TNT might be a part-timer when it comes to cable’s sporting landscape, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a player.
“We look for premium sports properties,” Turner Broadcasting System sales, distribution and sports prexy David Levy says. “Whenever we consider a property, we always ask does it fit with that brand.”
From the beginning, the emphasis has been on marquee opportunities. It started with the NBA in 1989 and, in 1990, TNT acquired the rights to NFL games. That combination was a key driver in expanding TNT’s distribution from about 17 million homes to some 50 million in only a year and a half, according to Levy.
While its football rights ended in 1997, TNT has replaced them with other high-profile opportunities. Along with the NBA, the network’s current sports slate includes the PGA Championship, PGA Grand Slam of Golf, NASCAR and, with sister networks TBS and TruTV, NCAA college basketball March Madness.
Still, it’s TNT’s long-standing association with professional basketball that most defines its sports coverage.
“I think other leagues would be envious of TNT’s relationship with the NBA,” says Mike McCarthy, Legacy Agency head of media consulting and former CEO of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. “There is a great mix of loyalty (to the league) with high levels of journalism.”
From a ratings standpoint, it’s certainly been a strong partnership. In the 2011-2012 season, TNT earned its highest-rated NBA regular season (an average of 2.5 million viewers) and fifth straight year of viewership growth. While numbers dropped in the first half of 2012-2013, TNT rebounded well with All Star coverage that drew an average of 8 million viewers, up 13% compared with 2012, and strong postseason numbers.
Much of the coverage’s success can be credited to the production’s on-air personalities. Led by Ernie Johnson Jr. and featuring Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the studio show for “NBA on TNT” has become an iconic fixture on the NBA scene — so much so that it’s popular TV watching for players in locker rooms across the league.
“You can’t predict chemistry,” Johnson says. “It is very spontaneous and unrehearsed. I’m in the production meeting, but Charles, Kenny and Shaq aren’t there, so they never know what I’m going to ask.”
TNT will continue to look for the right properties as sports offer such a valuable component to TNT’s overall schedule.
“Over the years, (Turner has) done a terrific job in saying TNT is drama,” Levy said. “What better drama in all of television is there than sports? It’s the most unscripted drama of all.”