Amid TV uncertainty, ‘Inside the NBA’ continues to be an entertainment blueprint

ATLANTA — Kenny Smith dances his way to his seat 90 seconds before TNT’s “Inside the NBA” goes live on the air. Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” is playing. For many, it’s almost impossible to be in a bad mood with that song playing, and Smith is no exception.

Smith struts to the extended desk on the studio set, stopping for a quick two-step with a staffer before taking his seat. You’d expect him to be a little more serious, as this April night is an important day for the NBA. Western Conference Play-In Tournament games are starting, and a collection of some of the biggest names in the league — players commonly known by one name: LeBron, Steph, Draymond and Zion — will be featured.

Instead, there is a party vibe with Smith and the entire TNT crew. And that kind of environment on game days isn’t just reserved for when the cameras are off. It’s what’s made the show special for several years.

“Inside the NBA” has been a television mainstay because of its blend of entertainment, basketball IQ and, perhaps most importantly, unpredictability. The show, hosted by Ernie Johnson, includes the former NBA player trio of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Smith, and they make up a foursome that has set a bar for in-studio sports shows. This iteration of the show has been together for 12 years.

Whether the show remains intact long-term is the question. Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), which is over TNT Sports (TNT, TBS and TruTV), did not reach an agreement on a new media rights deal with the NBA during its exclusive 45-day negotiating window. While WBD CEO David Zaslav was “hopeful” that they could reach a deal that “makes sense for both sides,” the NBA, per reports, is expected to formalize written contracts with Disney, NBC and Amazon.



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If WBD does not retain rights to the NBA, the 2024-25 season will be the last for TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”

But for now, the show must go on. And it does its part of putting on a show to remember.

From left: Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. (Courtesy of TNT Sports)

The moments the show brings can’t be scripted. Part of that is because of the cast, and part is the overall freedom from the production team, led by multitime Sports Emmy Award winner Keith Robinson. In addition to intelligent sports talk, the show has given the world inventive ways to see sports follies.

An on-court gaffe from a player isn’t just part of a comedy reel; that player is “Shaqtin’ A Fool.” A team doesn’t just end its season after the playoffs; it’s “Gone Fishin’,” as fans of the show then wait to see what graphic accompanies the postseason send-off.

The show has become its own sports blueprint of sorts — at the same time, a difficult blueprint to follow.

“I see people try to duplicate what we do, but they would never allow their talent to do what we do,” Smith said. “We don’t go to production meetings. We don’t tell them what we’re going to say. Keith has no clue what I’m going to say; there’s no clue. We just know we’re going to talk about this (or that) game. That’s all he knows.

“There’s no other production company that’s going to let you do that and trust that, except for this one.”

It’s hard to imagine an NBA season without the show, but the notion of the basketball landscape without the popular quartet has become a real possibility. The only thing that is certain is the show will be back next season.

If the show as it is were to end after the 2024-25 season, there’s been speculation as to whether or not the crew simply would move to a new network. How would the NBA media landscape change without arguably its most popular studio analysis show?

“Honestly, we have no idea what is going to happen,” Barkley said. “I don’t know how everyone’s contracts work. We’re gonna have to see how it will play out.”

Charles Barkley preparing for a pregame show. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

It’s almost assured the show would not be the same on another network. There’s a certain privilege the current crew has on TNT that may not fit elsewhere. The different approach is what makes the show unique. The three former players say the freedom to speak on multiple topics and lean into humor and culture, along with working with Johnson, are reasons why they are at TNT and not another network.

Johnson has hosted the show since 1990, but he’s also a part of baseball coverage on TBS and a part of the NCAA Tournament and PGA coverage for TNT Sports. It’s uncertain if Barkley, Smith or O’Neal would try to find chemistry with a new crew on a new network.

Meanwhile the show continues to pile up honors. At the 2024 Sports Emmy Awards on Tuesday in New York, Johnson won for Outstanding Personality/Studio Host, his seventh Sports Emmy. Barkley won for Outstanding Personality/Studio Analyst, his fifth Sports Emmy. The show also won for Outstanding Studio Show – Limited Run, earning its 21st Sports Emmy.

Despite winning awards, Barkley continues to crack jokes amid the show’s uncertainty. During Game 7 conference-semifinal highlights, he said he’d be on LinkedIn, the social media employment platform. But as he’s also stressed on multiple occasions, no one truly knows what will happen to the show.

Craig Barry, the executive vice president and chief content officer for WBD Sports, said the show operates under a few basic principles. It believes in the intersection of sports and culture. It understands the need to keep the hardcore fan engaged while also appealing to the casual fan. Entertainment is a premium, as are authentic reactions and dialogue.

That’s why Johnson rarely uses a teleprompter. He has note cards for key points that need to be hit, but there’s no show outline. Barkley, Smith and O’Neal aren’t in planning meetings so that their reactions are real and not based on talking points established hours earlier.

The multiple jokes and funny moments work because no one is offended by being on the wrong side of one.

