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Viewers will have the power to switch from game to game, network to network

CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus thinks the new four-channel NCAA basketball TV alignment is better for the viewer. (Associated Press)
CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus thinks the new four-channel NCAA basketball TV alignment is better for the viewer. (Associated Press)

NEW YORK – For all you college basketball fans who’ve moaned over the years that you could do a better job of switching among NCAA tournament games than CBS – here’s your chance.

If a team leads by 30 points Thursday afternoon while another game is tied in the final seconds, CBS won’t budge. Viewers will hold all the power in their remote controls.

The NCAA tournament’s new 14-year, $10.8 billion TV deal with two media companies radically changes how a nation of bracket-fillers will watch March Madness. Every game will be broadcast nationally in its entirety, spread across four networks – old standby CBS, plus three Turner cable channels in TNT, TBS and truTV.

“That’s going to take some getting used to, but it’s a better programming option for the viewer at home and the basketball fan,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said in an interview with the Associated Press. “More work on his or her part to find the game, but they get to decide what game they want to watch. In the past, I think we did a very good job of moving around, but it was our decision.”

To which fans may say: Sounds great, but what’s truTV?

It’s the channel formerly known as Court TV, available in 80 percent of American homes with televisions, according to Nielsen. That’s a bit less than the 87 percent for the much-better-known TNT and TBS, which also have the distinction of airing other sports including the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Even TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley, who will work the studio show as part of the new partnership, was grilling his boss last week about truTV not being available in many hotels. Turner Sports chief David Levy explained truTV was in more homes than ESPNU or ESPNews. His point: Any NCAA deal to put the tournament on four networks would almost certainly include at least one channel with somewhat limited reach.

“One reason why we invested in this was to get people to know where truTV was,” Levy told the AP. “That’s part of the reason why you put the kind of money up that we are.”

With 13 more seasons on the deal, McManus and Levy are confident viewers will get the hang of finding truTV and flipping among four networks. For now, the challenge is to alleviate growing pains.

Announcers will encourage fans to switch to closer games on other channels. The scores – and networks – of the three other contests will always sit at the top of the screen. March Madness on Demand, which will still stream games for free online, will allow fans to enter their zip code and a provider to tell them exactly where truTV is. Levy believes social networking will be a big help.

There will be no regionalization. In the past, fans in, say, western Pennsylvania would always be able to watch Pittsburgh’s games on CBS. On Thursday, the top-seeded Panthers’ opener will be on truTV everywhere. McManus and Levy said they weren’t too concerned about the effect on hometown fans who don’t get the cable channels, since they can still watch for free online.

March Madness on Demand will remain a major option for everybody on Thursday and Friday afternoons when most people are at work. The networks plan to do a lot of research this year into how fans watch games – on smartphones, on office computers, on iPads – so they can tailor coverage in the future.

They won’t totally do away with quick cut-ins to other games, but expect to use that only rarely.

“We’ve made a pledge to the viewer we’re going to show games nationally,” McManus said.

He added: “The point is if somebody’s watching that 40-point blowout, they’re probably watching it because they really want to see that game.”

The business model agreed to by CBS and Turner means a large audience on TNT is good news for CBS and vice versa. Companies can’t buy ads on just one channel. Network executives will care only about the cumulative ratings across all four networks.

McManus and Levy said ad sales had easily surpassed their expectations.

Whether the basketball itself will be considered a raging success will likely depend on how many buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas this tournament produces. Levy noted that when TBS started broadcasting baseball’s division series in 2007, it actually averaged more viewers than the previous year, when some games were on Fox and available to more people – but he was quick to add it was helped by the presence of several popular, large-market franchises.

The new NCAA contract, signed in April, paired up two companies with individual goals solved by the same solution. CBS wanted to keep the tournament but couldn’t afford to without a partner. Turner, a Time Warner company, wanted a piece of another big-time sports event.

ESPN bid for the rights, too. CBS and Turner pitched to the NCAA that putting the tournament somewhere other than ESPN provided more exposure for college basketball. The argument: ESPN would promote the sport either way, but CBS would probably stop airing regular-season games if it didn’t have the tourney, leaving fewer major platforms for NCAA hoops.

The tournament is the latest mega competition to migrate to cable, though the Final Four will remain on CBS through 2015. After that, it will alternate between CBS and TBS.

The round of 16 will be split between CBS and TBS this year, with the regional finals on CBS.

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