October has often received a lot of discussion in conversations about the best sports month, and that was particularly true for Turner Sports this year. In addition to their longstanding coverage of MLB (on TBS) and NBA (on TNT) games, they also added NHL coverage this year (on TNT). And that led to some interesting intertwining of those different sports’ coverage, including NBA figure Charles Barkley appearing on the NHL on TNT, NHL figure Wayne Gretzky showing up on NBA on TNT coverage, and MLB figures Pedro Martinez, Curtis Granderson, and Jimmy Rollins also appearing on NBA on TNT coverage. On Sunday, Craig Barry (Turner Sports’ executive vice president and chief content officer) spoke to AA about Turner’s October coverage, and he said it was a remarkable chance for them to show off their coverage across sports.
“The opportunity presented itself to say this is a really interesting opportunity in the sports world that we have the ability to create some access to, and we thought that was important,” Barry said. “And look, the other couple other tenets we operate by are we have this idea of being accurate and authentic and honest, and that’s really important to us, and being diverse, and that’s really important to us.”
“And the last one is being experiential. Whenever we have an opportunity for people to touch or really just be around our brand or family, whether that’s on-site or working through Bleacher Report or creating social opportunities, all of these things go back to us trying to go out there and have a good time and present sports in a way that’s fun and engaging and informative and accurate, and we try to differentiate ourselves that way.”
He said this October was particularly unique for them, as it marked the first time they were adding NHL coverage to their NBA and MLB coverage.
“It’s unprecedented. For us, we’re extremely passionate, and this was something where the planets aligned for us. We’ve been at the highest level; everyone is so passionate and so driven to do something, at least for our division, that’s just really unusual. And we’ve used it to create that opportunity for the fan. And it wasn’t necessarily to pat ourselves on the back or be ‘Look at this scale,’ or ‘Look at the breadth of our portfolio.’ It was more ‘Look at this opportunity to create something so unique for the fan.'”
Barry added that this was particularly unique for Turner, as their channels aren’t devoted to sports around the clock, unlike ESPN or FS1.
“For other networks, that’s day in and day out as a 24-hour sports network. For us, we’re an entertainment network, so the opportunity was extra special for us.”
Barry said part of what made this work is the chemistry with their different sport-specific shows, with some of that chemistry also translating to the larger Turner Sports approach and to the idea of bringing a fan perspective to coverage.
“It starts with good chemistry in front of and behind the camera. It’s really an important part of the DNA of what we do. In addition to that, there’s just some intangibles. Obviously, the fan comes first, and everything that we’re doing is kind of fan-focused. We believe if we’re having fun doing what we’re doing, then the fan will have fun as well.”
"A guy is gonna fight me and I got a stick in my hand…"
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) October 22, 2021
Barry said one part of Turner’s cross-sports production approach that stands out from other networks is that they often want to have analysts seeing clips or subjects for the first time when they’re live on air.
“The analysts don’t necessarily come to the production meetings. They can if they want, but if they choose not to, then they’re kind of reacting at the same time as the fan is when they’re being presented with questions or video or whatever the case is. It creates this emotional connection with the fan because everyone’s kind of reacting simultaneously.”
“And the real reason behind that is not whether we want them to be at the meeting or not, but talent will at times go to a meeting and they’ll hear some subject matter and spend the next three hours thinking about it, and then when we’re live, they’ll look to recall that. So instead of trying to go through the process of recalling it and figuring out what they’ve been thinking for the last three hours, it’s at times better for them to be reacting in real time.”
“It goes to this idea of authenticity and just being real to the game and to the show and to the fan and to yourself. That’s just a really important part of how we operate. And we’re kind of a boutique shop, we’re very, very, very close-knit. We operate like a family.”
Barkley in goal vs. Gretzky! Who ya got? ? ? pic.twitter.com/JIqF1s0dNZ
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 14, 2021
That family approach has been recently referenced by several people who work for Turner, including NHL on TNT host Liam McHugh and analyst Anson Carter and NBA on TNT game analyst Stan Van Gundy. And Barry said in the NHL case in particular, it also extended to Turner taking a lot of ideas for coverage from the people they hired.
