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NBA Finals media column: WPLG cheats viewers; ABC bristles at TNT comparisons

Here's the Friday media column. Please see the last post for notes, quotes and postscripts from Game 4.


Media news and views from The NBA Finals:

### While most of the country was watching Magic Johnson and the ABC pre-game analysts discuss Game 2 of the Finals on Sunday night, South Florida viewers were suffering the indignity of watching a WPLG-Channel 10 reporter interview a puppet about the Heat-Spurs series.

Preempting ABC’s 30-minute NBA pregame show to air its own, as WPLG has done through much of these Finals, is irritating enough. But doing so to air a broadcast comprised mostly of mindless, pom-pom waving fluff is especially galling, and WPLG should be embarrassed.

Thankfully, Channel 10 decided to show ABC's pregame show for Game 4 and will do the same for Game 5, but not necessarily Game 6. But that was only because WPLG did not believe it could come up with enough material to fill a pre-game show from the road.

If you missed Channel 10’s Finals pre-game show earlier in the series (aside from the short segment competently handled by sports anchor Will Manso), consider yourself lucky. Besides the talking puppet, you missed anchor Calvin Hughes telling us “how pumped up the fans are.” (You don’t say?)

You missed irrelevant interviews with random fans opining about who would win. You missed a WPLG reporter asking a sports bar owner “if it will be loud in here” during the game. (And, no, he wasn’t kidding.)

In sum, you missed some of the most inane television you’ll ever witness.

There’s nothing objectionable with Channel 10 preempting the 30-minute ABC entertainment program that airs at 8 p.m. before 9 p.m. Finals games so it can inject local flavor into Heat coverage. That’s what affiliates do when your network has a championship series, and your team is participating.

But by extending that program to shortly before tipoff, WPLG shortchanges viewers curious to hear the national perspective from ABC’s Johnson, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons, and watch feature stories prepared by ESPN announcers. (ABC’s San Antonio affiliate is doing the same thing.)

To accommodate South Florida viewers, ABC has moved its pre-game show to ESPN2 in Dade and Broward homes with cable or satellite service. But Channel 10 hasn’t done enough to make viewers aware of that, and some viewers insist they’re not getting the pre-game on ESPN2.

Because of the ESPN/ABC/NBA contract, Manso – who had nothing to with this decision – was banished from the AmericanAirlines Arena court before Game 1 and had to stand outside in the rain to do his standup.

A station official said WPLG can make more in ad revenue by producing its own pregame show instead of airing ABC’s.

Asked why Channel 10 preempted ABC's pre-game show for the first three games of the series, WPLG general manager Dave Boylan said: “It allows South Florida viewers to get in-depth local reporting they cannot get from any other source.” But the content isn’t close to the quality of ABC’s.

A WPLG official said ABC is annoyed with Channel 10 for doing this. But an ABC publicist expressed no anger publicly, saying the local station reserves the right to preempt ABC programming.


The comparisons between ABC’s and TNT’s studio shows are inevitable, and it’s a battle ABC cannot win, because Charles Barkley and the Turner cast mix analysis with comedy and entertainment more skillfully than any pregame or postgame show in network sports television history.

While TNT’s cast has remained stable, aside from adding Shaquille O’Neal two years ago, ABC/ESPN has continued to tinker, with Simmons and Rose joining the cast this season.

ESPN president John Skipper said several months ago that Barkley “is a tough act to compete with. What we’re trying to do is let them be the entertaining show. We’ll be the smarty pants show.” Wilbon, in fact, calls Johnson “the smartest person I’ve ever dealt with in basketball.”

(But Magic has made several head-scratching comments, such as this one a few months ago: “Until the Knicks hate the Heat like the Bulls hate the Heat, they can’t beat them.” Huh?)

The members of the ABC cast dislike comparisons to the TNT show as much as Barkley dislikes “whiny” Heat fans.

“Their shows come on so late, it’s supposed to be different,” Wilbon said this past week. “It’s like late night television. So Shaq comes out and does Kung Fu moves. I’m laughing my butt off at that. We’re not that. We’re on an all-sports network. We’re supposed to be different.

“I like them for what they are, and I like us I hope for what we’re becoming. We have broad range. We’re not going to be at the level of entertainment they are. If you don’t have Barkley and Shaq, you shouldn’t be doing that.”

Wilbon bristles when fans suggest to him on Twitter that the ABC analysts “hate” their TNT counterparts, and vice versa.

“I’ve gone after people on Twitter” about that, Wilbon said. “I have longstanding relationships with all the [TNT studio analysts]. I text Kenny and Charles during their show.”

### ABC sideline reporter Doris Burke has become the model for asking concise, precise questions, without clumsy lead-ins or pontification.

She also had avoided becoming the latest sideline reporter to draw the ire of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who sometimes seems to take perverse pleasure in embarrassing the poor soul assigned to interview him after the first or third quarter.

Conducting those in-game interviews with Popovich “is absolutely scary,” Burke said last week. “Every time I go over there, I am in abject terror. My one thought is: Just don’t make him angry.”

Burke said when Popovich seems annoyed by a question, “I try very hard not to take it personally because I know he doesn’t mean his reactions personally. And each time we speak off air, there’s great rapport and respect between us. Off the court, he is one of my favorite people to talk to in the NBA – smart, funny, engaging.”

At issue is Popovich’s philosophical objection to participating in those NBA-mandated interviews during TNT, ABC or ESPN telecasts.

“He objects to the interview, but it’s not optional for him,” Burke said. “Unfortunately for me, it’s not optional for us, either. If he wants to change it, it’s going to come from someone with a heck of a lot more power than I’ve got, because I’ve got zero power.”

The best Burke/Popovich exchange so far? When she asked him: “What are you asking of your defense against LeBron James?,” he said: “I can’t tell you.”

### Ratings continue to lag behind last year's Heat-Thunder Finals, but all four games of Heat-Spurs have been the most watched TV programs on those nights.