For March Madness, CBS Consolidates Resources, Enhances Its Multiple Platforms

By Carolyn Braff

Producing upwards of 60 high-definition basketball games in 2½ weeks is undoubtedly a daunting production challenge. Throw in the fact that those games are being played at a dozen venues from Boston to Boise, and CBS Sports’ coverage of the NCAA Championship becomes one of the most technically challenging sports events on the calendar.

A Little Help From (Four) Friends

To ensure that the road to the Final Four is paved with quality broadcasts, CBS has enlisted the help of four companies to provide mobile-production support. Corplex, F&F, NCP, and NEP will each provide mobile units for eight venues during the first week of the tournament and an additional four venues during the second week of the tournament. A staff of 40-50 will be on hand at each site for the first week, and extra personnel and equipment will enhance each of the four sites for the second week of competition.

The New College Try

Enhanced cooperation between CBS Sports and the CBS College Sports Network will make that daunting production challenge a bit more approachable this year.

“We are utilizing each other’s resources,” explains Harold Bryant, VP of production for CBS Sports.

A year ago, CBS College brought in its own set, production truck, and facilities for their on-site productions, doubling what CBS already had in place for its own broadcasts.

“At the final four, we’ve decided this year to combine our studio facilities, so we’re going to have one set and one truck that we share,” Bryant explains. “We’re looking at ways to be cost-effective, but we’re not cutting; we’re re-allocating.”

The two networks will share some content as well, in addition to plenty of cross-promotions. CBS College Sports Network will offer plenty of shoulder programming for the live-game action on CBS: the college network will broadcast more than 75 hours of studio programming, in-progress highlights, press conferences, and team practices throughout the tournament. CBS College will also air two out-of-market games from the first round of play.

A free operator preview for the month of March will bring the 24-hour college-sports network into 50 million homes, enabling more fans to enjoy the coverage than ever.

“What CBS College wants to be is a place where the really intense fan will go to find things that he or she might not be able to get in our limited broadcast timeframe,” explains Mike Aresco, EVP of programming for CBS Sports. “For the most part, CBS Sports is doing games; that’s our function during the tournament. CBS College has a chance to really engage a fan who is looking for that much more commentary and analysis.”

New Streaming Quality

All tournament games will once again be produced in HD this season, even — to some extent — for viewers watching the action online. March Madness On Demand (MMOD), CBS Sports’ free broadband streaming service, will stream every tournament game in what CBS Sports is calling high-definition–quality video, using Microsoft Silverlight.

“We call it high-definition–quality video, but the industry is still trying to figure out what to call it,” CBSSports.com SVP/GM Jason Kint explains. “It’s up to 1.5 Mbps, which is about three times the bitrate we had with the SD player in the past.”

Standard-definition is the default setting on the player, which runs through Windows Media Player. Viewers need to select the option to watch the higher-quality stream, which Kint is confident many office workers will elect to do — despite America’s growing unemployment figures.

Getting the Content to the Fans

To put the televised games online, the CBS broadcast center sends video feeds to Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which handles the encoding for CBS. MMOD-specific commercials are then dropped into the stream before the content is sent to Akamai for distribution.

CBS Interactive is taking some of that distribution into its own hands this year, as more than 300 Websites — including Facebook and Yahoo! — will have direct launch links for MMOD, effectively bringing the content to the fans, rather than forcing fans to come to the content.

“It’s consistent with the entire CBS Interactive approach to take premium content to the audience where they are, rather than expect them to come to a single URL to find the content,” Kint explains. “If they’re consuming sports on MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube, you name it, we’ll link them straight into March Madness On Demand and make it as easy as possible for them to watch it.”

Since CBS acquired CNET in May 2008, CBS Interactive counts 15 million unique visitors each day, and all of those visitors will have the opportunity to link directly to MMOD. “That will expand the distribution significantly,” Kint says.

All Smiles in Sales

Even in a very difficult climate for ad sales, CBS restored some faith in the advertising economy by recording $30 million in ad revenue for MMOD, an increase of more than 20% over last year’s $23 million total. Those numbers alone speak volumes for the recession-proof nature of sports programming.

“March Madness On Demand continues to exceed any kind of expectations we had when we acquired those rights back in 1999,” explains Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. “If there is an impenetrable sector in our business, it certainly is live sports. There is nothing like sports to attract advertising.”

Platform Multiplication

In addition to network and cable television and broadband, NCAA tournament action will also be available through video-on-demand and AT&T mobile phones, making March Madness a truly multiplatform experience.

“I don’t think there’s an event that a corporation is taking better advantage of in terms of incorporating every single piece of new media and old media that’s out there,” McManus says. “But all of our research really does show that none of these extra platforms cannibalize our broadcast-television ratings. What we’ve found is, it just builds interest and actually increases our viewership, as opposed to decreasing it.”

The current economic climate has many Americans struggling, so March Madness could not come at a more opportune time, adds: “With the onslaught of really tough economic news that we’re getting every single day, to have a 2½-week period where people can jump out of their chairs and cheer for something is really important in this country, much more so this year than any other year.”

The madness begins with the championship selection show this Sunday, March 15, at 6:00 p.m. on CBS.