If you’ve read any of my posts, you know that I am not a big fan of the way ESPN does a lot of things. I hate the way they make it about themselves most of the time. In addition, Sports Center when it started in 1979 the most innovative thing in television sports. Now it’s nothing more a monkey show anchored by morons. Having said that let’s be honest. The way ESPN televises College Football and College Basketball is without peer. They are to televised sports what CNN is to political/election coverage. The games are well produced and the announcers are – with some notable exceptions like Dick Vitale whose act has worn thin – excellent. Tonight after watching the grease fire that CBS just put on the air for two hours, I’m starting to think that ESPN might be a softer landing spot for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament because it’s apparent that the convergence between CBS and Turner just isn’t working.
To understand how the NCAA Tournament got to this point, you have to understand the back story. Prior to 1982, selected Tournament games, the Regional Finals and the Final 4 were televised by NBC. Other games were produced by the NCAA’s in-house production unit and syndicated to local stations interested in those games. In addition, after opening its doors in 1979, ESPN had a few games from NCAA productions. In 1982, CBS grabbed the rights to the tournament away from NBC. The effect was that from the second round forward, the tournament belonged to the so-called “Tiffany Network”. Again, selected first round games were produced by the NCAA and pitched to selected local stations. This move made the tournament more of a national event and CBS deserves credit for that. Then in 1991, CBS grabbed the rights to the entire tournament and they billed it as “tip to trophy.” If their previous efforts made it more of a national event, this really did so because everyone knew where to look for the tournament broadcasts. The broadcasts were well produced – as CBS’s productions still are – and their announcers were excellent and many times included bringing announcers over from ESPN like Jay Bilas to broadcast games. Only three broadcasters have ever announced the Final 4 on CBS: Gary Bender who did the first two, Brent Musburger from 1984 – 1990 when he was fired by CBS Executive Producer Ted Shaker the day before the UNLV-Duke National Championship game on April Fool’s Day, and Jim Nantz who will this year broadcast his 26th Final 4, most of those with Billy Packer, later Clark Kellog, later Greg Anthony and now Bill Raferty and Grant Hill.
Of course everything in this world is driven by the economy and the economic downturn took it’s toll on all of us, CBS included. The network had to pay handsomely for the rights to broadcast the tournament with a contract scheduled to run through 2013. However, what most people didn’t know is that the contract included an opt-out for the NCAA in 2010 and since the organization is all about cash, the NCAA exercised that option after the 2010 tournament and put it on the open market for the highest price. Enter ESPN who has long coveted a chance to get back in. The general thought was that ESPN would pay whatever the NCAA wanted for a tournament that was going to expand to 96 teams. ESPN has shown a tendency to overpay for sports including the most expensive contract to broadcast the NFL that includes just 17 regular season Monday night games, 1 wild card playoff game, and no Super Bowls.
CBS desperately wanted to keep the tournament, but was in a position where they could not continue to take an economic bath on it. So, rather than walk away and cede the tournament to ESPN, CBS found a cable dancing partner in Turner Sports, based in Atlanta. I heard an interview with CBS President Sean McManus (the son of Legendary ABC announcer Jim McKay) who said that getting Turner was the only way CBS could stay involved. So, Turner/CBS and the NCAA signed a 14-year contract in 2011 that would put the majority of the tournament on cable television. Cable can afford larger rights fees more than traditional broadcast television as it has “dual revenue streams”. Cable gets both advertising dollars and subscriber fees. Broadcast television has just advertising dollars.
At the time, I was among the people who was excited about the prospect of the Turner/CBS partnership. For one thing it mean every game would be televised where you could actually watch it across 4 networks: CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV, although I’m of the opinion that the only time anyone watches TruTV is during the NCAA Tournament. With CBS doing the tournament, you had a game of “local interest” assigned to your local CBS station with cut-ins to other games. To get other games you could initially get them from Direct TV’s “Mega March Madness” and later on your computer or tablet with the NCAA’s March Madness Live app. The Turner/CBS partnership meant some new voices on the tournament including legendary broadcaster Marv Albert who hadn’t broadcast tournament games since his days at NBC. Albert, however, is no longer doing NCAA games. Apparently he told his bosses at Turner that doing 9 NCAA games in over a week has an adverse effect on his voice. But for every Marv Albert, Turner also made sure some of it’s other NBA voices got time on college basketball and therein lies the problem.
Make no mistake, the problem is not in the broadcasts themselves where Turner announcers like Brian Anderson and Steve Smith have proven themselves to be among the best in the business and this year earned a well deserved promotion to broadcasting the regional finals. The problem is in the studio. Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith team with Shaquielle O’Neil on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” Studio show. Frankly it’s excellent. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better studio host than Ernie Johnson and he’s not the problem with Turner/CBS’s NCAA coverage. He may not do college basketball all season, but he does his homework and is always prepared. In addition, he’s excellent at tweaking his cohorts, especially Barkley. The problem is also not so-much Kenny Smith, but other than playing at North Carolina (a fact he’s likely to remind you of at least once a broadcast window) I’m not sure he follows the college game that much. The problem is Barkley (Shaq is not part of the coverage). Barkley doesn’t know college basketball, clearly doesn’t follow it, doesn’t know the players and coaches, and will say or do at least one thing per broadcast that has you scratching your head.
