March Madness: How CBS and Turner Sports produced college basketball’s biggest event

Report by Mel Lambert: “Our production philosophies ran pretty much in parallel during the games,” says Tom Sahara of the first time that Turner Sports and CBS Sports worked together to produce and distribute the recent 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — also known as March Madness.

Speaking during yesterday’s Content Conference at the NAB Convention, Turner Sport’s senior director of IT and remote operations stresses that the two networks shared a common train of thought. “We played off the same playbook,” Sahara offers, “which helped even out any inherent cultural differences between CBS and Turner. We simply wanted to tell the story of what was happening on the basketball court.” The session was produced in partnership with the Sports Video Group, and moderated by its editorial director, Ken Kerschbaumer.

CBS Sports and Turner Sports (representing TBS, TNT and truTV) pooled production resources and technical crews to broadcast the tournament on network TV, cable and streamed via the internet. “We started planning for the event back in October of 2010 with weekly meetings,” states Ken Aagaard, EVP of operations and production service at CBS Sports. “Since I have known Tom [Sahara] for a long time, it was an easy process.” “After all,” Sahara adds, “it’s a series of basketball games – and through our work with the NBA we know about covering basketball. For many years we have also worked with CBS Sports on PGA Tournaments.”

“We spent time developing common formats for intercom and communications,” recalls Bruce Goldfeder, CBS Sports’ VP of engineering, “so that all production crews could talk with one another and to the production centers in New York and Atlanta. We also had a pair of 10 Gbit links between the two networks carrying promos, trailers and graphics files.” “Through cooperative graphics production,” adds Aagaard, “all four networks looked the same.”

According to Peter Scott, VP of engineering media at Turner Sports, social networking played a crucial role in March Madness. “Because we felt that respondents needed a little stewardship to help the information flow, chat responses were moderated by a team of students from Ball State University. We also had custom apps for the iPhone and iPad – 30% of our streams were being accessed [on smart phones and tablets].

“An added bonus came when Justin Bieber, following a concert in Rotterdam, Holland, Twittered to his eight million fans: ‘Now watching some March Madness online.’ The response was immediate! All in all, we had 10.7 million total views.”