Now nearly eight years into — and a third of the way through — their joint NCAA Tournament rights deal that runs through 2032, Turner Sports and CBS are looking forward to putting on a high quality, experiential Final Four broadcast across numerous platforms and media while looking back at how much has changed and evolved since 2010. Awful Announcing spoke to lead Final Four studio host Ernie Johnson and Craig Barry, Turner’s executive vice president of production and chief content officer as they were set to kick off college basketball’s biggest weekend in San Antonio.
The biggest NCAA Tournament innovation over the last eight years, Barry said, has been the Turner-CBS partnership itself.
“The fact that two networks could come together is pretty impressive, but then to leverage each other’s strengths to create a better product is really the evolution of this tournament over the last eight years,” Barry told Awful Announcing.
Since 2010, the NFL has tried fusing itself with different networks to put together the Thursday Night Football package and Fox and MLB Network have done the same for certain telecasts, but combining staffs, broadcast teams, and pooling resources is a massive behind-the-scenes effort. The biggest change you’ve seen, of course, is expanded tournament coverage from one network to four, including TBS, which will broadcast the semifinals on Saturday and the national championship game Monday night.
“There’s nothing quite like the first two days, when you have all those games coming at you so fast and furious,” Johnson told Awful Announcing.
The expansion to four networks has been a huge change to a host like Johnson, who’s had to deal with a constant barrage of action on multiple channels over the first weekend of every tournament.
“A pregame show here and turn around and do a halftime show for this game, and then you’re going to be doing a between-the-game show,” Johnson said. “It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure. You try to remember which network you’re on.”
Johnson called the Saturday of the Final Four one of the great sports days of the year, and always gets excited when he sees the buzz and excitement in the host city and all the visiting fans wearing their contrasting team colors.
“When you get down to this point, it’s just basketball,” he said. “There’s just a lot riding on it for these kids.”
TBS will have a three-hour pregame show, beginning with Greg Gumbel joining tournament legends Christian Laettner, Danny Manning, Kris Jenkins, and Candace Parker from the Riverwalk and concluding with the regular quartet of Johnson, Clark Kellogg, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley.
Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill will be on the call on TBS for Michigan-Loyola and Villanova-Kansas, but for the fourth time in five years, there will be a school-specific TeamCast feature on TNT and TruTV. There, you’ll have the option to see CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta report on the Michigan game, Yahoo’s Shams Charania on the sidelines for Loyola, Randy Foye analyze the Villanova game, or comedian Rob Riggle on the sidelines for Kansas.
With ‘Nova in the Final Four for the first time since Jenkins’ buzzer-beating jumper gave the Wildcats the title in 2016, you’ll be sure to see that shot played out and talked about to the point where we hope there aren’t drinking games involved.
“I do not know if there would be a last man standing, that’s for sure,” Johnson said.
On a more serious note, Johnson said witnessing that shot in person was his favorite tournament moment for the last eight years and one of the most iconic moments the sport has ever seen.
“There’s nothing like a game ending with a ball in the air and the clock going to zeroes for the chance to cut down the nets,” Johnson said. “I can only hope that our championship game on Monday approaches that level of drama. That would be off the charts.”
Speaking of off the charts, 98-year-old Sister Jean of Loyola has emerged as the true star of this year’s tournament, and there will likely be plans to feature her on the pregame show, the game telecast, the TeamCast or all of the above.
“I certainly think a San Antonio photo op with Charles Barkley and Sister Jean on the Riverwalk somewhere, that’s gotta happen,” Johnson said. “It’s just one of those parts of the tournament, parts of the Madness that you can’t predict. It falls in the category of ‘who writes this stuff?’”
The traditional, intrinsically unpredictable nature of the tournament is something Barry said the two networks don’t want to mess with. The goal for Turner and CBS is “that you stay additive and hopefully create a better fan experience.”
Extensions was a major buzzword Barry focused on.
“Any addition, not just technology, it should be extending the narrative,” he said. “It should be a utility of some kind to push the story forward.”
The TeamCast extends the traditional broadcast and gives the viewer a more homer-centric broadcast if they want it. The same goes for the Final Four in VR, March Madness Confidential following around seven teams throughout the tournament— including Loyola— March Madness Live and a RedZone style Fast Break, which offered a whip-around show jumping from game to game.
Before the partnership, CBS utilized a single network going from game to game. The partnership brought each game separately to the network, and Fast Break ironically brought it full circle to the way March Madness was for decades, according to Barry, back to the game-to-game RedZone style curated channel that fans had the option to watch.
“Why that’s more important now is because you have choice,” Barry said. “You want to make sure that you’re additive but you’re not turning it on its head.”
One big swing Turner and CBS took this year was changing the format of the Selection Show, releasing the alphabetical list of teams in the field of 68 before announcing the brackets, something that did not go over well with fans.
“We set out to do something specific, and that was deliver the information as fast as possible in kind of a bigger format,” Barry said. “And what I’ll say is, there were some really good things that came from it, and we’ll definitely listen to the community and to the fans and we’ll definitely take from the experience and lessons learned of what worked and didn’t work.”
Barry said it’s important to have innovative concepts and to not be afraid to try things out, “and take the best of that and apply it in years to come.”
In the years to come, Barry said, the tournament will be about the ability of the viewers and users to have these extension experiences when and where they want, “and to be as immersed in the experience as they can be.”
“We’re not dictating where they should go,” Barry said. “We’re saying that all this stuff is here just for you.”