Friday, June 9, 2006

NBA on ABC Can’t Live Up to Predecessors

By Bill Hazell

As we enter early June, surely this would be the perfect time for an NBA Finals preview between two Finals newbies, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks. But I have had something to get off my chest about the way the NBA playoffs have been covered for the past four years.

Quite frankly (Stephen A. Smith notwithstanding), the game just doesn't look as good on TV anymore. There are a number of reasons for this — some noticeable, others are subtle things that most fans would overlook and roll their eyes if someone mentions this. However, when it comes to analyzing television coverage of a sporting event, I believe there are some subconscious elements at work.

I can still remember the day I turned on ESPNEWS and had an anchor tell me that ESPN and ABC had just signed a six-year television contract with the NBA, taking weekends and playoffs away from the magical land of NBC, and my heart sank a little. I knew that I really shouldn't care that much. It was still the same game with the same players, but I also knew my beloved sport would never look or feel the same way again. Four years later, I have noticed a laundry list of different and unconventional approaches ABC has employed that have taken away from the viewing experience.

For starters, ABC has never been able to settle on consistent or memorable theme music for NBA games. ESPN's NBA theme song has remained consistent, but is uninspired. This is only worth noting because NBC's NBA theme song, created by John Tesh, and entitled "Roundball Rock" was one of the most catchy and memorable sports themes of all-time and is still used in limited amounts for games televised on NBA TV. In 2004, Tesh's groundbreaking basketball track was even sampled in a mediocre Nelly rap song named "Heart of a Champion," albeit poorly. It serves as a tribute, nonetheless.

Next on the list is the quality of announcers. It was simple to figure out when ABC made this deal that they would have no one to call the games that could do a better job than NBC's top guns, most notably legend Marv Albert. Behind him on the NBC depth chart was articulate and insightful wordsmith Bob Costas, and behind him was the wildly underrated Tom Hammond.

Now in contrast, for the 2003 NBA Finals, the first title series done by ABC, the lead play-by-play man was Brad Nessler, hardly a big name. In fact, Nessler had never called a professional sport for television before that season, he had only done college football and basketball on ESPN. The unfamiliar (and unmemorable) voice did not add to the sport's new look.

A year later, four-sport star Al Michaels found himself in the lead play-by-play spot. This appeared to be a major improvement at first, however, as it went on, it seemed this deal had involved all the brainpower of an Isiah Thomas blockbuster special. Michaels, while delivering his trademark fluctuating voice and insights, was clearly better suited for the slower pace of football, which gave him more breaks in the action to to ramble and explain every little nuance of life he felt necessary.

However, in the NBA, Michaels all too often found himself in one of these tediously long-winded explanations talking over two or three possessions in a row. He would hardly have time to comment on the action you were seeing because he was so hung up on a prior subplot or storyline that he felt you, the viewer, just had to know about.

However, when Michaels was recently shipped to NBC for a cartoon to be named later, Mike Breen (an old NBC holdover, I might add) took over and is now ready to call the 2006 NBA Finals. This stands as a notable improvement, as Breen has been strictly a basketball announcer his entire career and therefore knows the game far better than Michaels, even if he does not have the same clout. Breen's explosive voice and ecstatic calls on game-deciding and game-winning shots have already added an extra theatrical touch in these playoffs, as well.

Now, on to the more subtle differences of the networks. ABC and ESPN shot the game differently than NBC in the '90s or CBS in the '80s before it. Their approach took away the vibrant colors and brilliant close-in images we were used to seeing, and replaced them with dulled-out colors from questionable angles. (Remember ABC's Floor Cam? Did that serve any purpose other than for giggly women who wanted to peek up a player's shorts when he dunked?)

The sideline camera view during game action was so far away that even a Shaq dunk on screen looked like a tiny ant pushing a cookie crumb down into an ant hill, whereas the Diesel once so perfectly filled up the screen. Honestly, do we really need to see everything from the basket to half court throughout every possession? On top of that, Shaq's Miami Heat road jersey, which would have looked vivid and bright red in NBC's heyday, had he played for the Heat then, now resembles something closer to a murky brown hue on ABC.

Our favorite athletes were no longer larger-than-life Greek gods — they were now mere worker insects. Breakaway dunks were suddenly punctuated by curious cutaways to an overhead view from the top of the basket, completely eliminating the enjoyment of seeing how much a LeBron James elevates off the ground and strikes a pose in mid-air before throwing one down. All these elements take away from the visual eye-candy element of basketball, and sport in general, that usually infatuates the subconscious mind while we watch, whether we take the time to think about this process or not.

