CBS denies reports of selling off NCAA games

NEW YORK — CBS Sports is going out of its way to quash reports that it plans to sell some NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament games to a cable network.

The reaction from network officials surfaced in the wake of the record $6.2 billion shelled out by CBS to extend its current National Collegiate Athletic Assn. contract by 11 years, through 2013 (Daily Variety, Nov. 19).

As outlined by Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, there are three reasons why CBS may give the back of its hand to cable, despite the fact that at least four cable networks (ESPN, TNN, FX and Showtime) would jump at the chance to carry a portion of the tournament schedule as a supplement to CBS’ carriage:

  • CBS’ owned and affiliated TV stations would scream bloody murder because they can chalk up premium prices for the two minutes an hour each gets to sell locally for the high-rated college basketball games, which attract massive quantities of Madison Avenue’s favorite demographic: young males. Cable coverage during the first three rounds of the annual March Tournament could cut into the Nielsen ratings of the broadcast network and its stations and siphon off some of their ad revenues.

  • By permitting DirecTV to offer its subscribers a package of 34 NCAA Tournament games for a lump-sum retail price of $39 in March 1999, CBS helped to dispel criticism that it’s hogging of all of the tournament games was not serving the fans. Before the DirecTV deal, college basketball junkies bellyached throughout the ’90s that CBS made consistently wrong choices when it cut from game to game in the early rounds during periods when as many as four games would overlap each other.

  • Within the next two or three years, CBS O&Os and affiliates throughout the country expect to begin using their Federal Communications Commission-mandated digital spectrum to offer both high-definition TV signals in primetime and four spinoff channels for additional programming in other dayparts. It would be relatively easy for the CBS stations to employ these extra channels as outlets for the concurrent NCAA games.

“The CBS affiliates I represent are pleased that CBS is making it clear the games will be exclusive to their stations as an over-the-air broadcast,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television, a firm that helps TV-station clients with their programming decisions.

“March Mania”

The affiliates are not upset about the DirecTV contract, Carroll said, because only a minuscule number of satellite dish owners subscribe to the 34 out-of-market games, which DirecTV sells under the banner “Mega March Mania.”

Neil Pilson, a TV-sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports, said that, in addition to making about half of the games available to DirecTV, CBS has gone out of its way to get as many of the 63 tournament games as possible to the fans that are interested in specific teams.

For example, when four games are under way simultaneously, CBS picks the most significant game as its national contest, Pilson said. But CBS has set up regional feeds: It will televise each of the three other games to the regions where the colleges are situated so that local fans will get to see their local teams.

Cut to the action

And Pilson added that if a game on any of the feeds starts turning into a runaway that drains off all of the tension, CBS will cut to a more exciting game.

The acid test of CBS’ no-cable strategy, he said, is that “the NCAA fully agrees with CBS, which doesn’t want to dilute one of the premiere sports events of the year by putting the games on cable.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more