TNT's broadcast without play-by-play man makes for interesting television
Indifference is the true enemy of sports television. So even before TNT’s Thunder-Warriors telecast tipped off Thursday night, it was already a mild success because Turner had managed to generate publicity for Game No. 79 on both teams' schedule. The hook was that there was no play-by-play announcer: Analysts Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber called the game and were also part of a marketing blitzkrieg that included Kerr channeling his inner-Alexander Haig before the action.
Assigning the trio the game was not as radical an experiment as Turner would have you believe. All three broadcasters have plenty of reps on site. But there was something unique about ceding the traditional play-by-play role to three analysts. Turner Sports explained its pregame philosophy to USA Today on Tuesday, and no doubt the company's executives and public relations practitioners were high-fiving over the publicity.
The experiment had an immediate hiccup: The game was joined in progress after the conclusion of Knicks-Bulls, which did not conclude so quickly. That game went into overtime, so TNT ended up joining Thunder-Warriors with 2:55 remaining in the first quarter. Knicks-Bulls announcer Marv Albert tossed to Kerr and, after a commercial, Kerr returned by introducing his colleagues. “I’m Marv Albert, this is Dick Stockton and Kevin Harlan,” Kerr joked.
Silence is one of the most underrated talents in broadcasting, and the best studio hosts and game callers understand this implicitly. (Pay attention to ESPN’s Dan Shulman calling a game or Fox’s Curt Menefee navigating a studio show and you'll see it.) Kerr told USA Today before the game that he saw his role as the "point man leading us to breaks” and described the broadcast as a “roundtable discussion.” He made it work early by giving a lot of space to Webber (who is terrific) and Miller (who likes to talk). For long stretches Kerr opted not to call play-by-play but rather lead the analysts in discussions. It was reminiscent of a Summer League game broadcast and at times it was really refreshing, especially when the group broke down the Thunder's offensive sets.
The downside was that the viewer was rarely given a signature moment -- the crowd was far more electric than the announcers -- and the context and specifics of the game (fouls, turnovers, points, etc.) were sacrificed for conversation. For example, in the second quarter, Kevin Durant had a nasty block of Jarrett Jack. Had it been Harlan, the broadcaster would have produced a YouTube highlight. Instead, Kerr called the play as if it were a made free throw. (Kerr did have a nice call on Thabo Sefolosha’s three-pointer --- he dropped an Albert “Yes” -- to beat the first-half buzzer.) If you want a grade, call the collective broadcast a B- or a C+, and give Kerr a higher grade for showing his versatility. It wasn’t revolutionary broadcasting -- and the game was a dud in the second half, which actually aided this style of broadcast -- but it was interesting television for a regular-season game. ESPN or Turner would be wise to try it again with different pairings, but only for the regular season.