NBATV's Indifferent Grace

NBATV may be, in fact, televised, but it's not exactly like television, is it?
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By standard measurements, NBATV is lacking in many of the areas that make television appealing. It has few original shows and endless repeats, and management has given no indication this will change. Still, I watch this station contently, laughing through the muddle of up and downbeats, never wishing that any particular game or show was played on another station instead. In all of its ineptitude, it’s still the place I go to watch the waning minutes of a less-than-compelling blowout or a repeat of "Gametime" that I’ve already seen. This alone, of course, isn’t enough for me to call the station unambiguously good. Let’s call it a sort of good and maybe an unintentionally different sort of good that management is going for. The bigger question is this: what are they going for?

The short answer is that they’re currently going for nothing. The slightly longer answer is that they were going for new adaptations of proven shows, that is, if you subscribe to a system in which deliberate choices are made and nothing happens by accident, which is how it generally works in TV-land, even NBATV-land. The creation of programming is never accidental, though whatever happens afterward may be. One concept that can’t be mistaken as an accident is the tendency for NBATV to lean on former players to spin yarns with generational buds on comfortable chairs. Sometimes this format sheds light on a player’s perspective, other times it’s a little staid and perfunctory. In light of the potential problems of a former players show, it’s understandable to focus on adaptations.

The return of "Inside Stuff" and the presence of "The Starters" reveal that management isn’t completely asleep at the flex-sealed boat's wheel. "The Starters" began as "The Basketball Jones" podcast, where hosts J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas used the unproven format to deliver good-natured, meme-worthy commentary on the league. After a stay at The Score, Skeets and company, with a few new members, moved away from their native Canada to NBATV with their forward-thinking ways and vast array of flannel. The demographic for this show includes those fluent in the meme, though that is not to say "The Starters" sacrifices real insights to appeal to this crowd. Their jokes come from their own humor, not a focus group, and their style comes from a self-awareness and humility that demonstrates they understand the sport from the couch, not the coaching bench, which appeals to this demographic and the NBATV brass in turn.

The relaunch of "Inside Stuff" also indicates that the network had a specific public in mind other than "The Starters’" young crowd. "Inside Stuff" is a relic from a bygone era, made for those whose 90’s childhood still pulls at their heartstrings and who likely remember spending their allowances on pre-bloated Shawn Kemp holographic cards. It’s doubtful "Inside Stuff" can sustain itself if the only goal is to entertain the fortyish crowd by channeling the ghost of a Saturday morning sports show. As it stands, the "Inside Stuff" dialogue is familiar in how it mirrors the sound of NBC’s 90’s show, back when Grant Hill was a featured athlete and not the co-host reading obviously scripted banter. The fact that Hill hosts the show creates a sense of continuity with the original, which means much less to those who missed the first run. If NBATV wants to keep that teen market engaged—strangers to packs of Skybox cards—they’ll need to offer more than the undeniably entertaining "The Starters."

But even if NBATV can offer only one show that’s doing something original, they do offer one thing that can’t be had elsewhere: a novel relationship to time. On NBATV, there isn’t the necessity to pack a limited amount of time with material. NBATV has all day to talk roundball, which they mostly do—except when they don’t because they’re busy selling flex seal. And sometimes, even when the show you’re watching—like "Gametime"—is purportedly for the sole purpose of discussing basketball, they don’t. But that’s when NBATV becomes its bizarre sort of good, because when they don’t, and no producer is speaking into an earpiece, gently mentioning commercial interests at hand, Matt Winer can neglect the Czar’s statements to rapturously speak of dancing bananas. It's moments like these when NBATV shines, when a bemused Matt Winer mulls over what he saw and Rick Fox plays the Watson role, deducing the Dancing Bananas’ Miami provenance from a taped loop. But Matthew Winer is no one’s fool, and he realizes those bananas on loop aren’t his dancing bananas, but rather a cheap stock image.

The Czar is not as amused, but I certainly am.

Prime-time TV doesn’t indulge silly moments of NBATV’s variety. Such moments are not on TNT where Ernie, Charles, and Kenny may match the humor but not the tone because the meticulous, award-winning preparation of the show can’t help but demonstrate the value of their station’s time. Needless to say, NBATV’s blatant disregard for time creates a different rhythm to the "Gametime" production, and the result is a feeling of camaraderie, as if these people would have gathered together even if the cameras weren’t around. "Gametime’s" format offers nothing novel; it follows one of the time-tested, almost sacred traditions of sports broadcasting: people in suits, of various styles and cuts, talking about a game in which they have no influence. You can find the same format on ESPN, TNT, and the Comcast stations in local markets, all with various degrees of success and station-mandated unnecessary gadgets and tricorder-pads.

But even when the situation suggests more immediacy—such as during a live game—NBATV’s management of its time perplexes and amuses.

During a Milwaukee Bucks game featuring technical difficulties, Vince Cellini took the opportunity to perform observational humor when the arena maintenance man, hair OSHA-pony-tail-approved and utility belt in tow, climbed up a ladder to adjust the level of the hoop. In Vince’s eyes, this maintenance man is ubiquitous, appearing in all cities at any time, so long as there is maintenance to be maintained. For other stations this delay would trigger a crisis mode on set, interns rushing to provide relevant trivia or historical context to the on-set hosts. Not at NBATV. Here, they take it easy like Sunday morning and entertain themselves. Are we not also thus entertained?

Moreover, what’s remarkable and seldom directly stated about "Gametime" is the stunning lack of ego on a basketball-centric production that could frequently feature a "they told me I’d never make it" or "I approach everything with a chip on my shoulders" spirit. Instead, the show features a level of goodwill that surpasses conviviality to reach familial heights—and I mean a family that actually enjoys one another’s company, especially when it includes their brother’s pony-tailed handyman story.

Watching NBATV is hardly like watching Television, which makes for surprisingly good, if incoherent, television. The best thing management can do is leave it in this almost neglected state, not ask it to hawk other products or services too aggressively, and allow it to stroll along on its own unique rhythm and pace. Stacking the day with original shows is appealing, and may lead to a great overall viewing experience, but doing so would jeopardize what makes NBATV great.

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