NCAA Tournament Preview: CBS Partnership Bears Title-Game Fruit For Turner Sports

There’s 'a buzz in the halls’ at Turner as NCAA champion will be crowned on TBS

This year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is more than just the sixth year in a 14-year deal under which CBS Sports and Turner Sports broadcast March Madness. It’s a milestone moment in the history of Turner Broadcasting System and sports on cable television.

NCAA_MM_All4_2016 (1) 2The primary television production of both the Final Four (April 2) and the National Championship Game (April 4) will air on TBS, marking the first time the NCAA men’s basketball championship game will be telecast on cable television.

“This is huge for us, and not just from a metric or numerical perspective,” says Craig Barry, EVP, production/chief content officer, Turner Sports, where he has worked for 26 years. “This really breaks new ground for us and for cable. You’re seeing the crowning of champions break the network barrier. It’s something we have worked for, and it’s important to us.”

Over the past two decades, Turner Sports has grown its postseason presence across many major sports. TBS and TNT have become destinations for NBA and MLB playoffs and played roles in key major golf championships throughout the years. However, Barry struggles to find a time — with the exception of a NASCAR season during Turner’s partnership with NBC Sports — that a championship was won on Turner Sports air.

“It’s not just about the ratings,” he says. “It’s about getting to tell the story: the beginning, middle, and end. From a narrative perspective, it’s very rewarding.”

At a media-press event last week, Turner President David Levy even relayed the excitement of network founder Ted Turner.

The history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on television begins in 1969 — before the days of the “Madness” — when a select few games were carried on NBC Sports. The tournament stayed at NBC until 1981 (when it had its biggest influence when network brass chose to bounce among multiple games during a single broadcast window). CBS then obtained the rights in 1982 and became synonymous with the March Madness brand.

CBS and Turner have truly made production of the NCAA Tournament a network-agnostic operation. On-camera talent and above-the-line and below-the-line production and operations have become a complete hybrid of CBS’s and Turner’s best basketball personnel.

So will viewers know where to find the title game? Turner Sports plans a massive marketing and social-media campaign to get the word out, and the network even got some ad time on CBS during the Super Bowl (remember Charles Barkley butchering “One Shining Moment” at a grand piano?), but Levy isn’t really too worried.

“I’m not going to be blind that some people may automatically turn to CBS just because of history,” he says, “but people will find the product. It’s not the old days of sitting down on your couch and looking through a TV Guide. People know how to find these games.”

Levy also notes that higher-ups at both Turner and CBS regularly discuss the future media landscape, but he observes that a March Madness Live digital-exclusive purchase option [similar to an HBO Now] is still a way off. March Madness Live is currently a TV Everywhere product that requires authentication from a cable provider.

“The greatest thing about this product is, no matter what happens to the distribution business — cord-cutters, cord-shavers, cord-nevers — is that it’s going to be sought after because it’s that kind of media event and destination viewing,” says Levy. “This will always be a solid product.”

CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ exclusive coverage of the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will tip off with the NCAA First Four on truTV on Tuesday and Wednesday (6 p.m. ET, both days). First-round game coverage will begin Thursday and Friday (noon-midnight, both days) with all games available live across four national television networks — TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV — and streaming via NCAA March Madness Live.

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