For years, Inside the NBA has been the gold standard of sports studio shows. It is the show that every network aspires to create, but few (if any) have come close to replicating for a variety of reasons.
The biggest one is on-air talent, as Ernie Johnson is irreplaceable as host, Charles Barkley is truly one of a kind, and Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal round out the desk as perfect complements and foils. However, the advantages the show has go beyond the chemistry and talent of the on-air crew, largely due to the folks behind the scenes who create the space needed to make great television.
That space is, as Jeremy Levin (VP, coordinating producer) explains, something they’ve worked hard to create and is the product of endless behind the scenes work with various partners, departments, and higher-ups. It is most notable with Inside the NBA, as TNT’s postgame show has as much freedom as any studio show on television. On a big night with plenty to talk about and a conversation that’s flowing, there’s not a lot of stress if they run over their time allotment and bump into whatever movie is scheduled for the early hours of the morning.
It’s why the crew can steer into the tangents, rants, and back-and-forth arguments in a way few other shows can, knowing there’s a cushion there to go long. If it’s a light night and they end a little early, it’s just as easy to bump something up. It is a luxury most networks don’t have and is part of the magic of being the only live programming that TNT needs to worry about, something Ernie Johnson doesn’t take for granted.
“If the show runs an hour, or if it runs 50 minutes or if it runs an hour and 10, I think our producers are aware that — man, if we’ve got a good thing going, we’re not going to cut it off,” Johnson says. “If we’re really diving into something or if guys are breaking down plays of a game that has come down to two or three crucial plays, and then we get reaction from a coach or a player and we want to talk about that, we don’t feel like ‘Hey, hurry up, we gotta get this done.’ So having that latitude is huge. And it does allow you to just, you know, to not rush through thoughts or feel like you have to beat the clock.”
While postgame freedom is a product of their environment, they’ve worked hardest to carve out the necessary space to create similar flowing conversations at halftime. Given there’s a hard in and hard out from when the second quarter ends and the third quarter begins, it requires some creativity to foster the same kind of vibe with a clock actually ticking. What they realized was, in order to make the halftime show worthwhile, they needed to focus on one longer segment where they have the freedom to go long and actually get a chance to talk about the game, rather than trying to hit their marks on a number of shorter segments.
“We recognize here, it’s important to have that space to be able to talk. If you’re gonna have four people on the desk, there’s no sense in doing a halftime show where each guy has 15 seconds,” Levin says. “So, what we’ve done is it used to be like three segments, so we shaved it down to two segments and we combined some commercials together so that gives you, instead of trying to fill three blocks of time, you’re only trying to fill two, so you can lengthen the two a little bit.”
That required working with sales to make the commercial breaks before and after the segment a bit longer and shift commercial inventory around to other areas of the night. This allowed them to get through their standard script — Shaq’s pictures, Kenny’s big board segment, and Chuck’s first half thoughts — while also allowing for the banter and conversation that makes the show beloved, and keeps things fresh by going in different orders and, depending on who has the most to say, gives different people more time on any given night.
As Levin explains, the second segment of halftime is the “accordion” segment, which can be trimmed to as short as 15 seconds or lengthened to 90 seconds, depending on whether Chuck and the guys blow through the initial timetable with a conversation that goes long.
“Shaq or Kenny might say something in one of their videos, and Chuck might have already said his point, but it’ll never be like, ‘Hey, Chuck, you can’t say anything,'” Levin says. “Like, if Chuck’s got a point he wants to make behind that coming off their video, we tried to allow that space for that to occur. And sometimes, that’ll lead to a discussion back and forth. … We’ll leave space for that and then we’ll just shorten the second segment.”
Everything is done with the end goal of allowing the guys to be authentic, which is made easier by having Barkley as the face of the show. As Johnson notes, they never have to say, “‘Hey Chuck, make sure you’re authentic tonight,’ that’s just in his DNA.” That sometimes means he drags the show out into deep waters, as Chuck might make a Clarence Thomas joke or wish he was watching something else during a boring game, but it’s what makes him the show’s north star when it comes to maintaining a natural feel.
“A lot of that comes from from Charles. Another kind of key word or mantra we have around here’s ‘authentic.’ You know, keeping your authentic voice and staying true to yourself, and Charles resonates that more than anybody,” Levin says. “If the game is boring or sh*tty, he’ll be the first one to say it. I think it was the other night he was like, ‘Hey, I’m watching the two hockey games.’ So you know, he’s the shining light of that. And that allows us all to kind of remain a little truer, a little more authentic to ourselves and what we actually feel.”
For a show that has found its success by allowing everyone to be themselves, the only way to have that happen is to carve out enough time for them to be comfortable and not be focused on spitting out their takes or analysis in a regimented time-frame. They have, previously, had timed sponsored segments that didn’t always work as intended, yielding Shaq’s all-time “one, two, back to one” rant.
A moment like that is part of what separates Inside, but it also shows how they’ve seamlessly integrated so many different facets of production to augment what the guys on the set are doing. Alex Houvouras (Art Director, Associate Producer) has been in charge of graphics and art for the show for years, creating memes before memes were a thing. He’s the one doodling on the Alex Len photo in the clip above, giving the show some of its unique color that affords the guys on set something else to react to. For Houvouras, his job is all about active listening, and then trying to turn ideas into reality as quickly as he can so it’s still fresh.
