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TV got game? The NBA on NBC and other b-ball tunes

By Ron Rodman


June marks the end of a long season for professional basketball in the US—the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff finals cap the end of a season that begins in October. American television broadcasts professional basketball games just as it does other major sports, and seeks to draw an audience for sports telecasts by dramatizing broadcasted games. To help draw audiences, many networks use dramatic theme music for the games.

Composers for television music convey drama tap by composing in different  musical styles that convey meanings associated with that style, and to target audiences interested in that particular style of music When I wrote about pro football TV themes last fall, I noted how the styles of music used for televised football games changed historically from a sort of light pop/funk style of music in early (pre-1990s) telecasts to more militant, march-like themes in current football broadcasts. For football, a militant march style is now in vogue, and the music tends to evoke an ethos of “war” or “battle” for the broadcasts, and thus attracts audiences (usually males) interested in the combative aspects of the game.

Basketball by its very nature is different from football. It is not (intentionally) violent, and athletes tend to rely more on their skill sets (shooting, passing, etc.) than on their physicality—Lebron James notwithstanding. The NBA also attracts a different type of fan from NFL fans. A report from Scarborough Sports Marketing in 2010 shows that the overwhelming majority of NBA fans are white (86%), male (64%), tend to be well-educated (25% more likely than average to have a college degree), relatively well-to-do (nearly 22% of NBA fans have an annual income of over $100 K), and of all ages (ages 18-64 nearly evenly distributed).

How does theme music for NBA telecasts attract this audience?

One example of such a theme is The NBA on TNT theme, composed by South African film composer Trevor Rabin. Rabin’s theme is an upbeat, light rock piece, played by a full orchestra with heavily engineered effects such as reverb. The theme conveys action and excitement, but in a somewhat restrained (and non-combative) style.

ABC/ESPN also broadcasts NBA games, and uses a theme song by Utah native Lisle Moore. The tune is a bit more funky, but still uses an electronically-modified traditional orchestration in a light rock style, not dissimilar to Rabin’s piece.

Perhaps the most famous NBA theme is the NBA on NBC theme composed by John Tesh, the famous “New Age” composer/pianist and former co-host of TV’s gossip show, Entertainment Tonight. Tesh’s theme, which he titled “Roundball Rock,” is also a driving light rock piece that uses electronically manipulated orchestral instruments along with pop music staples like drum set, electric bass, etc. It’s minor-key melody conveys action and excitement, with a touch of the dramatic.

In a recent YouTube post, Tesh recounts how the tune was created:

An avid NBA fan colleague of mine recently told me that the NBA on NBC theme “really means NBA basketball to me.” Indeed, that is the goal of TV theme music: to link the program with the viewer and get them to keep watching.

The interesting aspect of all of these NBA themes is that the light rock style of all three themes seems to cater to the white, middle class audience demographic. What seems at odds in this scenario is that most participants (i.e. players) in the NBA are African American; racial demographics in the NBA show that 76% of NBA players are African American, 20% of players are white, 3% are Latino, and 1% are Asian.

Telecasts of the NBA are obviously catering to the demographics of its audience, while not really reflecting the demographic of the players. One can imagine TV theme music by Prince, Ice T, Ludacris, Wu-Tang Clan, Will Smith, Queen Latifah (yeah, how about a female composer?), or perhaps the great Quincy Jones, who has recently been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

So NBA TV themes offer upbeat styles of music that convey action and excitement, but are relatively stylistically neutral—no heavy metal or country music, but also no rap or hip hop.  This seems to be a rather vanilla approach to an ethnographically rich sport.

Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television.

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