- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The NCAA tournament’s new television format drew more viewers to the first weekend of March Madness.

The games spread across four networks have averaged 8.4 million viewers so far. That’s up 14 percent from last year, when games were only on CBS.

“We made certain assumptions with advertisers, and we’ve either met or exceeded all those assumptions,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus told The Associated Press on Monday. “The first year is often a benchmark and a critical year for a long-term deal, and that bodes well.”

The NCAA’s 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner meant each early round game was televised nationally in its entirety on CBS, TNT, TBS or truTV. In the past, broadcasts on CBS were regionalized, and the network would switch among games.

“These numbers were significantly better, but I was expecting these types of numbers,” Turner Sports chief David Levy said.

McManus was quick to note the ratings reflected only the first few days of a 14-year deal. “But the initial signs and initial numbers are encouraging,” he said.

“We’ve gotten anecdotal evidence that people really, really like being able to control what they watch,” McManus said. “They’ve gotten used to already looking up at the scoreboard.”

The ratings have benefited from plenty of close finishes and upsets in this year’s tournament, but McManus believes that’s not just good fortune. With parity in the sport, he expects that to remain the norm in March.

“One of the things Turner and CBS bet on was what the future of college basketball would be, that there would be a lot of really, really intriguing matchups and lot of really, really intriguing games,” McManus said.

Fans still took advantage of the ability to watch games for free online even with the increased TV options. Visits to March Madness on Demand on the Internet and mobile devices are up 47 percent from last year.

Levy attributed that partly to the introduction of the iPad and the increased prevalence of smartphones that can stream video. And of course most people don’t have televisions in their offices on Thursday and Friday afternoons.

The new deal allowed for more staggered starts to games, so all those buzzer-beaters weren’t happening at the same time, and for games to be broadcast in prime time on Sunday. Levy said he received a bunch of emails from people excited to be able to watch the tournament on a Sunday night.

“Any time you’ve got the opportunity to have the importance of the tournament and these games in prime time, it certainly helped,” Levy said.

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