“I’m just listening to the mics,” Houvouras says. “Really, all of us behind the scenes are kind of in service to the guys, and we’re all just trying to keep that conversation flowing and keep the jokes running as they’re talking. So we’re all trying to service the conversation that they’re having. So, if I hear something that I think is funny, or I think is good visual, I’m just hopping on and trying to get it out there in the next couple of minutes so it’s timely.”
Working in tandem with Houvouras is Andrew Prezioso (Production Assistant), aka Prez, who does the digging to find the tweets that make it to air. Part of why Inside resonates the way it does is the feeling of involvement fans have, because if they tweet something in reaction to the show, Prez might just go find it and throw it up on the screen — whether their account is tagged or not — for the guys to see. For Levin, the social element has become incredibly important to what they do, which is why Prezioso and the social team are part of every production meeting to make sure the TV and social sides are in lock step.
Adding social elements to a TV show can be tricky, but what makes it work for Inside is how natural it is, sticking with their mantra of being authentic. It’s why Prezioso seeks out those tweets rather than asking for engagement with polls or questions.
“It’s not something that people have to go and tag us, or we have to go and ask for,” Prezioso says. “It’s just kind of giving the voice of the fans and putting that into the show and allowing them to interact with guys like Chuck and Shaq and Kenny and EJ. Just seeing the fans reactions to all that, I think it’s something that’s really unique to what we do.”
As everyone I talked to notes, the reason it all works is that the guys on set are willing to respond and have fun with it, particularly at their own expense. A tweet that prods Chuck or Shaq is going to get laughs from the rest of the crew, while they’re likely to return fire. If it’s Kenny, he might stew over it, which only makes it funnier and ensures they go back to the well over and over.
“If the guys up on set had bigger egos, softer personalities, whatever and they weren’t willing to take the jokes, this wouldn’t work,” Prezioso says. “But we’re allowed to continue to make those jokes. Like, I know Kenny keeps on saying he doesn’t like being a dog, but then it keeps on helping us replenish dog GIFs, and it just kind of makes everything more fun.”
Houvouras and Prezioso know they’ve done their job when they throw up an image or a tweet and get the guys rolling on set, with breaking Johnson as the ultimate goal. For Johnson and the guys on the set, adding all of those different elements has only served to keep the show fresh after all these years, as they’ve managed to adapt and stay relevant while also still just being themselves. Johnson can remember when the social stuff was thought of as a gimmick, working a PGA Championship broadcast that didn’t want to put up tweets from golfers, but now is integral to how Inside operates and allows them to interact with fans.
Having a crew that’s been together for so long — in front of and behind the camera — is another benefit they have that isn’t always afforded to shows. They’ve had the same group on air for more than a decade, with Shaq as the most “recent” addition in 2011. Levin and Johnson have worked together for more than 10 years, dating back to Fan Night on NBA TV, where they got to learn each other’s rhythms before Levin took over on Inside. The continuity allows for an open flow of ideas behind the camera and non-verbal communication on it, as Ernie can see a little twinkle in Shaq or Chuck’s eyes and know exactly how to set them up for a great moment.
“I’m the rogue traffic cop, the guy who does want some collisions at his intersection,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I think after working with these guys for so long, I know that in my prep if I bring up this point, Charles is going to jump on it. And I also know that Shaq is probably going to broadside Charles when he says something. It’s that familiarity with each other and knowing how we all think, that’s what makes it work. And that’s what makes it possible to do that show without rehearsing at all. We never do that. We never sit down and run through a segment. It’s just whatever you see right there is genuine gut level reaction. And I think that’s been the key to the show for years.”
Every show wants a feel of authenticity and to make viewers believe everyone on set is having as much fun as they would getting paid to talk about basketball. Inside is one of the very few sports shows that achieves that, and does so by going against the natural instincts of making a TV show.
“When you’re producing a show, you want to hold on and you want to have control and know ,like, this is how it’s gonna go and this is how it’s gonna time out,” Levin says. “That makes it a lot more comfortable for you as a producer, but being able to take your hands off the wheel and just going like, hey, we’re gonna ride this thing out and see which way it goes. If the car veers left, we’ll go left, and right, we’re gonna go right. It’s a really hard thing to do as a producer and it takes some time and reps to get comfortable with that. And being willing to take the risk that, when you let your hands off the wheel, sometimes you’re gonna go into the ditch. That does happen from time to time, but we have the creative freedom from everybody above me to be able to make mistakes and to be able to kind of let it go off the rails from time to time.”
It’s not something many networks are willing to do, but TNT has and the Inside guys have rewarded them for it by consistently producing the most entertaining sports studio show out there. They’ve continued to adopt new ways to keep the show fresh — even when they’re on six nights a week in the playoffs — while still leaning on the formula that works.
The results speak for themselves. It might not always go according to plan, but it’s rarely not enjoyable to watch.
“I mean,” Johnson says with a laugh, “Every one of our shows is somewhere between a walk on the beach and a train wreck.”