The partnership between Turner Sports and CBS has brought several changes to the way we consume March Madness. Many of them have been very good. Turner's basketball talent have brought added personality to the telecasts, even if some of their NBA studio personnel aren't admittedly as well versed in the college game. Some of the best broadcasters in sports like Marv Albert, Steve Kerr, and Charles Barkley are now a regular part of NCAA Tournament coverage.
The single best element of the CBS-Turner partnership has been putting the choice in the hands of the college basketball fan. With every game spread across 4 different networks, you have the choice as to which game you want to watch. No longer are you beholden to your local CBS affiliate and limited to cut-ins from other games you really wanted to see. You have full control over your March Madness experience.
Now with another revolutionary, and possibly even radical move, Turner and CBS are going to give viewers around the country even more options for next year's Final Four. For the first time, the National Semifinal games will be aired on TBS instead of CBS. And, three different networks will carry that doubleheader. In addition to TBS airing the national broadcast, truTV and TNT will offer telecasts that are geared towards fans of each team involved in the Final Four. John Ourand of SBJ broke the story:
In an unprecedented move, Turner Sports and CBS will produce three different telecasts for each of the two national semifinal games, each with its own set of announcers. The traditional national telecast will run on TBS, while TNT and truTV will carry the same games at the same time with announcers and camera angles customized to each specific team.
TNT and truTV also will produce different halftime shows that will be focused on the different teams in the Final Four. Pre- and postgame shows will be simulcast across all three channels.
CBS still has the championship game next April, so this will only be used for the two national semifinal games. It truly is unprecedented coverage plans. We've never seen a national network produce what amounts to team-centric feeds for any game before. [Insert ESPN-Duke basketball joke here.] The folks at Turner & CBS won't just be producing one Final Four telecast, but three – complete with team-specific and national halftime shows as well.
Can CBS and Turner realistically expect this new idea to increase viewership? It's hard to say at this point. One would think anyone watching the team-specific channels would already be watching the game on TBS already if they're that invested in one of the teams involved. And, it's equally hard to see a neutral fan want to take in a more biased or slanted broadcast instead over the national one. The increase in total viewership across the three networks would be minimal, and if anything, it would eat into whatever large ratings number TBS would be able to post. But credit to CBS and Turner as this doesn't seem to be a ratings-driven decision, rather one focused on innovations in Final Four coverage.
“This is really about giving fans alternate viewing options,” he [Turner exec Lenny Daniels] said. “Ratings are always a consideration, but we’re not worried about them. We’re looking for innovative, forward-thinking ways to present these games.”
CBS and Turner have not made any announcements about who will call the games. CBS’s top college basketball team — Jim Nantz, Steve Kerr, Greg Anthony and Tracy Wolfson — are considered likely candidates to handle the traditional telecast on TBS.
Daniels said the companies have not decided who to pursue for the TNT and truTV telecasts, but they want to target people who know those teams best.
The biggest question in this experiment will be exactly that last point – who will announce these team-specific telecasts? CBS/Turner won't just be able to snatch up the local radio broadcast booths because they'll be busy with a game broadcast of their own. Additionally, there aren't local TV crews attached to each college basketball program like you would see in pro sports. Perhaps Turner and CBS would look to more regional affiliations and widen their scope of possible announcers. For instance, if Michigan State were playing in the game they could use either Steve Smith (former MSU player) or even someone from another network like Jim Jackson of BTN. Tim Brando and Mike Gminski could work one game if an ACC team makes it because of their work during the regular season calling ACC hoops. That kind of talent investment would be huge for the networks (in perhaps tripling or quadrupling their resources) but it would also be a great opportunity for what could be 4 sets of announcers that wouldn't normally get to call Final Four games.
It's a bold gamble from CBS and Turner. It could be that the local feeds are met with a lack of real interest and do poor ratings. They could even not meet the standards of those fanbases. Would Kentucky basketball fans really take to Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel becoming the voice of the Wildcats for one night only, or would they not be enough pro-UK? Could the announcers adjust their styles to pull these broadcasts off successfully? There's certainly risk involved in many angles.
But if this does work, it could revolutionize sports coverage as we know it. What if for America's Game of the Week Sunday afternoon Fox produced a Saints themed telecast on Fox Sports 1 and a 49ers themed telecast for Fox Sports 2? Could NBC attempt this style for the Stanley Cup Final and produce team-specific telecasts for NBCSN and CNBC? What about ESPN's neverending supply of networks? With so many sports networks available and the investment in sports from major networks showing no signs of slowing down, the opportunities would exist for this to happen across the board if leagues and networks are able to get behind the concept. For a group as passionate and as prone to partisan behavior as sports fans, this could be a transformational development in the way we consume sports. Whether it succeeds or flops, you have to give credit to CBS and Turner for making such a bold and innovative step.