SBJ/April 11-17, 2016/Media

Final Four is under review for CBS, Turner

The Final Four moves back to CBS next year after Turner Sports carried the semifinals, finals and Team Stream broadcasts last week. Finding a more consistent home for those three games, and the future of Team Stream, are expected to be among the topics CBS, Turner and the NCAA explore in their annual review.

CBS and Turner alternate the years that they carry the Final Four and championship game, as part of the networks’ landmark 14-year, $10.8 billion deal that runs through 2024. This year, Turner carried all three games. Next year, they will be on CBS.

No changes to the contract are imminent, but sources indicate that the networks likely will talk about putting the NCAA final on CBS and the two semifinal games on Turner every year, rather than alternating years where each network carries all three games. Such a change to the telecast schedule would require an amendment to the Turner-CBS contract.

The NCAA would have to approve any changes to the contract, said Mark Lewis, the NCAA’s executive vice president for championships and alliances.

Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Jim Nantz called the games on Turner.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“We always do a wrap-up and talk about the future, where CBS and Turner meet with the men’s basketball committee, and that’s all going to happen,” Lewis said. “But it’s really premature to even speculate about the future and what may or may not happen.”

Any changes to the telecast calendar would be in addition to earlier discussions about extending the contract, possibly out to 2032, or another eight years on top of the current deal (see SportsBusiness Journal, Dec. 14-20, 2015). Turner, CBS and the NCAA are currently in a contractual look-in period that opens the door for any adjustments.

CBS would seemingly be more open to the switch than Turner, which crowned the first national sports champion in company history last week when Villanova defeated North Carolina in dramatic fashion on TBS. The Team Stream telecasts ran on TNT and truTV, providing Turner with blanket coverage of the title game.

On the other hand, creating permanent homes for the Final Four would potentially give Turner the semifinals and CBS the championship game every year, meaning both networks would annually have premier games, as opposed to every other year.

Those conversations will be held against a backdrop of historically low TV ratings, despite the drama produced by the Wildcats and Tar Heels. Last week’s championship game on Turner — the first NCAA men’s basketball tournament final carried exclusively on cable TV — pulled a 10.6 rating, or 17.75 million viewers, across TBS, TNT and truTV, down 34 percent from last year’s 16.0 rating for Duke-Wisconsin on CBS. The next-lowest number in the last decade was a 10.8 in 2009.

The ratings drop was caused, in part, by the move from broadcast to cable. But TV executives inside and outside of Turner point to the historic Final Four blowouts in the semifinals as a contributor, as well, on the theory that fewer Final Four viewers equate to fewer championship game viewers.

Media executives say storylines and competitive games affect TV ratings as much as the broadcast versus cable divide. As an example, Turner executives point to last year’s Final Four game that TBS, TNT and truTV carried, when an undefeated Kentucky team lost a close game to Wisconsin. The game posted a 12.4 rating and 22.6 million viewers, which made it the most-viewed semifinal game in 19 years.

Ratings for North Carolina’s blowout victory over Syracuse last week in the same time window were down 43 percent.
 
While TV ratings were down, Turner trumpeted its growth in digital audience via March Madness Live, which generated a record 18.1 million hours of live viewing for the tournament across more than 10 digital platforms, including new ones like Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, which carried the tournament for the first time. Sling TV also reported that the Villanova-North Carolina final was the most-watched event in the short history of the company’s live-streaming service.

MML’s live viewing on mobile devices was up 17 percent for the tournament.

“If you’re going to be in the live sports business, you’re going to have to deal with this stuff,” Turner President David Levy said of ratings last week, after the Final Four numbers were released but before the championship game. “We’re over the hump of whether this is a cable problem or broadcast problem. The games are quality produced. There’s great social and digital buzz around the tournament. All our advertisers are delivering.”

Still, significant business considerations will come into play when it comes to making any changes to the telecast schedule.

Turner pays close to 70 percent of the rights fee that’s owed to the NCAA, and the prestige of crowning a champion goes a long way for Turner to convince cable and satellite operators to increase their license fee.

CBS also has to answer to local affiliates, who want to carry the championship game.

There’s also the question of whether CBS next year will use Turner’s Team Stream — the homer telecasts — for the Final Four and championship game.

“We’ll approach that subject in the summer and try to make the decision by then,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We do have some issues to work through, like our affiliates, as an example. But I think Team Stream has been innovative. It’s been a good way to increase the exposure and the profile of the final weekend.”

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