After three years of CBS/Turner Sports’ run televising the NCAA Tournament, it is becoming increasingly clear that Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley are not a good fit in the studio.
Along with host Ernie Johnson Jr., Barkley and Smith have made TNT’s “Inside the NBA” arguably the best sports studio show on television for more than a decade. When CBS and Turner Sports acquired rights to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, it only made sense to transport some of the “Inside” magic to CBS’ staid, nondescript studio show. However, the execution has left something to be desired.
Over the course of three seasons now, Barkley and Smith have not appeared particularly comfortable discussing the college game. Part of that may be a lack of familiarity, but do not discount the fact that the CBS studio is a far different environment than Studio J in Atlanta.
One of the primary keys to success for “Inside the NBA” is the format. Opinions are not narrowed down to 30-second soundbites, and there is very little in the way of order. Barkley and Smith provide free-flowing conversation, and Johnson Jr. is the eminently skilled moderator who manages to keep the train on the tracks.
In 2009, Johnson outlined what made “Inside the NBA” successful in an interview with this website:
I just know that if we tried to do something that was rehearsed – number one, you couldn’t get these guys in here early enough to do a rehearsal – and it would kill the spontaneity of the show. … I don’t want anybody to feel like it’s just this random show, where everyone shows up five minutes before we get on the air and says, ‘what are we going to do.’ We’ve got a plan. But a lot of times, stuff that happens and carries the show wasn’t even talked about in the production meeting. It’s something that somebody says, that Charles or Kenny says in the first segment of the pregame show that we carry through the rest of the night. And it was never discussed in the production meeting.
In a separate interview the same year, Smith similarly noted that in most studio shows, “they say, ‘look at camera 3, you have 15 seconds to talk’” — whereas Turner Sports had a looser, less structured style.
The CBS studio show is far more conventional. Everybody waits their turn to offer an opinion, one that is usually squeezed into a few seconds. There is very little genuine interplay. While Johnson facilitates conversation, Greg Gumbel at times seems as if he is merely waiting for the analysts to stop talking.
In other words, Barkley and Smith are not exactly being asked to play to their strengths. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is no coincidence that they were at their best during the first few days of the tournament, when Johnson alternated studio coverage with Gumbel.
But it would be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of Gumbel, who remains one of the best in the business. Gumbel is simply doing what he has done, quite well, for 16 straight seasons — hold down the fort on a conventional, by-the-numbers studio show. The problem is that CBS has tried to replicate the success of “Inside the NBA” within an almost antithetical format.
What viewers are left with is a pair of “NBA guys” who seem not only out of place, but almost as if they do not want to be there.
The sensible move for CBS would be to go back to what works — Gumbel in the studio with Greg Anthony and Seth Davis. A low-key studio team to be sure, but also one that fits the format well. College basketball fans would be better served by having NCAA regulars covering the games. NBA fans would be better served by not having Barkley and Smith miss a month of action late in the season. Finally, Barkley and Smith would be better served by working within their comfort zone in front of a friendly TV crowd.
While that would be the best solution, Turner Sports would almost certainly want to maintain a presence on the studio show. Barkley has already suggested a lighter workload, which would likely help.
But perhaps the next-best alternative would be to have Barkley and Smith work alongside Johnson in Atlanta and leave Gumbel, Anthony and Davis in New York. The Atlanta studio team could cover the Turner Sports games, and the New York studio team could cover the games on CBS. If CBS/Turner absolutely must provide an integrated studio crew, a lower profile Turner analyst like Steve Smith — who has been a dependable presence on the Atlanta studio team for three years — could join the New York group without making too many waves.
Regardless of what decision is made, it is clear that the current arrangement needs to be changed. After three years, there has been too little improvement by Barkley and Smith in acclimating to the CBS studio team, and too little effort by CBS to play to their strengths.