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DirecTV Extends Mega March Madness

Cable operators must wait at least one more year to offer games from the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament on pay-per-view, as DirecTV Inc. last week extended its distribution deal with the organization.

For the third consecutive year, DirecTV will offer up to 37 out-of-market games from the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, said executives from the satellite service.

"The ability to provide the widest array of premium-sports programming, especially exclusive packages like Mega March Madness, have been a cornerstone in successfully building and marketing the DirecTV brand," DirecTV senior vice president of programming and acquisitions Michael Thornton said. "We're very excited to be offering these games exclusively to DirecTV customers for the third consecutive year."

The CBS television network, which holds all broadcast rights to the tournament, will produce the Mega March Madness package for DirecTV.

"We are tremendously pleased to continue our relationship with DirecTV, providing viewers the opportunity to purchase those games not broadcast in their local market," CBS Sports president Sean McManus said in a statement. "This agreement only serves to enhance CBS Sports' overall coverage of the tournament and in no way will affect the quality broadcasts CBS Sports has produced for nearly two decades."

The deal shuts out cable, despite its aggressive efforts to land the package.

Though cable has broken DirecTV's exclusive hold on the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League out-of-market packages, it's been unable to wrestle away rights to Major League Baseball, National Football League or the NCAA tournament.

"We were extremely aggressive in our pursuit of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championships," In Demand vice president of corporate communications Joe Boyle said. "Unfortunately, CBS had some issues concerning cable-TV rights for the out-of-market broadcasts and concerns about the impact on their local broadcast coverage of the games."

NCAA men's basketball media coordinator Jim Marchiony said cable distribution could indeed erode ratings for CBS affiliates that carry the tournament in local markets.

The DirecTV deal "satisfies the goal of getting as many games as possible to the fans while protecting the CBS affiliates," Marchiony said. "Any further distribution could erode ratings for the network and its affiliates."

But the potential for ratings cannibalization could also apply to DirecTV in the near future, as its subscriber base-currently at 9 million-continues to grow. Though Marchiony would not provide a specific subscriber figure, but said the NCAA would continue to evaluate DirecTV's subscriber growth, and its potential to affect broadcast ratings, on an annual basis.

"That is something that we review every year, and it's something that CBS and we will discuss next year," he said.

But Thorton believes that DirecTV's national footprint is a perfect fit for both CBS and the NCAA and expects to continue the agreement beyond 2000.

If NCAA and CBS had concerns about DirecTV's distribution, he added, they could have given the package to digital cable, which currently has fewer subscribers than the DBS service.

"I understand the NCAA's position, but I don't think it's a major problem," Thorton said.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.