“It’s absolutely imperative that we lean into the style and culture of each individual, because ultimately, that’s going to create that diverse quilt of content that is a true representation of our audience,” Barry said. “It’s a little bit of lightning in a bottle that these four guys have this fantastic chemistry that’s never wavered. It’s nothing you can teach, you know? It’s only something you can facilitate if it comes to be.

“We’ve been able to facilitate it and nurture it, but really at its core, it’s because they’re who they are.”

Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal during the 2023 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference finals. (Eric Espada / NBAE via Getty Images)

Production meetings aren’t so much about Robinson giving directions as they are a brainstorming session, soliciting ideas from approximately 20 staffers in the room. Johnson is there often noting what needs to be included in the show, usually necessary bullet points such as the rules to the Play-In Tournament. But it’s far from a script.

As ideas are bandied about, Johnson sits in one of the four gray recliners in the meeting room during a session that lasts less than 30 minutes. Robinson routinely checks in with Johnson a couple of days before a show to let him know what he’s thinking and to trade ideas. What’s discussed the day of the show becomes a loose outline.

“He’s really big on making sure we’re touching on all the important stuff, the storylines and making sure that we are accurately and editorially hitting all of that stuff,” Robinson said. “But I always prepare for Charles and Shaq and Kenny to come in and totally do what they want to do. It happens quite often, actually, when we’ll have an idea and Charles will say, ‘Hey, Ernie can I say something real quick?’ And then, it just totally takes a left.”

Director Lee Mabry said having the pre-show script is still important as it allows the show to steer back to a topic not yet discussed. Or, Mabry might see the script and realize where the show has been best for the night.

It’s an oxymoron, but the show is planned spontaneity. One reason Barkley, Smith and O’Neal aren’t in production meetings is because the show thrives on their live and honest reactions, ranging from uncontrollable laughter to serious takes on the NBA.

It took some time to get to this point. It was in the 1990s when former producer Tim Kiely, who retired last year, wanted a more conversational show and one day turned off Johnson’s teleprompter without telling him. Johnson wasn’t a fan of this, Barry said, but it worked. Smith, who joined TNT full-time in 1998 after his NBA playing career, said the evolution was natural.

The show was more free, and when Barkley joined in 2000, Smith said it became “mainstream.” Once O’Neal, who admittedly started his broadcasting career trying to emulate Bryant Gumbel, learned how to let things flow, things were even better.

Johnson guides “Inside the NBA” as needed, but it’s the unexpected discussions and laughs that work, particularly in the early hours of the morning.

“We’ll be on here one night, and we’ll start talking about Martha Stewart, nothing to do with basketball,” Smith said. “I think we’ve become an entertainment show, not on purpose, but of purpose.”

“If we had three things that we thought were interesting and they want to dovetail off that at 1 in the morning … that’s where the authenticity comes from, because it’s actually something they want to talk about, not something we’re forcing them to talk about,” Mabry added. “That’s where the real magic of the show is, and it’s a credit to those guys. They know that if they go somewhere else, we’re going to follow with them.”

It also helps that the four studio analysts have no issue being the brunt of a joke that could go multiple ways. It might be Smith falling while running to the big board for highlights at halftime. It could be an unintenti0nally funny comment like Barkley stating his affinity for street meats in New York, which made O’Neal break into laughter.

These moments often are perfect setups for the social media team, which pulls tweets that poke fun at the crew to be used in the show and keep fans a part of the program. Those moments also are discussed during production meetings.

“You just have so much room to run when it comes to brainstorming what the show is going to be,” said Larry Lacksen, senior manager of brand strategy for WBD Sports. “We’re talking about ideas for stuff we can drop on them. That’s pretty rare. Shaq’s super into any kind of stunt that is going to go viral on a given night. And Chuck, we can have fun with (him) like that, too. For guys of those statuses to be able to be a part of the joke, it’s huge for us on the creative end.”

One of the crew’s most memorable ideas happened two years ago when Barkley referred to Kevin Durant as a “bus rider” rather than a “bus driver” during his championship run with the Golden State Warriors. Durant responded on social media by posting photos of Barkley with other star teammates during his stints with the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers.

It ended up not being a feud, but a moment that many still remember from the show.

“We take that to the production meeting, and we’re like, OK, what can we do to go after KD at this point and have fun with it?” said Victoria McBryde, NBA social strategist and segment producer for WBD Sports. “We ended up bringing a bus in our graphic, themed around Chuck driving a bus and players in the back. A lot of moments can really build, which is really cool and really fun.”

The fun extends to other phases of the TNT brand, too. The hosts were featured in commercials for this year’s playoffs that included Barkley’s former teammate in Philadelphia. Hall of Famer Julius Erving — simply Dr. J to many — plays a therapist for the crew in separate commercials.

Creative director Tyler Lassiter said what makes spots like those work is maximizing the time with them and incorporating their input. They come loaded with ideas and are willing to have fun.

“The fact that the show is more than just basketball, there is a lot of humor that’s injected into it on a nightly basis,” Lassiter said. “I feel like we can have liberty, and we have the ability to do that in our promotion. The talent’s a differentiator for us. Being able to lean into that and use them is a really special thing.”

