In First Year of CBS-Turner Partnership, Nothing but Net

Before the first test of the $10.8 billion partnership that tied together CBS and Turner Sports in producing the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, all the talk out of both parties was amazingly positive. The two networks seemed to have similar production philosophies and had enough overlap in freelance personnel to make the transition a seamless one. With all but one game behind them, executives from CBS and Turner can only reiterate how simple the combining of forces has, in fact, been.

“It’s actually been easy,” says Ken Aagaard, EVP of engineering, operations, and production services for CBS Sports. “We all feel the same. We have a lot of the same engineering principles, we use the same people, and we’ve complemented each other very well. They’ve been very much involved through the whole tournament, not just with their talent but with their production and engineering people.”

Adds Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology for Turner Sports, “It’s just a great partnership. Everyone’s working towards trying to make the event the best it can be, and I really feel that sincerely. It’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun, and that’s refreshing.”

Constant Chatter
Communication between the two networks has been stellar from the get-go. Helping to keep everyone talking to one another are two VoIP intercom systems, installed between CBS’s broadcast center in New York and Turner’s facility in Atlanta to maintain constant contact.

“The VoIP systems were up all the time and sounded crystal clear,” says Bruce Goldfeder, director of engineering for CBS Sports. “We owned one system already, and Turner had a very big implementation of it, so it was very easy for us to facilitate.”

On the transmission side, because both networks operate in the 1080i format, Aagaard explains, moving files back and forth was far easier than it would have been if the two worked in different formats.

Some Familiar Territory
Although this tournament was Turner Sports’ first experience producing college basketball, Sahara is no stranger to producing basketball out of a football arena. He oversaw Turner’s production of the NBA All-Star game from Dallas Cowboys Stadium in 2010, shortly after the stadium opened.

“We had all of the issues of a new stadium, as well as a modified stadium for a basketball configuration, so, this time around, we’ve pretty much planned for every scenario that you can think of,” he says. “Terminology really proved to be the hardest part of this. The people we call production assistants, CBS calls broadcast associates, so the biggest challenge has been what to call the production staff.”

Indeed, because many freelancers who work for Turner have also worked for CBS throughout the year, training was not as much an issue as terminology. CBS is producing the pre- and post-game shows that air on truTV, and Turner Sports SVP/Executive Producer Jeff Behnke is working closely with CBS Sports VP of Production Harold Bryant to ensure top production values on those shows.

“We worked it out with the unions to enable us to create a true partnership to everybody’s satisfaction,” Aagaard says. “Everybody’s got a piece of the work, which is really good.”

On Demand On Location
The digital side has gotten in on the action as well. Sahara brought some of the March Madness On Demand (MMOD) team to Houston to get a taste of what goes on at the Final Four.

“Not just the games but to see everything from a fan experience,” Sahara says. “With the open practices, having 12,000 people inside is something they need to see as we plan for next year. If, on the MMOD side, we can help those hardcore fans take in the entire experience of what happens in the Final Four week, that’s where MMOD can really become that great connection to the fan. It’s great with the games, but now we can extend it beyond the games.”

Only the Beginning
Once a champion is crowned tonight, the CBS and Turner production teams will certainly sit down and go through lists of changes to make for the next few years, but Aagaard says there is nothing glaring on anyone’s rundown.

“We will certainly have a postmortem, but the tally will be all nitpicky stuff,” Aagaard explains. “There will be some things that we’ve all missed and enhancements to make it better and easier, but there is not one big item on the list.”

Given that this year’s tournament marks just the first few weeks of a 14-year partnership between the two entities, everyone involved is excited for the future.

“This year, starting out as well as it did,” Sahara says, “we’re really excited about where it could go.”