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TNT Cranks Up Its Commercial Edge for Basketball Programming

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NEW YORK ( -- Any one of the three would have lit up the warehouse studio stage with their individual presence but as a trio -- Spike Lee, Ali G and Detroit Pistons star center Ben Wallace -- turned a commercial shoot into something of a reality entertainment event.
In one of the new TV spots scheduled to air Nov. 1, Ali G asks Kobe Bryant how many springs a basketball contains.
In another, Ali G learns that Steve Nash was not last year's MP3.

Faux locker room
For two sunny days in September, Mr. Wallace and other NBA stars cycled through Broadway Stages, a warehouse-like production facility in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. There, set designer Bruton Jones, whose credits include the movies Underworld and Kingdom Come, built a space that recalled a 1980s YMCA locker room. The design, a collaboration between Mr. Lee, the creative director and the client, Turner Sports, incorporated faint basketball motifs on the walls and plays marked on the floor.

Mr. Lee sat front and center in a director's chair while a half-dozen creative types from Spike DDB punched away at Apple laptops set up on a nearby folding table. An impromptu living room was set up near the back of the cavernous room, where a crowd had gathered around a big-screen TV to watch the taping live.

Ali G and big hair
In the middle of it all, clad in a shiny red jumpsuit, the outrageous Ali G asked Mr. Wallace why his hair is so large. "Do you grow it so big so the other team don't actually see the basket?"

Mr. Wallace, his signature 'fro rising several inches above his forehead, was caught off-guard by the absurdity of the question and hangs his head, laughing.

"Cut," Mr. Lee called.

The taping is part of Turner Sports' latest push for TNT's Thursday night schedule of NBA games -- a series of Spike Lee-directed spots in which the star of HBO's Da Ali G Show interviews NBA stars including Mr. Wallace, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Shaqille O'Neal, Dwayne Wade and Amare Stoudemire.

Together on the stage set are (l. to r.) Detroit Pistons star center Ben Wallace, Ali G and Spike Lee. Click to see larger photo.

Creative execution
"In terms of the kind of talent we have in the campaign, this is the most extensive creative execution we've ever done," said Jeff Gregor, senior VP-marketing and promotion for TNT and TBS. The promos, which will air extensively on Turner properties as well as off-channel on spot cable and online, weren't part of a cross-promotional deal with Time Warner sibling HBO; TNT rather contacted Ali G directly. The media spend is in the seven figures, according to those involved in the campaign.

Before he entered the set Mr. Wallace sat patiently wrapped in a green cape as stylist Belinda Anderson backcombed his hair and makeup artist Martha Melendez applied a bit of powder. A quiet guy, he only spoke up to mention to Ms. Anderson that his face "looks long" and ask her to fill it out a bit more. He explained he was fresh off of appearing in an Xbox ad with his son, Bryce -- who "got paid for it," he said, cracking a smile -- and is up for a Gatorade shoot the following week.

Infamous Detroit brawl
The star was suspended last year for six games for his involvement in the an infamous brawl between players and fans at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Detroit, but that doesn't have marketers shying away from him. He's iconic and fans are always curious how he'll wear his hair -- "to 'fro or not to 'fro," Mr. Gregor said. Turner didn't shy away from Kobe Bryant, another scandal-plagued star, citing that Mr. Bryant is one of the top vote getters for the NBA All-Star game. Mr. Bryant, a former sponsorship darling, only recently began re-appearing in advertisements after criminal sexual-assault charges brought against him were dropped more than a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Steve Nash, the NBA's most valuable player, who was set to go on the set after Mr. Wallace, shies away from endorsements. He tries, he said while waiting in a sparse "green room," not to do many advertisements but couldn't pass up a shot at working with Spike Lee.

The edgy new ads are the latest effort to attract more fans to Turner's game broadcasts. The NBA battled TV ratings issues last year amid image problems, including the Detroit incident. Additionally, last year's All-Star game broadcast on TNT was the highest-rated basic-cable show for the month, but the lowest-rated in the game's history.

Ali G as the non-truth
TNT has worked with Mr. Lee for the past two years, including on last year's School of Truth campaign. This year, Mr. Gregor said, Ali G is the non-truth --asking absurd questions of players who react in a truthful way.

"Some people will get it, some people won't," Mr. Gregor said of Ali G's off-beat humor. "The value of the spots is you'll be able to see them more than once and if you don't get the joke the first time, you'll get it the second time."

TNT is also hoping Ali G's humor will appeal not only to hard-core NBA fans to convince them to tune into its Thursday night games but also to a broader base.

Mr. Lee is also big basketball fan -- the New York Knicks are his team -- and that makes him ideal for these spots, Mr. Gregor said. "He interacts with the players, he's an NBA fan and he understands not only the game but how to market the game. ... Players like to work for him."

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