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CBS, ESPN jump through hoops

Nets face off in multiple platforms

The country’s premier college-hoops tournament has led to a battle between CBS and ESPN.

Fight for eyeballs and ad revenue during NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is always feverish, but this year it’s more heated than usual.

CBS has paid $6 billion for long-term tourney (and other NCAA championship) rights, while ESPN has aired more than 400 hours of college ball this year. Eye deal enables CBS to broadcast games on all platforms.

March Madness, as the tournament is known, begins March 16, and CBS is attempting an ambitious experiment that will stream all out-of-market games for free via its Web site cbssportsline.com, in the hope of securing significant ad coin.

Net also, for the first time, has a separate platform for college sports, CSTV, which it bought in January for more than $300 million. Startup won’t show live tourney games this year but will feature pre-and postgame material and draw on CBS talent.

At a press conference in Gotham Tuesday CBS Sports trotted out topper Sean McManus, the online team and other execs to talk up the offerings.

But ESPN has hardly been sitting pat. Net launched ESPNU, a response to CSTV a year ago and for the first time this year that spinoff will include a full-court press for the tourney.

Even though they don’t hold the rights, net’s execs are going to piggyback wherever possible.

On Tuesday ESNPU announced its first selection show for Sunday, competing, sort of, with CBS’ linchpin program.

And ESPNU execs say they will send a full team to the Final Four on top of all the other coverage. “We’re going to treat this like it’s the Super Bowl,” said ESPNU topper Burke Magnus, who oversees all NCAA roundball for ESPN.

And on the flagship, net will break in during “SportsCenter” after seedings are announced during the selection show, treating CBS’ prized selection-show as though it’s any other bit of breaking news: in the public domain for anyone to use.

On its face, the NCAA hoops tournament is a network programmer’s nightmare: 63 games, sometimes seven or eight at a time, and an overreliance on statistics that don’t translate on TV.

But it’s also become a lab for a 21st century model of TV, through both the Web site and CBS’ deal for out-of-market games with DirecTV. “It’s almost as if the tournament was invented for multiplatform distribution,” said CSTV prexy Brian Bedol. “You need a companion network to fully appreciate and follow it.”

But it will be a tricky juggling act for CBS Sports exec VP Tony Petitti, who must figure out a way to use those platforms without undermining the flagship broadcasts.

“The overriding decision is to do what’s best for the CBS television network,” he said.

And ESPN execs will be watching skeptically — and nervously — to see if CBS experiment works out.

With many of the games on Thursday and Friday afternoon, some say the whole tourney is overrated. “The tournament gets more ink for its ratings than anything else on television,” one sports exec said.

But that hasn’t stopped ESPN and Eye from sniping.

“We like to think that more than any other media company we get college basketball to this point in the season,” Magnus said. “I think without question we are still relied upon as the No. 1 way to find out what it means.”

But even with the new net, CSTV execs say cabler’s efforts can’t compare. “We’re the only media company that focuses exclusively on college,” Bedol said. “People prefer a specialist.”

The skirmish is not without history. CSTV and ESPN squared off before the college net was owned by Eye, with CSTV accusing ESPN of warehousing college games to stop the startup net from acquiring them.