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Madness on the march online

Tourney webcast doesn't dent TV ratings

Score one for March Madness as Internet pioneer.

CBS’ ambitious experiment in streaming 48 games of the NCAA basketball tournament live over the Net drew 4 million visitors to CBS SportsLine during a four-day period that began Thursday — all without eroding ratings for the television broadcasts.

About 1.5 million users signed up for the precedent-setting experiment, CBS said. Company sent out 14 million total streams.

While the weekend streams proved less popular than those on Thursday and Friday as the number of users with access to TVs grew (and access to broadband shrunk), SportsLine called its weekend traffic “steady.”

The user experience proved appealing: The games streamed with a minimum of delays or server hiccups, and even a notorious “waiting room” never seemed to lead to significant delays.

More striking, network ratings on Thursday and Friday weren’t jeopardized. In fact, national household rating averages on Thursday and Friday were the highest they had been for comparable rounds in nine years.

Numbers suggested that the exposure promoted, instead of cannibalized, on-air programming, as CBS argued it would — though DirecTV’s service (which charges $59 for additional games) could be put at risk if streaming continues to be free and popular.

CBS execs were ecstatic Sunday afternoon.

“I think this is proof the free, ad-supported model works on the Web,” CBS Digital prexy Larry Kramer told Daily Variety. “It proves that, in any case where someone has an interest in more than we can show on TV, the Web is a great medium for that.”

Kramer wouldn’t say if the company plans to keep the service free next year but suggested a “major portion” of its programming would be ad-supported.

There were some small snags. Blown up at full screen, images were blurry. And streams were often delayed by a minute or more, meaning TV scorebars gave away results that couldn’t yet be seen on the streams.

How the net might convert the service, called March Madness On Demand, into revenue also remains uncertain. SportsLine sold some ads separately, while others were bundled with the network; the site had a blackout period during some commercial breaks, in part because it said it sold ads conservatively.

Company declined to disclose revenue numbers but said the operation ran in the black.

The logistical and popular success of live TV on the Internet was important news for an industry that has yet to translate the immediacy of the TV set to the Web.

Experts, however, said nets would struggle to find other uses, saying that the model worked best for multiple live events happening simultaneously on one network — not a common occurrence.

Kramer said the net was “testing everything over the next few months,” especially in sports programming, to see where similar services could apply.

Novelty also may have played a role this year, as the service offered users the frisson of watching pirated TV with the high production values of a major network broadcast.

And even with the ratings and a blackout for local games, concerns over viewers migrating to the Internet may yet bubble up with affiliates.

“There’s a lot more that networks can and will do in the space, especially in sports,” said U. of Arizona associate professor of media industries Kevin Sandler. But that, he said, could mean a nasty battle with affiliates. “I wouldn’t be surprised if (TV on the Internet) eventually leads to a congressional showdown.”