SVG Sit-Down: CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, Turner President David Levy on the Continued Evolution of March Madness

Industry leaders give their take on production evolution and if at-home models will ever permeate the NCAA Tournament

Since CBS Sports agreed to uniquely partner with Turner Sports on the production of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament back in 2011, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus and Turner president David Levy have become two executives married in a one-of-a-kind relationship.

Turner president David Levy (left) and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus.

It’s a perfect yin and yang. CBS Sports is the classic television pro that has production down to a science (while also handling the digital side of the business admirably well) while Turner Sports brings the youthful flavor, the streaming capabilities, and the outside-the-box thinking (while also proving their mettle on the linear production side, too).

McManus and Levy run very different media companies with very different priorities and ultimately they come together each year to pull off March Madness. SVG caught up with both of them to discuss how they’ve seen the linear side of the business evolve in their time together, if at-home production workflows will ever find their way into their coverage of the NCAA Tournament, and why trying new things has become part of the fabric of their relationship.

Come this time of the year, March Madness tends to get the industry talking a lot about streaming and the multiple platforms that this event can be consumed on, but I’m curious about how you feel regarding the growth of the traditional linear coverage of the NCAA Tournament?
McManus: I think its really good. Things like the Rail Cam, which we use now, are really innovative. I think the enhanced audio we have is very effective. And I think we’ve got every single camera angle that you could possibly want. The [augmented] reality replays that we do where we can highlight players and show tracking of players is really exciting.

Each and every year, I think we’ve been really innovative and each and every year we’ve put out a better product. We’re determined and committed to using the best, most innovative, and most state-of-the-art facilities out there.

Levy: I think what’s really interesting is thinking back to the start of this partnership with CBS and the evolution of how we work together on the linear product. While all of the digital and social extensions are incredibly important — and I think we’re at the top of the game with that — you still need a quality linear product.

Having this tournament simultaneously run on four different networks is still very unique in this industry. I can’t think of another deal with two media companies that have two different cultures that work together this closely that on the air will encourage you to leave a game you were watching to go watch another game on another network. And it’s a network that we don’t own!

From a television perspective, you go right back to those roots eight years ago and how we’ve built that up and marketed these games across platforms. You still have to evolve the TV product and the fan product. I think we do that every single year.

“At-home” production models have been more aggressively established throughout the industry. Do you ever see that permeating somewhere like the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament?
McManus: We’ve done a lot of experimenting with it this year on college football, college basketball, and college hockey. I think “at-home” productions are certainly going to be more prevalent in the future. On big events like this, though, I don’t see that happening. For the Tournament, we and Turner have made such a big investment in the production quality. It’s so important that I just don’t see it happening on our really big events.

Levy: I wouldn’t put it out of the realm only because we are willing to try anything. It may not be the main feed. Look at the TeamCasts which we do during the National Semifinals and the Championship. Could we do that in more of a “at-home” model? Maybe. Could we do [a TeamCast] in the early rounds and still have the main game production stay on-site the same as its been in the past and push something different to social? Yeah.

I think you need to continue to evolve. If we don’t evolve, we are ultimately going to fail and I think Turner and CBS have been some of the most progressive in the field of television production, digital production, and making sure that we’re evolving with the consumer. We’re on 16 different platforms this year. We did 100 billion views [last year] across multiple platforms. Those are just astounding numbers over a three-week period. We will continue to evolve and that’s what we’re seeing right now.

Sean, how big of a role will the new CBS SPORTS HQ play in this year’s surrounding coverage of the tournament? Will that ramp up significantly?
McManus: I wouldn’t say ‘ramp up’ because its already a full-service news, highlights, and analysis product. It’s a great time to launch the product because there’s so much interest in March Madness. So I think its going to help in the development and the popularity and the sampling of CBS SPORTS HQ.

CBS Sports has said that CBS SPORTS HQ was heavily influenced by its news forefather, CBSN. What did you learn from them?
McManus: Yes, absolutely. CBS has a really good over-the-top strategy with CBS All-Access, Showtime, CBSN, and now CBS SPORTS HQ. We’ve learned a lot and each one of these products has been rolled out and implemented in a very strategic way.

David, your network has been a leader in bringing esports to television. How has your experience in esports making its way back to how you cover traditional stick-and-ball sports?
Levy: We’re learning each and every day about this esports business. First of all, we’re heavily in it. We think it’s smart. What we are finding is we may need to do more coverage around the athletes themselves. Where they came from. They are unknown to many people. They are certainly known to the die-hard. The die-hard fan of esports knows who Taco is, but the casual viewer doesn’t. So if we’re actually going to grow ratings, we’ve got to bring in the casual viewer.

We may have to take a page from the Olympics and focus more on where this athlete came from, who their parents are, how they worked so hard to get here. We need to build those kinds of stories. That’s what I’ve learned from these new sports is in order to get them more appealing to the casual viewer, we need to build who these stars are.

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