At last, basketball fans in Louisville, Ky., get a say in what they see during March Madness. When the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament tips off March 17, local CBS affiliate WLKY will carry several games rather than the single regional feed CBS traditionally supplies. To up the ante, WLKY is utilizing its digital broadcast channels to telecast up to three games at once.
“We are in the heartland of basketball country, and every year, we're challenged to determine which one game makes [the most] sense to carry,” says WLKY President/GM Jim Carter. The University of Louisville is the hometown favorite, and the University of Kentucky and Indiana University are both within an hour's drive. Basketball fever is so intense that the Louisville market regularly ranks as the top-rated CBS station for the NCAA games. In the past three years, WLKY averaged a 17.6 rating/31 share for the entire event.
Now Hearst-Argyle-owned WLKY doesn't have to agonize over carriage. It is the latest in a growing roster of local CBS stations utilizing digital broadcasting to transmit multiple games. WRAL Raleigh, N.C., and WISH Indianapolis—also rabid basketball regions—were the earliest pioneers. Both used digital channels for NCAA games back in 2000. In Milwaukee, WDJT offers multiple games, as does KLAS Las Vegas. Stations have to request that CBS supply them with the extra games.
The network, increasingly savvy about NCAA production, has been obliging. CBS already produces all the games and farms out feeds to regionalized areas. For $49, DirecTV subscribers can buy 37 out-of-market games; new college-sports channel CSTV will stream 56 out-of-market games online for $19.95. CBS is also upping its HD output to 39 high-def games, compared with 12 last year.
Digital broadcast is another way to maximize sports coverage.
But not every TV can receive the digital broadcasts. A digital receiver is needed to capture over-the-air signals, but only 1 million to 2 million TV owners have them. Some cable companies are filling the void. WLKY partnered with Insight Communications to deliver games to Insight's 106,000 digital-cable subscribers at no extra charge, and the operator's 11,000 high-def customers will also get HD coverage. They plan to promote the added games on-air as “Mega March Madness.”
In Raleigh, WRAL estimates 210,000 homes can receive its digital channels. Time Warner counts 205,000 digital- cable customers and estimates there are about 5,000 digital receivers in that market. Assessing how many viewers tune in, however, is difficult.
Nielsen Media Research doesn't rate digital broadcast channels, so stations have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Viewers regularly e-mail WRAL Programming Manager Jimmy Goodmon to suggest ways to program the digital channels. “Then you know they are using it,” he says. Often, they request more college basketball games.
For some stations, the cost of upgrading technology is a barrier. While nearly all stations have spent millions on digital upgrades, not all have the equipment to broadcast multiple channels.
WLKY already had technology to split its feed. Two years ago, with the war in Iraq looming, it devised a contingency plan to air NCAA games if CBS was airing news coverage. WLKY would have supplied the NCAA games to another station, via its digital channel.
Scheduling advertising is trickier. WLKY plans to insert regular taped commercials into all three games. But since it will break for commercials at different times, two or three different staffers will be keeping track of the spots. Carter is hoping to sign an advertiser as the NCAA's exclusive sponsor. “This is an experiment,” he says. “We're doing this because basketball is king here.”