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CBS, Turner Reveal Blueprints for NCAA Tournament Coverage

Feb 10, 2011 – 4:30 PM
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Milton Kent

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CBS and Turner Thursday announced a big piece of the road map by which they will combine to carry next month's NCAA men's basketball tournament, and it is a messy one.

For Mike Aresco, CBS Sports' executive vice president for programming, what is an annual challenge -- namely getting the March Madness to the right homes at the right time -- has been made even more, well, challenging, by the presence of three more channels.

But it should be fun. Shouldn't it?

"I think this will be one of those deals where we'll look back on it and say, 'Gee, wasn't that fun?' It might not be fun while we're doing it," said Aresco, laughing.

As previously announced, CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV will air each of the 67 games nationally, from the new four play-in games to the Final Four and national championship match, across the platforms as national games. That means you won't have to hunt for any games or buy a Direct TV package to see every game of the tournament.

That's the easy part. What will be tricky is the execution of the plan, large portions of which were unveiled Thursday.

The process begins with "The First Four," the newly created quartet of first round games, that will air on Tuesday and Wednesday March 15 and 16, starting at 6:30 p.m. with the nightcap at 9 p.m each night on TruTV. Though the games will feel for many much like the play-in games, CBS and Turner will gloss them up by having its Final Four crew of Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Turner NBA analyst Steve Kerr do the Tuesday doubleheader with the ever excitable Gus Johnson and Len Elmore working the Wednesday games.

"We're conscious with the NCAA of having those Tuesday-Wednesday games be perceived as part of the tournament, which they are," said Aresco

From there, things get interesting. The start times of the Thursday and Friday games, now officially known as the second round, will be staggered in such a way so that viewers will be able to see more of the contests, since they'll be scattered between the four channels.

As recently as last year, when CBS had all the games, start times would be delayed by 5-15 minutes during the windows. Now, there will be enough of a delay so that there will be "wall to wall basketball from noon to midnight," Aresco said.

In addition, while CBS has not programmed a game in the 5 p.m. ET window on Thursday and Friday to allow its affiliates to show news and syndicated fare, TNT, TBS and TruTv will be able to show the tournament in that slot. And, on Sunday nights, where CBS would bunch games into three regional windows so as not to bump out "60 Minutes," the new arrangements will permit the Turner channels to carry games in the evening window.

There are, of course, potential, shall we say, inconveniences to the new set up. In the past, if a game became a blowout, CBS programmers like Aresco and Chairman Sean McManus, could switch out most of the audience to a more competitive contest. Now, the telecasting channel will have to ride out those games, since they are all national contests.

"For the most part, we'll be sticking with our games and we'll be praying for competitive games," said Aresco.

And then there's the possibly prickly issue of how to strike the balance between getting teams with national followings, like, for instance Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Kansas who might blow out early round opposition into the widest distribution versus showing more competitive games between relatively anonymous teams, not to mention keeping all the televising partners happy.

"We're just not sure yet how we're going to do that and Turner's not either," said Aresco. "We're going to sit down with them and figure out which games really belong on which networks."

Logistically, the menus on each channel will be static on Thursday and Friday, meaning viewers won't get an early game in a doubleheader from one site and the second game from another. But the channels will be able to change from one location to the other between afternoon and night sessions, so, for instance, CBS could show a doubleheader from Charlotte in the afternoon and from Chicago at night, while, TBS, for example, could do the reverse.

Also, announcers could bounce from channel to channel, so CBS viewers may, for instance, get Marv Albert and Kerr for games, while Nantz and Kellogg might be seen on TBS, TNT or TruTV.

"From our standpoint, it will be fun, but I will be glad if we get through it OK and I think we will," said Aresco.
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