March Gladness for CBS Affils, Ops

Credit college basketball with an assist for helping to soothe relations between local broadcasters and cable systems.

About 15 CBS affiliates plan to broadcast up to four games simultaneously during next month’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, and most of them have agreements with local cable operators to distribute tournament games to digital-cable customers.

Digital-must-carry rights remain a contentious issue between broadcasters and cable operators after the Federal Communications Commission ruled earlier this month that cable systems are only required to carry local TV stations’ primary signals.

But with “March Madness” approaching, some CBS affiliates in small and midsized markets where college basketball is popular are teaming up with local cable operators to distribute and market the games.

While some stations are demanding that MSOs pay cash to carry their signals, general managers at several CBS affiliates said they aren’t asking local cable systems to shell out any money for the hoops contests.

By splitting their digital spectrum into one HDTV service and up to three additional digital-multicast channels, the CBS affiliates will be able to broadcast up to four games live during the NCAA Tournament, which tips off March 15.

Because few consumers own digital-broadcast receivers and the antennas needed to watch the games, offering the contests to local digital-cable customers gives the CBS affiliates an outlet for their programming.

Not all CBS affiliates are willing to supply the games to local operators free-of-charge. KOIN-TV in Portland, Ore., plans to multicast the March Madness games, but GM David Lipoff said the station won’t give them to the local Comcast Corp. system unless the operator agrees to pay for the matchups.

In addition to Portland, CBS affiliates also plan to multicast the basketball games in Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; Greensboro and Raleigh, N.C.; Huntsville, Ala.; Las Vegas; Lexington and Louisville, Ky.; Milwaukee; Roanoke and Norfolk; Va.; and Providence, R.I..

For cable operators, carrying the multicast signals of the tourney games from local CBS affiliates will also help them to compete against direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV Inc., which sells subscribers a $59 “Mega March Madness” package. Meanwhile, College Sports Television will offer a streaming-video package of tournament games.

The DirecTV package, which offers customers up to 37 games, is more comprehensive than the early-round games that operators can offer their customers with the local CBS multicasts. But the participating cable systems are offering the games free-of-charge to all digital-cable customers.

For more on digital-cable carriage of the NCAA Tournament, please see Steve Donohue’s story on page one of Monday’s issue of Multichannel News.