Another unfortunate tactic used by ESPN/ABC is the dulling out of crowd noise. Sure, it's there, but hardly an accurate representation. The decision was made that the announcer's voices came first and should be clearly heard at all times. The result was a less emotional, less dramatic broadcast. Suddenly, the viewer can't feel the momentum of home-court advantage the way it should sound when Arco Arena is erupting after the latest 11-0 run by the Kings. The games were far more dramatic on NBC when the announcers were forced to shout over the honestly-represented raucous roars of the home crowds.

Look at any rebroadcast, or videotape if you were smart enough, of a memorable NBC playoff game in which the home team hits a game-winning shot in the final seconds (try Reggie Miller against the Bulls or Robert Horry against Sacramento) and you will notice the difference instantly. You would think those contests decided the fate of the free world with the crowd noise at the end of those games. But you'll hear none of that anymore.

The constant scorebox in the corner of the screen was not something NBC liked to use until the final minutes of a close game, when it was absolutely necessary (and only in their final years). They would much prefer, like those that came before them, to flash the score across the bottom of the screen while teams crossed half-court. However, while every other team sport acquired a constant running time and score somewhere on the screen, it seems to hurt basketball more than it helps it. Why? Because a watched pot never boils, and basketball has the slowest-moving clock of any sport. Nothing takes away from a tide-turning three or a back-breaking dunk more than seeing in the corner of your screen at the same time that there is still 6:42 left in the first quarter and the score is only 11-8.

The game seems to stretch on forever as you can't help but stare at that corner and wait and hope for the clock to tick down to "crunch time." The scorebox has since morphed into a more fashionable line score at the bottom of the screen, but remains no less of a constant reminder of the irrelevance of the great shot you just saw go down. When the time and score was out of your way, you could appreciate good basketball for what it was, and the occasional reminders between possessions left no lingering effects.

ABC also insists on more cutaways and less instant replays. This is great if you really wanted to see the look on Phil Jackson and Jack Nicholson's face at any given moment. This is great if you can't get enough shots of cheerleaders or large-breasted female fans. This is not great if you wanted to see that last blocked shot and the dunk preceding it from better angles right before the commercial break. NBC could sneak in as many slow-motion replays as necessary, anywhere they needed to and rarely missed game action in the process. The replays themselves also looked prettier, while ABC's look grittier.

The last effect of all this change in covering the game is that it caused TNT to copycat ABC's methods. Whereas it had been previously riding the coattails of NBC, TNT's camerawork suffered equally as they adopted the zoom-out approach, although they have retained other techniques of the deceased NBC package such as the additional replays and brighter colors.

Their choice of Fort Minor's "Remember the Name" as their theme song this year was a perfect fit (far more than I can say for Tom Petty's relaxed "Runnin' Down a Dream" on ABC), as the rap tune sports crossover appeal, competitive intensity, and clever lyrics that break down sport by the percentages. However, other problems that have recently plagued TNT's coverage of this year's Western Conference Finals can be explained in two words: David Hasselholf.

The ratings back up these observations. Case in point: the '04 Finals was the most highly-anticipated of ABC's recent tenure, pitting the big-market Lakers of Shaq and Kobe against the underdog Detroit Pistons in a matchup with major David versus Goliath appeal that magnified with each stunning Pistons win. This series got an average rating of 11.5 on ABC, the zenith of their brief era thus far. NBC averaged that for a bad Finals, such as Spurs/Knicks from 1999 (11.4). Meanwhile, the peacock network peaked the year before that in Michael Jordan's swan song with a robust 18.7 Nielsen average in the memorable /98 Bulls/Jazz finals.

In 2002, NBC's last NBA Finals; they had a low but respectable 10.4. The next year, ABC's first, things had plummeted down to 6.5. Many complained about the lackluster matchups, small markets, and poor play of the Nets and Spurs in 2003, but there may have been those extra factors involved here. The '02 Finals was no picnic, either, as we all knew the Nets stood no chance against Shaq and Kobe and we were right — but at least a decent amount of us still watched.

You may notice that many of NBC's old techniques involving colors and camera angles and crowd noise are still employed today by another major basketball network — CBS during the NCAA tournament. It's no coincidence that the entire nation remains fixated on that event for those same three weeks every year. Both CBS and NBC managed to capture the heart of sport, the human interest, the emotion, and put it in the best possible and purest light. This is something that the two-headed monster of ABC and ESPN has never truly quite understood.

So good luck to those faithful NBA readers dedicated on watching every minute of this year's finals on ABC. If the action seems lacking, keep in mind that the game once looked as picturesque as an exotic tropical island in a sea of rabid fans. It is now merely an ordinary hardwood floor with baskets only slightly more visible than a needle's eye, and 10 little ants passing around a cookie crumb, as you look on from your nosebleed seats at home. Enjoy the view.

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