Network offers NCAA coverage on multiple platforms

When the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tourney tips off next week, CBS will be gunning for the big ratings the event typically draws. But more than ever, CBS hopes the benefits go far beyond television.

At a press conference at its headquarters Tuesday, the net unveiled what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts yet by a conglom to take advantage of multiple platforms.

With live network, cable and digital broadcasts of tourney games — and a MySpace-ish turn on its SportsLine subsid — CBS is hoping this March will be different than previous years.

The conglom wants to turn the tourney from a series of solid primetime nights into a 24-hour event it profits from with every click of the remote and the mouse.

Thanks to an unusual deal in which CBS snagged digital rights through 2011, CBS can show all out-of-market games on the Web, which it will do under its March Madness on Demand program. (The program began last year, but only in a kind of beta test.)

This year, MMOD will offer the games for free to more than 300,000 people, a significant increase over last year, while reps have had a full season to peddle ad packages for it.

Net also is trying feverishly to make sure it keeps viewers after the final buzzer by doing more to handing them off to CSTV and its beefed up SportsLine. CBS Interactive chief operating officer Steve Snyder said the goal is to find ways to hold on to users who visit after the game ends to update their brackets.

One big push will be user-generated content. Site is now allowing certain visitors to publish their own “glog” (game log) hoping that it will have a viral effect on traffic.

Cable will also be part of the hand-off. CSTV, which CBS acquired in 2005, will broadcast every press conference as well as some pre-game practices.

And CBS announced Tuesday that CSTV will, for the first time, broadcast two first-round out-of-market games, even though DirecTV already has a full out-of-market package.

Apart from the branding benefits, the platforms offer revenue potential.

March Madness On Demand sales have doubled to about $30 million and now include more than 30 advertisers, including Dell and Cingular, who have bought separate packages, CBS said.

CBS is selling ads across every platform, from broadcast to cable to the Web to mobile, in addition to traditional venues like radio and outdoor.

“We’re not in the business of value-add anymore,” said senior veep of sports sales and marketing Chris Simko. “Every business has to bring its own value.”

The net has been successful at converting about 20% of its network sponsors into CSTV advertisers, he said.

But the multiplatform strategy presents a complicated number of moving parts. Leaving aside the issue of overload, selling for so many venues can be tricky.

Sales reps must persuade the same advertiser to take separate packages for each platform.

“A lot of advertisers want to be Coca-Cola and Pontiac,” said Simko, referring to two big sponsors who have spots across the board. “But they don’t have the resources.”

On the programming side, there are now so many venues to watch out-of-market games — DirecTV, CSTV, the Web and even sometimes the affiliates — that CBS risks fragmenting auds among them.

MMOD, if it continues to grow, may also be of concern.

CBS Sports prexy Sean McManus and executive veep Tony Pettiti each described the digital broadcast as “not cannibalizing” the television audience since most people would use it at work and turn on CBS at home.

But because tourney offers several games simultaneously, it’s likely many fans will use high-speed connections at home for out-of-market games, competing with the CBS telecast.

That could result in what one wag calls a “live-minus” situation: viewers keep the television commercials on but are not watching them.

Still, all this doesn’t seem to be hurting broadcast spots, which CBS said Tuesday are almost completely sold out, even those during the final, which cost $1.2 million. All told, ad revenue could total $100 million.

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