The good vibes even come from those who aren’t on the show. As Barkley, Smith and O’Neal watched the Play-In game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans, former NBA players dropped by the studio green room and were seen in the hallways. NBA TV’s studio is right across the hallway, and Steve Smith, Jamal Crawford and Greg Anthony were among those milling around. Baseball Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez was seen in the lobby watching television.

“Inside the NBA” has an aura that invites everyone in. The crew doesn’t make it a priority to sell viewers on bad games, and over the course of an 82-game regular season, they know a lot of bad games can be broadcast on TNT. Over a seven-hour span, there needs to be legit reason to tune in.

“We can’t talk about basketball from 7 (p.m.) to 2 in the morning,” Barkley said. “We hope we get two good games. The only time we have to take it to another level and try to figure out something is when we have s— games, and it’s a long time to be on television when you’re trying to entertain people.

“You’ve got two audiences: You’ve got a regular basketball fan — they’re easy — but you want other people, and no show can be successful unless you get other people to watch.”

“I think it’s the best show ever,” O’Neal added. “People don’t even watch the games, but they watch the show. That allows us to utilize our humor. If I’m going to stay up, I would want to see something funny and informative, and we do both. The other shows, it’s blah, blah, blah, blah, just a bunch of f—— rambling.”

Everyone on the show has the same question: If “Inside the NBA”ends up leaving TNT, would there be a show that would captivate the dedicated and casual fans the way it does? Fans likely would flock to another network, but would they find the same entertainment value? And would they find a network that allows its talent to have the unscripted freedom that TNT permits?

Other shows have tried to duplicate the formula. CBS’ London-based UEFA show “Champions League Today” admitted to leaning into the TNT blueprint. Last year, “Fox NFL Sunday” host Curt Menefee, said the success of their show has a lot to do with the ability to balance information and entertainment in the same manner of “Inside the NBA.” He’s friends with Barkley and Johnson and speaks with them about both shows.

“I’m not disparaging anybody else’s show, but I think our show has that (balance), and the TNT NBA show has that,” Menefee said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to get serious about topics that cross over or even just from an X’s and O’s standpoint rather than just joking all the time. The ability to do both is kind of rare in our industry, because people tend to pick one lane or the other.”

Ernie Johnson at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

For all the fun the show has and its many awards, it does have its critics. It’s not the fun some have an issue with; it’s the perception that the analysts don’t take the games seriously that’s in question.

“I think on the nights when the games are compelling enough, it’s almost all basketball,” Johnson said. “Something might happen that’s off the beaten path a little bit, but if the games are great, we’re going to be talking about that and breaking it down. The problem is sometimes in the regular season when you hit the dog days and then they won’t let me get through a highlight that I’m trying to do … because who cares, man? The game was terrible.”

That doesn’t silence critics. ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins said in a recent interview that O’Neal and Barkley don’t “watch basketball on a consistent basis,” unless it’s a game they’re covering for a broadcast.

It was a topic the “Inside the NBA” crew used for comedic material. Barkley, a Hall of Famer considered one of the greatest power forwards ever, walked on the set and asked aloud about Perkins’ career stats. Perkins had a lengthy career in the NBA and won a championship in 2008 with the Boston Celtics but isn’t considered the premier player Barkley was.

O’Neal laughed at a video that would be uploaded to social media during a break in the Lakers-Pelicans game. Perkins said that he doesn’t watch games, but O’Neal watched a few in the upload — all clips of some of Perkins’ worst moments on the court.

It’s not just game talk that ruffles feathers. It’s the blatant honesty of the analysts that some can’t stand. During an interview with newly named NBA MVP Nikola Jokić, O’Neal told Jokić he believed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should have won the award. Some appreciated how O’Neal didn’t sugarcoat his feelings. Others believed O’Neal was raining on Jokic’s moment.

O’Neal said some players can be “sensitive” about criticism. He has irked big men like Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee in the past, but he credited Anthony Davis with not taking things personally and choosing to answer the call and play better.

“I think from a respect standpoint, I always talk about G14 classification,” O’Neal said, referring to his credentials to talk about players. “Hall of Famer Charles, me, Ernie is respected and a Hall of Famer, and Kenny has two championships. We’re probably in the lead in knowing what we’re talking about.”

That’s what makes the idea of “Inside the NBA” not being around after next season odd. Love it or hate it, the show is ingrained in NBA culture.

It also helps that the four hosts aren’t simply colleagues; they’re friends. They even have their own version of a golf major, which they called the Black Masters, that takes place on the course where Johnson lives. The winner gets a black jacket, instead of a green jacket, and there’s a cookout that follows at Johnson’s home.

“I love these guys,” Johnson said. “As close as I’ll ever come to having brothers.”

So what will happen if next season is the last one working together for the band of brothers? It wouldn’t be shocking to see all coveted by another network, but as Barkley noted, the uncertainty is there.

And even if they all left, Frankie Beverly and Maze would sound a little different in the studio with a new crew.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Getty; Mike Kirschbaum, Jamie Schwaberow, David Dow and Brandon Todd / NBAE via Getty Images)

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