CBS-Turner March Madness Partnership Will ‘Take Some Getting Used To’

Next week, CBS and Turner Sports will unveil a new way to watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, using two companies, two production teams, two sales forces, and four networks to air every game in the 67-team tournament. Although a plan may be in place, the playbook is by no means written in stone, as even the top executives at CBS and Turner are not sure how quickly viewers will grasp the new broadcast schedule.

“It’s a brand-new concept,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “I think it is going to take some getting used to for the viewer. The viewer is basically playing the role that CBS used to play, with the clicker in his hand and his choice between four national broadcasts during the first Thursday and Friday.”

Changing Times and Locations
For the past several years, CBS has held the broadcast rights to every game in the tournament, which meant that, during the first round, the national broadcaster chose the best game to air and offered periodic look-ins on the games that were not being aired. This year, with four networks involved in the television broadcast, every game can be found in its entirety, on CBS, TBS, TNT, or truTV.

“This is a landmark deal for our company,” says Turner Sports President David Levy. “In the first conversation, [McManus and I] said we can’t do a cable-vs.-broadcast deal here; what we have to do is an event deal. Now the viewer is going to be able to have all the games on a national basis, but I really don’t think the consumer totally understands that.”

Another thing that the consumer does not understand at this point is that, because of the new 68-team format, the tournament actually begins on Tuesday, not Thursday.

“That means that you have to fill out your brackets by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, not noon on Thursday,” Levy says. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

Broadcast + Cable = New Entity
Luckily for both entities, the cable network didn’t have to work too hard to get used to working alongside its broadcast partner.

“There were a lot of skeptics with respect to taking two big-media companies and putting them together,” McManus says. “From a sales standpoint — taking two production entities, two marketing plans — I’m incredibly thrilled at the seamless nature of how this has worked out.”

Indeed, rather than separate the broadcast network (CBS) from its cable partner (Turner Sports), the March Madness agreement treats the two corporations as one entity, sales force and all.

“When you buy a 30-second commercial spot, you don’t just buy CBS,” McManus explains, “you buy across all four of the networks. That’s a concept that I don’t think has ever been tried on an event even half this size. You have two of the most powerful media companies in the world, Time Warner and CBS Corp., promoting the sport of college basketball not just in the month of March but all year long. I think there’s no question that there will be more eyeballs watching the NCAA Men’s Tournament this year than have in the past.”

Providing Directions
To ensure that fans know what channel to turn to and when, on-air talent for all four networks will be offering directions to help viewers find their way.

“When you have the play-by-play guys saying go over to TNT or CBS to watch a barn-burner happening, that’s going to be unusual in the television business,” Levy says. “Sending somebody to another network while a game is still on your network is really unheard of. That is something that we’re all going to get used to and something that will be new to the television audience as well.”

For Turner, A Historic Event
This year, CBS will broadcast the Final Four and Championship games, but, in future years, broadcast rights for the title game will alternate between CBS and Turner Sports.

“That’s important for our company because Turner Broadcasting has never truly crowned a champion on our network,” Levy says. “That will be a very historic event in our company.”

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