NBA TV makes novel partnership

Turner Sports in charge of day-to-day programming

The start of the NBA season this week also marks the beginning of a rather novel partnership between a broadcaster and a sports league.

Turner Sports, a broadcast licensee for the National Basketball Assn. for the past 25 years, is now also fully in charge of the day-to-day programming and operations of the league’s own digital cable channel, NBA TV, as well as its various Internet and mobile assets.

The deal is described as a profit-sharing arrangement that differs significantly from the separate broadcast licensing deal Turner has for pro hoops coverage on TNT.

Turner has moved the NBA TV operations center from Secaucus, N.J. to its own headquarters in Atlanta, and has hired 200 employees to staff the channel — which is 10 years old and boasts 15 million subscribers — as well as its associated new-media platforms.

NBA TV has a new 5,000-square-foot studio, and benefits from the same infrastructure — everything from ad sales to the payroll department — that TNT’s Emmy-winning pro hoops coverage does.

In fact, in many ways, NBA TV will boast the same look and feel as the NBA on TNT does, with on-air talent for the network’s popular “Inside the NBA” studio show — Ernie Johnson, Kenny “The Jet” Smith and Charles Barkley — making frequent appearances.

TNT play-by-play man Marv Albert and colorman Craig Sager will also make stops on the league’s channel, which has brought in dedicated talent including Ahmad Rashad, Eric Snow and Steve Smith, and will broadcast 96 regular-season games this year — more than can be found on TNT, ESPN or ABC.

While the on-air look will be similar to TNT’s, the arrangement from the league and Turner is unique.

Separately this year, Turner and ESPN/ABC will kick off traditional broadcast-licensing agreements that will collectively pay the league $930 million annually to present pro hoops coverage through the 2015-2016 season.

But the NBA TV deal is different in that, rather than commit big licensing money, Turner need only add a bit to the broadcast infrastructure it already has.

“They get all the on-air talent plus the thousands of people working at Turner every day,” notes Turner’s Bryan Perez, senior VP and GM of NBA Digital. “Both entities have an opportunity to make money out of this.”

Adds Danny Meiseles, senior VP of production, programming and broadcasting for the NBA, “This takes advantage of what they do best and what we do best, and what they do best is operate and produce a great NBA broadcast and studio show.”

Trickier are issues of editorial independence while programming a 24-7 TV channel and websites owned by the league. How might Turner handle, say, the news surrounding disgraced former NBA ref Tim Donaghy?

“We’re still trying to refine our editorial voice, but the reality is that in the digital world, the user is one click away from any information they want,” Perez says.

Indeed, league news coverage beyond shooting-percentages and assist-to-turnover ratios might still be better left to outlets like TNT and ESPN.com that are a bit more independent.

“It will come down to the kinds of information fans expect from us as a source,” Perez says. “We might find that fans don’t expect us to report negative news. … We can’t replicate what is the gold standard in sports broadcasting (TNT), that’s not our goal here.”

Also potentially tricky is what might happen if Turner’s initiatives on these fledgling channels prove wildly profitable. Will media companies like Turner be willing to pay huge licensing fees in the future when such fee-free alternatives are available?

At least in the near term, Meiseles sees no cannibalization of the traditional business model, noting that NBA TV, NBA.com and the other sites serve the broader purpose of driving up viewership on the Turner and ABC/ESPN platforms.

“This just allows us to market our game and our network partners in a bigger, more substantial way,” he says.