Broadcasting the early rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is about as challenging as a doing the fox trot on roller skates. With 48 games played in eight cities over the course of four days, it is CBS that truly looks at the event as a “big dance.”
Over the years, the network has faced criticism from fans and media that questioned everything, from why certain games were shown in certain markets to the timing of commercial breaks. But it appears that, for the most part, CBS finally has figured out a formula that keeps fans reasonably happy. A number of broadcast tweaks and the introduction of games on the Internet and satellite caused the number of complaints to plummet, officials said.
“Any complaints we get, there really isn’t any reason for them anymore,” said Mike Aresco, CBS’ executive vice president of programming.
Since taking over the broadcast rights for the entire tournament in 1991, it seemed CBS could never win with its basketball audience. If it cut away from a blowout game to a more competitive contest, it would get complaints. If it stuck with a game all the way to the end, it would get calls from fans begging to see a different one.
CBS tried all kinds of things, including showing as many as four games at once on a single screen. The unpredictability of live events was complicated by intense team loyalties in certain regions and the often irrational passion of fan bases.
“They [couldn’t] figure out why we’d go to a site just before the coach called timeout,” CBS Sports president Sean McManus recalled. “Think about that for a second… like we somehow knew the coach was going to call timeout.”
In recent years, the number of fan complaints - and the number of media inquiries about coverage - has declined as the network rolled out new services that allowed fans to watch any game from start to finish. In 1999, CBS partnered with satellite provider DirecTV to create the “Mega March Madness” package, which offers all out-of-market games. CBS also attracts millions of visitors to its “March Madness on Demand” service, which streams all out-of-market games online for free. Last year, nearly 5 million unique viewers logged on to the on-demand service.
The live television broadcast remains the core product, of course, and the network made a number of adjustments that have reduced fan ire. The addition of live, up-to-the-second scores at the top of the screen has been helpful, officials said. And the network has increased the number of times it goes to studio host Greg Gumbel to provide updates of other games in action.
In the past few years, CBS has been quicker to switch from blowout games to closer ones and has changed its strategy for dealing with multiple games that are close and nearing the finish. In the past, the network almost always would go to commercial break after a timeout, even if there was another tense game going on live. That has been changed.
“We basically - much to the chagrin of our sales man - in the last minute of a game will forgo running commercials and bounce back to the game we just left,” McManus said. “We call it pingponging, and that has made an enormous difference. Because it is frustrating if you’re switched to one game and that game goes to commercial. So we don’t do that anymore.
“The system we have in place is absolutely as good as it could possibly be.”