Social team makes NBA more lively for Turner
Since launching a specialized social media group in 2013, Turner Sports has continued to push its capabilities, including the creation of a dedicated social studio inside the WarnerMedia Studios in midtown Atlanta. Turner’s flagship studio show, “Inside The NBA,” has nimbly evolved along with technology and the demands of a growing social audience. The show, now in its 30th season, as well as other Turner programs, has seen how social media enhances, energizes and promotes its broadcasts.
At Turner, social media is an equal part of the operation. That philosophy runs deep. Within moments of entering the massive facility on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20 for an NBA tripleheader, a fist gently taps me on my left shoulder. It is “Inside The NBA” co-host and former player Kenny Smith, who while making his way toward Studio J says hello to everyone, even a visitor who will be spending the next few hours getting a behind-the-scenes look at how TNT incorporates social media into the NBA studio show. The show’s other co-hosts, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, also offer a greeting.
■ 4:30 p.m.: On the set for “Inside The NBA,” a nearly 10-minute feature on the legacy of King created by Turner Sports in partnership with Wondros and Barkley, plays in the studio, and Johnson and the former players stare intently at monitors and prepare to go live to start the night.
■ 4:37 p.m.: One of the features on “Inside The NBA” looks at streets across the country named after King.
■ 5:15 p.m.: Craig Barry, Turner Sports executive vice president and chief content officer, says the show’s talent dictates what happens each night with social media. “Everything can be part of the show,” he said, with poignant and funny moments all having the potential to go viral. Albert “Scooter” Vertino, senior vice president of content, production and programming, says of social media, “It’s just another layer of us twisting the knife to kind of take a peek behind the curtain. Like, ‘Oh they are just like us.’ Everyone can laugh at themselves, and it humanizes those guys.” You can’t just create a viral moment, Vertino said, but “it’s one of those where when it does occur, let’s just be prepared to capitalize on it.’ And that’s where social really comes in now. Because if it’s, you know, Charles falls asleep or Shaq falling or any of that stuff, those were things we would always play back. And we will, but then social is going to amplify it in real time, and the moment is going to be that much bigger.”
■ 5:55 p.m.: Heading up to the third floor to the Social Studio, where social media vice president Morgan Dewan and social media senior director Tyler Price are waiting, the room is both an office space and a production studio. There are blinds on the windows that can be lowered to give privacy while videos, livestreams and podcasts are recorded. There is also a sign above the door that illuminates to warn passersby that live production is in process.
There are several monitors on the wall in the small control room allowing the social media team to track game action and, as highlights warrant, clip plays and post them to social media. There are two rows of tables with four people per row and about a dozen people in the room overall. Those on the front row are creating the video clips and those in the back are programming the video and writing the content that will accompany the posts. Some of the staff are adding graphical elements or creating more stylish posts. Price said that during the NCAA Tournament, which Turner broadcasts with partner CBS, there may be another dozen people to help cover the increased volume.
Next to the larger screens are smaller monitors used to track metrics related to the posts. “If there is a big moment, we oftentimes will pull up a Tweet Deck or a CrowdTangle to make sure that we can track everything, [the whole] conversation,” Price said. “Specifically, when it’s our show that has a moment like that, we want to make sure everyone knows how big this is and who’s responded.” Among the things they observe is conversation volume and interactions by team across the league.
“We’re not in the business of chasing likes in any way around here. We want to have organic moments,” said Price. “We see that, we try and understand, ‘OK, what’s driving that’ and then ‘Do we have a role in that conversation?’ If we do feel like we have a role in that conversation, for sure, we’ll reach out and get a back-and-forth going, or take a moment where Chuck [Barkley] criticizes himself and send it at them or whatever it is. We’ll play in that space, but forcing ourselves into that, it’s not in the DNA of what that show does, and we kind of take our lead from what they do.”
■ 6:18 p.m.: When a player gets hot, it is fair to expect the social media team to spotlight some of his best moments. Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday’s 21 first-half points, including five three-pointers in his return from injury, is no different. The turnaround on content can be less than a minute. Creating content around every TNT and NBA TV game gives the social team plenty of experience in recognizing when big plays or moments are developing. Some moments are more sensitive, making it important to take time to ensure every element of the post is exactly right. And since the social team receives the live feed and not the broadcast feed, the actual posts may be delivered almost in lockstep with when the action is being viewed at home.
■ 6:23 p.m.: In the control room, senior producer Jeremy Levin is overseeing the night’s production. At his side are Turner social producer Ann Lutzenkirchen and coordinator Asia Brown, who search for pertinent content to be used during “Inside The NBA.” Social media’s incorporation into broadcasts may have been a source of conflict for some producers in the industry, but Levin said he has happily tossed away his show rundown when viral moments happen. “The best nights are the nights we don’t plan it out, right? It just happens,” Levin said. “Shaq says something, and it catches fire, and it goes and then the fun part is when you start showing [the moment] and then it kind of starts feeding itself. It just starts becoming this machine of, ‘Oh, we got another [post], we got another one. Oh, load up three more.’” The social media team has a presence in the show’s production meetings, and the production crew doesn’t shy away from ideas from any corner of the studio.
■ 6:35 p.m.: One of the additions over the past two years credited to Dewan is what Price calls quick-twitch visual effects artists. On this night, the small room located on the third floor houses social media assistant manager Chan Traub and WarnerMedia Studios designer Patrick Rossano. They are creating anywhere from two to a dozen pieces of content on any given night. Traub said they pay attention to storylines no one is discussing. For example, during a game last season, they opened the show with Rockets guard James Harden using his signature step back to “travel” from Houston to Miami.
■ 7:30 p.m: The first game of the tripleheader is now over, and Dewan, Price and the social team still have two more games to go, starting with Celtics-Lakers. Social producers receive live video feeds throughout the night from remote locations and the studio, and access all video feeds that are coming into any control room across all of WarnerMedia Studios including live video feeds of players warming up for games TNT is going to televise. That feed runs across the NBA on TNT social platforms.
■ 8:22 p.m.: Barkley predicts the Celtics will defeat the Lakers. How should their faithful feel about that? Traub and Rossano put their spin on the moment. Another feature to the social room is a space dedicated to the production of live social video content, both from the court and from studio shows.
■ 10:18 p.m.: Graphics are a great way for the social team to present nuggets of info in an alternative fashion. Take this one highlighting Celtics guard Kemba Walker’s struggles to beat LeBron James throughout his career.
■ 11:37 p.m.: The “Inside The NBA” crew never lets an opportunity to laugh at each other slide. Barkley’s tongue twisting in pronouncing player names makes for a great tweet for the social crew.
■ 12:23 a.m.: Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard sends his team to overtime against the Warriors and the social team honors his heroics with a gif.
■ 1:23 a.m.: The Turner team sends out its final social post of the night, wrapping up a long day with 101 total posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube that had started at 10:30 a.m.