Quartet of Networks Orchestrate March Madness Masterpiece

From here on in, college hoops fans looking to honor an Irishman every March 17 are obliged to observe Sean McManus’ Day.

And while you’re raising a glass to the CBS Sports chairman, be sure to toast the health of Turner Sports and sales chief David Levy (an honorary Celt). Together, the two network executives hatched a plan to transform college sports’ marquee television property and, if the first days of the 2011 NCAA Tournament are any indication, the CBS-Turner partnership may be the smartest, most successful pairing since James Naismith’s soccer ball met the bottom of the peach basket.

Having outflanked ESPN with a $10.8 billion bid to secure the rights to the Men’s Division I basketball tourney through 2025, CBS and Turner ensured that each of the 67 single-elimination games would be aired live, and in their entirety, across one of four networks. If that’s a boon to fans, it may well be a godsend to advertisers.

The early ratings results have been encouraging. Last Tuesday Turner’s truTV put up a double-double, drawing 2.55 million total viewers with its telecast of the first two play-in games. In its inaugural sports telecast, the network formerly known as Court TV served up 1.2 million total viewers with its coverage of the UNC Asheville vs. Arkansas-Little Rock opener, a game that began in fringe (6:30 p.m.). Twenty minutes after the Bulldogs advanced with an 81-77 overtime win, some 1.35 million fans tuned in for the night’s second game (Clemson vs. UAB). Both games outdrew the closest thing we have to an analogous broadcast: ESPN’s presentation of the March 16, 2010, Arkansas-Pine Bluff/Winthrop play-in averaged 1.05 million viewers.

All told, truTV’s First Four coverage delivered a combined audience of 4.59 million viewers, of which more than half (2.35 million) were members of the 18-49 demo. Along with setting the table for the big opening weekend, the numbers eased any concerns that fans would have trouble finding the action. Although it’s available in some 93 million homes, or 80 percent of U.S. TV households, truTV is not a recognized sports outlet, and some critics carped that the net had no business carrying NCAA games. Moreover, truTV is often distributed in some of cable’s more shadowy districts; for example, in Time Warner Cable’s metro New York footprint, truTV appears way up the dial on channel 79.

Levy has dismissed these apprehensions; one of the factors in spreading the games across TNT, TBS and truTV was to raise the latter network’s profile. “One reason we invested in this was to get people to know where truTV was,” Levy said at CBS and Turner’s joint March Madness media day. “That’s part of the reason why we put down that kind of money.”

The president of Turner Sports/Turner Entertainment ad sales and marketing also has little time for the rabbit-ear set, characterizing the gap between the broadcast and cable audience as “a non-issue.” Of course, some affiliates are grumbling, and at least one politico wasn’t too proud to engage in a little shameless grandstanding. Before Thursday night’s
UConn-Bucknell matchup, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) fired off a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert and CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves calling for the Huskies’ first-rounder to air on CBS affiliate WFSB-TV rather than TNT.

Noting that some 150,000 Nutmeg State households don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service, the congressman called for a return to regionalization, a practice that for all practical purposes was made redundant by the new four-network strategy. “As multiple games have been televised simultaneously in the past, the NCAA and CBS respectfully adjusted their coverage by region to ensure local fans had the opportunity to watch the hometown team,” Courtney wrote. “Huskie basketball is a source of pride for just about everyone you will meet [and] I hope the NCAA and CBS can continue that commitment.”

That request fell on deaf ears. It’s worth noting that those same 150,000 die-hards also missed out on seeing UConn’s thrilling Big East Tournament run, as each of the five Huskies games aired on ESPN. On that issue, the pol kept his pen sheathed; then again, ESPN’s Bristol headquarters lie in the district adjacent to that served by Courtney.

With CBS, TNT and TBS joining the field last Thursday, the joint scheduling strategy was made manifest. In a bid to build an audience throughout the 12 hours of play, competitive games were stacked in the early windows. Fans were rewarded with no fewer than four buzzer-beaters, including Morehead State’s 62-61 win over Louisville.

The luck of the Irish was also on display Thursday, as the upsets that did occur weren’t bracket busters, losses by top seeds that can peel off hordes of future viewers. It’s one thing if Vandy bows to the Spiders of Richmond; it’s quite another if Kentucky had fallen to Princeton.

In the early going, fans have given the CBS-Turner tag team a warm reception. Thursday’s coverage was the most-watched second-round showcase in 20 years, averaging 7.4 million viewers and a 5.0 household rating/12.2 share, up 19 percent from a year ago. (While CBS’ estimated delivery of 4.75 million viewers in prime was half that of a year ago, that doesn’t really matter to advertisers, who were obliged to buy time on all four nets. Guarantees are based on aggregate numbers.)

Office drones also crashed the boards. The March Madness On Demand lifeline delivered 3.3 million hours of live video streams and 7.6 million visits across broadband and mobile apps, up 22 percent from a year ago.

If all that isn’t enough to get advertisers’ pulses racing, this year’s March Madness is sure to be the most uproarious. In a move that couldn’t have sat well with McManus, former CBS analyst Billy Packer took exception to the NCAA package, saying it should have gone to ESPN. Days before the dance began, TNT mouthpiece Charles Barkley responded in his inimitable fashion.

“I know you said they should have went to ESPN,” Barkley fired back during a break in a Knicks-Mavs broadcast. “There was one problem: ESPN didn’t have $11 billion. We did. That’s why we got it. Enjoy the March Madness and shut the hell up.”