“We have this kind of mantra that ideas come from anywhere, and it’s not something we just say, it’s something that actually happens. It is a full collaboration across the board across not just the production group or the content group, across the sports division. It’s kind of getting in the boat and rowing in the same direction.”
He said the timing of their hockey acquisition helped, as it let them watch existing Stanley Cup Playoff coverage on NBC, and also bring in some veterans to talk about U.S. hockey coverage.
“When we first got hockey, we were made aware at the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so we were able to cram, if you will. And we had a couple of people who were avid and fluent hockey fans, but we had limited knowledge of the inner workings of the league. When we started to think about the talent that would fit in with our approach, and individuals that would be really additive with what we were trying to do, and that kind of DNA is the baseline.”
“Once we started and got Kenny [Albert] and Eddie [Olczyk] and Jonesy [Keith Jones] and Panger [Darren Pang], all these individuals who have just this breadth and wealth of knowledge and experience, we were able to lean into that and talk to them about not only how we wanted to execute in front of the camera and what was important and what was being left out and how they thought hockey could be better, and also they were suggesting people we should look at behind the camera, who they’ve had relationships with for two, three, four decades in some cases. It was again helping us; less influence, more putting information in front of us that we could then disseminate and translate to how we thought we could work best.”
Barry said their goal is not just about hiring the right people, but about embracing those people and giving them what they need to be successful.
“It’s one thing to put people in positions, and it’s another thing to lean into the style and culture of those individuals. That ultimately is what creates the dynamic quilt that the fan sees, and that’s really important to us. And we have fun doing it. And there’s a lot of scenarios where not being perfect or small mistakes can be really impactful; for us, at times, it becomes part of the show, and we lean into that imperfection, because we’re human.”
He said while a lot of people have compared their new NHL show to Inside The NBA, care has been taken to make sure the new studio show isn’t a full copy.
“The template of Inside The NBA, which obviously is a very popular show, it’s not a cut-and-paste. But we knew that there were nuances in our approach that could translate. And that’s really what we’re talking about here.”
Barry said that extends wider, and that’s been a big part of why we’ve seen Turner’s studio casts show up in other sports in the last few months.
“We talk about the chemistry, and that just comes from people being good people. And we have a lot of sports fans; Charles is a huge hockey fan and Wayne is an NBA fan, and the baseball guys, Pedro and Grandy and Jimmy are huge basketball fans. And there’s a natural crossover there, and everybody is friendly with each other. And specifically when we start talking about tentpoles, Opening Week, Opening Day of the NBA, the NLCS, we start to see opportunities where people can engage and interact.”
“What time is it?… 4 past Chuck” ?
— NHLonTNT (@NHL_On_TNT) October 14, 2021
Barry said their overall goal involves catering to both hardcore and casual fans.
“I think one of the most important philosophies, we have primary tenets, and one is that we operate in the intersection of sports and culture. That’s our space. And we understand our obligation to our hardcore fan, and we serve that obligation, but we have an equal obligation to the casual fan, to inform and entertain and create a platform where people enjoy to come and watch, even if they’re not about the Xs and Os and a sports junkie, if you will. And the second philosophy is to create access to the court, to the ice, to the field, to the team. And that access also extends itself to our talent; how can we put in you as a fan in places that are really interesting and unique and dynamic, that you would not be normally be able to experience?”
He said that extends to Turner’s studio shows in general, where they’re trying not to speak at fans, but rather engage with them.
“That goes to this idea of another kind of nuance. We really believe in talking with the fan and having those conversations and letting the fan listen in and even engage through social, as opposed to just talking at. And it gets to this place where it’s just really comfortable for the guys both in front of and behind the camera to move from platform to platform and property to property and just kind of engage. And it let us create a really unique experience in some cases, like we saw over the last week.”
Barry said this year seemed like a particularly great moment for studio show crossover, as it led to their NLCS coverage being in Los Angeles around the time NBA on TNT coverage was there, and it also involved the debut of their NHL studio show.
“We could be playing baseball, basketball, hockey, we can tie them all together, and we can take them all along for this ride. And I don’t know if these planets are ever going to align again, so it’s ‘Let’s make this as special as possible.'”