Programming

March Sadness For CBS Affiliates Lacking Local Games

Partner stations realize network's aim is Tru, but wish they had beloved b-ball teams on their air 3/17/2011 02:14:42 PM Eastern

The plan to share the March Madness basketball games with a batch of Turner cable channels has fallen like an off-balance, ill-advised three-point attempt for some CBS affiliates--and their viewers--around the country. In past years, when CBS had full rights to the games, CBS affiliates typically were given the option to show a game of particular interest in their markets. But with CBS splitting its coverage with TruTV, TNT and TBS, as part of the landmark $10.8 billion joint deal, viewers in several markets are having trouble finding the games.

In Cincinnati, for example, CBS affiliate WKRC will air just one first-round game involving the four teams of local interest (Xavier, U. Cincinnati, Ohio State and Kentucky). Every one of the NCAA championship games is either airing on CBS or cable, as well as on CBSSports.com. But that's little consolation to viewers who can't find TruTV, or don't have cable-or an internet connection.

Cincinnati has around 130,000 homes where TV is watched over the air, 14% of the market.

WKRC has used its airtime to let viewers know where the games are televised and worked with area newspapers to get the word out; station staffers are also equipped with channel guides to help viewers navigate the cable universe when their calls come in. And they're coming in fast-WKRC logged around 100 calls by Wednesday afternoon, with a much larger flood expected closer to tip-off for the various games. "Some viewers have never heard of the Turner networks and don't understand what happened," says Les Vann, WKRC VP and general manager. "We're very disappointed and our viewers are very disappointed."

A little over 14% of the U.S. population, or 43 million homes, are not hooked up to subscription TV, according to Knowledge Networks. In some cities, as much as 20-30% of the population watches TV over the air.

TruTV has 91 million subscribers.

CBS' affiliate spokesperson did not comment for this story. Speaking at the CBS-Turner March Madness Media Day last week, Turner Sports President David Levy downplayed the matter of viewers who don't get Turner's channels. "I think that's a non-issue; I gotta be honest with you," he said. Speaking on an earnings call last month, CBS President/CEO Leslie Moonves said viewers would not be displaced in any major way by the new arrangement. "When there are four games on simultaneously, they will be on four different channels. We generally look at the game that we want in the first rounds, and for those people in local marketplaces, they will get the game that they want," he said.

"Probably for our viewer, they will be very happy because they will get whatever game they want to see," he added.

Most CBS affiliates credit CBS for working out an innovative deal that enables the network to hold onto a big piece of the March-April hoops bacchanalia through 2024 in an era when other big sports properties have shifted entirely to cable. They appreciate that every game will be televised-at least for viewers who pay for the Turner cable channels. "Fans benefit from having every game on," says Glenn Haygood, president and general manager at WLKY Louisville, where viewer calls were a non-issue late Wednesday. "That keeps fans from getting too upset."

But several GMs at CBS stations are disappointed that the new contract with Turner no longer allows the so-called "home-school rule" to exist, denying stations access to their local games of interest. WBNS Columbus, in the heart of Buckeye country, will have a phone panel on hand as part of its "damage prevention" plan  to address calls when Ohio State faces off against Texas-San Antonio Friday. "I think all hell is going to break lose," says Tom Griesdorn, president and general manager at WBNS. "In years past, viewers would just go to channel 10. It's going to be interesting."

The issue has even reached Capitol Hill, where U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.) issued a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert and to Moonves requesting UConn's first round game tonight air on CBS, not on TNT.

"NCAA's new contract with four television channels is a significant departure from previous years," he wrote. "As multiple games have been televised simultaneously in the past, the NCAA and CBS has respectfully adjusted their coverage by region to ensure local fans had the opportunity to watch the hometown team.  I hope that the NCAA and CBS can continue that commitment."

Generally speaking, relations between CBS affiliates and the network are positive, as the affiliates greatly appreciate the big crowds CBS serves to their local late news coming out of prime. But some viewers in their markets simply do not understand what and where TruTV is, and why their favorite basketball team is playing over there.

"I don't care what feed CBS gives you-simply plug in the UC [Cincinnati] or Xavier game into our local market. Like the Bengals on ESPN," wrote one unhappy Cincinnati viewer to WKRC.

"Every time a local channel does not step up and do what is right," continued the letter, "that channel is that much closer to going under."

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