Reddit user discovers ESPN’s NBA halftime show is 64 percent ads


Much has been made of ESPN and ABC’s NBA coverage, especially relative to its competitor, Inside the NBA on TNT. Led by host Ernie Johnson along with panelists Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, Inside the NBA has long been regarded as the best studio show on television, combining humor and game analysis with poignant conversations about race, social justice and other issues of the day. Though it can go off the rails at times with Chuck and Shaq bickering over everything from “bus drivers” to who had the better playing career, the show works because it gives its stars breathing room, which, unfortunately, has never been the case for analysts on NBA Countdown.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just ESPN’s revolving door of talent, treating its studio desk like a multimillion-dollar game of musical chairs (Bristol’s mass exodus continued last year with Maria Taylor, Rachel Nichols and Paul Pierce leaving in rapid succession). It’s that ESPN devotes so much of its pre and postgame shows—64.2 percent, according to a carefully researched Reddit thread that went viral over the weekend—to promotional material with commercials and ad reads galore.

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According to a detailed rundown compiled by Reddit user NotAllWhoWonderRLost, of the 15 minutes and 50 seconds between the end of the first half and the start of the third quarter Thursday night, Mike Greenberg, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose and Magic Johnson were on air for only three minutes and 15 seconds. Remarkably, that’s a noticeable improvement from last year, when over 75 percent of ESPN’s halftime show was sponsored content.

To a certain extent, ESPN giving the floor to its sponsors during halftime is inevitable and a product of the business they’re in. ESPN is spending an obscene amount on live programming (their partnership with the NBA is for $1.4 billion a year) and ads, like them or not, pay the bills. Still, if there’s a balance to be had, ESPN hasn’t found it yet, giving on-air personalities impossibly tight windows to sprinkle their analysis (sometimes as little as 10-15 seconds) while driving viewers up a wall by airing the same Taco Bell ads over and over.

There are other problems ESPN can address. Though undoubtedly polished and professional, leaving hosting duties to Greenberg, who is plenty busy already with Get Up and Greeny on ESPN Radio, seems like an odd allocation of resources (is ESPN trying to justify Greenberg’s $6.5-million salary by working him to the bone?). Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated wonders if ESPN would be better off with a two-man team of Rose and Stephen A. compared to their current, claustrophobic setup with four and sometimes five panelists elbowing each other for morsels of airtime. But it all starts with ads.

ESPN has been moving away from journalism for years, prioritizing broadcast rights at the expense of investigative reporting (ESPN Magazine has dwindled to a skeleton crew of online writers, with most stories buried behind a paywall). With that in mind, ESPN’s halftime show essentially becoming one long commercial, killing time between Kia ads and trailers for whatever new series is streaming on Disney+, makes perfect sense. It’s a smart business model and a quite profitable one at that, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a pleasant viewing experience for those watching at home.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Tim Nwachukwu, Getty Images