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ESPN’s NBA crew no match for TNT

Turner broadcasters just more fun for viewers

ESPN's  NBA studio crew includes, from left, Chris Broussard, Magic Johnson, Jon Barry, and Michael Wilbon.

Scott Clarke/ESPN

ESPN's NBA studio crew includes, from left, Chris Broussard, Magic Johnson, Jon Barry, and Michael Wilbon.

This column’s ideal scenario for NBA Finals viewing - and I suspect many of you would agree - would feature ESPN/ABC’s stellar team of play-by-play voice Mike Breen (I just don’t hear the oft-alleged anti-Boston undertones), analyst Jeff Van Gundy, and reporter Doris Burke, with TNT handling the pregame and postgame studio programming. Talk about a dream team.

Alas, ESPN/ABC has the exclusive rights to the Finals, so rather than NBA fans enjoying another round of insights and humor from TNT host/ringleader Ernie Johnson and analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith (OK, and the improved Shaquille O’Neal, too), the pregame and postgame duties belong to ESPN’s chemistry-challenged and host-free crew of Michael Wilbon, Magic Johnson, Jon Barry, and Chris Broussard.

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It’s not nearly as much fun. The fundamental issues begin with Johnson’s inability to articulate anything of much substance, and Wilbon’s deference to him only exacerbates the problem. Magic’s extraordinary charisma just does not translate to this format, and it never has.

It doesn’t sound as though ESPN is planning changes to the format after this year, either. Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer, said on a conference call this week that he was leaning toward not using a traditional host next season - the role seems to fall to Wilbon unofficially - and sounded pleased with the way it went.

“I think it’s been really steady,’’ Gross said. “I think it’s been entertaining, informative, there’s a lot of chemistry out there with the four guys on the set. We’re really pleased with how it went all season, steamrolling into the Finals. So I think it’s just basically exceeded our expectations.’’

It makes one wonder where exactly the bar was set on those expectations, and whether his actions support his words once the season is over. Because what they’re doing now only reminds this observer of how good Barkley and TNT are, and how much they’re missed right now.

Inflaming the fans

It has been a popular question in my inbox since my online report Wednesday that WEEI had a resurgence in the May Arbitron ratings, finishing second in the month with a 7.5 share among men ages 25-54 compared with The Sports Hub’s sixth-place finish and 5.5 share.

Is this backlash against the way The Sports Hub discusses the Celtics, particularly afternoon drive co-host Michael Felger?

To a small degree, I think it is, though it has more to do with carrying the Celtics broadcasts than anything else, as evidenced by the massive 11.6 share the station pulled in the 7 p.m.-midnight window.

Felger delights in giving grief to the more zealous Celtics fans (those he calls “Green Teamers’’), and some of it seems to come at the expense of recognizing how much this particular team captured the imagination of Boston fans.

Some have compared Felger’s approach to the Celtics to the way WEEI alienated Bruins fans for so many years. It’s a reasonable thought, but circumstances aren’t quite the same. Felger and co-host Tony Massarotti do talk consistently about the Celtics, and have had terrific interviews with coach Doc Rivers and owner Wyc Grousbeck recently. For years, WEEI essentially ignored the Bruins, save for the occasional patronizing “Hockey talk’’ segment or Harry Sinden call-in.

But turning off Celtics fans the way WEEI did to Bruins loyalists for so many years is something Felger and Massarotti need to be conscious of, and it has been brought up to them internally. Perhaps finishing in fourth place in May (6.6 share), two spots behind WEEI’s “The Big Show’’ (7.7) will emphasize the point.

Kicking it up a notch

The 2012 Euro Championship is capturing the attention of soccer fans worldwide, but it’s a native New Englander who is overseeing ESPN’s superb broadcasts of the event.

Amy Rosenfeld’s name may ring a bell with Boston sports fans; she is a former coordinating producer (think late ’80s and early ’90s) on NESN’s Bruins and Red Sox telecasts. The Concord native, who has extensive experience as a producer of Olympic telecasts and has served as the lead producer for every English-language telecast of the World Cup and Women’s World Cup since 1999 in the United States, said she first fell in love with sports the same way so many New England kids did during the ’70s.

“Some of my earliest memories are with my dad, who had season tickets to Bruins games, so it felt like I came full-circle when I began working on the broadcasts,’’ said the engaging Rosenfeld.

ESPN was roundly criticized for oversimplifying its coverage of the World Cup in 2006. Rosenfeld has been essential in the network’s shift toward covering it with the same devotion to detail and respect for the audience’s knowledge that it does for sports such as baseball.

“There’s been a philosophical change in the tenor and approach that we take on the coverage from the standpoint that it’s not just for dummies anymore, and that’s no disrespect to the early ESPN coverage, because I was part of it,’’ said Rosenfeld.

“There was always this idea that Americans will love it if you walk them through the step-by-step of what it all means. I think what changed significantly in the 2010 World Cup was that we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to speak to the soccer audience.’ We didn’t dumb it down.

“And the people who maybe don’t know soccer to that degree will be embraced. We’re not going to push everything we do to the side to take them through Soccer 101. Through the tenor of our coverage, we’ll expose them to the sophistication of the game, the passion of the game, and the casual fans will come along.’’

Is it live, or . . .?

When is an in-game reporter not necessarily an in-game reporter? Here’s one answer: When the segments shown during a game featuring the reporter are prerecorded. That’s what NESN continues to do with rookie sideline reporter Jenny Dell. While viewers probably don’t particularly care whether Dell - who has quickly gained a following as the replacement for Heidi Watney - appears live, recorded, or as a hologram, it is an unusual approach. And it’s one NESN subtly masks in such ways as having her thank play by play voice Don Orsillo after he introduces one of her segments, thus giving it the guise of live TV. This is not to suggest that Dell, who formerly worked at ESPN but had virtually no live television experience, was the wrong hire. Her work ethic and immediate popularity suggest she’s not. What she is, though, is one who requires more on-air polish than NESN probably expected when it hired her . . . According to USA Today, ESPN’s Sean McDonough will have surgery in August to correct a rare condition in his head. There is a small hole in the bone that separates his brain from his left inner ear, which causes bizarre symptoms such as hearing his eyeballs move.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.
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