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How The NCAA Tournament Went From Tape Delay To TV Juggernaut

“Imagine living in the Midwest or East at the time and only getting to see the great UCLA teams of that day in the title game.”

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Believe it or not, there was a time when you couldn’t watch every NCAA Tournament game live. Hard to fathom now that you can not only watch all the games live, but you can stream them as well. At any given time, you can dial in one of the four networks covering the action, CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV and see a live game in its entirety. There were some 12 hours of games brought to you live during each day of the first weekend. It’s incredible and what every college basketball fan dreams of. It wasn’t always that way. 

Back in the day, the telecasts were pretty raw. Not many graphics and no score bug. The score and time left would flash up after a made basket and going to and coming back from commercial breaks. Imagine tuning into a game in progress and not knowing the score? How spoiled have we gotten? The answer? Very. 

If you have Direct TV, turn to ch 205 to watch all four games at once. :  CollegeBasketball

Thankfully the tournament broadcast has evolved as quickly as my bracket was busted on night number one of the big dance. That’s pretty fast, you’ll just have to trust me on that. So how did we get to the point of being able to see every game from start to finish? It was a long slow process that eventually caught up to the needs of the rabid fan. 

The current format is more than fans could ask for. When the contract between the NCAA, CBS and Turner was signed after the 2010 Tournament, some were skeptical. The fact that games were going to be spread out over several networks was unique for sure. Would fans embrace what seemed chaotic? 

“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 in 2010. “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.” A costly decision with the deal worth a reported 10.8-billion dollars. 

“The tournament’s success outgrew one network’s ability to provide the coverage fans were looking for,” David Levy, then the president of Turner Sports, said in 2010. There’s a lot of truth in that statement. This current deal solved the issue of ‘cutaways’ and also infused talent from both CBS and the Turner properties together. Greg Gumbel, Ernie Johnson Jr, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis and others joined forces to provide in-depth and informative studio shows. The collaboration is working. 

Let’s dive into a little history here on the tournament, which was really the second fiddle to the NIT for many years until the 1960’s. The first broadcast of the NCAA Tournament championship game dates back to 1946. New York’s CBS-TV televised the Oklahoma State vs. North Carolina game, won by the Cowboys. It was estimated that an audience of just 500-thousand saw the title contest. 

It wasn’t until 1952 that games were televised regionally for the first time. Then in 1954 La Salle defeated Bradley in the first nationally televised title game. It all changed in 1969. NBC paid about a half million dollars for the rights to the tournament. They televised a doubleheader on the opening day of the tournament, then allowing each market to get two of the four regional final games. 

The Final Four started on a Thursday, but each market would get just one of the games. Can you imagine today only getting a chance to see ONE of the national semifinal games? Championship and consolation games were played on a Saturday and both were televised by NBC. 

In those days teams were divided into brackets based on geography. So, East Coast teams were placed in the East Region. The other regions were the West, Mideast and Midwest. You would only get East regional matchups televised in the Eastern part of the country and so on. Imagine living in the Midwest or East at the time and only getting to see the great UCLA teams of that day in the title game.

The Greatest College Basketball Team of All Time – A Sip of Sports

NBC would eventually expand some of its coverage in the early 1970’s, finally airing both national semifinal games. In the late 70’s NBC included opening weekend Sunday games and prime time regional coverage of four regional semifinal games, one for each market. 

Things started to change for the better when, in 1980, an infant sports network known as ESPN got into the fray. ESPN picked up the NCAA Productions feeds of a couple of games on the opening Thursday night and then three on the first Friday night of the tournament. ESPN also picked up these feeds for the regional semifinals the following Thu/Fri carrying five games live and the other three on tape delay. Not a perfect situation, but better. Then CBS entered the picture. 

In 1982 CBS debuted the Selection Sunday Show to announce the teams that made the tournament and what matchups were ahead. CBS added coverage of the opening round with live late-night games from the West Region on Thursday and Friday at 11:30 pm in the eastern time zone. The coverage featured a tripleheader on the first Saturday as well. ESPN stayed in the picture for the time being, picking up the NCAA Productions feeds and carried live doubleheaders on the opening Thursday and Friday nights. ESPN also ran many games on tape delay after the CBS 11:30 telecast both nights.

The coverage further expanded in 1983 and 1984, but then the tournament itself expanded to 64 teams in 1985. CBS would step up their game. This resulted in almost non-stop basketball for nearly 55 consecutive hours from Thursday at noon through early Saturday evening. Things stayed largely the same until 1991, when ESPN was cut out of the picture and CBS began a new seven-year contract that was for upwards of one-billion dollars. This time the deal included live coverage of all sessions of the championship. No more tape delay. 

In 1999 DirecTV entered the picture with the Mega March Madness package. That enabled viewers to see every out-of-market region games during the first three rounds of the tourney. 

In the years to follow, the NCAA Tournament was available as a live stream. CBSSports.com and later the official March Madness Live app provided you coverage of the games. Remember the “boss” button? If you were watching on your computer, you’d hit the button and a fake spreadsheet would pop up to make it seem like you were still working. Ingenious.  

Things kind of stayed status-quo until 2007. That’s when CBS allowed what was then called CSTV, now known as CBS Sports Network, to air one of the regular network’s games each day on the first Thursday and Friday. This was the case until 2009. 

Everything changed after the 2010 Tournament. The mega-deal between the NCAA and it’s now two television partners, CBS and the Turner Networks gave us what is today our “new normal” when watching games. Yes, they are spread out across a multitude of channels, but the games are in HD, the graphics are terrific and the basketball itself has been very entertaining. 

Think of how far we’ve come from the early days of the tournament and television. Watching the games in 1990, just 31 years ago, you wouldn’t have known any better not to see on your screen how many timeouts each team had. Right? Could you even have imagined the possibility of seeing the shot clock on your screen at all times? Going back even a little further to 1970, would you have been so bold to demand to watch a game live instead of tape delay? Mindboggling to think that we used to rely on announcers and us actually paying attention to know the details of a game without being spoon fed the info. We weren’t looking at our smart phones or typing on our iPads or tablets either. 

Redesigned NCAA March Madness Live App Expands Platforms

Some of you were not around before this wealth of technology and graphics so you are probably reading in horror. It wasn’t so bad, it’s all we knew. Though if given the choice I’d much prefer today’s telecasts. The information, the camera shots, the in-game reports from the sidelines and graphics to support all of the above make it a much more enjoyable watch. Oh and of course there’s our “One Shining Moment”. What did we ever do without that? 

In saying all this, there is just one question left to ask; what does TruTV actually show the other 11 months of the year?

BSM Writers

Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench

“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”

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As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.

The Power Of Dead Air
Courtesy: Jacobs Media

Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.

Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.

Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.

Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media. 

Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???

One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.

My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”

Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.

Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country. 

Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format. 

There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.

If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.

Drowning

I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort. 

Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.

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BSM Writers

Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks

“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”

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CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.

“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”

You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.

John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.

One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.

“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.

He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.

With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.

BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.

Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.

CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.

In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.

Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.

Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.

The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.

Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?

I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.

CBS aims to grow Sports HQ within its network of streaming channels -  Digiday
Courtesy: CBS

CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.

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BSM Writers

Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?

“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”

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A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!

Disney+ Day: Kareem Daniel Says “Momentum Building” At Streamer After 2  Years – Deadline

Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.

The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.

I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?

This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?

Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.

One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.

You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.

Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.

Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.

Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.

Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.

As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.

The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.

Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?

The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.

The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?

Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.

Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.

Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.

Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.

Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.

What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.

Valentine Day Digital Ads on Behance

Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.

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