NCAA tourney coverage enters new era

The most radical broadcast changes in years to college basketball’s March Madness might first bewilder viewers but should ultimately empower them, said sports bigwigs from CBS and Turner.

Next week marks the on-air launch of a new 14-year agreement in which four networks will cover the NCAA men’s basketball tournament: longtime host CBS along with new partners TBS, TNT and TruTV. This marks an adjustment for the sport’s biggest fans, a number of whom might not know where TruTV is on their TV dial.

The new era arose when CBS, which has televised the tourney since 1982, realized that it was in danger of losing rights to the games to ESPN.

“We realized we couldn’t bid for this just as an over-the-air broadcaster,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “We needed a partner from a (number of) standpoints.

“We understand the passion ESPN has and had for this event, and I think we were correct in that they were going to be very, very aggressive in trying to take over the rights.”

Shortly after last year’s national champion was crowned, CBS and Turner teamed up to pay $10.8 billion for the rights to the tourney through 2024, launching a plan that reshapes the presentation of March Madness.

The best news for viewers — at least those who have access to the Turner nets — is that for the first time, every game will be available on TV from start to finish. The tradition of regionalizing broadcasts and then offering live look-ins to games being played simul-

taneously will essentially evaporate (except, for example, during halftimes).

“The concept is there are four national broadcasts,” McManus said. “If you’re watching the Syracuse game on TNT, that’s the one you’re watching (in its entirety).”

CBS and Turner pledge to make this concept clear to auds, through onscreen graphics as well as from the game announcers. David Levy, Turner sales, distribution and sports prexy, said that if there’s a 20-point blowout on one network but a tossup on another, viewers will actively be alerted that they might want to change the channel.

That includes changing the channel to TruTV, which Levy conceded some regular hoops fans might not even know how to find. Not surprisingly, Levy relishes the opportunity to introduce the cabler — which does have a reach of 92 million homes — to a new set of viewers.

“Mainly, it is just showing where the channel is,” said Levy, also noting commercial promotion opportunities for TruTV programs. “When TNT started carrying the NBA and NFL football, that was a huge driver for distribution and a huge driver for ratings.”

To that end, TruTV will get a showcase introduction. The new first round of the tournament, which takes the single play-in game from the past and adds three others — including two that might involve big-name schools with at-large tournament bids — will all be broadcast on TruTV, with the lead CBS crew of Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr (who will also partner with Marv Albert on TNT for some games) at the mics Tuesday.

And so by the time the true madness portion of the tourney begins Thursday and Friday, with 16 games being played each day, the nets hope to have made progress educating auds about using their remotes as needed.

“Once the viewer gets used to it, he’s going to like it,” McManus said. “He’s going to be playing the role that CBS used to play (in deciding what game is on). … We’ve empowered the viewer.”

One group that might not be waving pompons over the new setup is the CBS station affiliates. Because logistics will partly determine which games are broadcast on which networks — for example, no mixing channels for games at the same site — it’s possible that a CBS affiliate could be selling local advertising spots for one game while its hometown team is competing on a cabler.

“The only answer I can really give (the affiliates) is it’s much better than the alternative, which is to have the entire tournament on ESPN,” McManus said. “In the past, when we regionalized the country and gave the Duke game to Raleigh … that was obviously a more attractive scenario to our affiliates, but that scenario was not available.”

Tournament matchups will be announced by the NCAA on Sunday, with the four networks determining who gets which games shortly thereafter. So while fans are filling out their brackets, CBS and Turner will be having their own set of fun.

“We’re gonna do some horsetrading back and forth,” McManus said.

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