March Madness Preview: Even With Shakeup at the Top, CBS-Turner Partnership is Stronger Than Ever

Jeff Zucker takes over on Turner side as NCAA Tournament partnership enters ninth year

It’s one of the more unique partnerships in all of American media. Now entering its ninth year, CBS Sports’ and Turner Sports’ presentation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament  continues to redefine how a singular sporting event can be delivered.

All 67 games of March Madness will again be broadcast across four national television networks – CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV – in additional to streaming across the wildly popular March Madness Live product.

While its business as usual in production compounds across the country there has been a notable shakeup at the very top of the operation that was not anticipated just a handful of weeks ago. Former Turner president David Levy stepped down earlier this month not long after the major WarnerMedia rebranding went through. Now at the March Madness helm, alongside CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, is CNN head Jeff Zucker, who now serves as Chairman, WarnerMedia News & Sports, and President, CNN.

Coming is as the outsider, Zucker agrees that the uniqueness of the partnership is unlike anything else in TV. He says he’s excited for the collaborative opportunity, especially after coming over from the news side of the business where “competitors want to take each other’s heads off – and that’s an everyday event.”

“Its a remarkable thing to watch two companies continue to drive each other back and forth between their networks,” says Zucker. “It’s not about the networks, it’s about where the game is and [making it easy to find] the game. Initially I remember watching what was being done [I thought] ‘how am I going to be able to find the game that I want to see’. And what’s been remarkable about what these two organizations have done is that it’s seamless. It’s really unique in all of – not just sports – but all of television and media. It’s probably something that the rest of media could take a cue from.”

As the grizzled veteran of the tandem, McManus has a strong understanding for what has made this partnership such a success: the blurring of the lines between the company.

“I think to a large extent [its] because we’ve all put our egos aside,” says McManus. “Whether it’s the sales teams, the talent, or production teams – we’re all in this together. And I think everybody basically has the approach of ‘let’s do what’s best for the fan and the viewer’, not what’s best for Turner or for CBS. We’ve really put all of our egos aside and worked towards a common goal. I think we all like each other. There’s nothing else like this in sports television where two companies have come together and literally joined at the hip. I think it’s remarkable.”

This year’s tournament will naturally feature its fair share of enhancements and innovation. March Madness Live is available on a record 18 platforms this year; there will be 4K HDR productions at three different regional sites; and there will be as many as 15 games produced in live virtual reality, including the Final Four and National Championship Game.

“At the core, there’s so much tradition around the tournament and around the broadcast production, so the real opportunity for us lies in extending out to other platforms – mobile, social, digital – and creating a higher degree of engagement for the fan and ways that they can connect with the tournament,” says Craig Barry, EVP and Chief Content Officer for Turner Sports. “I think that is extremely important in the evolution of the tournament – to be able to keep the primary linear product intact and preserve that tradition of people watching the tournament while still innovating on other platforms.

As part of the agreement, the Final Four and National Championship Game have also bounced back and forth between CBS and Turner-owned broadcast channels. This year, this year’s crown jewel even finds itself back on the main broadcast network of CBS.

“We’re just excited about the competition, the production itself really doesn’t change,” says Harold Bryant, Executive Producer & Senior Vice President, Production for CBS Sports. “We go into it with the same energy and excitement – whether it’s on our network or the other network. We go into it the same way, the same production team covering the final four the game and the studio. So you know it’s not that much different.”

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