providing leadership. He was a fantastic pickup. I think the Knicks are positioned to have a really good year. But they have some point guard and depth issues." -- Kerr
SI.com: How do you anticipate the quality of play this season?
Kerr: It does concern me, the lack of preparation in training camp and the lack of rest between games. There is no question that will affect teams and players. It's tough to predict how that manifests itself, but I do worry about the product, just given the unusual circumstances this year.
SI.com: How will LeBron be perceived by TV audiences?
Kerr: I think the hatred will soften because I think at heart LeBron is a good guy and I think people understand that. I think they were taken aback by the television special and the Heat's press conference [introducing James in Miami]. I think LeBron did not know how to respond. He tried to take on the villain role last year. With the lockout, with the Chris Paul debacle, I think Miami is probably thrilled. They are thinking the spotlight is off of us for a bit. Also, they are a year into it now and prepared for it. I think LeBron will have a much smoother go.
The league-owned network (now in 55.3 million homes) will air 96 live games this season. The Thunder are scheduled to make seven appearance, the Mavericks six, the Knicks five and the Lakers four. With NBA TV's Fan Night -- each week fans vote on NBA.com for the matchup they want to see televised nationally the following Tuesday -- the likelihood is the Heat and the teams listed above will see added appearances.
(NBA TV is part of NBA Digital, the NBA's digital assets jointly managed by the NBA and Turner Sports.)
• Anchors: Ernie Johnson, Matt Winer, Vince Cellini, Rick Kamla.
• Analysts: Chris Webber, Greg Anthony, Steve Smith, Dennis Scott, Brent Barry. David Aldridge serves as a studio and game analyst, and reporter.
• Contributor: Ahmad Rashad.
• TNT talent: Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Mike Fratello and Craig Sager.
WHAT'S NEW: O'Neal will make regular contributions to the channel, and Anthony will join Johnson and Webber on the network's Tuesday Fan Night program. New programs include Thursday Night Pregame Show, which will feature host Winer, analysts Smith or Scott and a rotating TNT studio analyst each week before the TNT pregame show.
FIVE MUST-SEE GAMES ON NBA TV:
Dec. 30: Bulls at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ETJan. 2: Thunder at Mavericks, 8:30 p.m.Jan. 25: Clippers at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.Feb. 13:Timberwolves at Magic, 7 p.m.April 16: Thunder at Clippers, 10:30 p.m.
OBLIGATORY PRAISE FOR TYSON CHANDLER: "While it's too early to tell who has the clear advantage, I will say that being a big fan of Dallas, I think they let the goods get away. I think that Tyson Chandler is a game-changer and he's the only reason they won the championship last year." -- Webber
SI.com: What will be the reaction to LeBron?
Webber: I think LeBron is going to get booed more than ever before. He doesn't have to accept the villain role, but that's who he is. That's the great thing about being a fan. You can hate Hulk Hogan. You can hate LeBron. It's the same thing. Hopefully, he knows it's not personal. It's basketball. I think the booing of Miami will get worse because people will be saying, "Not one, not two, not three not four" and that won't stop.
FIVE MINUTES ... with Charles Barkley:
SI.com: What does Shaq have to do to be an effective broadcaster and to fit in effectively with you guys?
Barkley: If you watch our show, our No. 1 priority is to make sure the fan has fun. All Shaq has to do is come on and have fun with us. He's a great person and a funny guy. He doesn't have to try to be funny. Our show wasn't broken. Most times, when people come in, the show is broken. If he comes in and is himself, he'll be fabulous.
SI.com: Is there a player or team that you are most curious about?
Barkley: I find the Lamar Odom thing fascinating, with the Lakers trading him to a rival. The Lakers, to me, have to have something going on because that trade to Dallas did not make sense to me. I'm not even sure they are the best team in L.A. now. I think the Knicks will be interesting to watch. I want to see how the Celtics hold up. They are an old team. The Miami Heat are in awkward situation because it's championship or bust. There are very few teams in sports where they have to win the championship or it's a bad season. They are in that situation now.
SI.com: How do you expect viewers to react to LeBron this year?
Barkley: I think LeBron did some things recently that he should have done a year ago. I saw the ESPN interview where he said he wished he did things differently. I think if he would have done that a year ago, the vitriol would not have been nearly as bad last year. If you look at the whole LeBron thing, I don't think people were mad that he left Cleveland. They got mad at the way he left Cleveland, and then when [the Heat] went on and danced around on stage.
SI.com: How will the quality of play be this year with an abridged schedule?
Barkley: I think you have to worry more about injuries than the basketball itself. If you look at the NFL this year, there is no question that there have been more injuries to players because of the lack of training camp and things like that. My biggest concern with the NBA is not the level of play. First of all, these guys have all been playing basketball for a long time. So I think that's bogus. I think you really have to worry about injuries. Playing three games in three days or five games in six days will be hard on these guys' bodies.
SI.com: Is David Stern a bully?
Barkley: He's not a bully. The commissioner works for the owners. When you are negotiating with the rank-and-file, they might think you are a bully but that's just business. I don't look at him as a bully but I will say this: I think the New Orleans trade thing [Stern and the NBA, which owns the Hornets, vetoed a deal to send Chris Paul to the Lakers] was the first time I have ever seen the commissioner make a mistake. I like him a lot. I think he has been the best commissioner in sports in the last 25 years. Everything he has done, he has done in the best interest of the league. But from a PR standpoint, I really think this was the first time he did not do something right. I didn't see anybody say anything positive during that, and to be honest with you, there is no way they can explain that situation.
SI.com: Is there a player who could walk into the booth and be great?
Barkley: I think Grant Hill would be a very good commentator. He's a very smart guy. He knows basketball. Grant would be terrific.
SI.com: You are now a spokesperson for Weight Watchers. Has the diet started and are you down in weight right now?
Barkley: I have lost about 35 pounds.
SI.com: Is there a long-term weight goal?
Barkley: I am still trying to figure that out. I have gained 100 pounds since I retired. I don't know if I can get back to my playing weight. I have not come to a conclusion how low I can go, but I want to get to a certain neighborhood and stay there. I have to get to a place where I am happy and healthy and feel like I can maintain that weight.
SI.com: How often do you weigh yourself?
Barkley: They weigh me every two weeks. The toughest thing for me is I did not eat vegetables. I only ate rice, corn and potatoes. Now I eat cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and things like that. Adjusting to the vegetables, as silly as it sounds, that has been the toughest thing for me. I have eaten more vegetables in the last three months than I have in the last 40 years of my life.
SI.com: Given the media attention to Kim Kardashian, I'd expect Kris Humphries to take a lot of gruff at NBA arenas. Agree or Disagree?
Barkley: Most people don't understand what fame is until you are in it. It's a lot more that goes into it. I think he got overwhelmed. I tell people I never discuss fame with someone who is not famous because you have no idea all the crap that goes with it. I think he is a great kid and a very good player, but fans are going to be brutal to him. It's unfortunate because he's a good kid, but it's going to be a long year.