That brings us to tonight’s two-hour NCAA selection show on CBS from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. It was in a word a “disaster”. First of all we had two different sets and too many voices. But, hey you have to fill two hours so I guess you need them all. On one set we had host Greg Gumbel, whose work I like, but he always looks miserable in the studio. Maybe he is. Maybe he’d rather do play-by-play like he does on the NFL, or maybe after all these years hosting this thing, he’s just doing a job. Joining Gumbel was Clark Kellogg, who appears to be a genuinely nice man who knows college basketball and excels in the studio. Joining those two was Doug Gottlieb. Don’t even get me started with this bozo. I’ve never understood CBS’s fascination with this clown. He’s one of these guys who thinks that the more you raise your voice, the more likely you are to be right. And he needs to save us the righteous indignation. He practically had kittens when Kentucky and Indiana were matched up in a potential second round game (as if anyone cares that they don’t play anymore) and then threw a temper tantrum over Syracuse making the tournament, which apparently they did comfortably as a 10 seed saying that anyone who loses to St. John’s shouldn’t be in this tournament. I understand he’s paid to have opinions and I have no problem with that. He’s just a condescending prick while doing it. When he first joined CBS he was in the studio. They figured out that didn’t work and moved him to game coverage, where he isn’t much better. I honestly think CBS has figured out he has no talent but is stuck with him in a contract so since they have to pay him, they make the rest of us miserable with him.
On the second set, we had Johnson – prepared and smooth as always, CBS regular Seth Davis, Smith and Barkley. Seth Davis’ job is to cover college basketball 365 days a year. He knows his stuff, but he was lost in a sea of incompetence tonight. Barkley gave us his first head scratching moment of this year when making a point about Villanova and Michigan State. He gave his opinion that Michigan State deserved to be a number one seed. That’s what he’s paid to do and not a bad point, but his rationale for that was saying that the tournament committee didn’t want Villanova to be a number one seed. Huh? That left his set mates puzzled and the rest of us as well. I’m not sure they didn’t want Villanova to be a number one seed, they just felt someone else was more deserving. But, nothing was an awkward as watching him use the touchscreen to advance the teams he thought were going to win in the tournament in a particular region. He couldn’t figure it out and looked like a clown. Smith even joked with him that he should wash the lotion off his hands which prompted Barkley to say he was a “metrosexual” and gets a mani and pedi every week. First of all if that’s true you should never say it on National Television and secondly thanks for that image. Somewhere in the control room a producer had to be cringing. I have an idea. When he gets back to Atlanta, he needs to go over to CNN Center and let CNN’s John King show him how to use the touchscreen because that guy is a God on the touchscreen. He makes election night worth watching himself. Smith got his turn at the touchscreen and made a joke of it by just advancing North Carolina through the tournament without making other picks first. Big shock there, huh? Seth Davis was apparently so rattled by all the garbage going on in the studio, he stumbled his way through the “bubble watch” on the touch screen while talking about the teams that were sweating it out. Again, I like him and he knows his stuff, but this segment was unnecessary because they had the damn bracket with all the teams in the field at the time they were doing it.
The biggest issue is why was this damn show two hours? Remember when it used to be 30 minutes? That’s all it needs to be. Two hours opened the door for the kind of foolishness we saw tonight. ESPN writer Brett McMurphy had a great line on Twitter when he said that next year CBS was going to improve ratings for this show by adding an extra hour and starting it on New Year’s Eve. To no fault of CBS, the show became completely unnecessary because somehow the complete bracket was leaked and posted on Twitter before CBS had announced 3/4 of the tournament field. That opened another great line on Twitter when someone said they’d watch a two hour show to learn how the bracket was leaked to the public before CBS announced it. I literally sat here with the tournament bracket watching Gumbel go through it. CBS and Turner probably need to figure out how that happened and put a stop to it.
If CBS were still in exclusive control of the tournament we know we wouldn’t have Barkley, Smith and others from Turner and probably not the monkey show we saw tonight nor the ones you are destined to see in the coming weeks with Barkley saying and doing something stupid. But, Turner is controlling the tournament broadcasts because they put up most of the money. That’s why for the first time since 1982 CBS will not broadcast the National Championship Game as it will air on TBS making this the first time in the 78 year history of the NCAA Tournament that the title game will appear on Cable. That’s the reality of television sports, but if we are going to take it to cable, maybe the NCAA should consider taking it to the Cable guys who do this all the time, know what they are doing and have perfected the art of a worthless two hour show.