With Turner Nets Likely to Siphon Away Viewers, CBS Could Hit Record Low For NCAA Tournament

Posted by | March 16, 2011 at 12:35 AM

Now one of just four networks carrying games, CBS will more than likely hit record lows for its coverage of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

The 2011 Men’s NCAA Tournament began Tuesday night on TruTV, one of three Turner Sports networks to join CBS in covering the event. While the new television arrangement should result in more viewers for the event across the four networks combined, CBS is likely to flirt with record lows.

In the previous television deal, CBS aired all NCAA Tournament games, many of them regionally. The network had all interested viewers to itself — including, during the early rounds, up to eight different ‘home markets’ for a given telecast window.

The net’s regional coverage also gave it the ability to move viewers from uncompetitive yawners to closer games.

This year, CBS will air the same number of telecasts as it did a year ago (26). However, the network will air just one game per telecast window, with other concurrent matchups airing on TBS, TNT or the aforementioned TruTV. There will be no ‘flex’ scheduling or switching to other games; if CBS gets stuck with a stinker, it will have to stay with that stinker.

Especially during the first week, CBS figures to lose a major chunk of its audience to the Turner networks. On Thursday night, while CBS airs Wofford/BYU, fans of Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Belmont, Bucknell and UC Santa Barbara — not to mention neutral fans who may be interested in their games — will be watching TBS, TNT or TruTV.

So just how low will the numbers go? Consider this: last year, the network’s first primetime telecast, featuring four regionalized games, drew a 8.897 million viewers. Split that audience four ways, and you have just 2.224 million viewers per network.

Of course, CBS is likely to carve out a bigger portion of the audience than any of the individual Turner networks. Additionally, as mentioned before, it’s likely that this year’s combined audiences will exceed last year.

Still, it seems almost impossible for CBS to come anywhere close to last year’s numbers.

It should be pointed out that the CBS/Turner deal is very much a partnership. CBS and Turner will share ad revenues for the tournament. Advertisers, according to trade publication Advertising Age, will “add up the ratings points of broadcasts across CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV” instead of “looking at the ratings of a single broadcast” (adage.com, 3/1/11).

In other words, the lower numbers should not be damaging for CBS financially. And the network still has the rights to all Elite Eight and Final Four games, which figure to score the same numbers they have in recent seasons. That should serve as a consolation, especially if the overall numbers rise across the four networks.

But beyond such consolations, one thing’s for sure. If CBS is able to match or surpass the 6.0 rating it averaged last year, or even the record-low 5.0 it averaged in 2003, that would be the biggest upset of this year’s tournament.