Scott D. Pierce: TV execs surprised to learn NCAA fans love their teams
NCAA Tournament • Research shows viewers flip around less than they expected.
Published: March 13, 2012 05:08PM
Updated: March 14, 2012 09:57AM
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Scott D. Pierce

A year after the NCAA Tournament’s Great Television Experiment, the way we used to watch one of America’s great sporting events already seems quaint. Outdated. Slightly ridiculous.

Can you believe that, just two years ago, TV viewers were at the mercy of CBS, which decided which games to air in their part of the country? That you might be watching a game you were really interested in — even if it wasn’t close — and suddenly get sent to an entirely different game you cared nothing about?

In the 21st century, when most Americans have access to hundreds of channels, that was just plain crazy.

We’re in Year 2 of the CBS/ Turner Broadcasting partnership that puts games on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, and there’s no looking back. Every game will be seen in its entirety on one channel or another.

“We were relatively confident it was going to work well, but I must say it exceeded all of our expectations,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.

Not only were ratings up seven percent from 2010 to 2011, but the arrangement was met by overwhelming fan approval.

“The research was interesting,” McManus said. “A lot less people switched out of games that we would have considered noncompetitive than we would have thought. The fans really did find the game they wanted to watch.”

From that, we learned two rather obvious things. First, that fans will watch their teams even if the game is a blowout.

“The research basically showed that people weren’t jumping around as much as we thought they would,” said Turner Sports president David Levy. “In fact, people stayed tuned to the games that they were watching, the teams that they loved. If it was a 20-point blowout, they might have flipped very infrequently. But they actually liked to see their team win by 30.”

This is surprising?

The second thing the research showed is that basketball fans really are smart enough to operate their remotes and change the channel.

“I had some concern going into it that if a game was on truTV … there were going to be complaints,” McManus said. “But, boy, everyone who wanted to find a game found it.”

Sure, there are still viewers who don’t have cable or satellite hook-ups. They can still watch the games on CBS. And it’s not hard for most people to find someone who has truTV if, say, you wanted to watch the BYU-Iona game on Tuesday night.

All three Turner networks are widely distributed — TBS is in 99.9 million homes; TNT in 99.06 million; and truTV in 92.12 million. CBS is in virtually all of the 114.7 million TV-equipped homes Neilson estimates are in the United States. (ESPN, by the way, is in 99.02 million.)

Sure, it sounded like a platitude when Levy said, “The viewer comes first. So every decision that we made wasn’t about what was better for CBS or what was better for Turner, it really focused on what was better from the viewer’s point of view.”

Clearly, CBS and Turner are in this to make money. But they discovered that by being viewer-friendly, the ratings went up. And that means more ad revenue.

“Almost universally, the sponsors who were in the tournament last year came away more than satisfied,” McManus said.

“The return and the growth that we’re seeing already in sponsorships and ad sales has been tremendous,” Levy said.

This is surprising?

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce; read his blog at sltrib.com/blogs.tv.