The New March Madness: One Production With Two Studios

When March Madness tips off next week with the First Four on truTV, CBS and Turner Sports will be combining two of everything to create a unified production. Two design teams created a uniform graphics look; two production teams scheduled a single remote strategy; and two sales teams brought in a combined sponsor force. But, in the studio, two sets of production personnel will create two studio shows, CBS’s in New York and Turner’s in Atlanta.

“New York is going to be the primary studio to handle opens, halftime shows, bridge shows, and post shows,” says Harold Bryant, VP of production for CBS Sports. “Atlanta’s studio will handle a lot of pregame and postgame shows as well as updates. We still want to do updates of games.”

Some Looking Around
Because CBS and Turner have positioned the four-network broadcast schedule as offering four national games in each window for the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, CBS will not be leaning on live game look-ins as it has in the past, but they will still be part of the broadcast.

“We’ll be really judicious and cautious with our look-ins,” says Michael Aresco, EVP of programming for CBS Sports. “Every now and then, we might take a quick look to let people know that something exciting is happening with another network. If there’s something great on TNT, we’ll let people know; if TNT sees something great on CBS, they’ll let people know. Our goal is to have the highest possible cumulative rating and to have people going to where the best games are going to be.”

Play-by-play announcers will help push viewers back and forth, as will the two studio shows.

“The studio will tell people you can go here to see the end of this game or go to this channel for the last two minutes of that game,” says Jeff Behnke, executive producer/SVP of Turner Sports. “It’s impossible for one studio to be able to handle the load of on-air, halftimes, and bridge shows between games, so we brought in our Atlanta studio to help.”

Two Sets, One Look
Talent from both networks will be used across all four channels, so that the production will feel seamless no matter which channel fans are watching. To further that single-event feeling, the studio sets in both New York and Atlanta were redesigned in advance of the tournament to share colors, logos, and the look and feel.

“We wanted the set to have more of a basketball feel,” Bryant explains of the new CBS studio. “It incorporates the branding of the four networks and adds in dozens of classic college-basketball images: [John] Wooden, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, and any image that makes you think of college basketball. We created a demo studio where we actually have a hoop and wood floors.”

Atlanta’s set is not an exact replica of the CBS studio, but it has a similar look. The two studios will talk to each other periodically throughout the tournament, completing the circle of cooperation among the four networks.

From the Field to New York to Atlanta
With start times staggered as much as 30 minutes, there are both longer gaps between games this year and the potential for bottlenecks at halftime and postgame, as multiple games go to break at the same time. To alleviate some stress on the New York studio, Atlanta will step in to provide pre- and post-game shows for the games on truTV, which have later tipoff times, as well as on other networks as needed.

“If New York is handling the halftime show for Game A but Game B is also at halftime, then Atlanta will take over that [halftime show],” Bryant explains. “We are going to try to map it out in advance as much as possible, but we can’t control the games themselves. We know the tip times of the games, so we are going to try to figure out where those bottlenecks happen. New York may handle halftime 1, 2, and 4, but Atlanta will handle 3.”

Bigger Windows, More Minutes
The staggered tipoff times scheduled will, theoretically, enable fans to watch the beginning and end of every game. Whereas, in past years, fans have had to miss one buzzer-beater in favor of another, this year’s schedule offers the possibility of watching every game finish live.

“If there are buzzer-beaters or close finishes, they are not going to sync up as much,” Aresco says. “We didn’t have that much of a gap between start times in years past because we had fairly compact broadcast windows. Now you can have longer windows, and the viewer is able to see much more of each game.”

A 2 p.m. ET tip, which last year was the first of the Game 2 window, is now included in the Game 1 window, pushing games on Turner’s cable networks into the 5-7 p.m. window, which was previously dark on CBS.

“That was a period when our local stations would want to do local news and programming,” Aresco points out. “But now, with three Turner networks that don’t care about that, they can go right through until 7 p.m. if they get a long game. With a 9:30 tip on CBS, we’ll go almost until midnight, so it’s wall-to-wall programming.”

In previous years, Sunday nights were reserved for 60 Minutes and the CBS primetime schedule, but, with three cable networks involved, basketball fans can now continue to get their fix on Sunday night.

“TNT will have a game at 6:00, TBS will have a game at 7:00, truTV has a game at 7:30, and two of those sites will have second games. So you basically have three networks operating in primetime, and two of them will be going really late,” Aresco says. “It will be nice for the fan on Sunday night now, since the fan did not have basketball on Sunday night before.”