Turner, CBS to Share Final Four as NCAA Hoops Find Cable Roost

Hand-off narrows the gap between broadcast programming and cable fare

The NCAA men’s basketball championship and the Final Four that precedes it, two of TV-sports most vaunted properties, will join the lineup of a cable network that boasts reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” and episodes of Tyler Perry comedies, in a continued sign of the narrowing gap between broadcast and cable television.

CBS and Time Warner’s Turner unit said Tuesday that Turner’s TBS comedy cabler will broadcast the Final Four and the national championship game of the NCAA men’s basketball tourney starting in 2016, with CBS televising those events in 2017, and the two parties alternating through 2024. While the idea of a major sporting event moving to cable-only may raise some eyebrows, the two media outlets agreed to this scenario in 2010, when they signed a pact to share multimedia coverage of the popular tournament and the ad dollars that flow to it as escalating rights fees made CBS’s sole broadcast of the event untenable.

Leading up to 2016, TBS will televise the NCAA Final Four national semi-finals and CBS will broadcast the NCAA National Championship game in both 2014 and 2015, the companies said. The 2013 tournament across TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV was the most-watched NCAA tournament in 19 years, according to Nielsen. The event averaged 10.7 million total viewers, up 11% from last year’s 9.6 million viewers.

The migration of the basketball event is just the latest TV property once considered the sole provenance of broadcast to move to cable in a new form, the result of a years-long splintering of the national TV audience around hundreds of video options that include calbe networsk and online streaming-video sites. Among the programs making the leap: “Monday Night Football,” now on ESPN rather than ABC; Conan O’Brien,  now on TBS rather than NBC; and Oprah Winfrey, now leading her Discovery Communications-backed cabler rather than her popular syndicated program.

What’s more, cable networks have seemed more interested in snapping up broadcast properties, as Turner has done with “Cougar Town,” once an ABC sitcom and “Southland,” once an NBC drama, and Lifetime once attempted with venerable one-time Fox reality program “America’s Most Wanted.”

Starting in 2014 and lasting through 2024, coverage of the regional semifinals and regional finals games will be split by TBS and CBS. Earlier round coverage of the tournament will continue to be televised across four national television networks — CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV — with the first four games airing with exclusively on truTV.

The new schedule came about as a result of both companies wanting to “have a piece” of the Final Four weekend, said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting System, during a conference call. Turner had an option to broadcast both the Final Four and the championship in 2014, said Levy and Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, and both TV companies wanted to have a presence during those events. “We came up with a compromise,” McManus said.

The network that airs the games stands to reap ad rewards. Between 2003 and 2012, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament generated more than $5.9 billion in national advertising from 266 different sponsors, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. Ad revenue in 2012 surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time, Kantar said – displacing pro football as the top ad-cash generators in post-season among TV sports properties.

The average price for a 30-second spot in the tournament came to $1.24 million, Kantar said, up 8% from the 2011 contest. Many of the NCAA tourney’s top sponsors buy large packages that can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Several details remain to be worked out as the NCAA tourney championship shuttles between networks. Sportscasters for the event are still being considered, Levy said.

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