SBJ SMT: Inside the CBS/Turner March Madness Deal

This week, at Sports Business Journal’s 12th-annual Sports Media Technology Conference, the men behind the CBS/Turner Sports March Madness deal stepped out from behind the curtain. David Levy, president of sales, distribution, and sports for Turner Broadcasting System, and Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, spent 45 minutes detailing the 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement that will bring the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to CBS, TNT, TBS, and truTV beginning next spring.

Building a Broadcast-Cable Partnership
McManus said that, as of October 2009, CBS had three alternatives. First, the broadcast network could continue with the last three years of the existing agreement, which McManus noted was not favorable to CBS. Second, the network could bid by itself against ESPN and, most likely, Turner.

“That alternative wasn’t realistic because bidding as a network on your own, without the sub-fees and alternate channels that a cable company can bring, would not work,” he said. “The third alternative was to find a cable partner and to put together a relationship that made sense for us as two companies and for the NCAA.”

Crucial to the process of building that relationship was coming up with a rights fee that could be competitive with ESPN since, McManus said, the two companies assumed ESPN would be “incredibly aggressive” in attempting to take the tournament away from CBS.

“We came up with a plan that is remarkable in its inception but more remarkable in the way it is playing out,” he said. “It has worked far better in every single aspect than we could have imagined. The most difficult aspect of this is not the production but taking two separate sales organizations that have their own culture, are selling their own product, and combining them. It’s working better than either one of us could have imagined.”

On the Turner side, Levy explained that it was obvious that bidding with the incumbent would give the cable network a better chance of getting the property than a bid without CBS would. However, that incumbent relationship did not make the negotiations any easier.

“The hardest part of this negotiation was that, for everything, we had to negotiate with Turner, then Time Warner, then CBS, and then the NCAA,” Levy said. “If anything changed in that process, I had to do four negotiations within that.”

One Production, Four Networks
The biggest change that fans will see is in the programming experience. In previous years, fans without DirecTV or access to March Madness on Demand were at the mercy of the CBS programming team to see the best game at any given time. Beginning this March, each of the four networks involved in this deal — CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV — will show a single game in its entirety, so it is now up to the fans to choose which game they want to watch and when. It is also up to all four networks to tell the fans where each game can be found, and when.

“Each game is a national broadcast,” McManus said. “Yes, we’ll switch around at halftime, but each game is a national broadcast. The good thing for our sponsors is, you have to buy a package that includes all four of those networks, and research says that the cumulative rating is going to increase 25%. Every advertiser that has looked at this has said this as a combined property is so much stronger from a programming and sales standpoint. It’s a better property, and more people are going to watch it.”

The executive producers from CBS and Turner Sports are working together to create a common look to all of the games, no matter what channel fans watch them on.

“The graphics are going to be the same, the music is going to be the same, and it’s basically the same production except for that identification in the replay wipes,” McManus said. “The scores across the top of the screen will say where the games are. It’s up to us as a combined group to educate the viewer of where the good games are, but viewers will see the same quality production on truTV as on CBS.”

The talent arsenal at both networks — including Turner Sports’ Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Reggie Miller — will work together throughout the tournament, especially since, beginning in 2016, the Final Four will alternate between CBS and Turner.

“This will not be a cable package,” Levy added. “We were not interested in buying the cable packages that were out there in the marketplace. We had to have a true partnership from the championship, semifinals, and so forth. We had to make sure that were equal partners in this situation.”

A Dedicated Digital Domain
One place where the two networks will not be equal partners is on the digital side, with Turner Sports responsible for running the entire March Madness on Demand broadband product. Beginning this year, MMOD will be enhanced with more social networking, better graphics, and more statistics, with the goal of creating a destination for more than just game play.

“We’re thinking about making MMOD a 23-day event,” Levy said. “We’re trying to embrace the first Monday as National Bracket Day. We’ll put programming on to help fans fill out their brackets and create 23-day exposure for the tournament, instead of just having game exposure.”

The Same Role for CBS College
With a joint agreement that puts full games on four networks, CBS College Sports Network seems to have been cut out of the deal, but McManus explained that CBS College can still serve as the cable home of the tournament moving forward.

“I’d love for CBS College to have the same presence that they have right now, as the cable home for the Tournament,” he said. “It would make the two weeks more promotable for College [to have games on CBS College during the tournament], but College is a 52-week-a-year network. It takes the profile down marginally for those two weeks but does not hurt the network moving forward.”

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