The NBA Countdown team has driven ratings upward. On Christmas day, ESPN and ABC will, once again, … [+]
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See the ESPN Christmas broadcast schedule at the base of this article
Welcome to Christmasketball. While much of America basks in the Christmas holiday, for many, basketball will be the soundtrack for the day. ESPN and the NBA have done what the NFL did with Thanksgiving: own the day. Drive hard core and average fans to a destination on the dial. Whether it’s in the background or something the family gathers around, the NBA will be a key ratings driver for the day. This Christmas day, ESPN and ABC will have a slate of four games (see the schedule below)
It’s early in the season, but overall, ratings for the NBA have been down. Whether that’s due to injury of key players, load management, football still ruling the day… what have you, no matter what Christmas is the day that most see basketball move out of the infancy of the regular season, and more into the meat.
But for ESPN’s NBA Countdown, they’ve bucked the early ratings trend. The studio show has seen a 14% increase in viewership vs. Friday’s NBA Countdown shows last year. So why the increase?
Part of it can be attributed to the core broadcast team. New host Maria Taylor, along with Jay Williams, Adrian Wojnarowski, longtime Countdown analyst Jalen Rose, as well as Richard Jefferson and Paul Pierce making regular appearances has created a dynamic that’s working on-air and with audiences. In speaking with multiple people that work on the show, one word stands out: chemistry.
“The chemistry is really good,” said Taylor, a rising star in broadcast talent. “I’ve had a chance to now work with every single person that’s on the set or work with each other prior whether that’s been doing Get Up, the NBA combine, or College GameDay, we all have sense of each other.”
For Jalen Rose, this will be his 14th straight year working Christmas, and his eighth season doing NBA Countdown. The former NBA star who played for six teams during his career including Denver (1994-96), Indiana (1996-2002), Chicago (2002-2003), Toronto (2003-2006), New York (2006) and Phoenix (2006-07) is now the elder statesman of the ESPN NBA Countdown studio team. Given his tenure, he has critical insight into how Countdown has grown.
“There were a couple of narratives about it that I don’t think were entirely accurate,” Rose says. “People wanted to point to the on-air personality, but there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that fans rarely see that are a factor. Whether that’s producers, researchers, what have you, they’re critical.”
Rose and Taylor both point to the coordinating producer role as a key part of the success.
A rarity in sports television, Amina Hussein is an African-American female that took over the coordinating producer role for Countdown for the 2012-13 NBA season. Rose calls her the “anchor” and the “heartbeat” of Countdown. Taylor sees her as something more.
“I see the opportunity for not only women, but women of color doing Countdown as a landmark moment,” says Taylor. “At ESPN, I’ve only worked with one other African-American female at ESPN and that was Julaine Edwards as part of the SEC Network. So, having Amina involved is everything to me.”
Insightful, Rose talked of the challenges that NBA Countdown has in terms of time slots, audience, and what the show is largely about which is promoting the game or games at hand. While the NBA on TNT broadcast team has been seen as somewhat of a gold standard, part of that is due to the type of programming it is as it compares to NBA Countdown. NBA on TNT is largely a postgame show and late night which as Rose said, “allows for it be more like Conan or Jimmy Kimmel — late night television where your audience is older.” For ESPN’s NBA pre-game show, the audience runs across multiple tracks. “For us, Countdown can be on at noon on ABC. It can be on a Saturday. It can be in prime time. Charles Barkley is one of my mentors and I highly respect what Turner is doing. But they have an advantage largely focusing on just Thursday. We have multiple broadcast teams reaching multiple demos and multiple days.”
Covering all the games with pre-game programming across multiple days has created a new focus. According to Mike Shiffman, VP of Production for ESPN, this past summer it was decided to do three distinct pre-game shows. “It’s really a testament to our resources,” which he cites as both on-air and behind the scenes.
For the main team, Shiffman points back to the dynamic of the on-air personalities.
“We were hopeful about the chemistry just because a fair number of them had worked together on Get Up, and we saw that chemistry opportunity. They work together both on and off-air together.”
Rose sees the team in place across the program as a reason Countdown will likely continue its growth.
“While there has been a lot of changes leading up to where we are now, the current level of consistency is something that will continue us to elevate the show,” Rose said. “I’m glad the fans appreciate the changes that we’ve made and still made it a successful show on television, digital and social media platforms.”
Below shows the 2019 ESPN/ABC broadcast schedule for Christmas Day:
NBA Christmas ESPN ABC 2019 broadcast schedule