Final Four Marches into Cable TV Future

When the NCAA men’s basketball championship game tips off Monday evening on CBS, it will be the end of an era of sorts.

No, I’m not talking about the final game in the long, illustrious college basketball careers of Kentucky and Duke’s freshmen.

Rather, this is the last year before the title game, which has aired on a broadcast network since 1969 and CBS since 1982, hits cable. Turner, which already shares tournament coverage with CBS, will air the 2016 championship game on TBS.

The title game will alternate between CBS and TBS until 2024, so it will be back on CBS in 2017. Saturday's Final Four semifinal games will air on TBS, as they did in 2014, while Turner will show the title game (and semifinal games) on TNT and truTV with team-specific “homer” announcers.

But Turner superseding CBS is a major turning point in the broadcasting history of the NCAA Tournament — and the continuation of a trend in major sports, set off by ESPN’s record-rated broadcast of the new College Football Playoff championship game in January.

With March Madness now ubiquitous on four TV channels and on-demand on phones, computers and any other Internet-connected device, it’s hard to imagine that it took years before every game of the tournament was televised and accessible to the whole country. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was first broadcast in 1969 on NBC; however, it was not until 1973 that championship game was moved to Mondays in primetime and both Final Four national semifinal matchups were available to the entire country.

In the early 1980s, nascent cable network ESPN began picking up some NCAA Productions feeds of early-round games. When the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, ESPN carried opening-round games live during the day Thursday and Friday — including some live cut-ins to other close games —and others on tape delay the following mornings. With ESPN showing the bulk of the early rounds, the tournament’s popularity soared and the network’s brand became established and associated in part with college basketball.

CBS, which took over coverage of the tournament in 1982, began a new seven-year, $1 billion agreement with the NCAA in 1991 that included live coverage of every tournament game. For the concurrent early-round games, CBS provided different feeds for its affiliates, depending on local interest and how close the game was.

On April 22, 2010, the NCAA announced a new television contract with CBS and Turner that expanded the field to 68 teams, with CBS sharing coverage through the regional semifinals with Turner. After the 2013 tournament, Turner Sports exercised an option in its contract that gave TBS broadcast rights to the national semifinals for 2014 and 2015 and the championship game every other year.