CBS, Turner Ready to March

With the Olympics over and Super Bowl LII a distant memory, CBS and Turner are banking on the upcoming NCAA tournament scoring big with March Madness fans.

Ratings for the Division I men’s college basketball tournament were robust a year ago, and some tweaks to the CBS Sports-Turner Sports coverage package, including an expansion of the platforms where the hoops action is available, sets the event up for another strong year.

The Final Four (March 31) and the National Championship (April 2) are on Turner’s TBS, which will likely mean a haircut in terms of ratings, compared to games on CBS. But Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, believes the U.S. is particularly primed for some good college basketball action.

“The country is pretty divided right now, to be honest with you,” he said. “This is one of those events that really has the opportunity to bring people together and enjoy a good sporting event in a communal way. People are looking for an escape, and there’s no better escape than the NCAA basketball tournament.”

All 67 games from the NCAA tournament will be televised, either on TBS, CBS, TNT or truTV, and will air on the Turner suite of streaming products known as March Madness Live. TBS will televise 21 games, including the Final Four and the championship from the Alamodome in San Antonio. CBS too will have 21, including the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 action. Thirteen games will air on truTV and TNT will offer a dozen.

In the eighth year of their NCAA tournament partnership, both CBS Sports and Turner Sports have hustled to make the games available on whichever platform users prefer. “Why it is bigger today than it’s ever been is the way we’ve empowered the viewer,” McManus said. “Any way you want to consume the tournament, you can do it — on your phone, on Roku, Apple TV, your laptop or tablet. There are myriad ways to consume the tournament.”

That also includes the Apple Watch, Chromecast, Xbox One and Amazon Fire TV. New for 2018 are Google Daydream and mobile web

Cinderella Invited to the Ball

Also likely to draw extra eyes to March Madness is what appears to be a wide-open field making the Big Dance. “Programs that don’t traditionally dominate college basketball are on top and the programs that have the history, the pedigree, are outside the Sweet 16,” said Jim Nantz, who will call the Final Four and the National Championship along with Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson. “It’s going to be a year where it’s gonna look different.”

As Turner's Charles Barkley, who will offer studio coverage across the four networks, sees it, “If a Cinderella is ever going to win March Madness, this is the year.”

While the action starts Tuesday, March 13, Turner and CBS got the hoops hoopla going early, with TBS airing the four-hour March Madness Selection Countdown social-media program, airing on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Bleacher Report, among other digital platforms, and leading in to the 2018 NCAA March Madness Selection Show, a two-hour program that aired Sunday, March 11, in front of a live audience. The show, produced by Turner Sports and CBS Sports, is a new initiative for Turner.

“Viewer habits continue to change,” Turner president David Levy said. “We said, let’s build a studio, have an audience, do it live.”

He described the Selection Show, hosted by Ernie Johnson and Greg Gumbel, with Barkley, Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis and Kenny Smith as the analysts in Atlanta, as “a new opportunity that is very exciting for us as a company.”

Levy acknowledged the likelihood of Final Four and National Championship ratings going down on TBS, but believes they will pick up over time as viewers find the cable outlets. “Tradition takes time; starting new habits takes time,” he said. “If there’s less ratings, fine.”

Helping ratings, he added, is close matchups, a few upsets in the beginning of the tournament, and “big market teams, big brands.”

Last year’s ratings were enviable. In the Final Four on CBS, Gonzaga versus South Carolina drew 14.7 million viewers, a 46% gain over the previous year, when the semifinals were on cable. North Carolina versus Oregon drew 18.8 million, up 44% over 2016.

The 2017 tournament on TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV averaged 10.8 million viewers, a 16% gain over 2016.

Power Players

While many fans love to see a Cinderella team sneak into the heat of the action, Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president and head of consultancy Pilson Communications, said it’s the major programs — the likes of North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan and Kentucky — that bring oodles of viewers. “That will generate higher ratings than the Cinderella teams,” he said.

Yet the advance of underdogs is undoubtedly a key part of March Madness lore. Nantz talks about calling a Duke versus Delaware State game years ago. While Duke is a seemingly annual presence at March Madness, Delaware State has played just one game in the history of the tourney, the 2005 matchup with Duke that the favorite won. “They’ll carry that one game, that one moment, for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That tape or DVD, it will be played not only immediately after they get home, but it’s going to be passed on to the next generation, the generation after that. I want them to be proud of how the narrator for that showcase moment did, how their family member was represented. I want to be able to do that story justice.”

Team TV Effort

CBS and Turner began their $10.8 billion NCAA deal in 2011, and it runs through 2024. The Final Four and championship game aired on cable for the first time in 2016. CBS will air the Final Four, National Championship and Selection Show in 2019, with the events alternating between the broadcast and cable parties each year throughout the partnership.

Pilson, who helped bring March Madness to CBS back in the early ’80s, called the CBS-Turner pact “the most innovative sports sharing agreement I think the industry has ever seen.”

Without Turner coming on board, he said, CBS would’ve been out of March Madness. “The tournament would’ve ended up on ESPN,” Pilson said.

The Final Four and championship on cable may mean a 20%-25% ratings reduction, according to Pilson, owing to CBS’ superior promotional might and its presence in every TV home. Like McManus, he said March Madness provides a fun diversion for a nation that sure could use one right now. “Sports tradition brings people together. You can have a Trump guy and a gun-control guy, and both are wearing a Michigan hat, and there’s community interest,” he said. “You bury your political issues, and for three hours, you’re united in support of the team. That’s been the function of sports going back 100 years or so.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.